Knowing what to say when a friend is upset or stressed out can be a delicate balancing act. Sometimes the best route seems to be to offer advice and give practical suggestions as to how they should proceed; at other times, simply listening to what your friend has to say is by far the better option. But no matter your approach, ensuring that your friend feels validated is key, argue Xi Tian and colleagues in a new study published in the Journal of Communication.
Spend any amount of time online and you’re likely to see the same patterns repeat themselves over and over again: somebody says something offensive or controversial on social media, they’re met with anger and disgust, and they either apologise or double down.
For some, this cycle has become somewhat of a career, with the garnering of outrage forming the backbone of their (often incredibly tedious) public personas. But does responding to such toxic or offensive remarks, especially en masse, actually work? Or does it simply increase sympathy for the offender, no matter how bigoted their remarks were to begin with?
According to research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the latter is more likely. The paper looked at the impact of viral outrage on convincing observers that an offender is blameworthy — and found that as outrage increased, observers believed it was “more normative” to express condemnation, but simultaneously believed that outrage was excessive and felt more sympathy for the offender.
No sooner had the American Psychological Association released their 2015 task force report supposedly confirming that violent video games make players aggressive than the criticisms of the report started pouring in, of bias and bad practice. On the issue of whether violent games breed real-world aggression, there’s not much that you can say for certain except that there’s a lot of disagreement among experts. So of course, one more study is not going to settle this long-running debate.
But what a new paper in Brain Imaging and Behaviour does do is provide a good test of a key argument made by the “violent games cause aggression” camp, namely that over time, excessive violent gameplay desensitises the emotional responsiveness of players. Using brain scanning to look for emotional desensitisation at a neural level, Gregor Szycik at Hannover Medical School and his colleagues in fact found no evidence that excessive players of violent video games are emotionally blunted.
By Alex Fradera
When we feel ostracised, we’re more likely to behave aggressively. Previous research suggests that vengeance on those who we think have wronged us can be driven by a sense of justice, and may activate neural reward centres. But being ostracised can also lead to generalised aggression, even lashing out at unrelated people, so there seems to be more going on. In new research in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall tested the idea that social rejection, by making us feel wounded and unwanted, triggers a need to repair our mood by whatever means available, including through the satisfaction of causing harm to those who have made us suffer. They found that aggression can indeed be a viable method of mood repair.
When the dust settles on the tragedy of the latest mass shooting, gun clubs usually see a spike in their memberships as people look to arm and defend themselves. At the same time, many others argue for greater gun controls, and from their perspective, recreational target shooting is very much part of the problem, not the answer.
Anecdotally, this is borne out by the many killers who often turn out to have been target shooters. Indeed, in Germany after the teenage perpetrators of two spree atrocities, or their parents – in Erfurt in 2002 and in Winnenden in 2009 – were found to be shooting club members, the German Shooting Sport and Archery Federation decided to sponsor psychological research into the question of whether shooting club members are more aggressive than normal, and whether target shooting makes people more aggressive. Some of the initial findings have now been published in the journal Aggressive Behaviour and while the results are not conclusive, they do suggest there is reason to worry about the psychological effects of gun club membership.
The initial study involved 45 teenage target shooters (average age 13 years; they’d been a member of their clubs for about a year) completing measures of their aggression three times every six months over the course of the research. For example, they rated their agreement with statements like “I would rather hit somebody than be a coward”, and they took another test to reveal how readily they associated self-related words with words pertaining to violence and aggression – this supposedly providing an implicit or non-conscious measure of the aggressiveness of their self concept. They also answered questions about their emotional regulation abilities – for example, whether they deal with emotional problems by seeking help or through anger or aggression.
Although there was no control group – the research sponsors didn’t want to spread negative publicity among non-shooters – the aggression questionnaires used in the study have previously been throughly tested by psychologists on the general public, thus giving an idea of a “normal” level of aggression. The results showed that the teen shooting club members were significantly above average in their self-rated aggressive tendencies, and that this rose through the course of the study, so that by the end, they averaged a level of aggression higher than 84 per cent of the general population (in contrast, results on the implicit test suggested they associated their self concept more strongly with peace than aggression, but without a control group it’s difficult to interpret this finding. The teenage shooters also scored highly for maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, especially anger.
A second study involved teenage shooting club members and teenage basketball players spending around 40 minutes on target practice – four rounds of ten shots, either firing a gun at a target or throwing a ball at a basket, respectively. Before and after the training they all completed what’s known as a “Lexical Decision Task”. This involves looking at strings of letters and deciding if they’re real words or not. In this case, the researchers were particularly interested to how quick the participants were to recognise words pertaining to aggression and anxiety – greater speed at recognising words with these connotations after the training would be taken as a sign that aggression and anxiety had become more salient in the participants’ minds. The results were clear – for the shooting club members, but not the basketball players, training specifically increased the salience of aggressive and anxiety-related concepts.
The researchers cautioned that their results to not show there is a causal link between shooting club membership and acts of aggression – after all, they did not take any measures of actual aggressive behavior. Nonetheless, they said that the German Shooting Federation (and other shooting federations) “should feel strongly encouraged to counteract aggressive tendencies of their members based on the present results”.
Erle, T., Barth, N., Kälke, F., Duttler, G., Lange, H., Petko, A., & Topolinski, S. (2016). Are target-shooters more aggressive than the general population? Aggressive Behavior DOI: 10.1002/ab.21657
Are shooting club members more aggressive than most?
Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!
It’s something we’re taught from a young age – when you’re about to go into a rage, force yourself to count to ten and hopefully the storm will pass. This may sound like common sense, but without testing the method scientifically, how do we know if and when it really works? For example, while the counting delay could give you a chance to get a grip of your aggressive urges, it’s equally plausible that it could give you time to grow even angrier about whatever triggered your displeasure in the first place.
For a new study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Jeffrey Osgood and Mark Muraven at the State University of New York have put a version of the count-to-ten method to the test and they’ve found that it really can help reduce aggression, but only in certain circumstances.
They recruited 312 students to take part in what they were told was a test of virtual teamwork. First, the researchers asked half the participants to complete a task designed to reduce their levels of self-control (they had to write a stream-of-consciousness essay while avoiding thinking about a white bear). The other participants completed some maths problems, which does not tax self-control so much.
Next, each participant wrote an essay about their favourite childhood TV show and then they exchanged essays with what they thought was their task partner who was working elsewhere on another computer. In fact, this was a ruse and was simply a chance for the researchers to provoke the participants with some damning essay feedback, ostensibly from their partner. He/she wrote of their essay: “This is one of the dumbest essays that I have ever read. Only an idiot would say something like that, I can’t believe you are even in college.”
Suitably provoked, each participant was then given the chance to decide how many minutes their partner had to play an unpleasant card memorisation game in which wrong answers were punishable by a noise-blast – choosing a longer amount of time was taken as a sign of greater anger and increased aggression. In two further twists, some of the participants had been told that their partner would subsequently be making the same decision for them – in other words, he or she would have the chance to retaliate. Also, some of the participants chose their partner’s fate immediately after receiving the rude essay feedback, while others were forced to wait around 30 seconds, thus mimicking the delay effects of counting to ten.
As expected, the participants who’d had their self-control depleted tended to decide their partner’s fate more quickly (when there was no forced delay) and they tended to be more aggressive in their decisions, although this wasn’t statistically significant. Focusing on the participants with reduced self-control, the results showed that when there were consequences (i.e. their partner could retaliate), the forced delay made them less aggressive – that is, they chose for their partner to suffer 3.9 minutes of the unpleasant noise-blast task on average, compared with 6.6 minutes when their reaction was not delayed. Conversely, when their anger would have no immediate consequences for themselves, the forced delay actually increased these participants’ aggression (they chose 8 minutes suffering for their partner, compared with 5.7 minutes without a delay).
In summary, these results suggests that counting to ten could help stop you from lashing out too harshly when there are obvious consequences for your anger, presumably because the delay gives you time to take these consequences into account before choosing how to act. Backing this interpretation, a number memorisation task during the forced delay removed the calming effect of the delay for the depleted participants who knew their partner could retaliate, probably because they now couldn’t use the time to think about the consequences of their choices. Finally, when there are no obvious consequences to an outburst, the results suggest that counting to ten could make you lash out even more, likely because in this kind of situation the delay just gives you more time to stew over whatever provoked you in the first place.
Osgood, J., & Muraven, M. (2016). Does counting to ten increase or decrease aggression? The role of state self-control (ego-depletion) and consequences Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46 (2), 105-113 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12334
Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!
Does experiencing aggression in a relationship make us more vigilant against it – or more forgiving? New research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that when we want to keep our partner badly enough, we redefine the levels of aggression that we believe it is justifiable to endure.
Aggression can manifest in obvious violations such as controlling behaviours or physical violence, but also includes more common behaviours – denigrating a partner, or threatening to leave them. Drawing the line with these isn’t guided by societal absolute, but depends on individual discretion. Could that discretion be influenced by exposure to aggression?
Ximena Arriaga and her colleagues investigated this through research with students currently in a relationship. The students reported their experience of aggression in their own relationships, then responded to a list of specific aggressive behaviours, revealing in each case whether or not they would tolerate such behaviours. Examples on the list included a partner who “refused to talk about an issue with you” or “belittled you in front of others.”
Three separate studies involving more than a thousand participants showed that participants were more tolerant of aggressive behaviours if their current partner had already committed an act of aggression toward them. This can be explained in terms of the need to feel consistent and avoid dissonance between our actions and our beliefs about what is appropriate: if you’ve stayed in spite of what they’ve done, you’ll find it harder to see similar acts as a basis for leaving in the future.
A further longitudinal study (that surveyed participants repeatedly over several weeks) showed that initial levels of commitment to one’s current partner was also an important factor that was associated with people being more tolerant of later acts of aggression. At the start of the study, many participants had yet to experience aggression from their partner, but some had a different story to tell by the time of the final data collection eight or ten weeks later. Did these twenty individuals who had newly experienced aggression become more accepting of aggressive behaviours? Only some did: those who were strongly committed to their relationship. If you want it to succeed badly enough, you justify. And a further study showed this tendency to be very focused on making this relationship work: highly committed people were no more likely to tolerate (hypothetical) aggression when it was described as being directed towards a stranger, but became forgiving when they had to imagine it directed at them from their current partner.
These findings suggest that, at least in this sample, tolerance of aggressive partners is driven more by the present relationship than past history. Another intriguing detail from the longitudinal study was that it found that the participants’ stated tolerance to aggression at the start of the study was no predictor of who experienced aggression by its end, meaning that it gives no evidence of tolerant people gravitating to (or attracting) aggressors. And across the studies, aggression history prior to the current relationship wasn’t associated with current tolerance levels, once other factors were taken into account. Rather, the main driver seems to be the motivation to make the current relationship work, and seem workable, even if that means redrawing the lines that a loved one is not supposed to cross.
Postscript. Across almost every study, gender came out as a significant factor: the male participants were more tolerant and more willing to stay in relationships that involved aggressions. This was unexpected, but may reflect a reluctance within men to define their partners as aggressors and themselves in some sense as victims, as seen in low reporting rates of domestic violence against men.
Arriaga, X., Capezza, N., & Daly, C. (2015). Personal Standards for Judging Aggression by a Relationship Partner: How Much Aggression Is Too Much? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000035
Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!
Watching toddlers pinch, hit and bite each other doesn’t fill you with confidence about human nature. But there’s no need to be down about it – the little devils don’t yet have the self-control to manage their anger and frustration, that’s all. Right?
Not according to a new study published in Developmental Science, which is the first to systematically investigate the use of force in infants from age 11 months and up. Audun Dahl at the University of California, Santa Cruz, finds that in fact most of the time, the use of aggression* by toddlers is unprovoked.
Dahl interviewed 74 middle-class mothers with infants who were aged on average 16 months (range 11 to 24 months; 33 female). He asked these mums to describe a recent time when their child harmed someone else. Analysing the mothers’ stories, he found that in 76 per cent of the situations, the act of aggression was unprovoked and the aggressive infant did not show any signs of visible distress. This chimes with past research in which mothers reported their toddlers mostly showed signs of pleasure when they caused upset to other people.
Meanwhile, 26 per cent of the aggressive acts were provoked, for example to regain a toy from a sibling (and usually accompanied by distress), and 3 per cent were accidental. Overall, the stats argue against the idea that babies and toddlers mostly hit, scratch and bite as a way to vent their anger or frustration because they haven’t yet developed enough self-control.
To get more evidence, Dahl filmed 26 more infants (11 female) in their own homes for 2.5 hours each visit, always in the company of the child’s mother and a sibling. When he first visited each child, they were 14-months-old, then he returned when they were 19-months and 24-months-old. Analysing the videos for acts of aggression, he found that 49 per cent of the time the use of force was unprovoked, 43 per cent of the time it was provoked, and 8 per cent of incidences were accidental. Parents were the most frequent targets of aggression, followed by siblings and pets.
Zooming in on the acts of unprovoked aggression, most of the time these appeared to be what Dahl calls “explorative force”, for example to get attention, and there was rarely evidence that the aggressive infant was distressed. Less often, these unprovoked attacks were actually “miscalibrated force” – for example hitting the dog over the head when the probable intent was to stroke him.
More clues come from the infants’ personality: the toddlers who scored higher on their tendency to show pleasure tended to be the ones who committed more acts of unprovoked aggression, again suggesting they were using force as a form of fun interaction, rather than in rage. Also, provoked and unprovoked aggression showed different developmental trajectories. Provoked use of force increased consistently over time whereas unprovoked use of force rose at first, peaked at around 18 months, then decreased when the children were aged two.
These developmental results fit the idea that provoked aggressive acts are a symptom of toddlers’ ongoing lack of self control (and growing wilfulness) whereas their more frequent unprovoked aggression is more related to exploration and attention-seeking, combined with a relative lack of understanding about other people’s pain. Unprovoked acts presumably became less frequent from 18-months onwards as the toddlers learned that their aggression hurts others, or as they became more sensitive to other people’s distress. Complementing this account, Dahl found that unprovoked aggressive acts were especially likely to elicit negative reactions from parents or siblings, which presumably helped the toddlers learn to refrain from this behaviour.
Dahl concluded that his results show “that infants’ use of force against others is more diverse than typically assumed”, and he said more research on the topic is now needed in other settings and cultures to better understand how young children come to realise that unjustified aggression is wrong.
Dahl, A. (2015). Infants’ unprovoked acts of force toward others Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12342
*Note: Audun Dahl prefers not to describe infants’ use of force as “aggression” which implies the intent to harm, which he says is “difficult or impossible to assess in infants”. I chose to use a mix of descriptive words to avoid repetition, to resonate with readers’ everyday experience (parents rarely speak of “acts of force” but they do fret about their children’s aggression), and also because Dahl’s own analysis actually distinguishes between acts of unprovoked force which were apparently deliberate and those that were “miscalibrated force” – i.e. any harm was accidental.
Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!
There’s a striking fact about mass murderers – an extremely high percentage (around 30 per cent) of them die in the act, either by suicide or because of deadly police force. Of course, only a saint would likely be moved to feel sympathy by this statistic, but a new paper digs into the reasons behind it, in the hope that doing so could help prevent future killings.
The formal definition for a mass murderer, as opposed to a serial killer, is someone who kills four or more people in the same act, “with no distinctive time period between the murders”. This includes religiously inspired suicidal bombers, family killers (where one family member murders his or her partner and their children), and rampaging school shooters.
Researcher Adam Lankford at the University of Alabama (author of The Myth of Martyrdom) hired a crack team of investigative journalists to identify all the mass murders committed in the US between 2006 and 2014. The team mined media reports, FBI records and local police reports to find details of 242 cases of mass murder. Averaging 4.9 victims, and with over 90 per cent of the perpetrators being male, the crimes were coded according to several basic features such as killing type and age of offender, allowing Lankford to establish whether there was anything distinctive about the 31 per cent of mass murderers who died in the act (80 per cent of whom died by suicide) compared with those who survived.
Gender wasn’t a relevant factor, but older mass murderers were more likely to die, as were killers who operated alone (48 per cent of those who lived had a co-offender compared with just 5 per cent of those who died). Mass murderers who died also tended to kill more victims (an average of 5.5. versus 4.6 victims among the surviving killers). Regarding types of mass murder, family killers were the mostly likely to end up dead (61.7 per cent), followed by public killers (i.e. rampage shooters and such like; 28.7 per cent), perpetrators of miscellaneous mass murders (e.g. gangland killings or neighbour disputes; 5.3 per cent) and robbery-related mass killings (4.3 per cent).
Why should we care about these statistics? Lankford’s thesis is that they support the notion that “suicidal motives play a major role in the behaviour of many mass murderers”. He draws on the work of the nineteenth century French psychologist Émile Durkheim to suggest that many of the mass murderers effectively took their own and other people’s lives either as an act of egoistic suicide, “whereby people who lack social connections and the moderating influences of others are more likely to spiral into suicidal despair”; or anomic suicide, in which “[the killer’s] anger and actions may lack clear purpose or direction”; or altruistic suicide, “which is carried out by people who feel they are serving some greater good”.
Lankford points to the parallel between suicide statistics for the US population as a whole (where suicide rates correlate with greater age) and the fact that older offenders were more likely to die – “it is interesting that despite the aberrational natures of their crimes, mass murderers seem to fit with these basic demographic trends,” he says. He also notes the apparently powerful protective influence of a co-offender. “Even among this extremely violent minority of homicide offenders,” he writes, “the presence and social influence of fellow offenders may be critical to preventing a self-orchestrated death.”
Lankford acknowledges that the exceptionally high rate of suicidal deaths among family killers may seem to contradict Durkheim’s writings on suicide (Durkheim said that the married person’s family bonds would keep them stable). But Lankford argues that “in the case of many family killers, that connection has clearly been broken” – frequently because the murderer suspects infidelity or feels abandoned in some way by the family.
One of Lankford’s most important messages is that a “side-benefit” of improved suicide prevention strategies is likely to be a reduction in the occurrences of mass murder. And he warns that just as high-profile (non-homicidal) suicide cases often prompt a temporary increase in suicide rates, “it appears that some recent mass murderers have been influenced and inspired by their knowledge of other highly publicised killers.” One preventive strategy in this context, he says, is for the media to avoid glamorising mass murderers and to deter potential copycats by covering “… the more humiliating aspects of the killers’ own deaths, such as the fact that their bowels often release and leave their body soaked in urine or feces”.
Lankford, A. (2015). Mass murderers in the United States: predictors of offender deaths The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1054858
On the back of research first published in 70s and 80s, an increasing number of jails in the Western world are painting their cells pink, in the belief that doing so has a calming effect on prisoners.
Unfortunately, this early research was poorly designed. For example, one study found that prisoners’ strength, pushing against an experimenter, was reduced when they were presented with a pink vs. blue coloured card. But the experimenter could also see the card and may simply have exerted more effort in the pink condition.
Another early study reported that prisoners were calmer in pink cells versus white cells. But the prisoners in the pink cells were monitored one year, and the white cell prisoners during another year. Also, prisoners were not randomly allocated to the different colours. Both these shortcomings make it difficult to rule out other influences, besides the paint colour on the cell walls.
Now a team of psychologists led by Oliver Genschow at Ghent University has provided the first carefully controlled systematic test of the pink cell claim. They trained guards to measure the aggressive behaviour of 59 male prisoners in Switzerland, who were placed into special detention as punishment for violating prison regulations. Half these prisoners were chosen at random to be placed into cells painted entirely pink, across the floor, walls and ceiling. The other half were placed into cells of identical size, but painted white, with a grey floor. Aggression ratings were taken on arrival in the cells and after three days.
The prisoners showed reduced aggression at the end of three days, compared with at their arrival, but crucially, at no time was there a difference in aggression levels (in terms of emotions or behaviour) between prisoners in the differently coloured cells. The same null result was found when analysis was restricted to just those prisoners who started off low in aggression, or just those who started off with higher aggression.
Genschow and his team said their results question the wisdom of painting prisoners’ cells pink. In fact, they speculate that doing so could even be counter-productive: “Being placed in a pink detention cell may … attack inmates’ perceived manhood and/or cause feelings of humiliation.”
Genschow, O., Noll, T., Wänke, M., & Gersbach, R. (2014). Does Baker-Miller pink reduce aggression in prison detention cells? A critical empirical examination Psychology, Crime & Law, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/1068316X.2014.989172