When your mother-in-law says you’re looking a bit peaked or your nephew spills wine on the carpet, their actions may be antagonistic — or completely innocent. New findings provide evidence that someone with high levels of relational aggression – aggression that is social in nature rather than physical - is likely to experience knee-jerk paranoia and feel threatened by others they are close to, even when those individuals have benign intentions.
Researchers from Linfield College and Washington State University took a new, as yet untried approach to measuring whether relationally aggressive individuals are more likely to interpret ambiguous acts as hostile. Their study is one of the first to measure unconscious cognitive processes – rather than self-reported beliefs – of individuals high in relational aggression, and they came away with provocative conclusions.
"A key problem with research in this arena is that relationally aggressive individuals are reluctant to self-report socially undesirable cognitions or behavior,” said WSU associate professor of human development Nicole Werner. "There is a significant need for researchers to develop ways of measuring relational aggression and associated beliefs that do not rely on self-report.”
"Previous research has shown that individuals who are high in physical aggression tend to see the neutral behavior of others as malicious rather than innocent,” said Jennifer Ruh Linder, a Linfield psychology professor.
While some studies have shown that relationally aggressive individuals show a similar tendency, the results have been inconsistent. One explanation for this, according to Linder and Werner, is that researchers have relied on self-reports of hostile cognitions.
"In reality, we know that the processing of information occurs in an automatic, unconscious manner, and we wanted to take a look at that,” Linder said.
In their study, 118 college students read about a variety of scenarios one line at a time, and their click-through rates were timed. When participants read about actions that aligned with their own internal scripts, their click-through rate was faster. They pulled an interpretation from their mental bank of scripts without reflecting on whether that interpretation was accurate or not.
If the behavior portrayed in the scenario didn’t match their expectations, they appeared to slow down to process the information.
"Participants with high relational aggression levels processed scenarios that portrayed hostile responses more quickly,” Linder said.
In other words, relationally aggressive individuals may be more likely to assign hostile intent to that spilled drink or stray comment, rather than assume the behavior was accidental. The research suggests that this holiday season, families should check their aggression at the door before visiting.
The study was recently published in Personality and Individual Differences Journal.
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