Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Verbal aggression

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Verbal aggression:
How can be verbal aggression be effectively managed and expressed?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Think of the conversations you have with friends, family and significant others, on topics ranging from banal, to political, to deeply personal. You may remember times when your discourse got out of control, confused, or unnecessarily heated with those same people; and the question is, why must it ever be that way - you may look back and think it was their fault, but you would surely prefer that it had never got unpleasant in the first place. After all, some of these arguments lead people to break ties with people, or to live in significant suspense about what will happen next with their conversations.

Verbal aggressiveness is a problem that can interfere with the most basic of human interactions, and has the capacity to impinge greatly on our interpersonal and psychological lives. There are numerous contextual causes which may be out of our control, but there are plenty of tendencies and biases which we can manipulate for the better.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis and Hot/Cool Systems of Self-Regulation show how heuristics lead us to arguing, but also that these biases are under our control, if we were to suspend our expectations and desire for control, and focus on the information and not our feelings.

Verbal aggressiveness is closely related to argumentativeness, as they appear relevant in the same contexts, and the latter is associated with improvements on many of the factors that former ails[vague][Rewrite to improve clarity]. The cognitive approach to reducing verbal aggressiveness involves changing people's schemas and scripts associated with arguing, which can help people get the most out of interactions and avoid aggressiveness; and the behavioural approach involves improving people's behaviour and skills around argumentation, as there are some things that are fundamentally unhelpful about how we argue naturally.

Regarding verbal aggression, we will find out overall: what factors are outside of our control, why we all think badly of arguing, what we should be thinking, what we should be doing, what that makes others think of us, what our weaknesses are, and basic ways to overcome our reflexes.

Figure 1. Verbal aggression has the potential to cause extended interpersonal damage.

Verbal aggressiveness[edit | edit source]

The reason that verbal aggressiveness (VA) is studied, and why it should be avoided whenever possible, is because it, even outside circumstances of purposeful violence, it can result in hierarchy breakdown at work, relational dissatisfaction, adolescent mental illness conferred by one's parents, and even physical aggression and violence, regardless of whether it is escalated at school, home or work (Infante, 1995; Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992; Rancer, Whitecap, Kosberg & Avtgis, 1997)[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Feelings of guilt, inadequacy, embarrassment or anger can last a lot longer than any physical injury, if they, by means of attack, blame, harassment, negative comparison, disconfirmation or rejection, will pervasively or meaningfully undermine a person or their beliefs (Infante, 1995).

There is no evidence to suggest that verbal aggression is less damaging than physical aggression, because it can lead to full blown physical violence (Infante, 1995)[clarification needed].

Incidental causes[edit | edit source]

There are a [vague] number of stressors or triggers which motivate VA; these can be individual and idiopathic in nature, and tend not been targeted in the academic literature as they are too personal and specific to improve in differentiated people, or are too broad to have any pervasive control over (Infante, 1995):

  • Psychopathology, where the target shares characteristics with, or reminds the aggressor of sources of past or present hurt;
  • Disdain, avoidance or rejection when in contact specifically with target person/s;
  • Social learning, where it is perceived that verbal aggression is benign and/or socially acceptable;
  • Secondary acute causes, such as venting anger or frustration, or trying to be humorous and failing;
  • Reciprocity, when the victim defends themselves and gives the aggressor further reason to attack;
  • Inflammatory situations, where subversive "below the belt" attacks go ignored or unpunished, blame is directed upon specific parties, or roused participants are silenced and negotiation is blocked.

Stochastic factors[edit | edit source]

Many of these [what?] forces can be the drivers behind VA that is used as purposeful force to influence a target (instrumental aggression); perhaps when trying to intimidate or defend oneself against an adversary (Infante, 1995). Because verbal aggression that comes from these desires is purposeful, the motivations are the fundamental problem - you must not want to get angry to stop doing so[say what?].

As this chapter continues, more systematic cognitive changes are discussed, where the associated beliefs and skills can improve argumentative behaviour across numerous contexts, and work more in reducing hostile aggression.

Argument typology[edit | edit source]

Outside of stressful factors, the two general categories of conversations - public or personal - naturally provoke verbal aggression to different degrees (Johnson, 2002; Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992).

Importantly, personal issue disagreements have greater ego-involvement, because the person perceives their identity or values to be potentially conflict generating with the other person's in the real settings they will both share, e.g. one person hurt the other's feelings. Parties cannot "agree to disagree" as with public issues, so conflictions can either be resolved and reduce tension, or create new tension (Johnson, 2002; Johnson, Becker, Wigley, Haigh & Craig, 2007).

Figure 2. Extended frustration without successfully reaching one's expectations can lead to forms of aggressiveness; this can sometimes be directed onto substitute targets.

Perpetuating causes[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Frustration-aggression hypothesis[edit | edit source]

Berkowitz (1989) and other social psychologists helped develop and validate theory which suggests that when a person's motivated or goal directed activities are interfered with (thwarted), the frustration that inherently goes with non-realised anticipation builds up, leading to alternative actions which attempt to manipulate the target response to be closer to the desired or anticipated one. However, with increasing frustration and "thwarted" attempts, aggression becomes likely, as in the case of conflictions from personal issue disagreements where old tensions being unresolved can create new ones. This is a direct example of when hostile aggression is initiated.

Figure 3. In an argument, you can interpret the same information in terms of emotions or information, which will influence your response.

Hot/cool systems model of self-regulation[edit | edit source]

This model describes how stimuli can be cognised[spelling?] in terms of either the features which are emotionally arousing, which will then elicit reflexive approach or avoidance behaviour, or mentally represented with its abstracted and informative features, which will then elicit more cerebral, controlled responses; increased anxiety is associated with the former (Kross, Ayduk & Mischel, 2005).

There is evidence that argumentative individuals are not only less verbally aggressive, but also better at persuading themselves, perhaps suggesting that in the context of interpersonal conflict and anxiety, are more focussed on the "cool" system of self-regulation when they ruminate on arguments (Frantz & Seburn, 2003).

When discourse becomes "hot", regardless of whether the aggression then works for instrumental or hostile means, one could take the alternative stance of questioning and minimising the said person's aggression, as though it were an improper or unacceptable behaviour (Infante, 1995); there is evidence that people will be significantly less aggressive if they think that it is inappropriate under the circumstances (Berkowitz, 1989).

For example, if your bus to work drives past you without stopping, you can be frustrated that you will then be late and you blame the bus driver - but if the bus displayed text to signal that it was going for repair, having broken down, you will not feel so angered by its passing, knowing that it not picking you up due to an appropriate action (Berkowitz, 1989). One could impress upon an aggressor likewise[explain?].

Argumentativeness as an alternative[edit | edit source]

What these theories begin to show is the power of controlled and appropriate arguing - argumentativeness - in the reduction of verbal aggressiveness; indeed, hundreds of studies have been dedicated to VA and argumentativeness comparisons (Hamilton & Tafoya, 2011). What makes VA worse is that criticisms or attacks are not just directed towards ideas and concepts, as argumentativeness is, but also to a person's self-concept and attributes (Infante, 1995). Argumentativeness is an assertive style characteristic, and verbal aggressiveness based on hostility, where negativity, resentment and suspicion are inherent (Infante, 1995; Rancer, Whitecap, Kosberg & Avtgis, 1997).

VA is unhelpful and potentially destructive, while argumentativeness can be applied in the same contexts to be a constructive conversational orientation, and this dichotomy has been verified in almost every conceivable setting: dyads, groups, families, organisations, education institutions, cross-cultural settings and politics (Rancer & Avtgis, 2006; Rancer, Whitecap, Kosberg & Avtgis, 1997).

VA is based on negative preconceptions, insufficient skills and incidental causes, whereas argumentativeness is based more so on enjoyment and approach, perceived valuable outcomes, self-concept involvement and success orientation (Infante, 1995; Infante & Rancer, 1982; Johnson, 2002; Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992; Schrodt & Wheeless, 2009).

Aside from these reasons for reducing verbal aggression, there are significant reasons why argumentativeness should not only replace it, but be built in individuals who otherwise lack the [what?] inclination: people see argumentatives as having higher credibility, flexibility, openness and disagreement tolerance, better communicative skills, and as being leaders in group problem solving, and argumentativeness has been associated with better learning, creativity, perspective taking, problem solving and self-esteem (Frantz & Seburn, 2003; Rancer, Whitecap, Kosberg & Avtgis, 1997).

Facets of arguing to improve[edit | edit source]


Schemas and scripts[edit | edit source]

Within argumentativeness research, some authors have recognised one’'s apprehensiveness or willingness to argue as powerful factors, and potentially that altering them (the cognitive approach) should be a prerequisite to argumentative skills training (the behavioural approach; Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992).

People who are low in argumentativeness have predominantly negative beliefs about arguing (Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992), and those who have positive beliefs about arguing enjoy it more and think that it reduces others' aggression; and value argumentativeness as a positive and important part of their self-concept (Johnson, 2002). When anxiety or fear about arguing decide a person's outlook, they will defer to non-confrontational and discourse controlling means (Infante, 1995), which only perpetuate negative beliefs about arguing, as they inherently avoid dealing with the issues; argumentatives more often tend to engage in solution-oriented communication, and thus, are more likely to produce positive outcomes, and will as a result have more positive attitudes about what argumentation results in (Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992).

Theory of reasoned action[edit | edit source]

These [what?] effects fall under the Theory of Reasoned Action (Azjen & Fishbein, 1980), where it is shown that people's beliefs and dispositions about a thing largely define their thoughts and behaviours around it (Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992)[for example?]. Thus one can increase engagement and produce better results from arguing when you increase a person's self-concept identification as argumentative, through connotation such as increased externally perceived competence, credibility and leadership, the internal outcomes of more effective learning and social perspective taking, increased curiosity and decreased ego-centrism (Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992).

Figure 5. The Theory of Reasoned Action, as described by Asjen & Fishbein.

Without having any conception of this interaction, exposure to verbal aggression will tend to generate an emotional response in a person, and will cause rumination on instances of aggression to be based on that 'hot' emotional information, giving an exacerbated perception that arguments aren't enjoyable and generate dysfunctional outcomes (Rancer, Kosberg & Baukus, 1992). An anxious preoccupation with possible negative outcomes, disinterest and lack of success prioritisation can and will result in failure.

Perceptions and engagement[edit | edit source]

There is an expansive evidence base that suggests that people's perceptions of a social construct more strongly predicts their benefits and behaviours regarding it than the absolute nature of its effects upon them (Cruwys, Haslam, Dingle, Haslam & Jetten, 2014; St Claire, Clift & Dumbleton, 2008). This further validates the Theory of Reasoned Action’s predictions: by changing an individual's perceptions about the effects that arguing can have on you (enjoyment), on other people (dysfunctional outcomes), and on producing progress or a practical effect (pragmatic outcomes; Johnson, 2002), one can increase a person's focus on having the best input to produce positive results in these domains, and increase the perception that they have actually been achieved.

For example, imagine yourself sitting on a table adjacent to where a few people are arguing; with negative beliefs about arguing and avoidance tendencies, you may think that if you went over to join in, it would just get worse and you would end up frustrated as well. If you did indeed go over, all the sighing and asking people to slow down so you could catch up impedes the conversation, and makes everyone tired of having it because they've been over it so many times.

But equally, if you had positive beliefs and an approach tendency regarding arguments, you may think that if you went over, you could come to understand what they were discussing and where they had misunderstood, and would then be able to help them resolve the argument, leaving all those involved happier.

If you then jovially strolled over and politely asked them what they were talking about and if you could join in, they could be open to your good attitude and relax a little, start over with how they got to that point in the discussion, and along the way, make sense of it, causing everyone to gleefully sigh.

Argumentative skill deficiency model[edit | edit source]

This theory describes verbal aggressiveness as an emergent feature of argumentative skill deficiency, and further research exploring how that exactly occurs described a person's informational reception apprehension (IRA): their unease or inability regarding directed/complex communication, which causes/requires them to develop response characteristics to overcome difficult encounters or internal unease (Schrodt & Wheeless, 2009).

The responses one will develop and apply to cope with insufficient argumentative skills may be: avoidance when uninvolved in an argument; silencing and control from argument participation; and verbal aggression in arguments where there is significant ego-involvement and the person cannot accurately reflect themselves or their beliefs - as per the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis.

Research with children corroborates that social intelligence (not empathy) confers the capacity for indirect and subversive aggression (Kaukiainen et al., 1999), suggesting that a person's aggression does not necessarily relate to a fundamental limitation, but instead a greater grasp, and thus ability to manipulate social interactions for their intentions. That means that even the most pervasively aggressive people are likely to have the capacity to learn and replace their verbal aggression tendencies with pro-social argumentative behaviours.

Individuals high in verbal aggressiveness also have higher defensive self-enhancement, such that they will not acknowledge mistakes and be less open in communication, using it [what?] as an instrument (Avtgis, Rancer & Amato, 1998); the victim of VA can believe the reasoning given, and the untoward response as the actual cause of the aggressor's inability to give a correct answer to a question, and thus blame contextual causes, e.g. “I can't explain because you’re winding me up so much over it!”. If the aggressor had instead used an argumentative response, and the reasoning ended up being poorly articulated or reflected poorly upon the aggressor, i.e. that they just couldn't figure out how to solve the problem, then the victim may have made a negative personal assessment about the aggressor.

The argumentation approach[edit | edit source]

Therefore, verbal aggression can be reconsidered as an argument in and of itself, which is directed to attack a person's perception of the situation and how that reflects negatively upon the aggressor or the idea they are defending; this approach means that you can consciously defuse the leverage that VA has in undermining or convincing you in an argument.

You can readily apply the basic conventions of argumentation to redirect verbal aggression to an argument of data and reasoning, where it will almost certainly fail. The process is loosely describing the person's argument, giving your objections, attacking their evidence or reasoning, and summarising how their argument is thus weaker or invalidated (Infante, 1995).

Because VA – especially when generated as a result of argumentative skill deficiencies – can present part way through a discussion, where a person begins to claim something about you rather than the original topic (argumentum ad hominem), you can point out the divergence, to force the aggressor to define what the actual target of their criticism is, and drive the discussion to get back on track (Infante, 1995).

For example, if part way into an argument, an adversary comes out with "you really need to pull that stick out of your ___" you can calmly ask "what makes you think that?"

They either buckle and start to blather, at which point you can end the discussion, or they will explain something closer to their real problem with your argument. The former outcome can happen automatically if you are both suddenly distracted, as they will not really know what else to say, and lose the motivation to argue back.[factual?]

Alternatively, you can take the position that you will not reciprocate the personal attacks, and opt to return to the original topic; you can threaten to end the conversation if they continue with personal attacks, or you can question the validity of their aggression as a tactic or whether it accurately represents their true and best characteristics, explaining its normative undesirability. Each of these strategies summon negative perceptions for the attacker, who is then required to defend themselves for their behaviour, and can be asked to change their method or requested to talk about it again more appropriately in future if it is worth their time and effort (Infante, 1995).

For example, when faced with a situation where a friend starts to get aggressive in attacking your position, suggesting that you must believe in some exaggerated idea, you can question whether they truly believe that you would believe or do anything like they suggest, or whether they truly see people such as yourself as that evil.[say what?][factual?]

Pedagogy and communication training[edit | edit source]

Figure 7. The rules of civil debating exercises apply equally to colloquial conversation, and are taught in communication training.[factual?]

If the behavioural approach to improving argumentativeness and reducing verbal aggressiveness is taken, then one can look to typical practices in educational institutions as prime examples.

One of the first major distinctions made which alleviate the upward spiral of many conflicts, is being able to differentiate between constructive and personal criticisms, and even perceive them as the same for utility purposes. Debates, peer-review and partner critique activities at school inherently teach students to ask for constructive criticism, identify important critique factors, and control any feelings of sensitivity, for the purpose of improving their work (Infante, 1995). These are the fundamentals of the argumentation approach. Students with a moderate history in competitive debates have been shown to have higher argumentativeness, lower verbal aggressiveness, and better critical thinking - especially in identifying weak arguments (Rancer, Whitecap, Kosberg & Avtgis, 1997)

Strategies which are used in such activities, and should also be taught and applied in verbally aggressive outbursts - especially when participants with avoidance and control strategies - are to allow each person to speak without interruption, with calm and paced delivery, and for there to be shared interest and in opponents’ views, and to affirm the shared validity of each person’s values (Infante, 1995). Educational debates can be stimulating, but not unpleasant or stressful, and that is the environment that can be set up in any situation to have constructive discussion.

Having individuals feel invalidated or unable to talk is part of the low enjoyment and high dysfunctional outcome variables (Johnson, 2002) which contribute to avoidance and apprehension in arguing; thus, these communication strategies can directly manipulate people's long term approach and enjoyment.

For example, if you find yourself in an argument with someone, making sure that they save face means they will be less likely to have anxiety or frustration over having talked with you (Infante, 1995). Even if the issues that drive the tension between you has not been dealt with, the other person will retain the motivation or patience to interact with, and confront and resolve your issues in future.

To reduce VA systematically in a person's behaviour, internalising of these [which?] values is required, through "cool" information driven self-regulation and reflection (Infante, 1995).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

VA appears to be the opposite side of the same coin which Argumentativeness features on[factual?].

Argumentativeness exists as a mindset and a skill-set, and when combined, they improve your approach, engagement, reception, reflection and conception of arguing, and minimise the effect all those incidental factors have on you: its impossible to start shouting when you really don't want to and you know it is wrong, but it is even harder when, regardless of what you hear or read, you instantly use your mind and not your emotions - and let them come only when they are truly required or desired[vague][factual?].

Living in an age where you can communicate face to face, by phone, over email and using social media; where the verbal and nonverbal cues, and their explicit and implicit beliefs factor to varying degrees, and can all affect your emotions and behaviour in abstracted and inaccurate ways - it is important to be able to function with stability and openness regardless of setting[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Incidental causes and the disdain we have for bad people will always exist, but when they don't, you can use the tendencies this chapter discusses to remain contented and fully functioning.

1 If someone gets more aggressive each time you undermine one of their arguments, what is the most likely cause?

Validated preconceptions
Thwarted anticipation
Poor self-regulation

2 Based on Hot/Cool Systems of self-regulation, what is the process by which you understand and cognize[spelling?] what had happened in an argument?


3 What makes argumentation similar to verbal aggressiveness?

Equal emotional arousal
Both act as in self-defence
Each are defined by levels of enjoyment and pragmatic outcomes
They both involve criticisms or attacks

4 What does the Theory of Reasoned Action suggest in the text?

Aggressive people have a good reason to be
You can improve argumentation with positive connotations[vague]
That angry people believe good things about verbal aggressiveness
That argumentative people have exaggerated preconceptions

5 Argumentative skill deficiency is driven mostly by what?

Social intelligence

6 What is the most basic distinction[explain?] which helps minimise vulnerability to verbal aggression?

Controlling discourse helps
Interest actually potentiates defensiveness
A history in argumentativeness can become unhelpful
Criticisms are constructive

7 The purpose of arguing should be?


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Avtgis, T. A., Rancer, A. S. & Amato, P. P. (1998). Self-handicapping orientation and tendencies towards verbal aggressiveness. Communication Research Reports, 15(2), 226-234.

Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behaviour [Preview]. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Berkowitz, L. (1989). Frustration-Aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 59-73.

Cruwys, T., Haslam, S. A., Dingle, G. A., Haslam, C., & Jetten, J. (2014). Depression and social identity: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18, 215-238.

Frantz, C. M. & Seburn, M. (2003). Are argumentative people better or worse at seeing both sides? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20(4), 565-573.

Hamilton, M. A. & Tafoya, M. A. (2011). Toward a collective framework on verbal aggression: Hierarchical and antagonistic processes. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 31, 112-130.

Infante, D. A. (1995). Teaching students to understand and control verbal aggression. Communication Education, 44.

Infante, D. A. & Rancer, A. S. (1982). A conceptualisation and measure of argumentativeness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 46, 72-80.

Johnson, A. J. (2002). Beliefs about arguing: A comparison of public issue and personal issue arguments. Communication Reports, 15(2), 99-111.

Johnson, A. J., Becker, J. A. H., Wigley, S., Haigh, M. M. & Craig, E. A. (2007). Reported argumentativeness and verbal aggressiveness levels: The influence of type of argument. Communication Studies, 58(2), 189-205.

Kaukiainen, A., Björkqvist, K., Lagerspetz, K., Österman, K., Salmivalli, C., Rothberg, S. & Ahlbom, A. (1999). The relationships between social intelligence, empathy, and three types of aggression. Aggressive Behaviour, 25(2), 81-89.<81::AID-AB1>3.0.CO;2-M

Kross, E., Ayduk, O. & Mischel. W. (2005). When asking "why" does not hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions. Psychological Science, 16(9), 709-715.

Rancer, A. S. & Avtgis, T. A. (2006). Argumentative and aggressive communication: Theory, research, and application. California, US: SAGE Publications.

Raner, A. S., Kosberg, R. L. & Baukus, R. A. (1992). Beliefs about arguing as predictors of trait argumentativeness: Implications for training in argument and conflict management. Communication Education, 41(4), 375-387.

Rancer, A. S., Whitecap, V. G., Kosberg, R. L. & Avtgis, T. A. (1997). Training in argumentativeness: Testing the efficacy of a communication training program to increase argumentativeness and argumentative behaviour in adolescents. Communication Education, 46(4), 273-286.

Schrodt, P. & Wheeless, L. W. (2009). Aggressive communication and informational reception apprehension: The influence of listening anxiety and intellectual inflexibility on trait argumentativeness and verbal aggressiveness. Communication Quarterly, 49(1), 53-69.

St. Claire, L., Clift, A. & Dumbleton, L. (2008). How do I know what I feel? Evidence for the role of self-categorisation in symptom perception. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 173-186.