Category: Violence / Aggression


An Examination of Attention Bias to Threat and In Vivo Aggression: The Functional Role of Fear

Saturday, November 18
10:15 AM - 11:45 AM
Location: Cobalt 501, Level 5, Cobalt Level

Keywords: Attention | Aggression / Disruptive Behaviors / Conduct Problems | Fear
Presentation Type: Symposium

While many processes associated with aggressive behavior occur in an automatic fashion (Todorov & Bargh, 2002), few studies of early-stage decoding biases and aggressive behavior exist (McFall, 1990). Existing studies suggest that aggression-prone individuals perceive facial affect displays as overly hostile and angry (Mellentin et al., 2015) and preferentially attend to aggression cues (Chan et al., 2010). Previous research has been limited by indirect measures of attention bias and lack of consideration of proximal factors like state emotion. Theories of defensive aggression (Weinshenker & Siegel, 2002) posit that aggression may be initiated when individuals experience fear, which organizes perception and motivates defensive behaviors (Barlow, 1988). Trauma-related fear is especially critical to examine given high base rates of trauma exposure (Kilpatrick et al., 2013) and because past experiences inform social cognition (Crick & Dodge, 1994).

In the current study, we examined the association between attention bias to physical and social threat and in vivo aggression and the moderating role of trauma-related fear in 74 trauma-exposed undergraduate students. In vivo aggression was measured with the Point-Subtraction Aggression Paradigm (Cherek, 1992), state fear or neutral mood was induced with script-driven imagery of participants’ traumatic and neutral experiences (Pitman et al., 1990), and attention bias to threat (i.e., longer fixation duration to threat versus neutral stimuli) was measured with eye tracking. 

As predicted, attention bias to threat was positively associated with in vivo aggression (b=0.55, p<0.01). The interaction of mood and attention bias significantly added to the model (b=-0.53, p<0.05, ΔR2=0.06). Simple slopes analyses indicated that the positive attention-aggression association was reduced in the fear condition. Thus, rather than enhance aggressive responding, fear appeared to inhibit aggression among individuals more attentive to threat. Findings add to the sparse literature identifying early-stage decoding processes as correlates of aggression and highlight the importance of considering the emotional context of aggression.  

Lauren Sippel

Associate Director for Research, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
VA National Center for PTSD, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth


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