Social Information Processing and Aggression: The Functional Role of Fear

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Sippel, Lauren
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 27, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Amy Dyanna Marshall, Dissertation Advisor
  • Lisa Michelle Kopp, Committee Member
  • Charles Geier, Committee Member
  • Michelle Gayle Newman, Committee Member
  • Stephen Jeffrey Wilson, Committee Member
  • attention
  • aggression
  • fear
  • emotion
  • eye-tracking
Few studies have examined relations among attention biases and aggression despite downstream effects of attention on behavior. Existing studies are limited by indirect measurement of attention biases, sole examination of biases toward physical-aggression-related stimuli, and a lack of consideration of proximal factors like state mood. In the current study, attention biases to physical threat and social threat (i.e., negative evaluation and rejection) were examined as correlates of in vivo aggression. The influence of trauma-related fear on these associations was also examined, given theory and research linking trauma and fear to aggressive behavior. The roles of participant sex and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms as predictors of in vivo aggression, as well as predictors of in vivo escape behavior, were also explored. Attention biases to threat were measured with eye tracking, in vivo aggression and escape were measured with the Point-Subtraction Aggression Paradigm, and state fear or neutral mood was induced with script-driven imagery of participants’ personal experiences. Hypotheses were partially supported. As predicted, fixation duration biases to both types of threat were positively associated with in vivo aggression. Moderation analyses indicated that the nature of this association differed as a function of state mood, though not in the direction hypothesized. The positive association between attention biases to threat and aggression was attenuated, rather than strengthened, among individuals experiencing fear. This was also the case for escape behavior. Thus, fear appeared to inhibit defensive behaviors among individuals more attentive to threat, suggesting that fear functionally induced a defensive “freeze” response across tasks. These findings provide further support for social information processing models, add to the sparse literature identifying early-stage decoding processes as correlates of aggression, and highlight the importance of considering emotional processes that may impact social information processing.