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Individual Characteristics as Moderators of Reactions to Perceived Aggression Although trait anger was predicted to strengthen aggressive reactions to perceived aggression, trait anger only influenced retaliatory reactions. Contrary to my predictions, the relationship between perceived aggression and retaliatory aggression was stronger when trait anger was low rather than high. For high trait anger, the relationship between perceived aggression and retaliatory aggression was not significant. High trait-angry individuals maintained generally high levels of retaliation whether or not they received aggressive comments on their exam. This pattern suggests that high trait-angry individuals reacted more negatively to the exercise in general. In contrast, low trait-angry individuals reacted more aggressively when they received aggressive comments on the exam and their levels of retaliation increased, accordingly.

The results did not provide support for the moderating effects of locus of control.

Although the stress and aggression literatures suggest locus of control influences direct reactions to conflict situations (i.e., retaliatory aggression and constructive problem-solving), locus of control did not influence reactions in this study. However, the lack of findings could be due to the fact that individuals who are high in locus of control (or who have an internal focus) believed that they were responsible for the improving the situation and, therefore, might have engaged in other types of behaviors. For example, a student who had an internal focus might have gone to report the instructor to Administration or might have decided to change their study habits to improve for the next exam. Students with a low locus of control (or external focus) might have felt as though the situation was entirely out of their control and, therefore, did not feel any reaction was necessary.

The results also did not provide support for the moderating effects of need for social approval. Further, research on the need for social approval suggests high need for social approval enhances help-seeking behaviors, such as writing comments to an instructor about one’s exam. The lack of findings may be due to the nature of the situation. Although individuals who have a high need for social approval engage in activities to enhance social contact and seek approval of others, they also retreat from negative and threatening situations (i.e., perceived aggression). Therefore, perhaps the instructor comments were too threatening and, therefore, this form of constructive problem-solving was not a feasible way to address the problem for those with high need for social approval. Rather, high need for social approval individuals may have sought out other means to handle the situation constructively (e.g., talking with peers or team members).

Implications The purpose of this study was to investigate which factors influence aggressive and nonaggressive reactions to perceived aggression. I drew from the theory of frustration-aggression (Dollard et al., 1939) and personality research to test the influence of fear of retaliation and individual characteristics on reactions to perceived aggression. Only two of the tests of the hypotheses revealed significant effects—and only one of the two was significant as predicted.

(See Appendix G, Summary of Findings.) The unexpected findings highlight the need to reconsider the theoretical framework under which the hypotheses were developed and to further examine the measures used to capture the variables in this study.

The findings for fear of retaliation with respect to retaliatory reactions to perceived aggression are consistent with Dollard et al.’s (1939) frustration-aggression theory. Individuals in the low fear of retaliation condition were more likely to retaliate when they received aggressive comments on their exam. However, I expected retaliatory reactions to be weakened when fear of retaliation was high. Although the slope for the high fear of retaliation condition suggests a negative trend, the differences in the means from the no aggression to aggression conditions were not significantly different. Therefore, the high fear of retaliation manipulation did not significantly to inhibit retaliatory reactions, as predicted by Dollard et al. (1939).

Further, Dollard et al. contend that if individuals fear retaliation from the source of the harm, they displace or redirect their aggression on other targets. Essentially, they describe displaced aggression as a cathartic response to perceived aggression. However, the results of this study suggest displaced aggression may be more of a cognitive reaction than Dollard et al.

proposed. I argued that perhaps subjects did not displace aggression on their fellow team members because doing so might be ruining potential social support and might also worsen their conditions by promoting further aggression. To further explore these arguments, I then assessed whether subjects displaced aggression on safer targets. Post hoc analysis revealed fear of retaliation did strengthen displaced aggression reactions to aggression. However, not all “safe” targets/forms of displaced aggression were affected. Rather, fear of retaliation only influenced the displaced reactions to aggression that were directed toward a target similar to the initial instigator (specifically, instructors). The overall results of this study suggest displaced aggression is a fairly complex phenomenon that warrants further investigation. Specifically, it is important for future research to not only identify the targets of displace aggression, but also to understand what motives instigate displaced aggression on that particular target.

Aside from fear of retaliation, this study also investigated the influence of personality traits on reactions to perceived aggression. Trait anger did influence retaliatory reactions, however not as expected. Research on trait anger suggests high trait-angry individuals react more strongly to personal attacks (see Deffenbacher, 1992, for a review). The results of both experimental conditions suggest that high trait-angry individuals found the different conditions generally anger-provoking. For example, high trait-angry individuals engaged in similar levels of retaliation whether or not they received aggressive comments on their exam. In contrast, low trait-angry individuals became particularly agitated when they received aggressive comments on the exam. Consequently, they retaliated more strongly than those high in trait anger when they received aggressive comments.

Interestingly, none of the other personality traits influenced reactions to perceived aggression. Aggression research in social psychology has demonstrated the effects of various individual characteristics on reactions to perceived aggression (see Anderson & Bushman, 2002, for a review). However, the moderating effects of locus of control and need for social approval were not found in this study. Two explanations may explain the lack of findings. First, the nonfindings may be due to a lack of adequate power in the statistical model, suggesting that perhaps more subjects might be required to adequately produce results. Secondly, the personality traits identified in this study may not adequately influence the reactions to perceived aggression explored in this study. Therefore, further research is required to identify the individual characteristics that better capture differences in aggressive and non-aggressive reactions to perceived aggression.

Another pattern that emerged in the results is that retaliation appears to be a more primary reaction to perceived aggression. Although subjects did displace aggression via their ratings of the overall fairness of the Management Department, in the main, retaliatory reactions seemed to be the most dominant response. This result begs the question: “Is retaliation a primary reaction to perceived aggression?” For example, perhaps individuals first retaliate out of anger and then displace aggression on others later. Thus, further research is necessary to explore primary and secondary reactions to aggression to see whether an order effect occurs.

The lack of findings for the displaced aggression and constructive problem-solving warrants further discussion. An explanation for the non-findings could be due to (1) a measurement issue and (2) more complex, underlying processes may better predict behavioral reactions.

First, perhaps the measures of displaced aggression and constructive problem-solving did not adequately capture these reactions to perceived aggression. The post hoc analyses revealed that different forms of displaced aggression matter in predicting whether an individual displaced aggression in response to perceived aggression. The same argument could apply to constructive

problem-solving. This study identified a very specific form of constructive problem-solving:

writing comments to the instructor on the back of the exam. Perhaps subjects were willing to engage in constructive problem-solving behavior, but those reactions were not captured in this study. For example, students may have planned to go see the instructor after class or write the instructor an e-mail. Further, students may have decided to engage in other reactions, not described in this study. For instance, students may have decided to drop the class (a form of withdrawal), or talk with their friends about the situation (a form of “venting”). Thus, the lack of results may be explained by the studies limited measures of reactions to perceived aggression.

Consequently, future research should seek to identify the broad range of behavioral reactions to perceived aggression.

A second explanation for the lack of findings is that underlying processes might have influenced the reactions to aggression. Social psychology researchers argue that emotions and psychological states guide the behavioral choices, which ultimately influence the behaviors individuals decide to engage in when they perceive aversive events (see Anderson & Bushman, 2002, for a review). Anderson and Bushman (2002) developed an integrative model of aggression, called the General Aggression Model (GAM). According to GAM, after individuals perceive the aversive event (like perceived aggression), reactions are processed through the psychological state. The psychological state involves cognitive (e.g., thoughts, memories), emotional (e.g., fear, anger) and physical reactions (e.g., excitement, arousal). The psychological state then influences the decision-making process. Individuals may react immediately, which are generally based on an over-riding emotion (e.g., anger). However, they may also engage in secondary decision-making processes, whereby they analyze the situation further (e.g., expected punishments for retaliation), their own psychological state (e.g., burnout) and their emotions to see if they are valid. These secondary decision-making processes may be critical mediators that influence behavioral reactions to aggression. Therefore, future research should further explore these underlying processes to better predict how individuals respond to perceived aggression.

Conclusion Theorists have argued that aggression produces the instigation of aggression (e.g., Berkowitz, 1998; Dollard et al., 1939). Aggression is said to be a natural, instinctual reaction (Geen, 1991; Lorenz, 1966). However, Miller (1941) provided an important clarification to the theory: “[aggression] produces instigations to a number of different responses, one of which is an instigation to some form of aggression” (338). The results of this study provide support for aggressive reactions—and, in particular, retaliatory aggression. However, the variables considered in this study did not successfully influence other types of reactions to aggression (displaced aggression and constructive problem-solving). Although the results provide some support the notion that individuals generally like to retaliate against those who harm them, we also know that not everyone retaliates. In order to progress our understanding of aggression, it is important for future research to continue to identify and test factors that may influence reactions and, in particular, non-destructive reactions (like constructive problem-solving).

–  –  –

This form provides you an opportunity to express your views about your instructor and his/her teaching abilities.

The purpose of this evaluation is to obtain information to improve instruction and provide data in evaluating the instructor.

–  –  –

This form provides you an opportunity to express your views about your instructor and his/her teaching abilities.

The purpose of this evaluation is to obtain information to improve instruction and provide data in evaluating the instructor.

–  –  –


Debriefing Procedure

1. Thank everyone and slowly introduce the topic of the experiment.

a. Thank you for your time and for filling in the number of evaluations and questionnaires today.

b. First, let me ask… Do you have any questions about what took place today?

c. Did you all feel that the materials were correct?

d. While reviewing your exam, did you feel that the comments might not have been correct?

e. Is there any reason to disagree or disbelieve the presented material?

f. What we did today was actually a “class exercise”.

2. Discuss the true nature of the experiment.

a. Today you participated in an experiment regarding responses to insensitive treatment.

b. We used the comments written on your exams as the source of insensitive treatment. All comments written on your exam were bogus.

c. So, the comments varied in terms of their tone. We were interested in your reactions to these different types of comments. In general, when you get treated insensitively, folks want to react in some way.

3. Discuss the nature of insensitive and mistreatment in organizations and individuals’ reactions.

a. Understanding responses to insensitive behavior is important for workplace research, particularly with regard to workplace mistreatment.

b. We wanted to understand how the level of insensitivity influences individual’s reactions.

c. For example, we randomly assigned different types of comments on your exam.

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