Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

First Advisor

Baskin-Sommers, Arielle

Abstract

Physical aggression is a harmful yet ubiquitous form of human behavior. A large body of research has established that physical aggression is rooted in aberrations at the formation and maintenance stages of social cognition. At the formation stage, more physically aggressive individuals are more likely to interpret ambiguous social stimuli as threatening; at the maintenance stage, more physically aggressive individuals are more likely to “hold on” to interpretations of others as threatening. However, very little research has examined the cognitive mechanisms that contribute to these aberrations during online social decision-making. The three experimental studies that comprise this dissertation apply theory and methods from the cognitive and decision sciences to specify the influences of putative cognitive mechanisms, namely initial bias (the starting point of an individual’s decision-making), efficiency of evidence accumulation (the quality of evidence extracted from a stimulus), and extent of evidence accumulation (the quantity of evidence gathered for a decision). The three studies provide a comprehensive perspective on social cognition by examining both lower-order facial emotion judgments and higher-order trait judgments in samples of incarcerated male offenders. Study 1 applies a form of computational modeling called diffusion modeling to parse the cognitive mechanisms contributing to the formation of lower-order facial emotion judgments. The findings of Study 1 suggest that more physically aggressive individuals display more efficient accumulation of anger-related evidence, which may help explain physically aggressive individuals’ heightened tendency to perceive ambiguous faces as threatening. Study 2 focuses on the extent of evidence accumulation and examines its role in the formation of higher-order trait judgments using a novel adaptation of an established experimental task. The findings of Study 2 suggest that more physically aggressive individuals display less extensive evidence accumulation while making trait judgments, particularly hostile trait judgments. Finally, Study 3 focuses on the maintenance of lower-order facial emotion judgments by examining post-decisional processing, again using a novel adaptation of an established experimental task. The findings of Study 3 suggest that more efficient accumulation of anger-related evidence in physically aggressive individuals is also evident following emotion decisions, which may help account for the persistence of threat-based social judgments over time in physical aggression. Taken together, this set of studies provides novel insights into the cognitive mechanisms driving aberrant social cognition in physical aggression. Implications for theory and clinical practice are discussed, as well as directions for future research.

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