Processing Bias for Aggression Words in Forensic and Nonforensic Samples – Does Internal Dialogue Influence Schematic Algorithmic Thinking Patterns

Samskara is the Sanskrit term for the word 'Schemata'.

Samskara is the Sanskrit term for the word ‘Schemata’.

Salient stimuli that are of concerning consternation toward individuals’ of clinical and nonclinical populations produce specific configurations of bias towards avoidance, vigilance and aggression. Individuals’ with an aggressive disposition may have a predilection towards aggressive and/or violent behavior as has been evidenced in various dot probe and emotional stroop tests. There have been discussions about ecological validity implementing words in dot probe tests and many researchers are now using photographic face stimuli (NIMRID). However, there has been evidence to suggest there is a strong bias towards lexical stimuli due to numerous cognitive traits including individual schema and scripts (Smith and Waterman, 2003). Due to uncertainty of the nature of the dot probe test and its efficacy in a forensic environment, the study will include both; the emotional stroop test and the dot probe test. The study looks at the differences priming aggressively displayed words has on population samples reaction times (RTs) from non-forensic (based on Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire) and forensic based (based on their index offence) environments.

Historically, the theoretical standpoint of aggression was conservatively seen as instinctively motivational and emotional in terms of frustration. However, not until recent decades has there been an increasingly speculative interest in compounding those constructs whilst honing in on the cognitive processes involved in aggressivity. Anderson and Bushman’s (2002) General Aggression Model (GAM) looks at the situational – as well as predispositional – aspects that influence aggressiveness. They proposed that situational influences operated by activating cognitive structures, and thus, individuals of a predispositional inclination to perceiving aggression (by state or trait), would be especially prone to responding events, however neutral or ambiguous the were.

Subsequently, there has been a wealth of studies that have substantially evidenced that individuals suffering from clinical and non-clinical generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and Social Phobia (SP) have a predispositional suggestibility towards, both; threatening and emotionally salient stimuli (i.e. social cues such as facial expressions). These biases are considered to be a means of coping with, and reducing anxiety in a social environment and it has been supposed that predicatively salient biases of perception could potentially act as markers for individual cognitive processes in aggressive behaviour (Mathews & MacLeod, 1996; Soren Rislov Staugaard, 2009).

Research on perceptually biased information-processing cognizance has been considerably more active within the clinical domain, with less studies focusing on the role of perceptually biased markers in aggressive individuals within the forensic and non-clinical domains. Thus, there has been a disconcerting lack of research considering information-processing configurations of ‘high’ level cognitive bias – such as schema and scripts – are an often-propositioned potential explanation for individual aggressive bias (Dodge & Crick, 1990). Consequently, this provides an insight into the role of affect in the widely accepted instrumental-hostile typology of aggression, and further evidence to suggest that due to cognitive biases; antagonistic cues could potentially become automated processes (Berkowitz, 1990).

Forensic based research on the link between attentional bias and anger have been scarce, especially in regards to institutionilised environments. Conversely, despite the substantiation of hostility and aggression in prisons and youth offender institutions, the abundance of theoretical models trying to describe the elevated violence, and the prevalent and extensive anger management treatment programmes for violent offenders – creates ample precipitation, and thus; presumptuously unyielding reason to anticipate the presence of bias in offenders who have been convicted due to crimes of violence. One of the main differences in this research is that it is aimed particularly at a mean age of 18 with a standard deviation ±5. Thusly, the information and data within the forensic setting will be created and collated from Kilbey Young Offenders Institution in Paisley. *There has only been one previously similar study conducted and no studies of this nature have been conducted in Scotland and in particular Glasgow.

This study will be looking at the role of information-processing in individuals’ with trait aggressional bias and the affects of individual reaction times when looking at congruent and incongruent stimuli (aggressive/non-aggressive words) in a dot probe task using forensic (aggressive/non-aggressive) and undergraduate samples. The forensic sample will be split between violent offenders and non-violent offenders based on their index offence. Undergraduate levels of trait anger will be measured using The Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ; Bus & Perry, 1992). It is hypothesized that individuals’ more aggressive tendencies from both the forensic and undergraduate samples will have faster RTs in congruent trials in the emotional stroop test and the dot probe test subsequently indicating a bias towards the aggressively themed lexical terminology. This will further offer more insight into the rationalization behind aggressivity through utilizing the internal thought process i.e. individuals’ using mental dialogue as a means to accessing schemas and scripts.


All the prisoners will be volunteers and prior to their participation will have completed informed consent forms in accordance with both British Psychological Society and UK Home Office guidelines on the use of forensic samples. All those taking part will be informed of the types of words they will be exposed to before undertaking the task; and that they can withdraw at any time. The undergraduate group will all be tested under similar protocols and conditions by at the Health Sciences department Glasgow Caledonian University. These participants will be recruited as volunteers as part of an ongoing research project.


The Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ; Buss & Perry, 1992) is a 29-item questionnaire that records self-reported aggressive feelings and behaviours. There are four subscales of the aggression questionnaire; physical aggression, verbal aggression, anger, and hostility. Test-retest reliability and internal and construct validity for the scales has been found to be high (Buss & Perry, 1992; Felsten & Hill, 1999; Harris, 1995, 1997; Williams, Boyd, Cascardi, & Poythress, 1996) All the test items are assessed using a 5-point Likert scale (1 = never or hardly ever applies to me, and 5 = very often applies to me). Two items on the scale are reverse scored 􏰀numbers 4 and 19). Items were randomly distributed within the questionnaire.

The Barratt Impulsivity Scale (BIS; Barratt, 1994) is a 30-item questionnaire intended to identify individuals who are impulsively aggressive in forensic, clinical, and general populations. The BIS-11 identifies three components (second order factors) labelled as: (1) attentional (or cognitive) impulsiveness; (2) motor impulsiveness; and 􏰀3) non-planning impulsiveness (Barratt, 1994; Patton, Stanford, & Barratt, 1995). All items are scored using a 4-point Likert scale (1 = rarely/never and 4 = frequently/always). To avoid response bias, selected items are reverse scored. The items were again randomly distributed throughout the questionnaire.


The stimulus presentation will be carried out using E-Prime. The stimuli will be created in Microsoft Powerpoint. The stimuli will be displayed on display monitors that have of a screen resolution of no less than 1600 x 900 at 60 Hz and a refresh rate of no less than 76hz (vertical) and 83khz (horizontal).


The order of the questionnaires will be counterbalanced and completed in the one sitting. One week after the completion of the questionnaires, incarcerated participants will be tested on an individual basis and will complete both; the dot probe and the emotional stroop test in one sitting. The order of the tests will be counterbalanced which will be dependent on the number of participants accumulated. All testing will be conducted by the researcher and author of this paper. To combat fatiguing effects, there will be a break of five-minutes between each test. As part of a combinational counterbalanced four-task design there will be two additional tasks examining other types of bias to aggressive stimuli which include a visual search task and a dot-probe task with pictorial stimuli.
To assess the instantaneous mood and personality of participants after conducting the tests they will undertake and complete questionnaires looking to gauge these personal constucts. The questionnaires will consist of the State-Trait Inventory (STAI), the Social Desirability Scale (SDS) and the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). This is due to the high percentage rate of young prisoners who suffer from contraindicative depression with overlapping anxiety which may have affected response rates of RTs and therefore create biases that are not representational toward the perceived stimuli.

Task 1: Dot Probe Test – Participants will placed 100 cm from a computer screen with a fixation point displayed at the center of their field of vision. Participants will be informed that they will see a series of pairs of words on the screen, which will proceed by a fixated cross (there will be a slight overlap) replacing either one of the word pairs. The participant will be instructed to press ‘R’ if, if the cross replaces the position of the top word, and to press ‘M’ if the cross replaces the position of the bottom word pair stimulus. The duration of the trial block will be set at ‘infinite’ until the participants had responded with a key push on the keyboard. The participants will run through a practice block before they feel comfortable enough to run the experiment. A pilot run will be implemented to ensure that the instructions are straightforward and comprehensive enough for the participants. Instructions may be prone to tweaking and the number of trial blocks may be increased if deemed necessary after the pilot run. Due to the nature and design of the experiment exclusion criteria will be utilized for any participants with visual impairment.

Task 2: Emotional Stroop – In this task, the target word will either be an affectively neutral (e.g. “change”) or a highly negative affect (aggressive) word (e.g. “kill”). After presentation of a colour name (e.g. “blue”), participants will be presented with the target word and will judge whether its colour was the same as the colour name previously shown. A longer reaction time to negative affect words relative to neutral words will indicate a cognitive bias to negative affect.

Attentional bias to affectively neutral stimuli – The Cognitive Stroop Task is used to assess whether ‘high’ offenders have a deficit on a non-affective cognitive control task. Participants are required to name the colour of dots, words and colour words.

Stimuli: Words will be rated by a panel of clinical psychologists blind to the purpose of the study on a 7-point Likert scale for neutral words (3=very positive to – 3 = very negative), and on a 5-point Likert scale for negative affect words ranging from 0 (not aggressive) to 5 (very aggressive). Fifty aggressive and 50 neural words were selected, matched on word frequency


The bias scores (colour, aggression, positive emotion, and negative emotion) were entered into a mixed ANOVA with one between-subjects variable of group violent offender, nonviolent offender, and undergraduate) and one within-subjects factor of word type (aggression, positive, negative and colour).

A 2×3 mixed ANOVA with probe position (top vs. bottom) as a within-subjects factor and group membership as a between-subjects factor with participant response time to detect probe as the dependent variable was also conducted.

Task 1: Dot Probe Score – To explore the potential effects of the personality dimensions of anxiety, depression, and anger on the participant bias to the aggression words, a univariate ANCOVA with trait anxiety (STAXI), depression (BDI), and anger (BPAQ anger subscale) as covariates was conducted for the dot-probe bias score.

Task 2: Emotional Stroop – The bias scores (colour, aggression, positive emotion, and negative emotion) will be entered into a mixed ANOVA with one between-subjects variable of group (violent offender, nonviolent offender, and undergraduate) and one within-subjects factor of word type (aggression, positive, negative and colour).

A univariate ANCOVA with anger, trait anxiety, depression, and social desirability as covariates will be conducted for the Stroop aggression bias score. The will establish the main effect of group type, whilst controlling for anger, anxiety, depression, and social desirability.

Comparing bias scores on the basis of an emotional content versus a neutral content is a relatively gross measure of performance bias; consequently a con- tent-specific analysis with bias scores calculated from mean RTs for the aggressive and negative emotion words will also be conducted.

A stepwise multiple regression will be conducted for the dependent variable of content-specific bias score with group, anxiety, defensiveness, depression, anger, and cognitive impulsivity as predictor variables.

Aggressiveness in a nonforensic sample

To examine the relationships between aggressive behaviour and processing biases in the undergraduate sample the participants will be divided into high and low aggressive groups. The groups will be determined using median anger scores for the undergraduates on the BPAQ (scores of 20 and below being the cut-off point for the low aggression group). An independent samples t-test will be conducted on the bias scores from each task (dot-probe and emotional Stroop) with the between-subjects variable of group (high vs. low anger).

*This was a proposal that has since been adapted due to ethics committee


Staugaard, S. (2009). Reliability of two versions of the dot-probe task using photographic faces. Psychology Science, 51(3), 339-350.

Smith, P., & Waterman, M. (2003). Processing bias for aggression words in forensic and nonforensic samples. Cognition And Emotion, 17(5), 681-701. doi:10.1080/02699930302281

Zhang Qian, Jing-Jin Tian, Li Yang, Da-Jun Zhang (2013). Does Aggressive Trait Induce Implicit Aggression among College Students? Priming Effect of Violent Stimuli and Aggressive Words. International Journal of Psychological Studies ISSN 1918-722X (Online) Copyright © Canadian Center of Science and Education

Chan, S., Raine, A., & Lee, T. C. (2010). Attentional bias towards negative affect stimuli and reactive aggression in male batterers. Psychiatry Research, 176(2-3), 246-249. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2008.12.013

DeWall, C., Twenge, J. M., Gitter, S. A., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). It’s the thought that counts: The role of hostile cognition in shaping aggressive responses to social exclusion. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 96(1), 45-59. doi:10.1037/a0013196

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