Review of “Physical aggression facilitates social information processing”

Chandler Blake and Lucas Bolender

Henry Markovits paper “Physical aggression facilitates social information processing” discusses the findings of an experiment the author conducted about information processing. The study put participants in a computer simulated situation where they had left their phone on a park bench and found a stranger picking it up when they returned for it. The stranger would either clench their fists or put their hands behind their back when they saw the participant coming to get their phone back. The stranger would either hit the participant, run away with the phone, or give the phone back in a friendly manner. It was the participant’s job to guess which of these actions was coming, from the original hand position of the stranger.

The researcher found that participants were more likely to correctly guess the action of the stranger, in subsequent trials, if the stranger hit the participant compared to running away or giving the phone back. He also found that the participants were better able to predict subsequent trials of running away compared to giving the phone back. From this Markovits concluded that people are more likely to process cues of physical aggression more efficiently.

The physiological process is that fear leads to faster learning. The author discusses how fear being processed efficiently makes sense for survival. It is not necessary to process cues of kindness in order to stay alive, however, if you cannot detect aggression it could very well lead to your death in the wild.

The first criticism that came to mind when reading the first version of this study is that clenched fists are much more naturally related to aggression than hands behind the back are to any of the alternatives. Placing ones hands behind their back during a social interaction could mean a variety of different things. Whereas clenched fists are closely related to and commonly perceived as being angry. The authors of the study acknowledge and attempt to combat this potential effect in a following study. This time they swap the cues with their respective actions. In this study the original cues and inverted cues were detected accurately 52.6% and 50% respectively. From this they claim, “These results certainly suggest that the use of clenched fists does not appear to have a specific effect on cue learning for physical aggression.” However, what it does seem to suggest is that the effect they claimed to have found has disappeared. If someone was to guess completely randomly at these videos we would expect to see them get about 50% of them correct. This evidence seems to point at an aggressive behavior being detected more readily when paired with an appropriate act of body language–no real surprise there.

Second, they acknowledge the fact that aggression is more unusual in daily life so it may be more shocking or memorable when compared to its alternative. To attempt to combat this they employ a third study design where the alternative is dancing, which is supposedly as unusual and shocking as aggression. In this case they find that aggression was accurately detected 52.4% of the time whereas dancing was only accurately detected 29.8% of the time. Therefore aggression cues must be more easily processed. However, outside theater & dance I have never seen a confrontation between two individuals end in dancing, therefore participants in the study may have simply guessed that the scene would end in aggression more often than dancing because it is more realistic. This would lead them to have an inflated measure of accurately interpreted aggression cues.

Markovits, H. (2013). Physical aggression facilitates social information processing. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(6), 1023-1026.

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