Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Attentional Processes in Children's Overt and Relational Aggression

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Attentional Processes in Children's Overt and Relational Aggression

Article excerpt

This study examined attention and memory processes assumed by the social information-processing model to be biased in aggressive children. We also explored whether similar biases were associated with overt and relational aggression. A total of 96 fourth through sixth graders saw videos of overtly and relationally aggressive child actors and afterward recalled video content. Participants' reaction times were also measured as they shifted attention from video content to neutral stimuli. Hierarchical regression analyses showed that, after controlling for processing of nonaggressive stimuli, peer-nominated relational aggression was significantly related to attention shifting and free recall for relationally aggressive videos; results were significant after controlling for overt aggression. Peer-nominated overt aggression was related to attention for overtly aggressive videos, but not when relational aggression was controlled. IQ and general attention problems did not explain results. The results suggest that relationally aggressive children are particularly fixated on relationally aggressive events, perhaps because of the socially nuanced nature of relational aggression.

Over the past several decades, studies have increasingly explored subtypes of childhood aggression. Physical or overt aggression (behavior that harms another through physical damage or threats of such damage; Crick, 1996; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995) has been distinguished in many of these studies from more indirect or covert forms of harm. These covert forms have been alternatively conceptualized as indirect aggression (harming another so as not to be detected by authority figures; e.g., passing notes to classmates or rumors; see Björkqvist, 1994; Coyne, Archer, & Eslea, 2006), social aggression (verbal and nonverbal behavior that causes social harm; Underwood, 2003), and relational aggression (behavior that hurts another through actual or threatened damage to relationships or feelings of inclusion; e.g., malicious gossip; excluding a peer when angry; Crick, 1996; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Research has shown overt aggression to be related to but distinct from different types of covert aggression (Björkqvist, Lagerspetz, & Kaukiainen, 1992; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Galen & Underwood, 1997).

A prominent theoretical framework used to explain both overtly and relationally aggressive behavior in childhood is Crick and Dodge's (1994) social information-processing model (SIP), a six-stage framework that specifies the processing behaviors that children undertake as they cognitively proceed through social interactions. These six steps include (a) selective attention to and encoding of cues, (b) interpretation of these cues, (c) identification and clarification of goals or outcomes sought during interaction, (d) response access or construction, (e) response decision, and (f) behavioral enactment. During encoding of cues (Step 1), children selectively attend to particular cues in their social environment and ignore others. They then encode and interpret the cues they selected. The current study examined how attention (through attention shifting) and encoding (as reflected by memory) are related to overt and relational aggression among children as they witness aggressive behaviors of same-age peers. Because stimuli for this study were developed based on a widely used measure of relational aggression and depicted instances in which the victim was directly shunned, the term relational aggression best captures the form of covert aggression investigated in this project.

Crick and Dodge (1994) hypothesized that aggressive children show biases in attention and memory (e.g., selective attention to inappropriate or aggression-related cues, memory deficits) in Step 1 of SIP, and that these biases increase the likelihood of aggressive responding. In particular, they argue that aggressive children use aggressive schemata to process information. This processing enhances the likelihood of aggression via two possible mechanisms. …

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