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2012 31: 5 originally published online 7Journal of Language and Social Psychology
Mark A. Hamilton
Verbal Aggression: Understanding the Psychological Antecedents and
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Journal of Language and Social Psychology
31(1) 5 –12
© 2012 SAGE Publications
onJournal of Language and Social Psychology
University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA
Mark A. Hamilton, Department of Communication Sciences, University of Connecticut,
850 Bolton Road, Storrs, CT 06269-1085, USA
and Social Consequences
Mark A. Hamilton
The articles contained in this special issue focus on verbal aggression. The studies
delve into the trait and state antecedents to aggressive language use as well as its
interpersonal consequences. This prologue tracks trends in research on verbal
aggression and related concepts over the past 60 years. The trend curves indicate
a recent surge in studies on verbal aggressing. To explain the results across the
five empirical studies that follow, two parallel and sometimes opposing processes
are considered. The selfish emotions of the individualistic affect system drive verbal
aggression and assault. In contrast, the prosocial emotions of the cooperative affect
system drive verbal collaboration and comforting. Avoidance is characterized as a
half-step between aggression and collaboration. The processes combine to predict
attitudes and behaviors across the range of conflict situations examined in this special
issue: individual, relational, communal, and societal.
verbal aggression, verbal collaboration, conflict, facework, politeness, personality,
Worldwide, 1.6 million people die from violence each year, with many more victim-
ized by nonfatal aggression that includes maiming, sexual assault, property damage,
and psychological trauma (Dahlberg & Krug, 2006). This epidemic of violence has
6 Journal of Language and Social Psychology 31(1)
long been recognized as a global public health problem (Rutherford, Zwi, Grove, &
Butchart, 2007). Although the ultimate causes of physical aggression may be eco-
nomic, cultural, and demographic, one of the most proximate and powerful causes is
verbal aggression (Hamilton, Buck, Chory, Beatty, & Patrylak, 2008). Indirectly, then,
verbal aggression imperils public health. Verbal aggression and physical aggression
harm society individually and collectively. Aggressive language, with its penchant to
reverberate over social media, can damage the self-concept of its victims. Verbal
aggression threatens to destroy civil discourse in groups and large organizations. It
polarizes factions toward extremism, bringing strife and ultimately paralysis to institu-
tions. Between cultures, verbal aggression can spiral out of control, leading to bloodshed
or even full-scale war. In short, the incendiary effects of excessive verbal aggression
represent an imminent danger to civilized society.
Aggressive language is typically placed at the far end of a continuum that ranges
from polite to rude. This politeness dimension cuts across the realm of etiquette and
manners, anchored on one end by elegant messages and on the other by those that are
the savage stuff of this special issue. Politeness, as a frame for verbal aggression, is a
common theme among the articles (Bull & Wells, this issue; Donohue, this issue;
Ickes et al., this issue). This issue on verbal aggression covers a diversity of immediate
and mediated contexts across the relationship gamut, from intimates to acquaintances
to strangers. The topics addressed by the articles are poignant across their substantive
range—from deadly ethnic strife to sharp exchanges among powerful politicians to
malicious incidental conversation. The articles are ordered by extensity of impact,
from widespread to particular (societal, communal, relational, and then individual).
Research Trends in Verbal Aggressing
Verbal aggression, the act of using aggressive language on a target, can be distin-
guished from verbal aggressiveness, a person’s attitude toward using aggressive
language (Levine, Beatty, & Limon, 2004). With adequate measurement, it should
be possible to accurately predict verbal aggression from scores on a verbal aggres-
siveness scale (Infante, Rancer, & Wigley, 2011; Levine et al., this issue). If an atti-
tude is relevant to behavior, meta-analysis (Kim & Hunter, 1993) predicts that the
attitude–behavior correlation should be quite massive (r ≈ .80). Consider the literature
related to this particular attitude–behavior process over the past 60 years, as repre-
sented in PsychINFO. Across time, research on verbal aggression is highly correlated
with research on verbal aggressiveness (r = .78, p < .001). The verbal aggression and
verbal aggressiveness counts can be summed to create an overall indicator of research
on verbal aggressing. Regressing the number of studies of verbal aggressing on date
(see Figure 1) indicates an enormous increase (β = .89, p < .001) over the 60-year
period. Analysis of residuals from the regression indicated that the positive accelera-
tion to the curve was considerable (r = .47, p < .001).
Rudeness and incivility are terms that cover both verbal and nonverbal expressions
of hostility. Over the 60-year span, research on rudeness is highly correlated with
research on incivility (r = .83, p < .001). As an overall indicator of research on impolite
behavior, the rudeness count and incivility count can be summed. Figure 1 shows a
massive increase for studies on impolite behavior (β = .67, p < .001). The frequency of
research on impolite behavior remains substantially lower over the period of 60 years
than that for verbal aggressing: t(59) = 7.05, p < .001. Yet analysis of residuals shows
a sharper positive acceleration (r = .74, p < .001).
As a baseline reference, aggressive language can also be characterized as offensive,
vulgar, opinionated, and rude. These modifiers are roughly interchangeable, so
instances of each were summed per year across the span of 60 years. Figure 1 shows a
large increase (β = .51, p < .001) for studies on aggressive language. The frequency of
research on language is much less than that for impolite behavior, t(59) = 3.71, p < .001,
and dramatically less than that for verbal aggressing, t(59) = 6.68, p < .001. Analysis
of residuals does indicate a severe positive acceleration (r = .86, p < .001).
The trends in Figure 1 reveal how vigorously researchers have been concentrating
their research efforts on the process of verbal aggressing, although the trends do not
differentiate studies on the causes from those on the effects of verbal aggression.
The research paradigm for studies of verbal aggression as an antecedent to others’
behavior differs markedly from that for studies of verbal aggression as a conse-
quence of personality and situational variables. When verbal aggression is the antecedent,
the consequences include relational satisfaction and subsequent verbal aggression
(see Donohue, this issue; Levine et al., this issue; Tafoya & Hamilton, this
issue), among other variables. Hostility (or trait anger) is a key antecedent to verbal
Figure 1. Trends in number of studies on verbally aggressive and rude behavior
8 Journal of Language and Social Psychology 31(1)
aggression (Anisfeld, Munoz, & Lambert, 1963; Gentry, 1972), with verbal aggres-
siveness supposedly mediating that effect.
Verbal Aggression as an Antecedent
Verbal aggression usually elicits hostility from its target, but in most experimental
settings there are constraints against indirect or passive aggression and violence.
People may respond to verbal aggression with verbal aggression (Ickes et al., this
issue; Mosher, Mortimer, & Grebel, 1968; Mosher & Proenza, 1968; Wheeler &
Smith, 1967), but strong frustration from insult is necessary to evoke verbal aggres-
sion as a response (Epstein & Krakower, 1974; Fischer, 1975). Consequently, retalia-
tory verbal aggression or other forms of escalation are not the only choice available
to the angry target. Choosing not to escalate, withdrawing from the situation (if
possible), rationalizing silence, or even deescalating the conflict with a message
intended to disarm the antagonist are all options. This array of alternatives partly
explains the apparent discrepancies between the findings of experimental studies and
survey studies of verbal aggression.
In an experimental setting, a verbally aggressive confederate typically insults,
teases, or otherwise provokes a target; then the target’s verbal response is recorded and
coded for aggression (see Levine et al., this issue). But fear of escalating the conflict
may discourage the target from verbally aggressing against the confederate. Survey
researchers ask participants to make general statements about their behaviors in order
to estimate their predisposition to respond (attitude) with verbal aggression. Whether
verbal aggressiveness is attitude-relevant and predictive of verbal aggression is a point
of contention (Infante et al., 2011; Levine et al., 2004) and the object of current
research (Kotowski, Levine, Baker, & Bolt, 2009; Levine et al., this issue).
Verbal Aggression as a Consequence
Generally, verbal aggression is augmented by negative life events and inhibited by
positive life events. Research on the augmentation of verbal aggression has sought
to discover which stressors increase verbal aggression. Stressors that induce verbal
aggression include disturbing life events (Charles & Mech, 1955; Day & Hamblin,
1964), viewing violent films (Sebastian, Parke, Berkowitz, & West, 1978), drugs
(Haward, 1958), and brain damage (Vondráček, Horvai, & Študent, 1964).
Research on the inhibition of verbal aggression has primarily examined learning
interventions (Goodwin & Mahoney, 1975; Infante, Chandler, & Rudd, 1989; Kendall,
Nay, & Jeffers, 1975; Prestwich, 1969). Argumentation training is perhaps the most
prominently researched of these interventions (Infante & Rancer, 1996).
Opposing Relational Forces
The articles in this special issue imply two opposing social psychological processes
that generate verbal aggression and verbal collaboration. As Figure 2 depicts, the
“dark side” forces associated with selfish emotions emanate from the individualistic
affect system; operating in parallel, the “light side” forces associated with prosocial
emotions emanate from the cooperative affect system. Egocentrism and hostility
within the individualistic affect system produce verbal aggressiveness and aggressive
behavior whereas empathy and attachment within the cooperative affect system pro-
duce verbal collaborativeness and comforting behavior (Hamilton, Buck, & Chory-
Assad, 2004). The model in Figure 2 predicts a curious inversion of influence between
affective systems governing the personality antecedents to language attitudes. Within
the self-concept, empathy decreases egocentrism; within temperament, hostility
decreases attachment (Hamilton et al., 2008).
Among the social consequences described in Figure 2, attitudes and behavior
within the individualistic affect system have antagonistic effects on attitudes and
behavior within the cooperative affect system. Hamilton et al. (2008) observed that
verbal aggressiveness has two opposing effects on collaborative (or comforting)
behavior—one positive and the other negative. The negative effect is mediated by
aggressive behavior such that verbal aggressiveness increases aggressive behavior
with aggressive behavior producing an antipathy that decreases collaborative behav-
ior. They hypothesized that the positive effect involves a move away from aggression,
a withdrawal from conflict that may have its roots in hostility guilt. Their model pro-
poses that verbal aggressiveness increases social distancing, with social distancing
increasing collaboration. Social distancing, such as avoidance, would be functioning
Figure 2. Opposing forces driving verbal aggressing and verbal comforting
10 Journal of Language and Social Psychology 31(1)
as a relational waypoint if people try to navigate a path from a “place” from which they
want to escape (an aggressive setting) to a “locale” that is more comfortable (a col-
Convergence and Divergence
The identity trap framework (Donohue, this issue) describes a power theme con-
tained in discourse (representing the individualistic affect system) that operates in
parallel to an affiliation theme (representing the cooperative affect system). The
framework proposes that categorizing others (egocentric labeling) and representing
them with negative symbols (reflecting hostility) drives verbal positioning that dehu-
manizes (verbal aggression) and expresses the power theme that gives rise to the
targeting of victims (assault). Conversely, emphasizing commonality (empathy)
and stressing equality (contentment) is supposed to lead to verbal positioning that
values diversity (verbal collaboration) within the affiliation theme and this gives rise
to the protection of victims (collaboration).
The Goffman (1955/1967) facework framework covering politeness (Bull & Wells,
this issue) distinguishes making points at another’s expense (aggressive acts) from
correction with redress (collaborative acts), where these two ends are further differen-
tiated from avoidance. The model in Figure 2 suggests that avoidance may allow those
engaged in intense face-threatening acts an opportunity to “cool off” as they seek to
maneuver their way back from aggression to collaboration. As Bull and Wells suggest,
Members of Parliament can use mitigating techniques such as euphemisms, quota-
tions, or humor in the midst of Prime Minister’s Questions to provide distance and
avoid perceptions that their language is “unparliamentary.”
The relational dynamics model (Tafoya & Hamilton, this issue) proposes that
within the individualistic affect system egocentric assertion of power (egocentrism)
should augment verbal aggression, in part by increasing hostility; conversely, within
the cooperative affect system empathy should augment verbal comforting and acts of
affection (collaboration), in part by increasing strength of sibling bond (attachment).
The Ickes et al. (this issue) data show a similar pattern. Conventional morality (pro-
grammed concern that might pass for empathy) decreases the use of rude language.
On the other hand, ego-defensiveness (a manifestation of egocentrism) and intense
negative affect (hostility) increase rude language use.
Finally, the critiques of past interpretations of argumentativeness theory (Hamilton
& Tafoya, this issue; Levine et al., this issue) might discourage readers from undertak-
ing further studies of verbal aggression. Both these critiques emphasize the need to
distinguish items measuring verbal aggressiveness from those measuring verbal col-
laborativeness. The Levine et al. meta-analysis indicates that very little is known about
mapping verbally aggressive behavior onto attitudes toward verbal aggression. This
finding provides researchers with an opportunity to answer pressing questions regard-
ing the predictive validity of the Verbal Aggressiveness Scale. In their Epilogue to this
special issue, Hamilton and Tafoya return to the issue of two opposing processes
combining to influence verbal behavior. They make the case that relationships, like
personalities, are organized hierarchically, with general traits exerting considerable
influence on the specific states that should predict behavior. The objective of this spe-
cial issue on verbal aggression is to further understanding of both the psychological
antecedents and social consequences of this pernicious phenomenon.
The author would like to thank Alice Veksler and Lynn Mardon for their suggestions.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
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Mark A. Hamilton (PhD, Michigan State University) is Associate Professor of Communication
and Psychology at the University of Connecticut. He has over 50 academic publications and
over 100 conference presentations. His research on conflict and aggression, language, persua-
sion, and health can be found in leading journals of communication and psychology. His work
on methodology includes co-programming statistical packages on confirmatory factor analysis
(CFA) and path analysis (PATH).