Shifting our attention to encoding: intervening at the forgotten stage of social information-processing among reactively aggressive youth

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University of Alabama Libraries

Despite decades of research on Social Information-Processing (SIP) based on Dodge's (1986) model, this model's first stage (encoding), in which youth perceive, attend to, and store cues, has long been overlooked. Aggressive youth are believed to engage in encoding errors which further their aggression, but current research addresses these distortions after they have occurred. This is due to their preconscious, involuntary, and automatic nature, which makes their measurement challenging. This study could impact the field of aggression in several ways. First, it introduces a new, precise reaction time(RT) measure of encoding deficits that improves our understanding of what occurs during stage one. Second, it intervenes at the encoding stage for the first time by introducing a cognitive training task for altering youths' encoding deficits. The results have prevention/intervention implications as they illuminate the malleability of encoding deficits. Thirdly, this study's training task could easily be integrated into the aggression treatment milieu. Participants were 60 reactively aggressive youth. A computer-based cognitive task was created from a task used to retrain the selective attention biases of anxious individuals (Dandeneau & Baldwin, 2004). For the experimental group, this task contained 50 pre-training assessment trials, 112 training trials, and 50 post-training assessment trials. Each trial was a 4x4 matrix of happy or angry facial expressions. The child quickly searched for either the one happy target among angry distractors (happy target trials) or the angry target among happy distractors (angry target trials). Assessment trials measured selective attention bias by comparing average RTs on happy vs. angry target trials. All training trials were happy target trials to train youth to notice the happy cues they typically overlooked. The control group completed identical assessment trials. Their training trials were an equivalent computer task wherein they searched matrices of seven-petaled flowers for the five-petaled flower. Results showed that subjects demonstrated a selective attention bias towards aggressive cues on the matrix RT encoding measure. Also, the training task successfully decreased this attention bias in the experimental group by post-training. Implications for SIP assessment and aggression interventions are discussed, as well as possible directions for future studies utilizing these tasks.

Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
Clinical psychology, Cognitive psychology, Experimental psychology