Cognitive/Information Processing Theories of Crime Research Paper

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Over the past several decades, it has become clear that an understanding of how human cognitive processes operate is necessary for an understanding of human social behavior in general and aggressive and criminal behavior in particular. Extensive empirical research on cognitive/information processing coupled with theoretical elaborations from cognitive science constructs has led to the emergence of a unified model of cognitive/information processing in aggressive behavior. The model identifies three processes in social problem solving during which emotional arousal, activated schemas, and situational cues interact to make aggressive and criminal behavior less or more likely : (1) cue attention and interpretation, (2) script retrieval, and (3) script evaluation and selection. In addition, two processes have been identified that change stored cognitive schemas, scripts, and beliefs to increase or decrease the long-term likelihood of aggressive and criminal behavior: (1) observational learning through imitation, inference, and emotional desensitization, and (2) conditioning that increases or decreases the accessibility of encoded cognitions. While these processes may first require cognitive control in the developing child, they eventually seem to operate as relatively automatic cognitive processes.

People attend to environmental cues differentially and interpret the cues differently as a function of predisposing neurophysiological factors, their emotional arousal, the kinds of cognitive schemas they have acquired, and which schemas are activated. More aggressive individuals tend to focus on fewer cues and cues that are more frequently symptomatic of hostility, tend to interpret ambiguous cues more readily as symptomatic of hostility, and tend to believe that the world is more hostile. This is particularly true when the individual is angry, either because of situational factors or a predisposition toward more general hostility. More aggressive individuals also have a greater proportion of aggressive scripts encoded in memory with more accessible links to everyday cues. They have been found to rehearse more often their aggressive scripts through aggressive fantasizing and to recall more often aggressive scripts from ambiguous cues. It has been shown that, while young children do not have well-defined or stable normative beliefs about the appropriateness of aggression, older children do have well-formed beliefs, and those beliefs influence how they evaluate retrieved scripts. Finally, aggressive individuals often do not expect their own aggressive behaviors to have bad consequences for them.

From the social/cognitive perspective, once a youth begins to perceive the world as hostile or antisocial, begins to acquire scripts and schemas emphasizing aggression and antisocial behaviors, and begins to believe that aggression and law-breaking is acceptable, the youth enters a vicious cycle that is difficult to stop. Cognitions, behavior, observations of others, and the responses of others, all combine to promote aggression and criminality. If not interrupted, the cycle can be expected to continue into adulthood, maintaining aggressive and antisocial behavior throughout the life span.


One of the essential ways in which humans are different from all other species is in their well-developed ability to symbolically represent, process, and communicate information. The psychological processes that humans invoke to perform these tasks are called cognitive processes, and the internal representations of information utilized in these processes are denoted as cognitions. Some reflexive behaviors may usually involve only peripheral processing, but more central cognitive processes often override these reflexes, e.g., one can will oneself to keep one’s hand on a hot coal. From this perspective, all human social behavior, including aggressive and criminal behavior, is mediated by the cognitions and cognitive processing of the participants. This does not mean that cognitive processes “cause” social behavior. Rather as mediating processes they connect biological, environmental, and situational inputs to behavioral outputs. However, different patterns of cognitive processing are more conducive to one kind of social behavior than to another.

An information-processing model of social behavior is a description of the cognitive data structures a person utilizes and the sequence of cognitive operations the person uses in order to process whatever information is encountered by the person in order to decide on a social behavior. It is most analogous to a computer program that describes the output a computer produces from given input. Cognitive/information-processing theories of aggression and criminal behavior explain the occurrence of aggression and crime and individual differences in the risk for occurrence in terms of individual differences in these cognitive data structures and the associated information-processing operations. The cognitions and information-processing operations are not viewed as ultimate causes of crime or aggression but rather as what connects innate predisposing causal factors and past and current environmental causal influences to current behavior, whether antisocial or prosocial.

History Of Cognitive/Information-Processing Models Of Social Behavior

The use of cognitive/information-processing models to describe human behavior first emerged in the late 1950s in studies of human problem solving (Newell and Simon 1972; Simon 1969) probably because the expertise in computer programming that such modeling requires tended to be concentrated in that area. However, it was quickly recognized that the formalization and detailed specification of processes required in information-processing models make them more valuable than either natural language or mathematical statistics for modeling any kind of human behavior. In the early 1960s, two books – Feigenbaum’s (1963) Computers and Thought, and Miller, Galanter, and Pribram’s (1960), Plans and the Structure of Behavior – stimulated thinking about information processing in many areas of psychology, and by the mid-1960s Abelson (1968), Gullahorn & Gullahorn, Loehlin, Simon (1969), and others had begun to describe psychological models of a variety of social behaviors in terms of underlying cognitive structures and information processes. By the 1970s and early 1980s, more specific information-processing theories of different kinds of social and abnormal behavior were appearing (Carroll and Payne 1976; Huesmann 1982). The term “social cognition” became popular sometime in the late 1970s (Wyer and Carlston 1979), and with the publication of more often Fiske and Taylor’s (1984) book on social cognition, cognitive/information-processing theorizing became part of the mainstream of thinking about social behavior.

The early 1980s also brought the first cognitive/information-processing analyses of aggression. Huesmann (1982, 1998; Huesmann and Eron 1984), building both on Bandura’s ideas and Newell and Simon’s (1972) thinking, offered a general information-processing model for aggression focusing particularly on observational learning, and Dodge (1993; Crick and Dodge 1994) offered a general information-processing model for aggression focusing particularly on perceptions and attributions. Shortly afterward, Slaby and Guerra (1988), building on Shure and Spivac’s analysis of adolescents’ adjustment problems as failures in social problem solving, expanded these ideas to analyze delinquent’s criminal behaviors in terms of underlying cognitive/information-processing abnormalities. Since then, a variety of elaborations of the models have emerged (e.g., Anderson and Bushman 2002) and a reasonable consensus has developed about the ways in which human cognitions and cognitive processes mediate aggressive and criminal behavior. But before turning to a more detailed discussion of those models, we must review a number of general principles of information processing.

Fundamentals Of Cognitive/ Information-Processing Models

Cognitive/information-processing models formally lay out the sequence of cognitive processes involved in the occurrence of a behavior much as a computer program lays out the sequences of operations in a computer that produces a particular output. A basic assumption is that the human mind can be viewed as analogous to a computer. Behavior is the output of software programs operating within the biological hardware constraints of the brain. A closely related assumption is that behavior is best modeled with hierarchical levels of explanation (Simon 1969). For example, an aggressive interaction might first be modeled in terms of relevant interacting behavior sequences (e.g., she shouted at him; he told her to shut up; she shouted again; he hit her). The behavior sequence might then be modeled in terms of a higher level program for behavior (e.g., follow rule to retaliate when insulted by female). The operation of such programs might then be modeled by more fundamental cognitive processes, e.g., retrieval of rules by spreading activation; these more fundamental processes might be modeled in terms of neurophysiological reactions which in turn might be modeled in terms of biochemical processes. Different theories of social behavior may use different levels of explanation within, but generally most theories adopt a level analogous to programming in a high level computer language. The formal properties and limitations these programming languages and symbol systems place upon the modeled processes are well understood, and the natural language interpretations of the programs are also usually easily followed by other researchers.

Cognitive/information-processing theories of social behavior assume that a person’s social behavior is completely determined by the configuration of hardware, software, knowledge structures, and environmental inputs that the organism has experienced. However, because all these elements are never completely known, behavior can never be perfectly predicted. Specific models sometimes include stochastic elements to model individual variations, but, even without them, complex variations in behaviors and cognitions are obtained because of the wide diversity of experiences encountered by different individuals. Cognitive/information-processing models are models of individuals’ social behaviors, not of group means. Different individuals have different hardware, software, and data structures. Different situations generate different inputs. Most often models are developed that assume similar programs and structures for different individuals with well-defined loci for individual differences, e.g., perhaps the procedure for deciding whether or not to attribute hostility to another is the same for most individuals, but the database of past experiences on which they base their decision varies.

Every cognitive/information-processing model has an executive program (i.e., operating system) that specifies the overall flow of cognitive processes that are hypothesized, subroutines that represent the detailed operation of specific cognitive processes that are available, and multiple data structures in memory that represent the modeled individual’s cognitions. Some cognitive/ information-processing models may include mechanisms for self-modification of the cognitions through a variety of learning processes.

Connectionist Alternatives

One limitation of cognitive/information processing models is that the relations between the basic information processes and the underlying neurophysiological processes of humans remain obscure. A second related problem is that cognitive/information-processing models most often hypothesize multiple programs that operate sequentially instead of in parallel (probably because until recently the machine languages available to simulate cognitive processes operated sequentially). However, there is significant evidence that many human cognitive processes occur in parallel.

One consequence of these problems has been the emergence of what have come to be called “connectionist” models of cognitive/information processing (Feldman and Ballard 1982). Such models attempt to explain social behaviors using simulated neural networks in which parallel processing is a natural property. The ability of such simulated neural networks to accurately model anything more than the most rudimentary social behaviors remains to be demonstrated. An alternative approach to incorporating parallel processing into cognitive/information-processing models has been to simulate parallel processing with rapid sequential processing. This approach is derived from the empirical finding that it is very difficult to tell if particular information processes in the human brain are operating in parallel or in rapid sequential order (Simon 1969). Information-processing theorists point out that it is important not to confuse “sequential” processing with “linear” models. Nonlinear relations can be modeled quite adequately with sequential information-processing models.

Basic Processes And Data Structures In Cognitive/Information-Processing Theorizing

Cognitive/information-processing models of social behavior have drawn on empirical knowledge about human cognition and human social behavior to define a set of basic processes and data structures that seem to explain different kinds of human social behavior. As mentioned earlier, one can think of any cognitive/ information-processing system as consisting of a memory in which data and programs can be stored and an executive program which distributes resources and has overall control over the system. In controlling social behavior, this cognitive/information-processing system accepts inputs of social stimuli that define a particular social situation. The executive program calls upon appropriate subroutines to process the inputs, search memory for relevant information, and generate potential social behaviors for that situation. If a social behavior passes a final test of appropriateness, then it is performed (Anderson 1983).

Memory Structures

Conceptually, human memory consists of a network of nodes and links that represent encoded propositions. The meaning of each node is defined by its associated links which represent labeled attributes whose values are other nodes. Real-world meaning is ultimately given to the symbolic encodings by the connections of the network nodes to representations of external stimuli – visual, auditory, etc., but more immediate meaning is given by the connections to other symbolic nodes. Elaborative rehearsal of information generates more links to the rest of the network and more firmly encodes information in the network. Elaborative rehearsal goes beyond simple repetition of information and involves consideration of how the new information fits with other knowledge already encoded.

Memories are retrieved by being activated. One can imagine a spread of activation emanating out from one node to connected nodes. A cue, either an external stimulus or an internally activated schema or mood, activates the first node. As each successive node becomes activated, it is said to be retrieved, but the strength of activation diminishes as greater distance separates linked nodes. Clearly multiple links enhance the likelihood of recall although multiple nodes with similar links may produce inaccurate recall due to interference. However, retrieval of information generally is not a blind spreading activation process but rather a more directed heuristic search. Particular branches of the network are followed that appear particularly promising and the activated nodes are tested to see if they meet a criterion for what is being sought. Spreading activation occurs automatically at a subconscious level. Activated nodes can emerge into consciousness but can also exert influence while remaining subconscious. When the activation of a node is increased by an external stimulus or a related thought, we say that the node has been primed. Within this system, there is a conceptually distinct short-term or working memory where information being actively processed resides but from which information decays rapidly. If information is activated long enough in short-term memory, it is likely to be integrated into the unlimited-capacity long-term memory. Thus, attention to social information (i.e., maintaining it in short-term memory) can have a direct effect on the likelihood that it will be encoded in long-term memory.

Within this framework, schema is a term used to refer to any cognitive knowledge structure encoded in memory that represents substantial knowledge about a concept, its attributes, and its relations to other concepts. Each individual’s memory contains “self-schemas,” which are organized knowledge about themselves, “world schemas,” which are organized knowledge about the world, “event schemas” which are organized knowledge about relations between events and behaviors, “belief-schemas,” which are organized sets of beliefs, and so on.

Information-processing theorists have shown that a very few basic information processes operating on such schemas and external inputs can account for very complex behaviors. Among the most basic processes are the generate-and-test process (sometimes denoted TOTE – test, operate, test, execute) which involves retrieving information packets repeatedly from memory until one finds one that passes a logical test. Another is the test and branch operation which involves changing the sequence of processing operations based on a logical test. Still, another is the linking or assignment process which involves connecting two nodes in memory – for example, connecting a node representing an object to an emotion such as anger. Individual differences in the ability to control and sequence these basic operations are common and are often referred to as individual differences in executive functioning. A variety of studies including f-MRI studies have suggested that executive functioning is centered in the prefrontal cortex and may be decremented by damage to the prefrontal cortex.

Retrieving Social Information

The ease with which any kind of information or response can be accessed in the human central nervous system depends on how elaborately it has been encoded. Even simple S-R pairings are more likely to be elicited if there are multiple paths from stimulus to response. As described above, activation of social information in memory can be viewed as spreading activation processes with the spread of activation often being guided by already encoded schemas (heuristic search). For example, if you see someone you know as a librarian walking down the street, your mental search for explanations for what they are doing will be influenced by your schema for librarians.

Such memory search is activated by immediate social cues which provide the input to begin the search, e.g., the librarian in the above example. However, the speed and success of retrieving social information is also influenced by recent stimuli that may have activated relevant schemas in memory, making them more accessible. As mentioned above, this process is known as priming. For example, you may be more likely to recognize the librarian on the street if you have just previously walked by the library and had the library schema activated. Emotions and moods, such as anger or depression, also serve as cues that activate related schemas or scripts.

The activation of a particular schema or node in memory has automatic effects on social inference and behavior, but another process called filtering may limit the effect of any activated information. Filtering is the testing process through which the executive routine decides if the activated information is the information sought or whether the search should continue. This is an example of the basic generate-and-test information-processing operation described above. Filters may be simple tests of accuracy for the information or they may be tests of appropriateness of the scripts or behaviors activated. The cognitive schemas that guide specific filtering for social behavior have been denoted as self-regulating internal standards by Bandura (1986) or normative beliefs by Huesmann and Guerra (1997).

Automatic And Controlled Cognitive Processing

Studies of cognitive processing have revealed that at least two different modes of processing exist with quite different speeds and demands on conscious resources (Schneider and Shiffrin 1977). Automatic processes occur very rapidly, without using many cognitive resources, and without any conscious executive decisions being made about the process. Reading is one example. Many social-perception processes are automatic including “schema-triggered affect” (Fiske and Taylor 1984), memory priming effects, and spontaneous trait inferences (Bargh 1982). Controlled processes occur more slowly, require more cognitive resources, and demand conscious executive control. Conscious planning of how to deal with a social situation would be one example. The boundaries are sometimes fuzzy, and many controlled processes may become automatic either as part of a child’s development or with repeated practice or rehearsal. For example, in a novel social situation, a person may engage in a controlled search for scripts that could be used in that situation. But highly familiar situations quite probably automatically trigger scripts that fit the situation.

Stress, Mood, Arousal, And Information Processing

The level of arousal that the human information processor is experiencing seems to change information processing in a number of ways. As arousal levels become higher than normal, attention seems to be directed more narrowly at a few cues that seem to be the most salient. Very high levels of arousal seem to decrease working memory capacity, narrow memory search, make activation of weakly associated schemas less likely, and make the activation of the best connected schemas and scripts most likely. For simple tasks, this restriction can produce enhanced performance which may provide an evolutionary explanation for the phenomenon; however, for complex tasks requiring extensive heuristic search for solutions, performance will worsen. Of course, stress is one of the most common causes of high arousal. As a result, in stressful social situations, one can expect that a person will focus on what seem to be only the most salient social cues, activate only the schemas and scripts that are most closely connected to those cues, and generate a narrow range of behaviors. Thus, when stress is coupled with emotions like fear or anger and coupled with situational cues linked to aggressive scripts, only violent schemas are likely to be activated. For example, a young male whose life is being threatened by another young male with a gun may find it very difficult to attend to any other cues in the environment besides the gun, or to retrieve any other scripts than simple scripts for fighting or fleeing.

The Cognitive/Information-Processing Theory Of Aggressive And Criminal Behavior

The accumulated knowledge about human cognitive/information processing and social cognition as outlined above provides important insights into the processes involved in many social behaviors including crime. But it is important to realize that social cognition is NOT a cause of aggressive or criminal behavior. Social cognition is a mediating process that connects external situations, internal schemas, and social behavior in predictable ways. More generally, the existing research suggests that habitual aggressive and antisocial behavior is a product of innate predisposing cognitive and emotional factors, interacting with exposure to an aggression-promoting social environment that encourages the development of social cognitions promoting aggression, interacting with situationally specific precipitating factors. From a social cognitive/ information-processing perspective, the variety of predisposing factors discussed above may make the emergence of certain specific cognitive routines, scripts, and schemas more likely, but these cognitions develop through interactions of the child with the environment and are designed to respond to different environmental situations. In early childhood, these cognitions promote aggressive behavior below the delinquent and criminal level and later promote criminal and violent behavior. Consequently, child aggression predicts adult criminality (Huesmann et al. 2002).

Slightly different cognitive/information-processing explanations for the occurrence of antisocial behavior have been formulated by Huesmann and colleagues (Huesmann 1982, 1998; Huesmann and Eron 1984; Huesmann and Guerra 1997), by Dodge and his colleagues (1993; Crick and Dodge 1994), and by Anderson and colleagues(Anderson and Bushman 2002). However, while they have had different emphases, all draw on Bandura’s (1986) social/cognitive theorizing emphasizing self-regulating internal cognitions and draw on Berkowitz’s (1990) neo-associationist ideas. Furthermore, all agree that there is a common set or core social cognitions and information-processing operations that explain how certain predisposing factors, socializing environments, and precipitating stimuli lead to aggressive and antisocial behavior. Here, one overall summary model is presented that combines the common cognitive/ information-processing elements that have been theorized to explain aggressive and criminal behavior.

This model incorporates the premise that social behavior is controlled to a great extent by cognitive scripts (Abelson 1981) that are stored in a person’s memory and are used as guides for behavior and social problem solving. As described above, a script incorporates both procedural and declarative knowledge and suggests what events are to happen in the environment, how the person should behave in response to these events, and what the likely outcome of those behaviors would be. It is presumed that while scripts are first being established, they influence the child’s behavior through “controlled” mental processes (Schneider and Shiffrin 1977), but these processes become “automatic” as the child matures. Scripts that persist in a child’s repertoire become increasingly more resistant to modification and change as they are rehearsed, enacted, and generate consequences. More aggressive and criminal individuals are presumed by this theory to have encoded a much higher proportion of social scripts utilizing aggressive and criminal actions.

World schemas stored in a person’s memory are the second kind of cognitive schema that plays an important role. World schemas are the database that individuals use to make attributions about others’ behaviors. Individuals with schemas representing the world as a more hostile place are more likely to attribute hostility to the behaviors of others and to behave more aggressively. Normative beliefs are the third kind of cognitive schema hypothesized to play a central role in regulating aggressive behavior.

Normative beliefs are cognitions about the appropriateness of social behaviors. They are related to perceived social norms but are different in that they concern what is “right for you.” Normative beliefs are part of one’s self-schema and serve as part of the database used to filter potential scripts that are retrieved from memory. A social script that suggests an aggressive behavior may not be employed if it violates the individual’s normative beliefs.

Cognitive/Information Processing Proximal To A Social Behavior

These internalized cognitive schemas are utilized in a specified sequence of information-processing steps at the moment a social problem is encountered to determine how the individual responds. First, individuals attend to some of the environmental cues and evaluate the cues to which they attend on the basis of their world schemas and their own internalized emotional states. Then they retrieve social scripts that might seem to fit the situation and with a heuristically guided generate-and-test process. Each retrieved script is then evaluated not only on the basis of its projected objective outcome but also on the basis of its consistency with the individual’s normative beliefs. Thus, at the moment when a social problem is encountered, there are three main processing loci at which individual differences in internalized cognitions and environmental stimuli can influence behavior: (1) cue attention and evaluation, (2) script retrieval, and (3) script evaluation and selection.

Cue Attention and Evaluation. The objective situation for any social problem is defined by the social problem and the environmental cues. However, which cues are given most attention and the interpretation of those cues may vary from person to person and may depend on a person’s neurophysiological predispositions, current emotional state, and previous learning history as reflected in their activated world schema. Because emotional states may persist for some time, a person may enter a social interaction in an emotional state that is unrelated to the current situational cues. For example, a person exposed repeatedly to frustrating situations, who attributes the goal-blocking to the actions of others, may enter a social interaction in an aroused state with hostile feelings toward everyone. Independent of one’s current emotional state, environmental stimuli cue the retrieval from memory of emotions and cognitions that have been associated with that cue in the past. For example, the “sight of an enemy” or the “smell of a battlefield” may provoke both instantaneous physiological arousal and the recall of thoughts about the “enemy” that give meaning to the aroused state as anger. That emotional state may influence both which additional cues the person attends to and how the person interprets the cues to which he or she does attend. A highly aroused, angry person may focus on just a few highly salient cues and ignore others that convey equally important information about the social situation. Then the angry person’s evaluation of these cues may be biased toward perceiving hostility when none is present. A person who finds hostile cues the most salient or who interprets ambiguous cues as hostile will be more likely to experience anger and activate schemas and scripts related to aggression.

Script activation and retrieval. It is presumed that more aggressive and antisocial individuals have encoded in memory more extensive, well-connected networks of social scripts emphasizing aggressive and antisocial problem solving. Therefore, such a script is more likely to be retrieved during any search. However, the search for a script is also strongly affected by one’s interpretation of the social cues, one’s activated schemas, and one’s mood state and arousal. For example, anger, even in the absence of supporting cues, will make the retrieval of scripts previously associated with anger more likely; the presence of a weapon, even in the absence of anger, will make the retrieval of scripts associated with weapons more likely; and the perception that another person has hostile intentions will activate scripts related to hostility.

Evaluation of scripts and script selection. The third locus for the expression of individual differences and situational variation occurs after a script is activated. Before acting out the script, one evaluates the script in light of internalized activated schemas and normative beliefs to determine if the suggested behaviors are socially appropriate and possible to do and if the expected outcome is likely to be desirable. People with different normative beliefs may thus evaluate the appropriateness of a script quite differently, and the same person may evaluate the same script differently at different times.

On the average, however, the habitually aggressive are expected to hold normative beliefs condoning more aggression and thus will employ more aggressive scripts. For example, if a man suddenly discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he may experience rage and access a script for physical retribution. However, whether or not the man executes that script will depend on his normative beliefs about the appropriateness of “hitting a female.” More general normative beliefs may also be relevant. The man who believes in “an eye for an eye” and perceives himself as “an avenger” is more likely to retrieve a script emphasizing aggressive retaliation. Even within the same person, different normative beliefs may be activated in different situations and different mood states. The person who has just been to church may have activated quite different normative beliefs than the person who has just watched a fight in a hockey game on TV.

Scripts predict likely outcomes, but people also differ in their capacities to think about the future, in their concern with the future, and in their evaluation of the desirability of an outcome. The more a person focuses on immediate consequences and the less the person is concerned with the future, the more palatable a self-centered solution to a social problem may seem. For example, if the man above who hit his spouse was concerned about what his in-laws will think of him if they hear about it in a few days, he might not have hit her. Of course, people may also misperceive the likely consequences of aggressive acts simply because their scripts are inaccurate in predicting consequences for the current situation. Additionally, people differ in their evaluations of the desirability of an outcome. For some people, the respect of their peers may be the most important evaluative dimension for an outcome from a social conflict while for others, simply ending the conflict may be most important. For other people, the thought of violence may be so anxiety provoking that aggressive scripts are filtered out. However, as described later, those who have been exposed to violence repeatedly and have become emotionally desensitized to violence experience little negative affect when evaluating aggressive scripts and, thus, are more likely to use them.

Emotional arousal, schema activation, script generation, and evaluation. Cognitive/ information-processing models of social behavior are sometimes thought of as “cold” models with little room for affect. However, the unified cognitive/information-processing model for aggression described here hypothesizes a key role for emotion at each stage of cognitive/information processing. Both an individual’s absolute arousal level and the valence of the arousal affect aggressiveness at each stage. Existing negative affect interpreted as anger will bias cue interpretation toward hostility, will prime the retrieval of aggressive scripts, and will cue normative beliefs more supporting of aggression. As described earlier, in high states of arousal, individuals search less widely and deeply for scripts and retrieve the best connected scripts; so aggressive behavior becomes even more likely in highly arousing situations for persons with predominately aggressive scripts. For the individual with a large well-earned repertoire of simple, direct aggressive scripts for solving social problems and a smaller less-well-learned repertoire of complex, indirect scripts for prosocial solutions, the arousal associated with anger will make the selection of an aggressive script even more likely than priming from the anger would by itself. Furthermore, one can expect similar effects for script evaluation. A person in a highly aroused state of rage because of a provocation will evaluate scripts less carefully and focus on retaliation beliefs in evaluating scripts because his/her rage has primed such normative beliefs.

Cognitive/Information Processing For Acquiring And Maintaining Aggressive Scripts And Schemas

According to social cognitive/information-processing theory, a habitually aggressive or criminal person is presumed to be someone who regularly retrieves and employs aggressive or criminal scripts for social behavior. The theory allows a number of factors that might promote the retrieval and utilization of aggressive and criminal scripts. It may be, for example, that the cues present in the environment trigger the recall only of aggressive scripts. However, the regular retrieval and use of aggressive scripts would suggest above all that a large number of aggressive scripts have been stored in memory. Similarly, the regular execution of such scripts would suggest that normative beliefs and other schemas supporting aggression have been acquired and encoded. How does this happen?

While a variety of preexisting neurophysiological factors can predispose individuals toward particular modes of cognitive processing or toward particular schemas and scripts, cognitive/information-processing theory asserts that the child’s early learning experiences play a critical role in the acquisition of scripts and schemas for social behavior just as early learning plays the key role in the acquisition of procedural and declarative knowledge relevant to intellectual life. Evolutionary forces and random variation create communalities and individual differences in the biological mechanisms underlying cognition and behavior. These individual differences in biology interact with individual differences in environment to mold the schema encoded in memory into those that promote nonaggressive prosocial behavior or those that promote aggressive antisocial behavior. Both enactive learning processes (i.e., conditioning, elaborative rehearsal) and observational learning processes (i.e., imitation, desensitization) are involved in the encoding of these social cognitive schema.

As Huesmann and Kirwil (2007) have described, social scripts, world schemas, and normative beliefs are all initially acquired through imitation and inference (observational learning). Imitation is an innate process in humans. It is established that human infants begin mimicking behavior when they are only a few months old but advance in early childhood to imitating entire scripts and inferring world schemas and normative beliefs from what they see others doing. Imitation is not a low level cognitive process but rather a complex high level process in which the scripts, schemas, and beliefs detected to be held by others are encoded into one’s own memory.

During the observational learning process, the person’s current emotional state and current memory contents influence which existing schemas are activated. The activated schemas in turn influence how well the observed schemas can be encoded and integrated into memory. If the activated schemas are discrepant with the observed schemas, encoding is difficult; if they are consistent, it is easier. When highly aroused and angry, for example, persons may view a physically aggressive or antisocial script as more appropriate than they would otherwise. A young boy who can only recall seeing aggressive behaviors is more likely to encode a newly observed aggressive behavior than is a boy whose mind is filled with memories of prosocial solutions. A child with normative beliefs accepting of aggression is much more likely to encode new aggressive scripts for behavior. Consequently, violent and criminal behaviors become contagious. Violent and criminal behaviors tend to beget other violent and criminal behaviors in those who observe them.

Once it is encoded, the accessibility of a script in memory is influenced by the extent to which its use produces desired consequences, i.e., by instrumental learning. One might think that, because aggressive or criminal behavior very often produces negative consequences for the aggressor, the retrieval of aggressive scripts would extinguish. However, instrumental learning depends as much on how the individual interprets society’s response to the behavior as it does on the response. As described above, very often, because of the schemas activated, the aggressor does not attribute the negative reaction of society to the specific script that the aggressor employed, and no learning takes place. The boy who is harshly punished by a teacher for pushing another child out of line will not unlearn the behavior if he interprets the cause of his punishment as dislike by the teacher.

As with all learned information, for a script or schema or normative belief to stay highly accessible, it needs to be rehearsed from time to time. The rehearsal may take several different forms, from simple recall of the original scene, to fantasizing about it, to play acting. The more elaborative, ruminative type of rehearsal characteristic of children’s fantasizing is likely to generate greater connectedness for the script, thereby increasing its accessibility in memory. Also, through such elaborative rehearsal, the child may abstract higher-order scripts representing more general strategies for behavior than the ones initially stored. Of course, rehearsal also provides another opportunity for reevaluation of any script. It may be that some scripts initially accepted as appropriate (under specific emotional and memory states) may be judged as inappropriate during rehearsal.

Empirical Data On Cognitive/ Information Processing And Aggression

Empirical Data On Cue Attention And Evaluation

Extensive research shows that more aggressive individuals tend to perceive hostility in others where there is no hostility, i.e., display a hostile attributional bias (Dodge 1993). Longitudinal analyses have suggested that a propensity toward hostile attributional bias mediates the relation between early childhood aggression and later antisocial behavior. Furthermore, recent experiments with random assignment of subjects have shown that improving the accuracy of intent attributions decreases the likelihood of aggressive behavior in children.

Empirical Data On Script And Schema Acquisition And Activation

While it has been methodologically more difficult to assess the kinds of scripts that individuals have encoded, one can assess the kinds of scripts they are most likely to retrieve and make inferences from those data. The available evidence suggests that, in fact, the more accessible scripts for more aggressive children are more aggressive. The scripts retrieved by more aggressive children to solve hypothetical problems tend to incorporate more physical aggression and manipulation actions. Priming by negative intent cues is more likely to activate an aggressive script in aggressive children. Aggressive children are less likely to generate more subtle prosocial scripts to solve social problems and there is some evidence that, as hypothesized, a narrower search process for a script is associated with more aggressive behavior.

There is also extensive evidence that the observation of aggressive or criminal scripts in real life or in the mass visual media leads to the encoding of such scripts. Children growing up observing violence around them in their neighborhood behave more violently (Guerra et al. 2003) and those observing such violence frequently in the mass media behave more criminally even 15 or 22 years later (Huesmann et al. 2003; Huesmann and Eron 1992). Numerous laboratory and field experiments and everyday observations of “copycat” crimes have demonstrated the encoding of specific scripts from observations of violence and crime. It is also clear that new aggressive scripts are abstracted out of the elements of specific scripts being observed. Thus, the aggressive scripts that children display after being exposed to violent scenes are not exactly the same as the scripts observed. As cognitive/information-processing theory predicted, rehearsal of antisocial scripts through fantasizing about them has also been shown to increase their accessibility and likelihood of use (Huesmann and Eron 1984, 1992).

There is also significant empirical support for the premise that even quite different specific aggressive scripts and schemas are linked together in one’s memory network by a common “hostility” node and thus can be primed by other aggressive ideas or cues, even if they have no substantive connection. For example, Berkowitz and LePage (1967) showed that even the brief sight of a “gun” increases the likelihood that a provoked person will behave more aggressively in ways that have nothing to do with guns.

Empirical Data On Evaluation Of Scripts

Once a script has been activated, it still may not be employed if it is evaluated negatively. The behaviors involved may be evaluated as inappropriate when filtered through an individual’s normative beliefs about aggressive and antisocial or criminal behavior. Its expected outcome may be evaluated as undesirable when environmental responses are considered; or it may be evaluated as undoable when filtered through conceptions of self-efficacy. A variety of studies have shown such filtering effects. Huesmann and Guerra (1997) showed that normative beliefs that aggression is unacceptable reduce the likelihood of a youth behaving aggressively as does a priming of self-schemas that the person is nonaggressive. On the other hand, Baumeister and colleagues have demonstrated that a self-schema that includes an extremely positive evaluation of oneself (a narcissistic evaluation) promotes the selection of aggressive scripts when a person threatens that self-evaluation. Not only are self-schemas relevant to script evaluation, schemas about others are relevant too. For example, schemas about others which promote deindividuation allow the utilization of aggressive scripts which might otherwise be unacceptable.

The evaluation process for a generated script also includes an assessment of outcome “desirability.” In fact, there is accumulating evidence that more aggressive children tend to believe that aggressive behavior will have more desirable outcomes, and prosocial behavior will have less favorable outcomes (Crick and Dodge 1994). Desirability also appears to be evaluated in terms of how the anticipated behavior and outcome “feel” to the person. If thinking about behaving criminally or violently makes one feel bad, one is less likely to behave that way. Repeated exposure to others behaving violently or criminally emotionally desensitizes people so they do not feel so bad when they think about it (Huesmann and Kirwil 2007). Thus, it becomes easier for them to behave criminally or violently.

The above studies have shown that aggressive youth differ from other youth in the beliefs and schemas they use to evaluate the appropriateness and effectiveness of potential scripts. However, there is also evidence that some youth are more aggressive because they do not devote much cognitive effort to this filtering step. For example, empirical data suggest that certain children, e.g., ADHD children, are neurophysiologically predisposed toward minimizing this evaluation step. The result is what many observers would call impulsive behavior (Kendall and Braswell 1985). If the first scripts activated are aggressive or criminal scripts, the result is aggressive or ciminal behavior even if the child “knows” upon reflection that the behavior was inappropriate.

Empirical Data On Gender Differences In Aggression And Crime

Males are much more likely to behave physically aggressively and much more likely to commit crimes. Some of these differences can be explained by differences in encoded cognitive schemas and differences in social cognitive development (Bennett et al. 2006). While many people hold normative beliefs that aggression by males is appropriate in some situations, that is not so true for females. Additionally, females acquire social cognitive skills earlier in life than males and consequently have better elaborated prosocial scripts for social problem solving. Such scripts may also work better for females because of females’ superior (on average) verbal ability. Finally, differential socialization by society which disapproves of aggression in females leads to lower accessibility of aggressive scripts for females.


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