Hostile or Benign: Can you tell?

Imagine two people at a restaurant made eye-contact with you, and then started laughing. If you have high levels of the hostile attribution bias, you would interpret their laughter as laughing at you, even if you have no solid evidence to support this belief. The hostile attribution bias is the tendency to interpret others’ behaviors as having a hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.

In 1980, a group of social psychologists noticed that some children would interpret events and actions of their peers as hostile more often than others. These children were the more aggressive and socially rejected children. To test their theory that aggression was linked to the hostile attribution theory, researchers Nasby, Hayden, and DePaulo took a group of aggressive 10-16 year old boys and showed them a series of ambiguous photographs. A subgroup of these boys consistently described the photos as containing aggressive or hostile subject-matter. Another study took a sample of children between third and fifth grade and explained situations in story form that could be either described as intentional or accidental. Students that were “social outcasts” were more likely than their peers to say the actions in the story were intentional rather than accidental. They also found that children who showed early high levels of hostile attribution bias showed higher levels of aggression later in adolescence.

The hostile attribution bias is a result of a deviation from any of the six steps to accurate social information processing:

  1. Accurately encode information in the brain and store it in short term memory by paying attention to specific information from the environment, including both external and internal factors
  2. Accurately give meaning to this encoded information by deciding if a behavior or situation is hostile or benign
  3. Decide a goal for the interaction
  4. Create potential responses
  5. Evaluate these responses and choose the best option
  6. Enact the chosen response

Hostile attribution bias has been particularly linked to step 2, but is linked to deviations in other steps as well, including inaccurate perception/encoding of social situations (step 1) and problems with generating a broad range of potential behavioral responses (step 4). Deficits in these steps can be caused by early child life adversity such as as child abuse, exposure to family violence, detached or removed parents, peer rejection, or exposure to community violence.

But what are the implications of having high levels of the hostile attribution bias at a young age? Traditionally, this bias has been associated with extreme and outward physical aggression, and can be used to predict aggressive adolescent and adult behaviors. This aggression is also often unprovoked, planned, or ‘cold-blooded’. In addition to physical aggression, high levels can also predict relational aggression such as spreading rumors and social exclusion of others.

As adults, compared to low levels, people with high levels of hostile attribution bias are more than 4 times as likely to die by the age of fifty. They also tend to have relationship problems such as increased marital conflict, domestic violence incidents, and harsh parenting styles.

If addressed early enough in development, aggressive behaviors in youth with a high hostile attribution bias can be decreased. The most successful interventions include teaching children to reappraise the situation and consciously make a list of possible reactions. They then are instructed to evaluate what the possible outcomes of each reaction could be. Through practice, this can reduce their hostile attribution bias, but only modestly reduces their aggressive behaviors in adulthood.

Bradbury, T. N., & Fincham, F. D. (1990). Attributions in marriage: review and critique. Psychological Bulletin, 107(1), 3.Sukhodolsky, D. G., Golub, A., Stone, E. C., & Orban, L. (2006). Dismantling anger control training for children: A randomized pilot study of social problem-solving versus social skills training components. Behavior Therapy, 36(1), 15-23.
Crick, N. R., & Dodge, K. A. (1996). Social information‐processing mechanisms in reactive and proactive aggression. Child Development, 67(3), 993-1002.
Dodge, K. A. (1980). Social cognition and children’s aggressive behavior. Child Development, 162-170.
Dodge, K. A. (1986). Social information processing model of social competence in children. In M. Perlmutter (Ed.), The Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology: Vol. 18. Cognitive perspectives on children’s social and behavioral development (pp. 77-125). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Nasby, W., Hayden, B., & DePaulo, B. M. (1980). Attributional bias among aggressive boys to interpret unambiguous social stimuli as displays of hostility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 89(3), 459.
Werner, N. E. (2012). Do hostile attribution biases in children and parents predict relationally aggressive behavior?. The Journal of Genetic Psychology,173(3), 221-245.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s