The signal detection theory has evolutionary foundations such that our ancestors who were able to detect signals of aggression survived, while those who could not were extinguished. The paper examines the detection of conflict escalation signals in a domestic argument in a married couple as a consequence of history with prior victimization and perpetration of violence. The purpose of this paper is threefold: escalation detection differences between a trained special victim’s detective and untrained individuals; escalation detection for individuals with domestic violence victimization; and physiological arousal during escalation detection.
Subjects with various histories of victimization and perpetration using the Straus conflict tactics scale watched a video of an argument that escalated in conflict while their heart rate and electrodermal activity (EDA) was measured. Participants were asked to pause the tape and write any verbal and non-verbal signal of escalating conflict. The signal coding used deductive, a prioi coding based on Gottman’s (1994, 2011) corrosive behaviors indicative of conflict. A repeated measures general linear model in sex and conflict initiation using two measures of physiological arousal revealed significant effects on EDA while watching escalating conflict as a function of victimization history.
A series of hypotheses and research questions tested untrained people’s signal detection abilities with a trained, special victim’s unit police investigator as a consequence of male and female-initiated conflict. Untrained viewers reported fewer aggression signals than the police investigator. A repeated measures general linear model using two measures of physiological arousal revealed significant effects on EDA while watching escalating conflict as a function of victimization history. Results are discussed in terms of the signal detection and excitation-transfer theories toward explaining responses to escalating conflict.
A limitation of this study was asking participants to document all abuse while not differentiating between different forms (i.e. emotional, verbal, physical). A future study could investigate how well participants can detect different forms of abuse. This area of research could be beneficial especially in the form of past history. For example, if an individual has been a recipient of emotional abuse, do they detect significantly more signals of emotional abuse than they would for physical abuse?
The findings of our study have could practical publications for advising people who cope with conflict as they vary in their use of negotiation and physical force. The fact that physiological arousal was heightened after exposure to the conflict escalation video as a function of victimization due to physical force has ramifications for watching media with violent content. Therapists could ask survivors if they feel based on their experience, that they could help others to recognize aggressive signals or if they are immune to these signals, given the debate over victim desensitization vs heightened sensitivity.
The authors feel it is imperative to note that our current study was designed to gain a deeper understanding of domestic violence in order to ultimately benefit victims in the recovery process and to (ideally) prevent recurrence of domestic violence in the future. This research is not intended to implicate victims in anyway as being responsible for the consequences of domestic violence due to an inability to detect signals of aggression. Indeed, future research should examine how to skillfully advise domestic violence victims while protecting their already vulnerable self-images.
Every day, people are exposed to violence through social media, news, movies and television. Hence, we may become either sensitized to violence or desensitized. These are competing hypotheses that we tested in conjunction with physiological arousal. It is important to analyze reactions to viewing violence due to the sheer amount that is readily disseminated.
Honeycutt, J.M., Frost, J.K. and Krawietz, C.E. (2019), "Applying signal detection theory to conflict escalation as a consequence of victimization with physiological arousal covariates", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 200-212. https://doi.org/10.1108/JACPR-10-2018-0386
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