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Celebration of Scholarship and Creative Activity 2023

Understanding the Differential Impact of Anger Inducing Experiences in the Activation of Aggressive Concepts

Jenna Catania

Senior, Psychology


Cognitive neo-association theory explains how the activation of one aggressive concept in working memory makes similar aggressive concepts more readily available. These activated concepts are then used to process social information and aid in decision making. Therefore, it is valuable to develop our understanding of the extent of activation of aggressive concepts under commonly encountered situations. One commonly used tool for examining this activation is the Lexical Decision Task (LDT). During the LDT, participants are presented with a string of letters on a computer screen. Participants are tasked with identifying whether the string forms either a pronounceable pseudoword, or a real word. Reaction times for these identifications are then recorded. Reaction times for identifying real words tend to be faster for those that have been recently activated in memory. For example, angered participants are faster, on average, at identifying aggression related words (e.g., “fight” or “harm”) than non-angered participants. Despite the value of the LDT for studying aggressive concept activation, little research has examined the task’s sensitivity directly.

The current research focused on determining whether aggressive concepts differ in their activation depending on the nature of the anger-eliciting situation. Participants were randomly assigned to be either provoked (harshly critiqued regarding an essay they wrote) or frustrated (asked to complete a deceptively difficult task in a short time). They were then randomly assigned to complete one of two LDT tasks that differed in the aggressive concepts activated. Results indicated several terms differed in their activation between the two situations.

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