People with higher levels of aggression and psychopathic traits are more likely to develop strong but imprecise beliefs about hostility, which then influence their behavior. The study, published in Translational Psychiatry, highlights the importance of understanding the cognitive processes underlying hostile expectations and their associations with maladaptive personality traits.
Previous research has shown that distorted beliefs can contribute to the development of disruptive and harmful social behavior. The researchers behind the new study were particularly interested in hostile expectations, which are beliefs that individuals with antisocial behavior have about negative outcomes in social situations that may actually be neutral or ambiguous.
The study aimed to understand how these hostile expectations are acquired and whether they are related to other characteristics of antisocial behavior, such as aggressive tendencies and psychopathic personality traits.
“Research is me-search! People on my mother’s side of the family always had a short temper, and, to a lesser extent, so do I,” said study author Macià Buades-Rotger, a lecturer at the University of Barcelona. “Why do some persons ‘see red?’ How do some individuals come to be mistrustful? Why do certain people consistently expect the worst from others? These issues have always piqued my interest, and I believe the answers hold important clues to understand why some people hurt others.”
Unlike previous research, the new study directly examined participants’ tendencies for aggression by requiring them to provide aggressive or non-aggressive responses. The researchers recruited 256 participants and had them perform computerized tasks designed to measure hostile expectation learning and interpretation biases. The participants also completed questionnaires to assess various aspects of aggression, psychopathy, hostility, risk-taking, and sensitivity to reward and punishment.
In the hostile expectation learning task, participants had to make decisions about whether to shoot or withdraw their weapon based on their expectations of the other person’s actions. Participants were shown a man with his hands behind his back and a policeman in the background. They had to decide whether to shoot or withdraw their weapon based on their expectation of the man drawing a gun or a phone.
Feedback was given after their decision, and incorrect responses resulted in the participant being “shot” either by the man (if he drew a gun) or the policeman (if the man drew a phone).
The probability of the man drawing a gun was manipulated between 0.8 and 0.2, and these probabilities switched after blocks of trials. The task was designed to assess how participants acquired and updated their beliefs about hostile outcomes in social interactions.
In the hostile interpretation bias task, participants were shown faces with different emotional expressions and intensities and had to determine whether the faces appeared hostile or not. This task aimed to measure participants’ biases in perceiving hostility in ambiguous social situations.
As expected, the researchers found that participants were more likely to shoot when the gun probability was high compared to when gun probability was low. There were positive correlations between the percentage of shoot decisions and hostile interpretations of facial expressions. In other words, those who exhibited a greater hostile interpretation bias were more likely to shoot during the expectation learning task.
The researchers also used a statistical method called structural equation modeling to examine how aggressiveness and psychopathic traits were related to performance on the hostile expectation learning task.
The results showed that both aggressiveness and psychopathy were associated with certain learning parameters, such as lower volatility (less variability in beliefs over time), higher mean beliefs (average beliefs about hostility), increased uncertainty, and larger prediction errors (discrepancy between beliefs and actual outcomes).
In other words, aggressive and psychopathic personality traits were associated with stronger and more uncertain hostile beliefs, increased prediction errors, and reduced adaptability to changes in the environment. This suggests that individuals with higher levels of aggression and psychopathy tend to develop solid but imprecise beliefs about hostility that are resistant to change.
The findings provide evidence “that aggressive individuals become hostile very quickly and, once they assume that others want to harm them, they are unlikely to change their mind easily,” Buades-Rotger told PsyPost.
“Because of this, they get surprised when their hostile expectations are violated, even if they are relatively unsure about what is going to happen. These findings may partly explain why some people ‘jump the gun’ in apparently neutral or ambiguous situations. Hopefully these tendencies are something we can target therapeutically, or at least leverage to predict who is at higher risk for violent behavior.”
Although aggressive tendencies and psychopathic traits are often related, they are two distinct concepts. An aggressive person is not necessarily a psychopathic person, and vice versa. Buades-Rotger said he and his colleagues were surprised by “the fact that both people with ‘hot-blooded’ and ‘cold-blooded’ aggressive tendencies showed a very similar pattern of results, as we did not expect the latter to show such a strong ‘hostile mindset.'”
By using computational models and analyzing behavioral data, the study provided insight into how individuals perceive and respond to threats. But the study, like all research, includes some limitations.
Participants were recruited through the Radboud research participation system, consisting mostly of students and former university students. “This was a community-dwelling sample of predominantly educated women, so we should check whether our results generalize to other populations at a higher risk for aggressive behavior,” Buades-Rotger explained.
He also noted that the “results are based on a single timepoint, so it would be relevant to investigate how hostile biases emerge throughout the lifespan.”
The study, “Aggressive and psychopathic traits are linked to the acquisition of stable but imprecise hostile expectations“, was authored by Macià Buades-Rotger, Danique Smeijers, David Gallardo-Pujol, Ulrike M. Krämer, and Inti A. Brazil.