According to a recent study led by Andrew Edward White of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, the more people experience unkind and threatening behavior, the nicer they are to those around them. This is in direct contrast to the belief that being the victim of violence and aggression leads to violent or aggressive behavior. Research in this area has shown that individuals exposed to threatening situations react differently to different people. For instance, some people tend to become withdrawn when they experience violence or threats. Others respond with anger and aggression.
To better understand the nature of this relationship both broadly and intimately, White and his colleagues assessed the effect of violent threats on three separate levels: situational, individual, and national. The participants were exposed to scenarios that involved increasing levels of threat relating to each dynamic. Accordingly, their levels of trust, helpfulness, and agreeableness were measured. White found that as the threats of violence increased on national, individual, and situational levels, the rates of agreeableness increased. However, in most instances, this agreeableness was only exhibited to members of the group. For instance, when individual threats increased, participants were more trusting and helpful to those within their group than the control participants were, but were less agreeable to those outside of their group. This was especially true for those participants from large families.
Taken as a whole, the results of these experiments demonstrate the varying ways in which people respond to threatening situations, whether they are violent threats, health threats, or threats relating to national safety and security. One of the reasons the participants were more compliant with group members than nongroup members could be due to the resilient and buffering effects provided by intimate group members compared to the unknown outcome of nonfamiliar group relations. White believes that the results of this study illuminate the multidimensional consequences of violent and threatening behavior. “Although disagreeableness and mistrust may often seem to arise from violence, it is not always the case,” said White. “Sometimes nasty breeds nice.”
White, A. E., Kenrick, D. T., Li, Y. J., Mortensen, C. R., Neuberg, S. L., Cohen, A. B. (2012). When nasty breeds nice: Threats of violence amplify agreeableness at national, individual, and situational levels. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029140
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