Communication-Based Research Related to Threats and Ensuing Behavior
H. Dan O’Hair, Daniel Rex Bernard, and Randy R. Roper
“Those that are the loudest in their threats are the weakest in their actions.”
Charles Caleb Colton (1780–1832)
British clergyman, sportsman, and author
A threatening communication is any message that “implies or explicitly states the potential of harm delivered to targets/victims or agents acting on their behalf” (Smith, 2008b, p. 106). Understandably, risk assessment efforts analyze and evaluate direct threats and the potential for violent behavior they represent. However, research indicates that threat assessment endeavors should not be limited only to communications that contain explicit threats.
Frequently, those who pose legitimate threats do not actually communicate their intentions. According to Fein and Vossekuil (1998), few assassins or attackers send direct threats to their intended targets or to law enforcement, but as many as two-thirds are known to speak or write about their intentions to others. Such violent intentions are disclosed to family, friends, or co-workers or are written about in personal journals. Recent technological trends suggest that such alarming communicative behaviors may also appear online via Internet blogs, message boards, and virtual chat rooms (e.g., Willard, 2007). Therefore, since indirect communications expressing violent intentions often exist, threat assessment efforts should target indirect as well as explicit threatening messages by would-be attackers.
A more inclusive approach would consider multiple communicative activities by the potential perpetrator(s), consistent with previous studies on message strategy analysis. Message-based analyses of the phenomenon, including scaling studies to discern perceived severity and
descriptive approaches to determine the nature of aggressive and threatening messages, have made a major contribution to our understanding of aggressive communications (Kinney, 1994). A message-based approach is also supportive of the emerging trend in risk management that emphasizes the role of communication. In what is simply referred to as the threat assessment approach, “violence is seen as the product of an interaction among the perpetrator, situation, target, and the setting” (Reddy et al., 2001, p. 167). Analyzing multiple interactions and communicative behaviors is expected to provide valuable insight and information concerning the potential for violence.
A number of propositions will guide our work here. These propositions are rooted in communication theory drawn from a discipline framed by a focus on messages, audience, and credibility.1 They are mentioned here only to frame the analysis and will not be explored in detail.
Communication behavior is influenced from both cognitive and affective systems.
Communication behavior can be viewed along a continuum of planned to spontaneous.
Communication behavior is contextually driven.
Communication behavior often involves multiple channels.
The expressed intent of message strategies is not always executed.
Risk/threat management requires collaborative effort among stakeholders.
Risk/threat management is implicated by resource management limitations, first amendment rights, and privacy issues.
The risk/threat management system is multidisciplinary, contested, and challenged with different nomenclatures.
How individuals process and respond to messages varies according to personal psychological and social perspectives shaped by culture, history, experiences, and circumstances—in other words, according to their context (Lewenstein and Brossard, 2006). Because of these demands, communicators must acknowledge, tailor, and execute messages with a number of parameters in mind (O’Hair, 2004; Renn, 2009). Similar to classical rhetorical approaches to message development, the contextual model provides guidance for creating messages relevant to individuals
in specific contexts and groups (Lewenstein, 1992; O’Hair et al., 2010; Wynne, 1995; Ziman, 1992).
Against this backdrop, the areas of communication research that appear most relevant to threatening communications and actions are discussed here. Three areas of communication research that have direct implications for assessing threatening communications and behaviors are addressed. The first area concerns the internal processes of conflict and the behavioral reactions to those internal processes. The second area addresses larger domains of examination, including crisis communication, persuasive communication, and deceptive communication. Next, various modalities and channels that can influence communication and resultant behavior are discussed. Last, future directions for threat assessment are offered.
THE RISE OF CONFLICT
Affect, Cognition, and Emotion in Conflict
Any investigation of human behavior, particularly one that focuses on intense behavioral action, would be remiss if it did not include a discussion of the affective, cognitive, and emotional components that both inform and shape communication and behavior. Although not all threats will be based on conflict, it is likely that some element of conflict is present either when a threat is made or when an individual or a group poses a threat. The body of work pertaining to communication and conflict offers a number of perspectives compatible with threatening communications. Conflict can be described as an expressed struggle between two or more interdependent individuals who perceive incompatible goals (Cahn, 1992). Typically, this struggle becomes more pronouced when the individuals perceive resources to be scarce or when goals are difficult to obtain (Hocker and Wilmot, 1998).
In addition, when individuals have a vested interest in particular goals or attitude objects they may be more likely to experience emotion; consequently, they may also be more likely to engage in conflict. In short, episodes of conflict are typically loaded with negative affect connected to the interruption of goals as well as in response to another person’s communicatory reactions. To better understand how conflict plays a role in threatening communications, it is important to discuss the roots of conflict. In addition, considering that many communicators do not explicitly make threats, investigators may want to examine the manifestation of nonverbal signs of conflict.
Daly et al. (1983) categorized emotions based on their affective valence (e.g., pleasant versus unpleasant), level of arousal (e.g., low versus high
arousal or passive versus active), and level of intensity (e.g., strong versus weak). In addition, each category can vary in intensity. For example, depression can be considered more intense than sadness; rage can be considered more intense than annoyance. Emotional intensity has been positively associated with increases in physiological changes (Guerrero and La Valley, 2006). Interestingly, a cross-cultural study conducted by Scherer and Wallbott (1994) found the physiological profiles of joy, fear, anger, sadness, shame, and guilt to be similar across 37 different countries. For example, sadness was associated with muscle tension and the feeling of a lump in the throat, whereas joy was associated with an accelerated heartbeat and an increase in temperature. Thus, individuals engaged in conflict are likely to experience physiological changes to the extent that they are emotively aroused. In fact, some level of emotional intensity is needed for interpersonal conflicts because emotional intensity is a motivational factor for engaging in conflict in the first place (Jones, 2000). Indeed, the greater the emotional intensity the more likely an individual may be to engage in conflict with a partner.
The notion that individuals will experience physiological changes when emotively aroused has driven much of the research related to credibility assessment, deception detection, and the interface of technology to identify and demarcate patterns of human communication. Gottman (1994) found that during conflict high emotional intensity is associated with strong levels of physiological changes, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. Although some individuals may not overtly express threats, individuals who think they are in conflict with a particular person, policy, or agency may show nonverbal signals of conflict-related emotions. Assessments of threatening communications might find research in conflict communication helpful in examining the effects of emotional arousal on threatening communications and ensuing behavior. More specifically, studies might ask what resources are available to ascertain an individual’s affective state. Can these tools or techniques be used on large groups or in a very short amount of time? Do current techniques aimed at assessing emotional state take into account the contextual and situational conditions that may increase (or decrease) arousal?
Role of Cognition in Emotion
Although some emotional reaction to conflict may be visceral and largely uncontrollable, people have a tendency to recognize how and why they feel a particular way. The appraisal theory of emotion (Lazarus, 1991) argues that individuals evaluate their emotions in order to make sense or justify their emotions and/or behaviors. Although Lazarus suggests that all negative emotions are alike insofar as they stem from personal
goal disruption, and positive emotions stem from goal enhancement or facilitation, appraisals are made at the individual level and are fundamentally evaluative and subjective (Jones, 2000). For example, individuals or groups may have their own understanding or values of what constitutes good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair (Guerrero and La Valley, 2006). Judgments of fairness are often highly emotion laden (Planalp, 2003), and anger arises when individuals believe they are treated unfairly or badly (Canary et al., 1998). When individuals are angry because of a perceived or real injustice, they often feel warranted to become aggressive, vengeful, and even violent. In addition, direct expressions of anger have been evaluated favorably if the acts of anger were justifiable (Sereno et al., 1987). For example, families of victims that have been affected by crime often lash out at the accused party formally and informally. This type of behavior would typically not be enacted or accepted without the notion of justifiable anger.
Last, attributions about the source of a conflict have been found to affect communication. Specifically, Sillars (1980) suggests that individuals may alter their communication during a conflict based on three attributions: the cause of the conflict, the intentions or personality traits of the other individual involved in the conflict, and the stability of the conflict. These attributions influence communication, behaviors, and strategies used during a conflict. In addition, individuals have a tendency to make more positive attributions about their own behavior than the behavior of others (Heider, 1958; Langdridge and Butt, 2004; Sillars et al., 2000). Future research should ask whether statements of attribution (about feelings) influence particular strategies of threatening communications and resultant behavior. The value-laden secondary attribution associated with fairness may be a particularly rich area of inquiry. If we can better understand the extent to which individuals associate fairness with both personally and mass-communicated events, the better able we may be to predict particular behaviors and threats associated with judgments of (un)fairness.
Behavioral Reactions to the Elicitation of Emotion
Despite the fact that the link between emotion and behavior has been well studied (cf. Ekman and Davidson, 1994; Lewis and Haviland-Jones, 2000), there remains very little consensus on the exact role emotion plays in specific behaviors. Appraisal theories (Frijda, 1987; Lazarus, 1991) suggest that there are particular action tendencies associated with emotions. Action tendencies are biologically driven coping responses to emotion. Thus, appraisal theory accounts for individual variances of emotional response to the same emotion-eliciting event. Lazarus (1991) offers three
characteristics that typically underlie emotion: affect (positive or negative valence), level and type of physiological arousal alteration, and core theme of the emotion-eliciting event. Different emotions are associated with different types of appraisals and action tendencies. For example, the action tendency for anger is to attack, whereas the action tendency for fear is to avoid or move away from harm.
Although these action tendencies are biologically rooted, to a large degree culture may marshal or attenuate affective responses through display rules. For example, a typical action tendency toward anger may be to lash out; however, display rules govern the socially acceptable or socially desired way to display anger. For example, although an employee may become frustrated and angry at work, it is in the employee’s best interest to avoid emotional outbursts of anger. Ekman (1978) and Ekman and Friesen (1975) have posited five ways in which individuals manage emotional expression: intensify, deintensify, simulate, inhibit, and mask. Intensification of emotions occurs when individuals act as if they feel more emotion than they actually do. Deintensification of emotion occurs when individuals act as if they feel less emotion than they actually do. Simulation of emotion occurs when individuals act as if they feel an emotion they do not actually feel. Inhibition of emotion occurs when individuals act as if they do not feel an emotion they actually feel. Last, masking of emotion occurs when individuals act as if they feel an emotion that is very different from the emotion actually felt.
These display rules may be used regularly, even to the extent that they are ingratiated beyond active cognition at times. However, during conflict, individuals may find it more difficult to regulate their own emotions (Gottman, 1994). Thus, despite the fact that display rules and socially accepted ways of displaying particular emotions often regulate behavior, when individuals are or believe they are in conflict with a person, an organization, a policy, or a law, for example, they may have less control over how they ultimately display their emotions. Although the idea that individuals who become so overwhelmed with an emotion have a tendency to display that emotion may not be novel, there is not necessarily a correlation between displaying an emotion (e.g., anger) and enacting threatening or violent behavior. In fact, it might be argued that displaying the overwhelming emotion may serve a cathartic purpose for a highly emotive person.
The goal of this section is to further the argument that individuals under affective and emotional distress are likely to communicate this affective and emotional arousal simply because humans are unable to conceal emotional arousal at a physiological level. Future research should assess the specific types of inappropriate or violent behavior most easily predicted from conflict-driven emotions. Although anger may seem to
be a natural target of investigations into behavioral outbursts, research into mixed-emotion states may produce a better understanding of the (ir)rational emotion associated with inappropriate behavior. For example, jealousy is a combination of anger and sadness. Individuals who are jealous of nonexistent relationships may lash out at the target of that unrequited relationship or may turn to depressed and self-injurious behaviors. Another example of a mixed emotion is frustration; individuals who are frustrated are likely to produce nonverbal and verbal displays of their emotional arousal. Understanding how stimulus is processed during highly affective states is essential for extrapolating the connection between stimulus, cognitive and emotional appraisals, and future behavior.
Considering the role conflict plays in the elicitation of emotion and the role emotion may play in threatening and violent behavior, we now turn to emotions often associated with conflict. There are several different emotions associated with conflict as well as different activation levels, intensities, and affective valence. The most common emotions relevant to conflict are anger, jealousy, and hurt. Although there are other emotions associated with conflict (e.g., contempt, disgust), this discussion is limited to the most common responses.
Anger is the first emotion recognized as being associated with conflict. Rage, irritation, exasperation, disgust, and contempt are specific types of emotions associated with anger (Shaver et al., 1987). Angry individuals typically experience accelerated heart rate, tense or tightening muscles, rapid breathing patterns, and a flushed feeling (Scherer and Wallbott, 1994). The greater the intensity of anger the more likely the individual is to become emotionally flooded and have difficultly staying calm and rational (Gottman, 1994). As discussed earlier, one of the major causes of anger can stem from the interruption of one’s goals or sense of self-identity.
Canary and colleagues (1998) identified seven possible causes of anger: identity management, aggression, frustration, fairness, incompetence, relationship threat, and predispositions. Anger is a common response when individuals feel as if their identity, public image, or face is being threatened.
Anger is also a common response to aggression, or when an individual is threatened or is actually physically harmed. Frustrating situations
include having one’s plans interrupted, having an expectation violated negatively, feeling powerless, or experiencing perceptions of injustice. In fact, feelings of unfairness or inequity can cause extreme anger and lead to emotional flooding (Gottman, 1994). In addition, some individuals have a predisposition toward anger, caused by a personality trait, substance abuse, or chemical imbalance.
Anger is typically communicated through the action tendency of attack (Lazarus, 1991). These behaviors may include verbal attacks (discussed later), physical attacks, and nonverbal disapproval (Shaver et al., 1987). However, not all instances of anger result in aggression (Canary et al., 1998). Future research could assess several aspects of anger: How might secondary appraisal processing and the development of coping strategies be implemented to “at-risk” individuals? Could preventative or responsive persuasive messages aimed at disseminating and/or teaching coping strategies be developed?
Jealousy can provide an impetus for threatening behavior. Jealousy can be defined as emotion based on the perceived threat of a relationship by a third party (White and Mullen, 1989). Jealousy can begin as an increase in arousal (Pines and Aronson, 1983) that is typically accompanied by increased heart rate and a feeling of being flushed. Anger and fear are usually central to the emotion of jealousy as well as sadness, guilt, sexual arousal, envy, and love (Guerrero et al., 2005). Jealousy can be communicated in several ways. Guerrero and Andersen (1998) identify several communicative responses to jealousy, including distributive communication (i.e., aggressive and direct forms of communication), active distancing (i.e., aggressive and indirect forms of communication), counterjealousy inductions (i.e., attempts to make another person jealous on purpose), violence toward a partner (e.g., hitting, pushing, grabbing), and violence toward objects (e.g., punching a wall, breaking a vase, tearing a photograph). In addition, jealousy has been associated with conflict styles, such as aggression and completion (Buunk, 1991), and it has been positivity correlated to aggression and violence (Simonelli and Ingram, 1998). Although aggression and violence may be responses to jealousy, nonviolent aggression is also a response to jealous emotions. Often the conflict style and the approach that an individual takes when (not) communicating are as varied as the intensity of the emotion itself.
Emotional hurt can best be described as feeling psychologically injured by another person (Vangelisti and Sprague, 1998). Other entities may be able to elicit emotional hurt, too. If the emotion of hurt is triggered by another person’s actions, then hurt is fundamentally an interpersonal emotion. However, individuals can experience hurt even if they only perceive to have a relationship with another individual. For example, individuals who obsess, stalk, or only perceive themselves as having a relationship with a particular individual are perfectly capable of feeling emotional hurt. Other emotions that accompany hurt include agony, anger, sadness, and suffering. Although there is no definitive research that has isolated the physiological changes that are brought on by hurt, it is likely that hurt individuals experience anger and sadness. Physiological changes associated with sadness include muscle tension, crying, quietness, and a lump in the throat (Scherer and Wallbott, 1994). Hurtful messages that attack one’s personal or relational identity are typical causes of emotional hurt (Vangelisti, 1994). Relational identity can best be described as the values, beliefs, rules, and processes involved in relational maintenance (Wood, 2000). For example, calling someone an idiot is clearly attacking their personal identity; whereas calling someone a horrible mother attacks the personal identity as well as the relational identity because there is a relational expectation for what merits a good mother. Another example would be if an individual found out that a close friend had stolen his or her property; because the theft would violate a relational rule about what it means to be close friends, the individual that had their property stolen would likely experience emotional hurt.
Investigations aimed at understanding threatening and violent communications may want to focus on the emotional hurt an individual is experiencing as well as the emotional hurt that person is trying to inflict by way of threatening messages and communications with potential targets. Vangelisti has identified nine types of hurtful messages: accusations (e.g., statements about one’s faults), evaluations (e.g., statements about one’s value or worth, often in a negative way), advice (e.g., suggesting a course of action that threatens one’s sense of self), expressed desires (e.g., statements about plans that may not include another individual), informative statements (e.g., statements that disclose unflattering facts about another), threats (e.g., to demonstrate an intent to cause harm or injury to another), lies (e.g., statements that obfuscate the truth and may jeopardize a sense of trust), and jokes (e.g., making fun of or teasing someone). Hurtful messages could be caused by or be a consequence of conflict. For example, Infante (1987) suggests that argumentativeness or verbal aggressiveness may be the result of an inability by one party to articulate their point of view or to successfully argue and defend their position.
There are typically three types (Vangelisti and Crumley, 1998) of responses to hurtful messages: active verbal responses (e.g., verbally attacking another person, using sarcasm, asking for an explanation), acquiescence (e.g., crying, conceding, apologizing), and invulnerable responses (e.g., ignoring the hurtful message, laughing at the message, becoming quiet). Thus, when an agency or organization reaches out to a particular individual, it may inadvertently generate a hurtful message. Organizations charged with the task of examining threatening communications may want to also focus on the types of messages they compose, with an emphasis on avoiding hurtful ones. Future research should examine which behaviors are most consistent with threatening communications when motivated by jealousy and hurt feelings. Research that examines the information individuals perceive to be communicated from the target of their fixation would be helpful in determining emotional attachments related to jealousy and hurt feelings.
Additional Areas for Future Research
Much of the research presented in this section approaches emotions and conflict from a rational and linear perspective. Although these findings have been supported, the research conducted thus far may not be particularly illuminating when dealing with irrational and emotionally unstable individuals. For example, although the concepts of emotions and conflict have been discussed in an interpersonal context, it is possible that strangers may experience similar or the same types of emotions associated with a relationship. In fact, stalkers and obsessed individuals may believe they have an interpersonal relationship with someone who is actually a stranger. Although many of the examples may not fit a stalking or an obsessed relationship, these individuals are likely to experience the same physiological changes and display many of the same communication patterns.
More cross-cultural studies need to be conducted in order to make better predictions about how individuals from different cultures deal with emotions and conflict. Ostensibly, culture plays a role in the expression of emotions; however, the extent to which culture alters the process of coping with emotions remains unclear. Scholars have long recognized the importance of investigating the human face. In particular, scholars in nonverbal communication have looked to the face to identify emotional displays in various contexts. Many verbal and nonverbal behaviors are considered to be connected to some degree to affective or emotional responses. For example, there are universal facial expressions that connect closely to different emotions, including fear, anger, sadness, and happi-
ness (Darwin, 1872/1998; Ekman, 1972; Ekman and Friesen, 1971; Ekman et al., 1987).
Prior sections focused on the internal processes of affect, cognition, and emotion related to conflict and discussed physiological changes associated with those processes. Although conflict and related internal processes can produce particular physiological changes, the next section focuses only on the deliberate expression of conflict. Specifically, the section explores verbal aggressiveness and threat assessment.
Giving Voice to Conflict: Verbal Aggressiveness and Threat Assessment
Verbal aggressiveness is an individual’s inclination to attack the self-concepts of other people in an effort to cause psychological pain (Infante and Wigley, 1986). This type of aggression, in which a person initiates personal attacks against a select target or victim, is manifested through communication. Not surprisingly, verbal aggressiveness is considered a destructive form of communication (Infante et al., 1992) and an expression of hostility (Martin and Anderson, 1996).
The literature suggests a number of verbally aggressive messages—character attacks, competence attacks, background attacks, physical appearance attacks, cursing, teasing, ridiculing, threats, nonverbal actions, withdrawal, physical acts, rejection, negative affect, and unfair comparisons (Infante et al., 1990; Myers and Bryant, 2008). Kinney (1994) presents a broader typology of verbal aggressiveness, specifically within the context of interpersonal interaction: attacks against group membership, personal failings, and relationship-related failings. Kinnney also suggests a dimensional structure of verbally aggressive messages composed of the (1) target, (2) form of weapon, and (3) force of weapon.
To gain insight into the potential origins of verbal aggressiveness, researchers have studied the phenomenon from various angles, including a trait perspective. Personality traits and natural inclinations to communicate in a particular manner across situations are often referred to as communication predispositions (Rancer and Nicotera, 2007). Acknowledging one’s predisposition for aggressive communicatory behavior, Beatty and McCroskey (1997) asserted that “verbal aggressiveness represents expressions of inborn, biological functioning, which is antecedent to social experience” (p. 446). Early on, verbal aggressiveness was associated with hostility (Infante and Wigley, 1986) and argumentative skill deficiency (Infante, 1987). More recently, lack of responsiveness has emerged as a character trait associated with verbal aggressiveness (Martin and Anderson, 1996) and psychoticism (Heisel et al., 2003).
Considering these and potentially other character traits that appear
to be associated with verbal aggressiveness may help inform a profiling approach, or even a more exhaustive situational approach, to risk assessment vis-à-vis threatening communications. For example, traits such as hostility, argumentative skill deficiency, and lack of responsiveness may be discovered, revealing useful information about would-be perpetrators of violence.
Over the past 20 years, extensive research has been conducted on the communication trait of verbal aggressiveness. Thus far, approximately 200 articles, convention papers, and dissertations are estimated to have been published (Rancer and Nicotera, 2007). Verbal aggressiveness studies have been conducted primarily in the context of interpersonal communication, specifically marriage and family interactions, and organizational communication (Infante and Rancer, 1996). Other relevant contexts include educational communication (e.g., Kearney et al., 1991; McPherson et al., 2003; Avtgis and Rancer, 2008), mass media communication (e.g., Sebastian et al., 1978), and intercultural communication (e.g., Prunty et al., 1990; Suzuki and Rancer, 1994).
Research on verbal aggressiveness has often been partnered with studies in another related dimension of aggressive communication—argumentativeness. Unlike verbal aggressiveness, argumentativeness is widely considered a constructive, rather than destructive, form of communication that is related to positive relational outcomes (Infante and Rancer, 1982). Examples include increased perceived credibility (Infante, 1985) and relationship satisfaction (Sabourin et al., 1993). Argumentativeness has been defined as “a generally stable trait which predisposes the individual in communication situations to advocate positions on controversial issues and to attack verbally the positions which other people take on these issues” (Infante and Rancer, 1982, p. 72). Thus, the target of attack is the primary distinguishing factor between verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness. A person’s self-concept is the target for verbal aggressiveness, and a person’s position on an issue is the locus of attack for argumentativeness (Infante et al., 1989). Future research might consider to what extent verbal aggressiveness and threatening communications share verbal characteristics.
Other interesting findings have also differentiated the two dimensions of aggressive communications. First, highly argumentative individuals are more varied in their communication strategies so as to gain compliance, whereas verbally aggressive individuals maintain a consistent approach rather than diversify their strategy selection (Boster et al., 1993). Second, argumentativeness is perceived to increase a person’s credibility, whereas verbal aggressiveness reduces credibility (Infante and Rancer, 1996). Third, argumentative individuals are naturally skilled in argumentation, but verbally aggressive individuals lack proficiency in
argumentation abilities, an observation addressed in the argumentation skill deficiency model of Infante et al. (1989). Although argumentativeness and verbal aggressiveness are related conceptually, research indicates a clear distinction between the two dimensions of aggressive communication. Therefore, future research might ask if verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness can be used as predictors of threatening communication and violent behavior.
Most of the interesting findings from the literature are too numerous to discuss here, but at least one finding is noteworthy and may have relevance to threat and risk assessment. For some time, verbal aggressiveness has been described as a catalyst to physical violence (Infante et al., 1989; Infante and Rancer, 1996). It has been suggested, especially in various interpersonal communication contexts, that “verbal aggressiveness sometimes escalates into physical violence” (Infante and Wigley, 1986, p. 62). Specifically, negative relationship outcomes have been associated with an individual’s predisposition for verbal aggressiveness, including physical aggression, abuse, and violence (Rogan and La France, 2003). Interestingly, individuals who lack communication skills such as argumentativeness, which is necessary for effective conflict resolution, have a tendency to demonstrate verbally aggressive behavior that results in violent behavior (Infante et al., 1989). When an individual thinks he/she has reached the end of his/her abilities to argue, rationalize, or express him- or herself effectively, verbal aggressiveness may result, which may lead to subsequent physical violence. This observation supports Deturck’s (1987) claim that, when communication attempts fail, physical aggression is used to gain compliance. Future research could delve deeper to ask how verbal aggressiveness, threatening communication, and physical behavior are sequenced. Does verbal aggressiveness lead to threats such that a communicator would feel obligated to carry them out?
As studies in verbal aggressiveness have evolved over the past 20 years, research has acknowledged the distinctiveness of this form of aggression and shifted to a more narrow focus. Once treated mainly as one of many types of aggressive behavior, verbal aggressiveness is now being isolated to better understand its unique attributes. To assist in such a direct approach, Infante and Wigley (1986) developed a verbal aggressiveness scale, which emerged from an interpersonal model of aggression and includes concepts such as argumentativeness. Factor analysis and item analysis on the initial scale, using 30 items, resulted in a 20-item unidimensional scale with 10 positively worded items and 10 negatively worded items. Initial studies and subsequent research have found evidence of the validity of the measure, with an alpha coefficient of at least .81 (Infante and Wigley, 1986; Boster et al., 1993).
More recent studies have further developed the verbal aggressive-
ness scale, suggesting bidimensionality of the measure. The 10 negatively worded, or “aggressively worded,” items appear to more accurately measure verbal aggressiveness, whereas the positively worded items seem to measure a more pro-social, confirming communication style (Levine et al., 2004). The authors suggested reducing the scale to the 10 aggressively worded items to obtain a more accurate reflection of verbal aggressiveness.
Risk assessment within interpersonal interactions, namely dyadic and family relations, has been informed by studies in verbal aggressiveness and use of the verbal aggressiveness scale. Because “verbal aggression sometimes escalates into physical violence” (Infante and Wigley, 1986, p. 62), a useful measure of the concept provides insight into potential violence. However, use of the scale in the context of risk assessment of threatening communications is seemingly nonexistent. As previously mentioned, verbal aggressiveness is considered a personality trait emerging from an individual’s predisposition to communicate aggressively (Infante and Wigley, 1986; Beatty and McCroskey, 1997). Moreover, one of the major challenges facing risk assessment approaches is understanding the character of the person posing a threat and his or her potential level of danger (Smith, 2008a). Use of the verbal aggressiveness scale is expected to provide some level of insight into the character of the threatener and the potential for violent behavior.
The obvious limitation inherent in such an approach is the feasibility and probability of getting a would-be perpetrator to complete the scale. Previous studies have successfully modified the scale by making it functional and reliable as an observational measure. Spouses have used the scale to report the verbally aggressive nature of their partners (Infante et al., 1989), and third-party observers have used a modified version of the scale to measure the verbal aggressiveness of others (Heisel et al., 2003). These adaptations of the scale to use in observational contexts may prove beneficial for efforts in threat assessment. Examiners can potentially use an adapted scale to measure the verbally aggressive nature of those who make threats, providing insight into their character. Of course, observational information can only be gathered on potential perpetrators if data exist. Online profile information available on social networking sites, blogs, and messages boards, threatening messages, and other personal information collected through investigation are likely sources of such information. Future research should validate the observational format of the verbal aggressiveness scale (metrics) for the threat behavior context.
Verbal aggressiveness has relevance to risk and threat assessment efforts for two primary reasons. First, verbal aggressiveness has been linked to physical violence. From the onset, threat of physical attack, in which someone communicates intent to inflict physical harm on another
individual, has been considered a dimension of verbal aggressiveness (Greenberg, 1976). Subsequent studies posited verbal aggressiveness as a catalyst to violence when certain situational factors are present and active (Infante et al., 1989). Especially in the context of marriage and family interactions, aggressive communication has been shown to trigger physical violence. Specifically, character attacks, swearing, competence attacks, and threats have been shown to facilitate physical violence (Infante et al., 1990). Negative outcomes such as physical aggression, abuse, and violence seemingly result from little or no concern for the targeted individual, a common phenomenon for verbally aggressive individuals (Rogan and La France, 2003). Because verbal aggressiveness is a subset of hostility and is so closely linked to physical violence, it is expected to inform risk and threat assessment efforts by law enforcement and others.
A second reason verbal aggressiveness has application value in the context of threat assessment is that a situational approach to risk management should consider the nature and character of the would-be perpetrator. Verbal aggressiveness has been described from a trait perspective, suggesting something specific about the character and nature of the attacker. Caprara and Pastorelli (1989) used a personality perspective to develop a measure of a person’s propensity for violence. Profiling approaches that analyze the type of individual making threats, along with guided judgment and automated decision making, are traditional forms of risk assessment (Reddy et al., 2001). More recently, a more expansive and deductive approach that considers multiple situational factors has been used. Research supports such a situational threat assessment approach “because a knowledge of individual differences will allow future theory to specify how characteristics of the situation and attributes of the person interact to produce behavior” (Infante et al., 1992, p. 117). Understandably, even within a contextual and situational approach to threat assessment, the character of the individual making the threat should be examined. Thus, verbal aggressiveness may provide at least one contextual clue or situational factor in the risk assessment process.
Although research on the link between verbal aggressiveness and future violent behavior could provide promise for risk assessment development, there are some limitations to this line of research. Although several studies have investigated the role of verbal aggressiveness in future violent behaviors, these studies rely on self-reported data, which can be overtly biased by social desirability, fallacious memory, and self-interests. Another limitation concerns the relationship between verbal aggression and violence or physical aggression as a response behavior provoked by someone else’s verbal aggressiveness rather than a successive behavior after one’s own verbally aggressive communication. For example, Goldstein and Rosenbaum (1985) examined how verbal aggressiveness in
the form of character attacks reinforced negative self-image and became a catalyst for physical violence. Spouses felt like their self-esteem was being attacked (i.e., verbal aggressiveness) and therefore reacted with physical aggression toward their partners. Furthermore, recent research has called into question the validity of the verbal aggression construct. Kotowski et al. (2009) argue that the verbal aggressiveness scale actually measures two constructs: verbal aggressiveness and verbal benevolence communication style. In addition, they report that the scale is unidimensional with several poor items. In fact, their multimethod data found near zero correlations between self-reports and observed behavior. Thus, these researchers argue that there is a discrepancy between the conceptual definitions of verbal aggressiveness and behaviors.
Although recent research has called into question the current constructs used to measure verbal aggressiveness, understanding the link between verbal aggressiveness and future violent behaviors would seemingly advance the body of knowledge of both verbal aggressiveness and risk assessment. Is it possible for physical violence to occur not just as a response to verbal aggressiveness in a communicative dyad but as a natural subsequent behavior to one’s own verbal aggressiveness? In other words, are verbal aggressiveness and physical aggression positively related on the individual level? If so, the existence of verbal aggressiveness as a character trait of threateners may provide useful information into the potential for violence in a threatening situation.
The previous section addressed the verbal expression of emotion. In particular, the section explored the decades of research on verbal aggressiveness and future violent behavior. Recently, a great body of work has amassed around a burgeoning area of research specifically focused on risk and crisis communication. Although this research is still emerging, many of the conclusions are based on case studies and actual crisis or hostage scenarios. Thus, understanding communications between a perpetrator of threats or violence and larger organizations may be useful in research to assess threatening communications and behavior.
The emerging field of crisis/hostage negotiation represents one of the most critical and complex areas of human interaction (Rogan and Hammer, 2006). In particular, crisis/hostage negotiation deals with the interaction between effective communication and saving human lives. As such, crisis/hostage negotiation research has theoretical and pragmatic applications for threatening communications. Communication-based research on crisis/hostage negotiation is a relatively new area of inquiry. Much of this research orients around discourse/content analysis
of transcribed recordings of actual hostage-taking incidents (Rogan and Hammer, 2006).
Drawing on the work of Snyder and Diesing (1977), Donohue et al. (1991a, 1991b) have led the way in relational interdependence in crisis negotiation. Relational interdependence can best be described as a reciprocal relation of mutual dependence or influence between two individuals. They have suggested that features of crisis and hostage negotiation increase emotional intensity, thereby increasing the pressures on law enforcement personnel, particularly when a crisis/hostage negotiator is trying to establish a relationship with a suspect. Additionally, the core relational issues of control and distance create a double bind, or paradox, in which both negotiator and suspect attempt to gain control of the conversation and either sustain a coercive interdependence between one another or move toward a cooperative and normative barraging relationship.
This notion of a double bind was further explored in examining the immediacy behaviors of negotiators and suspects. Donohue et al. have defined immediacy as directness and intensity of communication and have also differentiated between implicit immediacy (openness about one’s thoughts, feelings, and needs) and spatial immediacy (communication that conveys physical and psychological closeness). In their examination of nine actual hostage negotiations, they found that incidents involving mentally ill suspects typically started as cooperative and became increasingly more competitive, whereas incidents involving criminals typically began as competitive and became increasingly more cooperative. Domestic incidents remained competitive throughout the negotiations.
This paradox was examined furthered by Donohue and Roberto (1993). They identified four limits of the interaction of relational affiliation and relational interdependence: (1) moving toward the other party, (2) moving away from the other party, (3) moving with the other party, and (4) moving against the other party. Donohue and Roberto discovered that stable relational dynamics were established fairly early in the negotiations and that both parties typically adhered to this structure. Moving-away and moving-against behaviors were typically marked by an inability to establish relational understanding, whereas moving-toward and moving-with patterns of behavior were consistent with enhanced relational consensus. In short, Donohue and Roberto offered negotiated-order theory as a framework to understand the implicit communication dynamics that both suspects and negotiators experience as they draw boundaries around their relationships and ultimately determine the out-
come of a crisis/hostage incident. Future studies should investigate how relational interdependence dimensions can be integrated into analyses of threatening communications.
Behavioral Model of Crisis Negotiation
Research by Hammer and Rogan has focused on the communication-based components of crisis negotiation (Hammer and Rogan, 1997; Rogan and Hammer, 1994, 1995, 2002; Rogan et al., 1997a, 1997b). They posit a four-part behavioral model based on the communicative dynamics of crisis negotiation, labeled S.A.F.E. The model consists of four interpretive frames: substantive demands/wants, attunement, face, and emotional distress. A substantive frame refers to an individual concern for generally objective and tangible wants and demands (Roloff and Jordan, 1992). During crisis negotiations, typically two types of substantive goals are identified: central and peripheral substantive interests/demands (Hammer and Rogan, 1997; Rogan and Hammer, 2002). Central substantive interests and demands involve situation-related wants; peripheral interests and demands are not specific to the situation. For example, a request for transportation away from a crisis incident would be considered a central substantive demand, whereas a request for food or water would communicate a peripheral substantive demand.
Hammer (2001) suggests that the amount and type of interests and demands communicated during a crisis negotiation are related to escalation or de-escalation of an incident. For example, increased communication of peripheral demands and greater commitment to previously communicated peripheral demands denotes an increase in escalation. However, a tendency to communicate more central substantive demands and a reduction in peripheral substantive demands denotes a de-escalation of the crisis incident.
Attunement relates to the negotiation of relational dynamics between subject and negotiator (Rogan and Hammer, 2002). For example, trust, affiliation, power, and understanding are all considered components of personal relationships. Typically, a negotiator must work toward establishing many of these components with a subject. In fact, many negotiations often begin by attempting to establish some sort of trust in the relationship. The importance of developing a positive relationship between subject and negotiator is considered essential to incident resolution. In addition, Donohue and Roberto (1993) contend that the level of relational distance (attunement) between subjects and negotiators communicates attraction, liking, respect, trust, and willingness to cooperate.
Face can best be described as an individual concern for self, image maintenance reputation, and/or identity that is presented during a social
interaction (Hammer and Rogan, 1997; Ting-Toomey and Kurogi, 1998). Rogan and Hammer (1994) suggest that in crisis negotiation context, face varies across three dimensions: locus of concern (self or other directed), face valence (defend, maintain, attack, or honor face), and temporality (attempts to protect against loss of face or efforts to restore face). Applying these conceptions of face to three actual crisis negotiation incidents, these authors found that crisis negotiators were more likely to engage in efforts to restore other’s face and that suspects were more likely to engage in restoring self-face or attacking self-face. Self-face refers to one’s own presentation and maintenance of face. Conversely, other face is the presentation and maintenance of other individuals’ face. In addition, Rogan and Hammer suggest that two other types of face are of particular importance in crisis negotiation: group identity and individual identity. These authors conclude that personal identity may be more likely in negotiations that involve suicide; social identity is more common in incidents involving members of particular groups, cults, or national organizations.
Emotional distress is often a key indicator of success or failure in crisis negotiation. Negotiators are typically trained to listen and respond to a subject’s emotions in order to mitigate the potential for a negative and/or violent behavior. Essentially the belief is that, if the negotiator can calm the suspect, it is more likely the suspect will return to rational and normative bargaining. In a study investigating the verbal expression of emotion in actual crisis negotiations, emotions were intense and very negative at the outset of the interaction (Rogan and Hammer, 1995). Subjects typically became more positive as the negotiation proceeded through various stages. However, in incidents in which the suspect committed suicide, emotions remained intense and negative throughout the interaction. This line of research offers a preliminary glance at emotional expression during crisis negotiation and presents a direction for future research regarding the need to fully understand an individual’s emotional state, as it may forecast future behavior (Rogan and Hammer, 2006).
Although most negotiators are trained to access the emotional state of a suspect, a law enforcement agent often only has a line of questioning, paraphrasing, and emotional labeling in order to make this assessment (Rogan and Hammer, 2006). Therefore, this paper addresses some of the complexities involved in emotional states and behavioral outcomes. For example, emotion is likely the outcome of cognitive appraisal processes, influenced by social and cultural aspects, and is linked to discrete and indiscriminate psychological and physiological experiences, which combine to generate some sort of emotional expression (Izard, 1990). Rogan and Hammer (1995), however, investigated language-based affective messages by examining a suspect’s verbal communication and found preliminary patterns associated with communication and the suspect’s violent
and suicidal behavior. Thus, future research should continue to explore the relationship between emotional appraisal and verbal and nonverbal communication patterns of predictive behavioral outcomes.
PERSUASION AND THREATENING BEHAVIORS
Smith (2008a) discovered a relationship between persuasive communication used in threatening messages and the likelihood of acting on a threat. Obviously, persuasion and other forms of social influence represent general categories of research that refer to attempts at attitude and behavioral change. It comes as no surprise that threatening communications would be linked to persuasion attempts. Given the vast body of work on persuasion and social influence, it would not be productive to review here the numerous studies in this area. Instead, the focus is on a subset of persuasion research studies that seem most likely to yield promising results as a comparative area of investigation for threatening behavior—fear appeals.
There has been nearly 50 years of research on fear appeals in various disciplines, and these studies have collectively garnered mixed results (for an overview, see Ruiter et al., 2001). However, fear appeals are commonly used to modify behavior. Fear appeals are persuasive messages designed to scare or frighten people into complying with a particular message by describing the awful and terrible things that will happen to them if they do not act in accordance with the message (Witte, 1992a). Fear itself can best be understood as an emotion with negative valence accompanied by a high level of arousal that is perceived to be both significant and personally relevant and that motivates people to action (Easterling and Leventhal, 1989; Frijda, 1986; Ortony and Turner, 1990; Witte, 1992b, 1998).
Parallel Response Model
The parallel response model suggests that fear appeals generate two separate processes: danger control and fear control. Danger control processes involve attempts to control the danger or threat; fear control processes involve attempts to control one’s own fear generated by the danger or threat. When people are motivated to control a danger, they typically think about the fear appeal and of ways to remove or lessen the threat. Typically, they think carefully about the recommended responses advocated in the persuasive message and attempt to adopt those as a means to control the danger. On the other hand, when people are motivated to
control their fear, they can no longer think about the fear appeal or the danger of the threat; instead, they focus on how frightened they feel and they attempt to get rid of their fear through denial, defensive avoidance, or reactance.
Witte and Allen’s (2000) Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM), which traces its lineage through the classic fear-appeal theories, attempts to explain both when and why fear appeals work, as well as when and why they fail. According to EPPM, if a threat is perceived as irrelevant or insignificant, there is little motivation to process the message further. Conversely, when the threat is perceived or believed to be serious and relevant, individuals become afraid and are motivated to act in order to reduce their fear. The EPPM suggests that in some cases fear-arousing messages can lead to danger control processes, which in turn generate adaptive potentially life-saving actions. In other cases, fear-arousing messages can lead to fear-controlling processes, which can lead to maladaptive and potentially life-threatening actions. Lastly, EPPM emphasizes the role self-efficacy plays in the type of control process a person chooses. Specifically, the model suggests that people must be self-efficacious in order to maximize their danger-controlling processes in response to fear-arousing messages. Future research should assess whether threatening messages are more likely to lead to threatening behavior if they contain elements of fear (danger) control and self-efficacy. Research efforts could subsequently assess how messages aimed at curbing unwanted behaviors (e.g., sending letters, making threats) might incorporate enough fear and efficacy to promote behavioral changes.
Generally, for fear appeals to be effective, they should include three key factors: use a credible source, relate to a receiver’s self-esteem, and focus on an important topic (Pfau and Parrot, 1993). Hale and Dillard (1995) echo the advice of Pfau and Parrot and offer several of their own suggestions for designing fear-appeal messages for optimal effectiveness. First, Hale and Dillard suggest the need for a threat component; in other words, the fear-appeal message must arouse the emotion of fear. To accomplish a sufficient threat component, a fear-appeal message must include a threat of severe physical or social harm if the recipient of the message does not comply with the recommendations. In addition, a fear appeal should personalize the risk to the target of the message. In other words, the recipient of the message must feel vulnerable or susceptible to the threat and to the consequences of not following the recommendations.
An effective fear appeal should also contain an action component; there are two primary types of action components: personal efficacy and response efficacy (Hale and Dillard, 1995; Stephenson and Witte, 2001; Witte, 1992a). Personal efficacy refers to the target’s perception of whether he or she can actually engage in the recommendations provided in the
message. In contrast, response efficacy concerns whether the recommendations offered by the message are effective at eliminating or reducing the threat depicted. Thus, a successful fear-appeal message must ensure that the effectiveness of the recommended response is clearly demonstrated within the message (Hale and Dillard, 1995). Threatening messages should be examined for levels of personal and response efficacy and to determine their effect on ensuring specific behavior.
Additional concerns include organization of the message, vividness of the message, framing of the message, whether the target is a volunteer, age of the target(s), anxiety of the target(s), and the cost of responding to the recommendations (Hale and Dillard, 1995). Although there are several ways to arrange a fear-appeal message (topical, cause-effect, problem-solution), Hale and Dillard recommend organizing the message using the problem-solution pattern because it is typically easy to follow and well suited to incorporating the aforementioned recommendations (e.g., severe threat, personal and response efficacy). Similar to fear-appeal research, threatening messages should be evaluated to determine if they are more likely to be executed if they follow a problem-solution organizational pattern.
Agencies and organizations interested in using persuasive messages to deter threatening communications and violent behavior can utilize a fear-appeal strategy to shift a would-be attacker’s attitudes. Specifically, these persuasive messages can focus on creating messages that instill fear and efficacy to incorporate the suggestions of the persuasive message to limit or stop threatening messages and possible escalation to violent behavior. Additionally, future research could investigate the extent to which a threatening behavior is an attempt to generate a fear-appeal response and thus effectively respond to communications within the fear-appeal model.
For a number of years work in deception and its detection has been the focus of inquiry by researchers, with some encouraging results (Bond and DePaulo, 2006; Burgoon and Qin, 2006; DePaulo et al., 2003; Meservy et al., 2005; Vrij, 2000). According to Burgoon and Varadan (2006): Deception detection is an essential part of investigations involving terrorism and espionage, such as the Hanssen FBI spy case (Havill, 2001). Follow-on asssessment of the Hanssen case identified cues to deception in electronic messages that could have proven successful in detecting his deception had they only been employed for that purpose (Burgoon and Varandan, 2006). A great deal of the work in deception and detection that is related to threatening behavior has focused on behavioral observation and drawing
conclusions about veracity and credibility (Burgoon et al., 2005; Pollina, et al., 2006).
The deception detection literature appears to have implications for the study of threatening communications and ensuing behavior. Both systems of communication involve strategies that pose escalating risks to the communicator, depending on the reaction of the target or third parties. Both strategies are likely to carry with them elevated levels of affective arousal, making them more susceptible to certain types of detection or marking (see below). And both strategies are likely to be communicated under conditions varying from predatory to spontaneous. Given the similarities in tactical and strategic features of threatening messages and deception, it would be advantageous to develop studies comparing these systems for their commonalities, making extrapolation of the more extant deception research available to scientists who focus on threatening communications. Likewise, deception researchers would benefit from other researchers’ studies of threatening messages. The body of work known as deception research is at an important crossroads given the emergence of new methods and technology that can be applied to studies of detecting credible communications (Burgoon et al., 2008; Burgoon and Varadan, 2006).
Channels of nonverbal communication that have been amenable to analysis in the past include vocalics (or paralanguage), which pertains to human vocalizations; proxemics, a category for distancing and spacing patterns among humans; and kinesics, which categorizes forms of body movement, including facial, gestural, postural, and gait. Unfortunately, isolated behaviors from linguistic, visual, vocal, or other nonverbal behaviors have seldom proven reliable 100 percent of the time. In fact, deception detection accuracy rarely exceeds chance levels. Some of the more promising strategies for distinguishing deceit from truth are in methods that utilize configurations of cues. If computer-assisted detection tools can be developed to support human detection capabilities by discerning micromomentary features of language and nonverbal behavior and by tracking these cues over time, accuracy in discerning both truthful and deceptive information and communications could be substantially improved (Burgoon et al., 2008).
Another strategy intended to increase accuracy is that of distinguishing truthful information from deceptive information in a near-real-time environment. This requires precise instrumentation for dynamic computer-assisted analysis of communication streams. Messages could be captured as analog recordings or with tape-based digital instruments that must then be compressed and edited before they can be coded and analyzed serially. Burgoon et al. (2008) suggest that “many vocal and motion-oriented deception cues are elusive and warrant deployment of more elaborate means of measurement than traditionally used. Daily
advances in digital technology are increasing the fidelity, ease, automaticity, and simultaneity of behavioral data capture, which could greatly accelerate the processes of coding and analyzing deceptive messages and could record audio and visual behavior at a fidelity that can be used to develop algorithms for more accurate, automated behavioral analysis” (p. 6). Future research might ask how computer-assisted deception detection tools could be incorporated into studies of threatening and violent behavior. Are these computer-assisted tools and techniques portable and easily disseminated? How might culture attenuate or accentuate verbal and nonverbal displays of deception?
Physiological monitoring can be accomplished through remote sensing technologies. Associated markers include heart and respiration rates, blood flow, electrodermal responses, electroencephalograph changes, eye movement, pupil movement and dilation, micromuscle tremors in the voice and face (O’Hair and Cody, 1987), and other neurophysiological responses—using either contact-based or noncontact measurement devices that may be combined. Given the arousal-laden context of threatening communications, in the future, remote sensing technology might be applied from deception research to the context of threatening communications.
As mentioned above, there is no single behavioral indicator that is known to reliably signal deception or intention on its own. Deception and intention often manifest themselves in many facets of human behavior, including visual phenomena (such as facial expression, gaze direction variation, and gesture), audio phenomena (such as vocal pitch and longer response latency), and physiological phenomena (such as autonomic arousal, as indicated by pupil dilation; DePaulo et al., 2003; Ekman, 2001; O’Hair and Cody, 1994; Zuckerman and Driver, 1985). Multimodal approaches to the detection of deception and hostile intention are likely to prove most powerful. Additional research would be needed to identify which potential indicators of threatening communications (as implicated from deception cues) can be combined to index a more accurate assessment of resultant violent behavior from threatening messages.
Although there are multiple strategies available to detect deception, recent research has called into question the methods used to assess detection deception accuracy (cf. Pigott and Wu, 2008). Some research has demonstrated the usefulness of strategic evidence disclosure. For example, Hartwig et al. (2005) examined the timing of evidence disclosure as a deception detection tool and found that the strategic disclosure of evidence was beneficial for pinpointing lies. In addition, Hartwig et al. (2006) trained interviewers to apply different strategies of evidence disclosure. They found a considerably higher deception detection accuracy rate (85 percent) compared to untrained interviewers (56 percent).
MODALITIES AND CHANNELS
Channel Selection Theories
Those who threaten others have a number of communication channels available to them—social networks, texting, and phone calls. Channel selection is sometimes a spontaneous and convenient choice, whereas in cases of predation the choice of channel can be quite strategic. Selection of a channel for communicating is a critical factor in determining the levels of receptivity or resistance to the information being communicated. Through a comprehensive survey, Trevino et al. (2000) used multiple communication theories to study media attitudes and behaviors. Their results suggested that objective, social, and person/technology factors such as perceived media richness, message equivocality, number of recipients, perceived recipients’ attitudes, and distance between message sender and receiver all had merit for explaining media attitudes and behaviors.
Media richness refers to a communication channel’s ability to convey a range of visual, auditory, and verbal cues to a receiver (Daft and Lengel, 1984; Kraut et al., 1992). Based on this theory, it may be possible to determine how communication cues (and the nature of such cues) influence threateners’ use of different channels in sending and acting on threats. The main premise of media richness theory is that the richness of the medium should match the requirements of the message. Each type of communication has characteristics that make it more appropriate for certain situations and less so for others (Lengel and Daft, 1988). Carlson and Davis (1998) state that, “While many activities are involved in communication, one that is of particular importance is media selection” (p. 335). This thought is also found in research from Zmud et al. (1990): “Communication channels are believed to vary in their capacity to promote rich communication” (p. 440). A rich communication medium has potential for instant feedback, both verbal and nonverbal cues are present, natural language is used, and the focus is on individuals rather than a large group (Zmud et al., 1990).
Lengel and Daft (1988) explain the richness hierarchy by stating the following: “Face-to-face is the richest medium because it has the capacity for direct experience, multiple information cues…. Telephone conversations and interactive electronic media provide rapid feedback, but lack the element of ‘being there’…. Written media … such as memos, notes, and reports, can be personally focused but they convey limited cues…. Impersonal written media (including fliers, bulletins, and standard computer reports) are the leanest, providing no personal focus on a single receiver…. Thus, each medium has an information capacity based on its ability to facilitate multiple cues, feedback, and personal focus” (p. 226). Fulk and Collins-Jarvis (2001) describe simple, predictable tasks with low
uncertainty surrounding their message as examples of communication that can be conveyed indirectly. Under high task uncertainty and under conditions of equivocality (that is, multiple possible meanings exist) (Daft and Lengel, 1984; Weick, 1979), it has been shown that direct, straightforward communication is required. “A key premise is that the complexity of communication and information processing mechanisms (e.g., rules vs. meetings) should match the uncertainty inherent in the task itself” (Fulk and Collins-Jarvis, 2001, p. 628).
Katz and Rice (2002) discuss propositions that have applicability in an organizational communication context: “The telephone allows intense immediacy…. Transmission of both information and affect [is] highly important, and users may be extraordinarily sensitive to nuances, regardless of the medium…. Use of telecommunication technology leaves important residues that reveal complex communicative interactions…. Users can be highly creative in developing ad hoc solutions and crossing media boundaries” (pp. 247-252). Two questions could be asked in future research: (1) Are threats communicated through rich media more likely to lead to resultant behavior? (2) Is multiple channel use more likely to signal a threat-behavior connection than single channel use?
The Internet has become the engine that drives many sources of new media, such as online videos, blogs, streaming radio, and instant messaging. What is notable about these new media sources is the lack of regulation relative to traditional sources, such as television, radio, and newspapers (Heath and O’Hair, 2009; Matusitz and O’Hair, 2008). Anyone with access to the Internet can create a website to deliver messages to a target group, gather material from a variety of sources, and interact with other like-minded individuals in synchronous or asynchronous formats. Given the broad audience and relative ease of dissemination, these new media sources are fertile ground for the proliferation of threatening messages (Allen et al., 2009; Matusitz and O’Hair, 2008). Ideological individuals and groups can be defined as those with strongly held values that form a mental model for how they interpret events in the world (Mumford et al., 2008). At the most extreme, such individuals and groups can have antisocial or even violent worldviews. In the case of violent ideological groups, one goal may be to draw in people who are disenchanted and therefore vulnerable to the violent ideology being offered (e.g., Blazak 2001; Moghaddam, 2005).
The motivation for media use typically concerns attainment of various interactive and informational needs, depending on the availability, and the instrumentality of the media to meet these needs (e.g., Rubin,
1993, 1994). Papacharissi and Rubin (2000) discovered that individuals who were less satisfied with life and who felt less socially valued were more likely to use the Internet to facilitate interpersonal communication. These motivations and characteristics are some examples of the psychological needs that resonate with characteristics of ideological groups or a group’s members. Violent groups may have more malevolent reasons for being drawn to the new media, and research demonstrates that the new media can be used for cyberterrorism (Matusitz and O’Hair, 2008; Stanton, 2002), intimidation (Corman and Schiefelbein, 2006), and written attacks (Damphousse and Smith, 2002). Stanton (2002) describes a scenario in which intelligent programs, or bots, are used by terrorist groups to interact with users and spread propaganda online. In general, it can be concluded from this research that a variety of communication needs in conjunction with social and situational characteristics can interact with media characteristics to determine media choice and use.
Websites are often described in terms of interactivity. Jensen (1998) is a central proponent of interactivity and casts it as the ability of a medium to allow user influence on the content of the mediated communication. In a similar fashion, Dholakia et al. (2000) argues that interactive websites are those that stimulate perceptions of social presence and are facilitated through reciprocal communication. According to this perspective, user control, responsiveness, connectedness, and playfulness are key criteria for encouraging interactivity. The interactionist perspective (empathy between object, perceiver, and communicator) has been compared to other communication and psychological concepts such as “mirroring,” “persuasiveness,” the “matching hypothesis,” and the “similarity-attraction” paradigm (Moss et al., 2007).
The field of marketing communication research takes a more technical approach to interactivity and website properties, arguing for more focused attention on two-way communication, navigability (lower information search costs), multimedia design (link, graphics, visuals, sounds), and marketing content (company-related information, customer-related information exchange; Karayanni and Baltas, 2003). Song and Zinkhan (2008) investigated the direct effects of interactivity on perceived website effectiveness by operationalizing dimensions of interactivity theory (Rafaeli, 1988) and telepresence theory (Steuer, 1992). Their findings suggest that interactivity perceptions (personalized communication, control, responsiveness) resonate with website users, especially under conditions when cognitive control is elevated. But one question needs to be asked: What dimensions of online communication are most conducive to threatening behavior?
A frequently reported dimension of interactivity is interaction efficacy, which can be described as the extent to which people feel comfortable
talking to others online and how real time the communication seems (Sohn and Lee, 2005). This is sometimes called synchronicity (e.g., Morris and Ogan, 1996; Porter, 2004). Certain forms of Web communication are more conducive to information exchange; others are more appropriate for social interaction (Maclaran and Catterall, 2002). For example, message boards are more conducive to information exchange (a more asynchronous form of communication), whereas chat rooms are more conducive to social interaction (a more synchronous form of communication). If violent ideological individuals and groups are presumed to be more likely to emphasize community building than nonviolent people, it may also be presumed that these individuals will seek more interaction efficacy in their websites. Higher interaction efficacy facilitates community building through participation in more “real” dialogue than in more asynchronous forms of communication. This will also allow group members to form more personal relationships with others. Along these lines, future research could study whether threats and advocated violent behaviors are more likely to occur on online venues that offer more interactional efficacy.
Online Communication Metrics
As a means of summarizing some of the relevant research focused on online communication, Table 2-1 identifies measures and metrics that have either been used in online communication research or have been suggested as worthy candidates for inclusion in future areas of experimental or case study research. Particular metrics used in online research are identified, followed by a description, a purpose, or an objective for the metric. For each metric an associated marker, outcomes expected from using the metric, and short explanations for the metric’s relevance to other types of online analyses are provided.
FUTURE OF THREAT ASSESSMENT
Threatening situations are more likely to be successfully investigated and managed if other agencies and systems—both within and outside law enforcement or security organizations—are recognized and used to help solve problems presented by a given case. Examples of such systems are those employed by prosecutors; courts; probation, corrections, social service, and mental health agencies; employee assistance programs; victims’ assistance programs; and community groups. (Fein et al., 1995, p. 3)
This section supports many arguments laid out by Meloy and colleagues (Biesterfeld and Meloy, 2008; Meloy et al., 2008) and develops arguments for a more integrated and cooperative approach to threat assessment. Communication-related processes such as collaboration and
boundary spanning are introduced to frame a strategy for threat assessment systems.
A General Accounting Office report (Posner, 2002) was highly critical of the previous collaboration efforts by various organizations involved in terrorism management:
Our previous work has found fragmentation and overlap among federal (terrorism) assistance programs. Over 40 federal entities have roles in combating terrorism, and past federal efforts have resulted in a lack of accountability, a lack of a cohesive effort, and duplication of programs. As state and local officials have noted, this situation has led to confusion, making it difficult to identify available federal preparedness resources and effectively partner with the federal government. (p. 3)
Hadden (1989) suggests that institutional barriers often prevent reliable and comprehensive data analysis. Such barriers result, at least in part, from statutes that do not specify which technical data are crucial and therefore should be collected. Required to provide information, those who are responsible may merely engage in “data dumps.” Thus, substantial databases may be created, but the important or most important data might not be interpreted and used for policy decisions. Statutes and professional protocols may not recognize the need for clarity of presentation and feedback. Data collection may not include a sense of how data are to be communicated. Even when data have been collected by industry or governmental agencies, institutional barriers may prevent access.
Professionals are likely to experience a tangle of organizations, frustration in acquiring information, and data dumps that load large amounts of information in ways that make it difficult to access and manage (see Heath et al., 2009; Heath and O’Hair, 2009). Further, professionals are unsure that the data and information they obtain are the format and type they are seeking. They question the accuracy and value of the information offered and wonder about its accuracy and relevance. Even when information is obtained, people run into barriers as they seek to exert changes they hope will mitigate the risks they believe they have discovered (O’Hair et al., 2005). A related barrier is the failure on the part of governmental agencies (see Posner, 2002) to agree on the interpretation of information—clearly different disciplines use different nomenclatures to explain their systems and means of adhering to, and making, policy.
Collaboration occurs when a group of autonomous actors engage in an interactive process, using shared rules, norms, and structures, to act or decide on issues that result in mutual benefit and reciprocity (Abramson and Rosenthal, 1995; Wood and Gray, 1991). Following O’Hair et al. (2010), a better understanding is needed of how the actors involved in threat management recognize and leverage each other, not as independent
TABLE 2-1 Online Communication Metric
Description, Purpose, and/or Objective
Relevance to Other Metrics or Overall Analysis
Semantic Network Analysis
Network mapping of structure or content of threaded messages to describe patterns of interaction.
Use of network mapping software to reduce large datasets of message interactions.
Two- and three- dimensional network maps.
Provides patterns (and tendencies) of messages reflecting behavioral regularities, intent, motives, etc.
Easily combined with other markers for charting in situ and longitudinal impressions of message behavior.
Behavioral indices reflecting state of mind (and emotions) and style of communication.
Could be used as either strategic or responsive means of elicitation or retribution.
Could track over time.
Any number of metrics could be combined with this.
Credibility of Source
Determines the extent to which source is considered believable by website users.
Used to gauge message attractiveness of sources.
Could be used as a component in a clustering of metrics.
Also develop markers of interaction indicating acceptance and engagement by receivers.
A concept that reflects a perception of community or groupness.
Collective versus individualist orientation toward interactants.
Language indices such as “we,” “our,” “us,” “them,” and “their.”
Contrast with individualistic orientation—“I,” “me,” “you,” “my.”
Initial tracking provides a benchmark of collective orientation.
Tracking over time indicates acculturation of user.
Easily triangulated with other metrics to determine assimilation or acculturation.
Chronological Presence of Mind
Linguistic variable reflecting intent, motivation, community orientation, etc.
Verb tense (past, present, future). Can be coded more specifically with perfect, progressive, and emphatic tenses.
Gives an indication of temporal perspective of the communicator.
Easily triangulated with other metrics of assimilation.
Framing is the manner in which communication influences an individual’s cognition by selectively emphasizing particular portions of reality while disregarding or downplaying other parts.
Provides an indication of the strategy or approach used by successful or unsuccessful recruiters.
Easily triangulated with other metrics of assimilation.
units but as sources for potential collaboration. One relevant collaboration process is boundary spanning, which allows members to interact with outside stakeholders and enables them to effectively deal with ambiguities of external threats (Golden and Veiga, 2005).
Boundary spanning is viewed as the coordination of experiences, values, context information, expert insight, and the actions of two or more independent organizations. Through boundary spanning, meaningful knowledge is constructed within interorganizational groups, and knowledge is shared freely through collaborative processes such as conversation and joint work (Brown and Duguid, 1991; O’Hair et al., 2010; Orr, 1990; Wenger, 1998). The fields of information science and management studies offer a plentiful stream of studies related to boundary spanning, with many having a focus on knowledge management (Kogut and Zander, 1992; Larsson et al., 1998; Rosenkopf and Nerkar, 2001).
Boundary spanning includes working together with organizations, coordinating activities, and mobilizing resources in the community. Knowledge networks often have the responsibility to formally or informally establish and maintain communication patterns across organizations (Alexander, 1995). At this level, boundary-spanning information systems integrate information flow and coordinate work across “islands” of knowledge (Lamb and Davidson, 2000; Markus et al., 2002). The creation of shared knowledge is feasible when organizations share and improvise local practices through membership in the same work group (Gasson, 2005). By belonging to a community of organizations, mutual engagement in joint enterprise utilizes a shared repertoire of resources (Wenger, 1998). Not only do individual participants belong to multiple communities of practice, “their multiple memberships provide a mediating mechanism that permits the spanning of boundaries between these communities” (Wenger, 1998, p. 123). Future studies should investigate how dimensions of interorganizational collaboration can positively affect data exchange and threat management among organizations in the intelligence and law enforcement communities.
Although this paper provides several areas of inquiry, several other factors have not been fully developed. The very nature of communication actions, the medium through which they are transmitted, and the ultimate intentions form a unique intersection for each individual. At first glance, this might seem like a daunting and overwhelming task. However, communication and behavior are inextricably linked, and the better this connection can be understood, the more likely it is that future predictions about behavior can be made. Moreover, current communication-based theory and methods should be used to both assess the relationship between communication and threatening behavior and develop communication strategies aimed at shifting values, attitudes, beliefs, and behav-
iors. Thus, communication research could be used to develop messages aimed at reducing threatening communications and behaviors.
It is hoped that, by identifying these areas of communication research, focused inquiry can be generated. More questions were generated than answered in this literature review, and many thorny issues are unlikely to be resolved without a substantial expenditure of resources. The goal of shedding light on the relationship between communication and actual behavior will mostly be accomplished through a triangulation of observational, actuarial, experimental, and case study research. The propositions offered at the outset of this paper suggest that communication theory and practice are intrinsic to the study of threatening behaviors and that finding strategies for managing violent behavior against others will be served by addressing even the most demanding research conundrums.
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