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The impact of disrespect on prisoners' aggression: outcomes of experimentally inducing violence-supportive cognitions

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Self-report research suggests that much violence is triggered by perceived insults and disrespect. This may be particularly true in the context of a prison or another environment of acute deprivation, whereby individuals have little other recourse to means of reputation enhancement. This paper presents the findings of two studies conducted with prisoner volunteers inside a Category C (minimum security) prison in England. In the first study, the authors randomly assigned a sample of 89 prisoners to one of two conditions: the experimental group were asked to discuss times they have been disrespected by authority figures inside and outside the prison; the control group were asked more neutral questions. Both groups then completed several measures of cognitive beliefs, distortions, and hostile attribution biases. None of the measures differed across the two groups except the measure of excuse and justification acceptance. Controlling for other factors, the experimental group endorsed these rationalisations at a significantly higher rate than the control group. This finding suggests that raising the salience of disrespect - reminding prisoners of times they have been made to feel unworthy of consideration - may raise the risk that prisoners will engage in violence by providing prisoners with justifications or excuses for actions they might not otherwise endorse. These findings received some additional validation in the second study, a qualitative analysis of offender accounts of violence and aggression within the prison. Implications for reducing violence within prisons are discussed.
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Keywords: Cognition; aggression; hostile attribution bias; justifications and excuses

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: National Crime Council, Dublin, Ireland 2: School of Law, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast, UK

Publication date: February 1, 2009

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