Social information processing theory hypothesizes that aggressive children pay more attention to cues of hostility and threat in others’ behavior, consequently leading to over-interpretation of others’ behavior as hostile. While there is abundant evidence of aggressive children demonstrating hostile attribution biases, less well documented is whether such biases stem from over-attendance and hypersensitivity to hostile cues in social situations. Over-attendance to hostile cues would be typified by deviations at any stage of the multi-stage process of social information processing models. While deviations at later stages in social information processing models are associated with aggressive behavior in children, the initial step of encoding has historically been difficult to empirically measure, being a low level automatic process unsuitable for self-report. We employed eye-tracking methodologies to better understand the visual encoding of such social information. Eye movements of ten 13–18 year-old children referred from clinical and non-clinical populations were recorded in real time while the children viewed scenarios varying between hostile, non-hostile and ambiguous social provocation. In addition, the children completed a brief measure of risk of aggression. Aggressive children did attend more to the social scenarios with hostile cues, in particular attending longest to those hostile scenarios where the actor in the scenario had a congruent emotional response. These findings corroborate social information processing theory and the traditional bottom-up processing hypotheses that aggressive behavior relates to increased attention to hostile cues.
- Aggressive behavior
- Social information processing
- Social cognition