This R15 AREA proposal seeks to advance the study of child physical abuse (CPA) perpetration by: 1) developing an innovative methodology for studying implicit information processes associated with aggressive behavior, 2) contributing new findings that clarify how provocation, ambiguity, and losing influence information processing and aggressive behavior in parents at risk for CPA, and 3) promoting training of graduate and undergraduate students at Northern Illinois University in programmatic research that utilizes state-of-the art techniques to examine information processing in parents at risk for CPA. Clarification of the proximal cognitive factors associated with risk for CPA perpetration is essential to efforts that seek to develop more effective intervention and prevention programs. However, methods for assessing cognitive processing "on-line" during parent-child interactions are lacking. To address this need, we developed a new and innovative methodology, the Word Game, for assessing implicit cognitive processes while parents are engaged in a competitive task that allows for aggressive behavior. The Word Game integrates well-established techniques for assessing implicit information processes (e.g., lexical decision making tasks) into an existing paradigm used to study aggression (e.g., Taylor Aggression Paradigm). Participants in the Word Game are led to believe that they are engaged in a competitive reaction time task with another player (e.g., a child). The reaction time task involves a series of lexical decision making trials, with the latencies on the lexical decision making trials used to examine accessibility of selected schema (e.g., hostility, control) throughout the game. Preliminary data indicate that the Word Game is: 1) sensitive to changes in implicit processes (i.e., shifts in schema accessibility) over the course of an interaction, and 2) capable of eliciting aggressive propensities in parents at risk for CPA despite the controlled nature of the laboratory setting. Given the promise of our preliminary findings, we propose to conduct two studies utilizing the Word Game to examine implicit information processes and aggressive behavior in parents at risk for CPA as they interact with a fictitious child player. We hypothesize that high, compared to low, CPA risk parents will: 1) display higher levels of aggression, 2) evince greater accessibility of negative and control-related schema as they play, 3) will be more reactive to ambiguity and losing, 4) will attribute more hostile motives to ambiguous children and children to whom they lose often, and 5) will report more hostile motives themselves as they interact with children.
Child physical abuse represents a public health concern of major scope, with far ranging consequences and significant costs to individuals, families, and society. The proposed research aims to advance understanding of the underlying causes of parental aggression toward children. Explication of the implicit information processes that give rise to parental aggression holds the promise of advancing our ability to prevent child physical abuse and promote non-aggressive parenting practices.