The roots of violence are of interest because of the toll it takes on the lives and minds of all citizens. Each year, an estimated 50,000 citizens die from violence in the United States and another 2.2 million will need medical treatment for injuries (reviewed by Corso, Mercy, Simon, Finkelstein, and Miller, 2007). Although the costs on a personal level are incalculable, the costs to society can at least be estimated. The annual medical care cost of injuries due to violence was estimated to be $5.7 billion and the average lifetime loss of productivity due to each violent death was estimated to be $1.3 million. If self-inflicted injuries and death are subtracted from the overall estimate, the annual cost of violence in the United States is approximately $37 billion for medical care and lost productivity combined. These estimates do not include the cost of maintaining a criminal justice system burdened with addressing the aftermath of violence.
Violence between two or more people can often have innocuous beginnings. As Cohen and colleagues (2012) cited in their article on public insults, the experiences of a Dallas homicide detective suggest that people can get stabbed or shot over something as simple as the choice of jukebox song or a one dollar debt. Another common excuse for violence is racial differences. In 2009, 3,199 racially-motivated hate crimes were reported in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). The vast majority of these (71%) were committed against African-Americans. In terms of location, most racially-motivated hate crimes occurred at a residence. The next most common locations for hate crimes were schools and colleges, streets and highways, and parking lots and garages. Based on these statistics, the majority (67%) of hate crimes are committed on public property or in the public domain.
It is unknown whether minor disagreements are a contributing factor to hate crimes, but given the sentiments of the Dallas homicide detective mentioned above, it seems likely (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, and Schwarz, 1996). Minorities living in a racialized society, like the United States, must confront unintended and intended prejudice on a regular basis. Within an academic environment, negative evaluations by instructors perceived to be racially-based may be moderated through a process called 'psychological disengagement' (Stephan, Caudroit, Boiche, and Sarrazin, 2011). This process involves minimizing the importance of feedback to minimize its' effect on the recipient's self-esteem. Disengagement can also be applied in a more fluid and situation-specific manner, rather than applied generally. The more selective process has been called 'situational disengagement.'
A variety of psychological strategies have been discovered which are designed to protect a person's self-esteem from perceived threats (reviewed by Schwerdtfeger and Derakshan, 2010). These strategies include attention diversion, reinterpreting the event, minimizing its importance, denial, and/or self-reinforcement. The physiological correlates of disengagement are of interest to the medical field, because some researchers have suggested disengagement increases the risk of heart disease. However, the validity of this theory is unknown. Researchers have shown that heart rate increases temporarily in response to a perceived threat to self-esteem, before it decreases. Schwerdtfeger and Derakshan suggested that this finding may indicate that individuals employing disengagement rapidly respond to the perceived threat through a self-calming strategy.
When Schwerdtfeger and Derakshan (2010) examined the response of speakers to angry faces in a virtual crowd they found that individuals who tended to employ disengagement were quicker to recognize potential threats, and this response was correlated with a faster lowering of the heart rate. This finding was interpreted by the authors as indicating that the use of disengagement as a social coping skill results in maintaining an elevated level of vigilance for threats to self-esteem. An elevated state of vigilance in turn facilitates a faster disengagement from the situation.
Another potentially confounding factor that modulates responses to self-esteem threats is the culture of origin. Southern states have a reputation for elevated levels of violence and Cohen and colleagues (2012) sought to better understand this phenomenon by testing the emotional and physiological responses of men from the South who were confronted with a public insult. They proposed that men raised in the South would be taught to be more protective of their honor and that of their loved ones, compared to their Northern counterparts, and would therefore become upset more easily when insulted. Based on assessments by trained observers and physiological stress tests, men from the South showed an increased tendency to become visibly upset when insulted, aggressively bumped, and when their manhood felt challenged. These findings suggest that a Southern code of honor could explain the above average levels of violence in Southern states.
Cohen and colleagues (1996) also examined whether threats to self-esteem were handled differently in private and public settings. One of the tests was a 'toughness' test, which shocked the subjects publicly or privately. When given the chance in private to avoid getting shocked, the responses were the same. However, Southern men were significantly more willing to receive shocks of greater magnitude (p < .03). Study subjects were also bumped publicly or privately and their response to this minor act of aggression was assessed. The authors found that the men behaved the same whether in a private or public setting, but the stress response data of Southern men indicate that the private setting was more stressful.
Based on the above discussion, the three factors that could determine the nature of a response to a perceived racially-motivated threat are the practiced use of situational disengagement, cultural background, and whether the confrontation takes place in a public or private setting. To better understand whether persons of different races employ different coping strategies when confronting a threat to their self-esteem, study subjects will be observed when insulted and/or bumped, publicly or privately. Our hypothesis is that race significantly influences the behavioral response to threats to self-esteem.
Materials and Methods
Study Subjects -- Enrolled college students who self-identify as either Caucasian or African-American will be invited to participate in the study. The study design will be approved by the Human Subject Review Board and study subjects will be required to sign an approved informed consent form before they are allowed to participate in the study. The consent form will warn participants that they may become emotionally upset by what they experience, but will never be in any physical danger. A professional counselor will be present during the debriefing period and counseling services will be offered free of charge if requested.
A total of 300 subjects will be enrolled in the study; with 50% from each race. Every attempt will be made to enroll an equal number of males and females from each racial category. Relevant and potentially relevant demographic data will be collected from each subject, including the self-identified cultural background and grade point averages from high school and college (academic performance). Individuals having a history of aggression, mental illness, violent crimes, or who are younger than 18 years of age or older than 25, will be excluded from the study. The exclusion criteria are designed to minimize the inclusion of outliers in terms of aggressive behavior or adult life experience.
Procedure -- The study design will involve a confederate having the opposite race of the participant, but the same gender. The confederate will be crouched in front of a copy machine in a small conference room, supposedly digging through a backpack for papers to copy. In a different room, the participant will be asked to make a copy of the consent form they had just signed, thereby forcing him or her to enter the conference room to use the copy machine. The confederate will spot the participant as they enter and looking annoyed, engage in one of several behaviors: (1) look annoyed and move to the side (annoyed), (2) look annoyed and say under their breath "you people" (verbal), or (3) stand up with their stuff, mumble "you people," and then storm angrily out of the room, bumping shoulders with the participant (verbal + bump). This interaction will take place in private or in front of two other people, one from each racial background and having the same gender. The private interaction will be recorded by two pinhole cameras and microphones hidden in the room.
Evaluation of Interaction -- Rating the reaction of the participants will depend on the two confederates, whether in the room when the confrontation takes place or in front of video monitors and speakers in an adjacent room. A seven point rating scale (none, minimal, mild, mildly moderate, moderate, moderately severe, and severe) will be used to assess the degree of anger, amusement, arousal, frustration, resignation, or wariness the participant displays during the confrontation (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, and Schwarz, 1996). Additionally, a rating scale for indifference will be added in an attempt to gauge whether participants are employing situational disengagement. Disengagement will also be defined as any action that can be interpreted as attention diversion, reinterpreting the event, minimizing its importance, denial, and/or self-reinforcement. As was done in…