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Verbal Aggression


Verbal aggression is message behavior which attacks a
person's self-concept in order to deliver psychological
pain.(Infante, 1995) Studies of verbal aggression have
focused primarily on children and adolescents in
educational and social settings. Very few studies were
found to examine verbal aggression in adults in the
workplace.(Ebbesen, Duncan, Konecni, 1974) The consequences
of verbal aggression in the workplace can lead to social
isolation, job related stress, health related problems, as
well as problems in career advancement. It therefore should
be considered important, for the individual and management,
to identify and address the causes of verbal aggression.
This program attempts to understand verbal aggression by 1)
identifying the various functions of verbal aggression. 2)
identifying the antecedent conditions of verbal aggression.
3) Avoiding the antecedent conditions of verbal aggression.
Method Subject
The subject, Shirley J., is a 49 year old African American
female. Shirley J. has several advanced degrees and is
employed as a school psychologist in a metropolitan school
district. She is married with two adult children. The
subject readily agreed that the target behavior, verbal
aggression, is a problem as it interferes with her
relationships with others. She was enthusiastic in her
desire to reduce, if not eliminate, this behavior. It would
seem that self-monitoring for verbal aggression and
antecedent control would be valuable as it would allow for
consistent avoidance of verbal aggression. As a school
psychologist the subject was very familiar with the basic
principles of applied behavioral analysis and frequently
offered programmatic suggestions. A behavioral contract was
developed jointly between the therapist and subject. The
contract outlined the target behavior, success criteria,
and individual responsibilities of the therapist and
subject. (see Appendix A) Apparatus
A basic checklist was used to document the frequency of
verbal aggression on a daily basis. The checklist was
designed to track only the occurrence of the behavior. It
was felt by the therapist that the content of the verbally
aggressive message would be too open for subjective
interpretation and that no meaningful data would be gained
from such documentation. In addition the subject made
frequent comments of significant success or failure in
avoiding verbal aggression for discussion with the
therapist. The weekly discussions were used to evaluate the
appropriateness of the procedures used and make any
necessary adjustments to the program. Procedure
For the first two weeks of the program no intervention was
applied. Given that the subject self-reported that verbal
aggression was a problem it was important to determine if
the frequency of the behavior merited intervention.
Therefore, the subject documented the daily frequency of
verbal aggression. The results of the baseline period
revealed a high rate of verbal aggression. (see Appendix B)
Given the results of the baseline data as well as the
demanding, often stressful, nature of the subjects job, it
was mutually agreed that reducing verbal aggression would
be the focus of the program.
Verbal aggression was defined as cursing, yelling, and
screaming at others. The agreed upon goals of the program
was to decrease verbal aggression by 75% of baseline for
four consecutive weeks. Treatment would consist of
identifying and avoiding the antecedent conditions to
verbal aggression. Avoidance of the antecedents is
considered less restrictive, more proactive, and most
effective. During the initial consultation it was
determined that the antecedent conditions included, but was
not limited to: work stress, time of day, verbal behavior
of others (ie. tone of voice, inflection of voice and
content of conversation, etc.), and non- verbal behavior of
others (ie. facial expression, body posture, eye contact,
etc.). In addition, the subject was required to self
monitor for the following antecedents: clenched fists,
tight jaw, rapid heart beat, and the emotions of anger,
frustration and disappointment. Lastly, it was suggested by
Infante (1995) that appropriate strategy must be taken to
prevent verbal aggression from escalating.
Successful avoidance of the antecedent conditions consisted
of removing oneself from stressful situations, when
possible, as well as not responding verbally when provoked.
Weekly consultation revealed that verbal aggression was
most often used to: 1) Escape demand situations. 2) Avoid
demand situations. 3) Relieve job stress. The subject was
to document the frequency of verbal aggression and record
the circumstances of significant success or failure during
the work week for discussion at weekly consultation
A schedule of reinforcement was developed for the subject.
The reinforcement was to be given for successful avoidance
of verbal aggression. Reinforcement included: five minutes
alone for 'quiet time', when possible, or a short, silent
prayer. Considering the stress and escalating nature of
verbal aggression time alone was considered appropriate for
'cool down'. If time alone was not possible or convenient
the subject would say a short prayer when provoked. Results
The results of the baseline phase revealed what was
considered an extraordinarily high rate of verbal
aggression. However, after the first week of data
collection it was realized that verbal aggression was not
operationally defined. The subject considered verbal
aggression on much broader terms than did the therapist
which included subjective, rather than objective, behavior
observations. Weekly consultation sessions revealed that
cursing was the most common manifestation of the target
behavior. When correctly defined using objective terms a
decrease in verbal aggression was noted. Based on the
results of baseline data it was mutually agreed that 4 to 8
episodes of aggression per day was significantly high and
merited intervention.
The results of the intervention phase of treatment revealed
a sharp increase of verbal aggression over the first three
weeks. This increase is thought to be due to extinction.
Afterwards, a gradual decrease of verbal aggression was
noted during weeks 4 through 9. No data was collected
during week 10 due to subject illness. The treatment phase
ended with a weekly average of one episode of verbal
aggression. After week five the subject stated that she no
longer delivered the reinforcement after the behavior. She
reported that the ability to control her emotions was in
itself reinforcing and would maintain the behavior.
The results of this program show that verbal aggression can
be successfully decreased by identifying and avoiding its
antecedent conditions. As stated previously, the subject
used verbal aggression for escape from demanding or
difficult situations, relief from stress, and avoidance of
demanding or difficult situations. The behavior appears to
be maintained through positive reinforcement. Because the
subject is in a position of some power and influence there
were relatively few consequences for the behavior. Ebbesen,
Duncan and Konecni (1974) suggested that verbal aggression
could be reinforced and maintained in such a manner. Since
the most common form of verbal aggression was cursing, the
method of identifying and avoiding the antecedents proved
very successful. Infante (1995) used a similar method with
young students. When replicating this program it may be
appropriate to focus on the positive behavior rather than
the negative. Instead of documenting the frequency of
verbal aggression it may have been better to document the
frequency of successful avoidance of verbal aggression. In
this way we would help to internalize the strategy to
maintain the behavior, as well as having a more positive
and constructive program. A question raised by Golin and
Romanowski (1977) was is there a sex difference in the rate
and target of verbal aggression. Although this question was
not investigated in the current program, it does raise an
intriguing question for future study. 
Ebbessen, E. B., Duncan, B., & Konecni, V. J. (1974).
Effects of Content of 

Verbal Aggression: A Field Experiment. Journal of
Experimental Social 

Psychology, 11, 192-204.
Golin, S., & Romanowski, M. (1977). Verbal Aggression as a
Function of Sex

Subject and Sex of Target. Journal of Psychology, 97,
Infante, D. A. (1995). Teaching Students to Understand and
Control Verbal 

Aggression. Communication Education, 44, 51-63.


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