College of Science and Health Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Summer 7-13-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Christine Reyna, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

PJ Henry, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Kathryn Grant, Ph.D.


A person's standing within a social hierarchy can have a pervasive influence on patterns of attribution,especially when presented with an ambiguous social provocation. Those with low social status are devalued by society and this sense of threatened social worth motivates social vigilance and influences patterns of social cognition and behavior. Integrating Attribution Theory (e.g., Heider 1958; Weiner, 1986} with predictions of Social Information Processing Theory (SIP;Crick & Dodge, 1994; Dodge & Pettit, 2003) and Stigma Compensation Theory (STC; Henry, 2009; 2011), this research suggests the possibility that status-based differences in hostile attributions and reactive aggression are mediated by threatened social worth. Using survey methodology, Study 1demonstrates that non-Whites and those with lower SES reported significantly greater hostile a ttributions than Whites and those with higher SES even when controlling for relevant covariates. Additionally, non-Whites reported significantly greater reactive aggression than Whites even when controlling for trait aggression, relational aggression and normative beliefs about aggression. Social status is negatively associated with threatened social worth and together, threatened social worth and vigilance toward threats significantly mediated the relationship between social status and hostile attributions for ethnicity, SES and subjective status. Study 2 employed a modified Lexical Decision Task to test for status-based differences in activation of hostility related knowledge structures following ambiguous provocation stimuli. The results were mixed; regardless of social status, participants were generally faster to respond to benign compared to hostile words, indicating the ambiguous provocation sentences either facilitated processing of benign stimuli and/or inhibited processing of hostile stimuli. However, there was a significant interaction between ethnicity and reaction time, indicating that the ambiguous provocation sentences may have inhibited processing of hostile words for Whites only. Non-Whites were equally as fast to respond to benign and hostile words. Study 3 examined the effects of a social worth affirmation on the relationships between social status, hostile attributions and reactive aggression. If threatened social worth drives these processes, then affirming social worth should render the status differences on hostile attributions and reactive aggression non­ significant (compared to control). The results of Study 3 did not support this hypothesis. This research makes an important step toward understanding the influence of social status on hostile attributions and reactive aggression. Low social status can push people to be vigilant toward threats to social value, and thus increases their likelihood of interpreting ambiguous provocations as intentionally hostile. These data represent an integration of three relatively separate literatures and can provide an empirical foundation for research investigating the relationship between social status and a bias toward attributing hostile intent and reactive aggression. Additionally,this research makes theoretical advancements in terms of exploring predictions of both SIP and STC theory. Finally, these data can foster applied research aimed toward reducing reactive aggression, by highlighting the potential effects of low social status on psychological defensiveness and information processing.

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Psychology Commons