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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI professor aggressively pursuing violence and responses

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Student perceptions help define behavior
KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 22, 2004 -- Some people read the Bible passage "an eye for an eye" and conclude that they should give back in kind.

Not so for the 260 University of Rhode Island students. They would rather turn the other cheek, at least when it comes to road rage. While the students rated road rage in the mid-range of violent behaviors, they also rated their personal reaction to it lower.

"There seemed to be an intuitive understanding that by responding to road rage, they would become part of the problem," says Charles Collyer, a cognitive psychologist who presented the preliminary findings of his ongoing violence research during a recent luncheon. The luncheon was sponsored by URI's Research Office under the leadership of Janett Trubatch, vice provost for graduate studies, research, and outreach.

Collyer is studying what people call "violent" and how they respond to being provoked. Violence, more commonly referred to as aggression by psychologists, has always been difficult to define because it has different meanings to different people unlike the concept "bachelor" which can be defined by three features–adult, unmarried male.

After two earlier classes established a list of 38 violent behaviors, Collyer asked last year's sample of students to rank those behaviors according to their severity. The behaviors included bullying, grabbing, yelling, slapping, dragging, and staring.

The students agreed on the order of the behaviors, ranking murder the highest and such disrespectful behavior as interrupting the lowest.

Individual thresholds for violence, however, varied greatly. Students with a low threshold for violence tended to rank all of the behaviors in the mid to upper range, while students with high thresholds tended to rank more of the behaviors in the lower range. So while the ordering of relative severity of violence was the same in the low and high thresholds, most disagreements were over thresholds.

That doesn't mean students with a low threshold for labeling behaviors as violent act upon them. Quite the contrary. All the students were asked to rate how they would personally respond to different violent behaviors. The tendencies to label behaviors as violent, and to be violently provoked were almost independent of each other.

There were gender differences in the responses among the 260 students -of which 209 were women, 51 were men. Women tended to rate the behaviors slightly more violent than the men did, whereas the men reported higher levels of provocation than the women did.

One area Collyer is interested in pursuing is the "disputed order" of the severity of violence, which occurred about 25 percent of time. For example, say Tom and Sam have a disputed order. Tom ranked "pushing" higher than "screaming" while Sam ranked "screaming" higher than "pushing." He is also curious to learn whether the ordering of behaviors and the reaction to them vary in different groups and different cultures.

Collyer is one of the six co-conveners of URI's Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. With his colleague Art Stein, professor of political science, he is helping lead the effort to develop a minor in nonviolence and peace studies. He is also working toward the creation of an interdisciplinary graduate specialization in nonviolence.

Although Collyer has seen first-hand that nonviolence training works, he also sees the need to conduct research as a scientific way to quantify its effectiveness.