Social cognitive programs for violence prevention and treatment emphasize changing the way individuals think about social interactions and interpersonal violence in order to change their behavior. A basic premise of the social cognitive perspective is that interpersonal violence is learned over time and across situations and that part of this learning involves the development of characteristic patterns of thinking that influence aggressive and violent behavior. Research studies have identified several social cognitive correlates of interpersonal violence, resulting in a proliferation of interventions aimed at modifying these social cognitive factors. Indeed, reviews of outcomes of violence prevention and treatment programs have consistently documented the effectiveness of social cognitive programs (also called cognitive-behavioral interventions to emphasize the connection between cognition and behavior). Most of these programs attempt to influence some aspect of social information processing that affects how a person understands, interprets, and responds to problematic social situations involving interpersonal conflict.
Social information processing involves a series of discrete cognitive steps individuals use to solve social problems. These steps include the following: (a) searching for relevant cues that help understand the nature of the problem (cue search); (b) interpreting the meaning of these cues (cue interpretation); (c) generating alternative solutions to the problem (response generation); (d) considering consequences of different solutions (consequential thinking); and (e) choosing a solution and evaluating its outcomes (enactment). These sequential steps can occur in a controlled fashion when there is sufficient time to think through a social problem and in an automatic fashion when responding becomes habitual. Both controlled and automatic social information processing are influenced by underlying attitudes and beliefs about the self, others, right and wrong, and appropriate or normative responses to specific situations. Social cognitive programs for violence focus either on a specific component of social information processing or on multiple aspects of social cognition and their interconnections. Further, the specific emphasis of a particular social cognitive program varies depending on the clients served and the particular type of interpersonal violence targeted.
In problematic social situations, individuals first need to understand the nature of the problem by searching for information that is relevant for decision making. An important first step in the cue search process is to control impulsive responding, or the tendency to act without thinking, in order to assess the situation more effectively. Social cognitive programs that focus on or incorporate cognitive strategies to control impulsive responding typically train participants to develop, practice, and use self-statements (“I need to stop and think”) or strategies (taking deep breaths) to calm down. These techniques are particularly important for programs that emphasize anger management for specific types of violence including intimate partner and youth violence.
Once relevant cues have been identified, individuals need to understand the meaning of these cues in order to guide their decision making and action. Research studies have identified a tendency of more aggressive individuals to attribute hostile intent to others (hostile attribution bias), particularly under ambiguous circumstances. Social cognitive programs that focus on changing this hostile attribution bias typically train participants to consider whether they hold a hostile worldview that leads to attribution errors and to gather more information regarding another’s intent before assuming hostile motives. For example, children often misinterpret a “look” by another person as motivated by hostile intent when there is a range of other possibilities. Indeed, social cognitive programs that emphasize attribution retraining have been used frequently in youth violence prevention and intervention programs.
Solving social problems also involves thinking of alternate responses and evaluating their acceptability for a given situation. Research studies have found that more aggressive individuals typically generate fewer and more aggressive solutions when confronted with social problems. As such, many social cognitive programs train participants to generate multiple solution options that include nonaggressive responses. However, individuals also vary on the extent to which they believe that certain responses are appropriate or acceptable. These beliefs may facilitate or interfere with response generation. For example, if a parent holds a strong belief that it is wrong to hit a child under any circumstances, it is unlikely that he or she will generate aggressive solutions to problematic social situations involving children. For this reason, social cognitive programs frequently try to challenge pro-aggressive normative beliefs and to foster the development of antiviolence beliefs.
Prior to selecting a response to social conflict, it is also important to consider the consequences of different potential solutions. Research studies have found that more aggressive individuals generate fewer consequences and are less likely to consider potentially detrimental and long-term consequences of aggressive and violent solutions. This tendency is particularly problematic for children and adolescents who tend to focus on immediate rather than future outcomes of decision making, in part due to immature brain development. Social cognitive programs train participants to consider multiple consequences and to evaluate those consequences from different perspectives. Because interpersonal violence has a negative consequence for others, some social cognitive programs emphasize moral development and moral reasoning, focusing on the moral consequences of transgressions that harm others.
The decision to enact a particular solution results from previous information-processing steps in conjunction with beliefs about one’s ability or self-efficacy to carry out a selected response. For instance, if a parent who is angered by a rebellious child thinks that putting the child in time-out is a good solution with positive consequences, the parent must also believe that he or she is capable of sending the child to timeout and withstanding the child’s cries and screams for a set time period. Social cognitive programs emphasize assessment of individual competencies or self-efficacy in the selection and enactment of social problem-solving strategies.
- Tolan, P., & Guerra, N. (1994). What works in reducing youth violence. Boulder: University of Colorado, Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.
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