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Escalation and reinforcement in mother-child conflict: Social processes associated with the development of physical aggression

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 October 2008

James Snyder*
Wichita State University
Patty Edwards
Wichita State University
Kate McGraw
Wichita State University
Kim Kilgore
Wichita State University
Angie Holton
Wichita State University
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: James Snyder, Department of Psychology, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas 67208.


The objective of this study was to test a social interactional model of physical aggression. Specifically, this model hypothesizes that the performance of physical aggression has its roots in socialization settings that are characterized by high densities of aversive stimuli and that provide frequent reinforcement for escalation to high intensity aversive behavior during social conflict. Social conflicts were observed during 10 hr of interaction of each of 20 mothers and their 5-year-old sons; half of the sons were selected based on evidence of frequent aggression in home and school settings. Simple descriptive and sequential analyses indicated that aggressive relative to nonaggressive dyad members were more likely to engage in conflict, engaged in longer conflicts, were more likely to escalate to higher levels of aversiveness, and were less likely to de-escalate the intensity of conflict. In aggressive and nonaggressive dyads, the cessation of conflict contingent on the escalation of one dyad member was reliably associated with an increased likelihood of escalation and with escalation to higher levels of aversiveness by that member in the subsequent conflict. However, escalation occurred more frequently and was more likely to result in cessation of conflicts in aggressive than nonaggressive dyads.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1994

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