Jill Lobbestael Jill Lobbestael Sacha Ruland

Not afraid of angry men - Jill Lobbestael

Written by  Femke Kools Friday, 24 August 2012 10:53
The traits of different types of aggressors

Could you describe your research?
I study different types of aggression. What triggers it, what happens at that particular moment in an individual’s body and mind, how to measure aggression in a lab situation, those sorts of questions. Broadly speaking, there are two types of aggression: impulsive and planned.
The first arises in response to a perceived threat, for example if someone is accidentally bumped into and interprets this as provocation. You see a very strong physical response in this type of aggressor, such as a sharp increase in heart rate. In contrast, planned aggression doesn’t have this type of physical response. The aggressor looks calm on the outside, but his thoughts are extremely focused on his anger. You can compare this to a cat right before it attacks a mouse: outwardly silent, but very highly focused.

The motivation underlying these two types of aggression is also different. The planned aggressor wants to use his behaviour to achieve a particular goal, while the impulsive aggressor may just have a lack of self-control, and so explodes at the slightest provocation. At the same time, an individual can show both types of aggression during a single crime, so no-one is ever 100% one or the other.

How did you come across this research theme?
In 2008 I finished my PhD on the thought patterns of people with a severe form of personality disorder: borderline and antisocial personality disorder. This applies to about 70% of the prison population, with aggression being one of the symptoms. We stimulated their aggression, then analysed how they think and respond. If you know what triggers aggression, you can try to use therapy to reduce the emotional response. Last year, I received a Veni grant to do further research on the workings of aggression.

How do you do this?
We try to elicit aggression, first in healthy experimental participants to develop a hypothesis, and then in subjects from forensic institutions or prisons. So I’m also involved in developing appropriate methods to trigger aggression. For example, actually interacting with the participant appears to be more effective than just showing a film. One way of doing this is to have them do a task and then say they’ve done it wrong, no matter what answer they give. You can use a harsh tone through the headset for each wrong answer, or you might give negative feedback: “You’re not doing well enough, I don’t think we’ll be able to pay you.”

But it’s more ethical, and just as effective, to conduct an empathetic interview. You ask someone about a situation in the past in which they were really angry, and you feed that anger so they really relive the experience. Then you can observe the physical and cognitive responses. We also have them fill in questionnaires about their own behaviour, or talk with therapists and observe their behaviour ourselves in order to get an overall picture. People often lie about how aggressive they are, so I think it’s really important that we develop measurement tools for this. One example is the “hot sauce paradigm”, where you trigger someone’s anger, then in a follow-up experiment ask the same person to prepare a dipping sauce for someone else. How hot the sauce turns out is then an indicator for aggression.

What is the societal relevance of your research?
At present, therapists tend to treat all forms of aggressive behaviour as one and the same. But the causes and the nature of aggression can vary greatly. So a more differentiated approach is needed in order to prevent violent recidivism. I want to offer practitioners better tools for therapy.

How multidisciplinary is your research?
I’m originally a clinical experimental psychologist. But with colleagues from the faculty I’m also involved in neuropsychology, where we use TMS and fMRI to localise and influence aggression structures in the brain. And because of the physical responses involved in my research, it also has a lot to do with cognitive psychology, psychopathology, social psychology and biology.

The Dies theme is ‘Inspired by quality’. Who or what inspires you?
When I first went to work in a TBS clinic [a special institute in the Netherlands where convicted criminals can be sent for involuntary psychiatric treatment –ed.] as a 20-year-old student, I was scared at first. I’d read the files of the guys I was visiting, which was quite shocking. But when I met then, most of them seemed quite normal. That “nice guy” was hard to reconcile with the file. I found – and still find – that to be a really interesting difference. What is it that makes someone just “turn into a predator”, as a recently convicted triple murderer put it? Their apparent normality is something that fascinates me.

Also, It is easier for me to imagine something in the context of anger than fear. I get really angry sometimes too, but I’m able to keep it under control. So why can’t they? And collaboration with others inspires me as well. I recently spent a year at Florida State University with Roy Baumeister, the world leader in social psychology. He has such a broad scope; he not only develops theories but also tests them in the lab, which is something I find truly impressive.

Why did you choose to do this research, at this university in particular?
This department doesn’t shy away from extreme psychopathology. Take for example my PhD supervisor, Arnoud Arntz. As well as being a researcher and lecturer, he’s a practitioner as well – he treats the so-called “untreatable borderliners”, to show that it is indeed possible. That’s a great combination that I find really inspiring.

 

 

 

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