Hypothesis Chapter: Threatening Communication the Relationship

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Threatening Communication

The Relationship between Language in Threatening Communications and the Threatener's Potential Risk for Violence

The Relationship between Language in Threatening Communications and the Threatener's Potential Risk for Violence

Analysis of Threats

When a person receives a threat they have to decide how they are going to react to that communication. The threat can be taken as an actual challenge, as an attempted determination of the threatened person's ability to respond to the threat, or as an attempt to preempt a likely threat from the person being threatened. These different scenarios require a quick reaction from the victim, and it is valuable to examine theories of how this examination can take place.

Game Theory

Game theory really is about how people play games. It is most closely associated with sociolinguistics because it describes how people interact with one another. This theory, which uses complex mathematical modeling to determine how people will conduct themselves during different interactions, can be related to many topics, but it has been used the most in explaining economic theories and relationships by social scientists. The real context of the theory is how people react to one another while they are playing a game. Also, the game can take on many different aspects. It is the interactions that are most important to the theory. And these interactions are what makes it an interesting theory when trying to understand how a person is going to either give or react to a threat.

Threatening communication is the result of a threat on the part of one communicator and the acceptance of the threat from the other party. Much like hearing a tree falling in the woods, communication has to be received to be defined as such. Thus there have to be two people available to not only deliver the threat, but also to receive it.

People who threaten, according to Game Theory, are doing so to get a response from the other player. From this response they will be able to determine what type the other person is, and they will understand whether they can carry out the threat or not. "The benefit…of studying game theory therefore comes not from…mastering mathematical techniques, but rather from gaining intuitive insights into strategy" (Miller & Felton, 2002). The person who is making the threat wants to determine his or her own ability to carry out a threat. The person doing the threatening knows what type they are (whether that is weak or surly), and they know their own ability to make good on the threat. The threatener is testing the waters, so to speak. During this negotiating period, they will find out, through how the other person takes the threat, whether they are an opponent who will be surly and stand up to the threat, or weak and back down.

"Game theory, however, teaches that threats should be believed only if the player making the threat would be better off actually carrying them out" (Miller & Felton, 2002).

Thus, there is some play on the side of the threatened person also. They need to ask themselves, "What is the purpose of the threat?," "Will the threatener actually carry out their threatening actions?" The threatener has to benefit somehow from carrying out the threat. For example, if they are with friends, and they are trying to show how tough they are, then they may carry out the threat even if there is little chance for a victory.

On the other side, the person who is being threatened has options also. Miller and Felton (2002) said;

"If, given entry, the potential competitor would maximize his payoff by being accommodating then the incumbent should enter because the incumbent would not actually carry out his threat to be tough. Even though the incumbent would be better off if he could somehow magically commit to being tough, his lack of ability to commit may make any threat to be tough non-believable."

The threatened person needs to make a decision between two possibilities. Do they accommodate the person making the threat? Or, because the threat is not believable, do they accept the challenge. The complex interaction between the threatener and the competitor is what game theory is trying to determine.

The classic "game" in game theory is chess. Usually, there is one aggressor, a person who plays an offensive game, and a defender. The aggressor can be likened to the threatener in that this individual is trying to elicit a frightened, and therefore mistake prone, response in the other player. The defender may be seen as just trying to hold their own, but the defensive position allows them to respond sagely to the aggressor. The aggressor is actually in the weakest position because they react to what the other player does. They are more prone to mistakes. The player who reasons and thinks about not only their response to a present move, but future moves as well, is more likely to negate the threat. Game theory can be used to understand both sides in a situation involving threatening language.

Threat Simulation Theory

This particular theory is somewhat abstract as it applies to response to a threatener, but it is valuable when attempting to understand whether a threat is real. So it is closely associated with pragmatics. In threat simulation, the person is trying to work through threatening situations to determine what is an actual threat and what is not. Evolutionary psychologists, trying to understand the origin and usefulness of dreams, were trying to determine if there was any use in human dream cycles. One theory is that dreams are in response to the threats that ancient people would undergo on a daily basis. These threats could not be rehearsed when the danger was present, so the person's unconscious brain would play certain scenarios for them while they were asleep. As Valli, et al., (2007) terms it;

"A threat simulation system that selected memory traces representing life- threatening experiences from episodic long-term memory and constructed frequent threat simulations based on them could have provided our ancestors with a selective advantage in practicing threat recognition and avoidance skills. By simulating in various combinations the most severe threats encountered during wakefulness, threat coping skills could have been maintained and rehearsed without the risks of hazardous consequences that accompany threats in real situations."

Thus, the person threatened would already have knowledge of how to respond to potential threats because they had already worked them out.

A classic scenario is that of a bully threatening a, supposedly, weaker classmate. The person who is threatened may look at their strength relative to the bully, the aggression implied in the threat, or whether the threatener has carried out such threats previously. The threatened party has generally pondered such a situation before, and they can rely on their past dream experience to determine the likelihood of the bully actually carrying out the threat.

The potential of violence on the part of the bully could have been previously simulated, so the person receiving the threat would have some frame of reference on whether to take the threat seriously or not. It has been "found that threat simulations in dreams are much more frequent than real threat experiences in waking life" (Valli, et al., 2007). A single threat could then be seen from numerous angles. This would allow the person being threatened to assess language used in many different scenarios to see if what they are receiving reaches the level of actual threat or not. This could be determined by the actual language of the threat or the body language of the threatener, based on the simulations that the individual had gone through.

Options Theory

Anytime a person is threatened, they are given options. The classic "Your money or your life" is filled with choices for the person being threatened, even though it may seem like they have only two. For example, if they have a great quantity of money, they can decide to partially comply. They can assess the risks of retaliation and choose that path. That is why this theory is closely related to discourse analysis. The language of the threat and the body language of the threatener is interpreted and the analysis determines whether it is regarded as a threat or not. The person who is threatened could also decide that they want to fight the threatener, and take that option also. It is not a question of whether a person has options when they are threatened, but how many.

Options theory is at the core of determining whether a threat should be taken seriously or not. "It may be suggested that for reasons of expedience people have a tendency to use the term "threat" too broadly, where a distinction should be observed between threats and, say, warnings" (Hetherington, 1999). It is important for the person who believes themselves to be threatened to take all options into consideration. Since there are shades of threat (warning, actual threat, joke, offer), it is necessary to understand… [END OF PREVIEW]

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