SF State psychology professor publishes article linking hate speech to violent acts

This November, students will have to sift through speeches and public appearances from the nation’s political leaders and candidates of this election cycle to cast a meaningful vote. Here at SF State, psychologists have peeled back another layer of our political reality. University researchers have found that verbal cues given in speeches by ideological leaders can predict either violent or nonviolent events, according to a University news release.

SF State psychology professor David Matsumoto and his team recently published an article that tested what happens when aggressive words turn to literal violence. By looking at the transcripts of speeches of famous and influential leaders from the past 100 years, researchers discovered that an increased number of expressions of anger and disgust given in speeches were predictive of organized violent events.

Phrases that showed anger were identified by political science researchers, also known as coders.

“Coders read various speeches and assigned codes to the emotions they picked up on,” explained Matsumoto when asked how they quantified their research.

The article also discusses how coders were trained to pick up obscure references to groups being targeted.

“When a Russian prime minister refers to ‘threats to the safety and well-being of former citizens of the Soviet Union in the Caucasus’ (he is actually) referring to Chechen rebels,” the article states.

They found that expressions of contempt, anger or violence spiked six to three months before an act of violence. On the flip side, nonviolent groups also saw an increase in contempt, disgust and anger six to three months before a peaceful resistance movement.

“I think this (research) could apply to any group that is based on any ideology and most nation-states are based on an ideology,” Matsumoto said.

The article was published in the journal “Behavioral Science of Terrorism and Political Aggression.” The potential impact of the research applies to more than just terrorists in the Middle East.

“Republicans have a pretty violent constituency so when (presidential candidate Mitt) Romney makes comments like the one about (President Barack) Obama’s origins, they are activating those people without being obvious. When Mitt Romney said ‘No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate,’ he tried to pass it it off as a joke, but of course it plugged into this extremely violent discourse as to whether or not Barack Obama was either a Kenyan or American. There is a lot of actual violence connected to that. People have had weapons strapped to their legs during an Obama rally,” said SF State associate professor James Martel, chair of the political science department.

With American soldiers still engaged in military operations overseas, the U.S. Department of Defense is constantly looking out for new ways to protect our troops.

The U.S. military took heavy losses during Operation Iraqi Freedom and many media outlets said it was a result of a lack of knowledge of the enemy’s culture. In 2009 the U.S. Department of Defense started the Minerva Research Initiative, which awarded the project titled “Emotion and Intergroup relations” for $1.9 million to Matsumoto.

According to the project’s website, the research initiative “seeks to build a deeper understanding of the social, cultural and political dynamics that shape regions of strategic interest around the world.”

Dr. Mark G. Frank, a professor at the University of Buffalo and co-author of the article, believes the results are a good thing.

“I think the results suggest that the language can predict to some degree which groups won’t break toward violence,” he said.

The research applies to nonviolent movements as well. One example looked at Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience resolution, which was written to denounce British occupation of India.

“It also is a good thing to tell people that dehumanizing others is not simply morally bad, but may in fact have real consequences for real people, ” said Frank, who is also director of the communication science center at State University of New York Buffalo and specializes in detecting deception and interpersonal interaction.

With this new ability to predict violent events through the number of emotional cues in speeches, political watchdog groups here in the U.S. can keep an eye on all political parties during this election.

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