Verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness are distinct but closely related concepts that apply to conflictual interpersonal interaction. Verbal aggressiveness is the inclination to attack the other person’s feelings or identity. Argumentativeness is the motivation to attack the other person’s position, arguments, or statements. Both are types of aggressive communication, which can be subdivided into two categories: constructive and destructive. Constructive aggressive communication can be assertive or argumentative. Destructive aggressive communication also has two subdivisions: hostility and verbal aggressiveness. Assertiveness and hostility have received little research attention. Verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness are often assessed together in empirical investigations. Males generally score higher than females on both measures, and cultural differences have been explored (though without a simple generalized conclusion to this point). Dominic Infante is the originator of the current work on these two topics.
Both verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness are personality predispositions, although most researchers prefer to call them communication traits (Rancer & Avtgis 2006). While most research treats them as enduring inclinations, they have from the beginning been theorized to have a situation-specific nature as well. Their character as traits is far more studied than their state aspects.
A substantial empirical literature has grown up around these two concepts. The most detailed review of that work is Rancer and Avtgis (2006), which now supplants the earlier summary of Infante and Rancer (1996).
Each of these variables is normally measured with 20-item, self-report Likert scales. The original versions continue to be well regarded and are the standard instrumentation choices (Infante & Rancer 1982; Infante & Wigley 1986). Shorter 10-item versions have been used, and other adaptations have been made for use with adolescents (Rancer & Avtgis 2006). All versions of the scales are reliable.
Questions have arisen about the unidimensionality of the two scales. Both are composed of two 10-item groups. In the case of argumentativeness, 10 items express approach motivations (e.g., “I enjoy defending my point of view on an issue”) and 10 represent avoidance impulses (e.g., “I enjoy avoiding arguments”). The standard verbal aggressiveness scale is composed of 10 negatively worded items (e.g., “If individuals I am trying to influence really deserve it, I attack their character”), and 10 positively worded ones (e.g., “I try very hard to avoid having other people feel bad about themselves when I try to influence them”). In both cases, the composite score is calculated by subtracting the sum of one set of items (avoiding or being pro-social) from that of the other set (approaching or being verbally aggressive).
Hamilton and Mineo (2002) report that the approach and avoidance subsets of the argumentativeness scale are negatively correlated and both are reliable. The composite scale is both internally and externally consistent. Some researchers report separate results for the two subscales Hamilton and Mineo (2002) have reported acceptable reliabilities for the verbal aggressiveness scale. Several researchers have generated evidence that the scale is actually two-dimensional, with the aggressive and pro-social items falling into different (and negatively correlated) factors. Levine et al. (2004) show that a two-factor model should be preferred. The two factors consist of the 10 aggressive items and the 10 pro-social ones. In addition, Levine et al. report that the aggressive subscale is more predictive of other antisocial communicative behaviors and inclinations than is the prosocial subscale, and the reverse seems to be true when benevolent measures are correlated to the two subscales. The two subscales are substantially correlated, and have reasonable levels of reliability. Researchers should begin reporting subscale results as well as composite ones.
Associations With Basic Personality Traits
Scholars have explored the connections between various communication traits and general personality factors, factors that have been shown to be heritable. This work is called communibiology, because the main interest is to determine the degree to which genetics controls key traits, such as anxiety about communicating. The biological claims are controversial, but the empirical evidence is straightforward, and serves to locate both verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness in the general context of personality research.
The usual method in these studies is to test respondents on the big three personality measures (extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism) as well as on various communication traits. Argumentativeness is positively associated with extraversion and psychoticism, but has no apparent connection to neuroticism. Verbal aggression correlates only with psychoticism. Research shows a positive relationship between psychoticism and peer ratings of verbal aggressiveness, and a negative relationship between extraversion and peer ratings of verbal aggressiveness. A meta-analysis of studies involving twins deals with aggressiveness in general, rather than our two specific communication traits or the big three. Beatty et al. (2002) report that aggressiveness is 58 percent heritable.
Taken together, these results suggest that both argumentativeness and verbal aggressiveness are positively associated with psychoticism, which refers to emotional independence (perhaps hostility or a lack of empathy toward others). This common result may trace back to both traits’ connection to overall aggressiveness. Our two traits seem particularly distinct when associated with extraversion. Argumentativeness is characteristic of extraverted people, while verbal aggressiveness is higher among introverts. These findings are based on only a few studies, however, and further work will need to be done before conclusions are secure.
Associations With Other Personality Traits
Personality measures other than the big three have also been extensively compared to scores on both verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness. This material has been conveniently reviewed by Rancer and Avtgis (2006). In line with theoretical expectations, the profile of a person high in verbal aggressiveness suggests limited social skills. Such people score high in defensiveness, self-handicapping, and external locus of control. They are low on laudativeness, cognitive flexibility, and need for cognition. A variety of findings suggest that people high in verbal aggressiveness are oblivious to the interpersonal damage they do, and believe that their behaviors are acceptable or even positive (Infante & Rancer 1996; Hample 2005; Rancer & Avtgis 2006).
Those high in argumentativeness, in contrast, have a profile that predicts active social engagement characterized by interpersonal competence. Argumentative people are noticeably low in any sort of communication apprehension. They are extraverted, and high in cognitive flexibility, need for cognition, and the personal power dimension of self-esteem. They rate themselves as being highly competent communicators. Those high in argumentativeness are less likely to be defensive during interpersonal conflicts. However, they are also more likely to self-report that they are compulsive communicators.
Attributions Of People High On Verbal Aggressiveness And Argumentativeness
Personality traits are both self- and other-attributed. Up to this point, we have been examining self-reports and their correlates. Here, however, we consider what additional things others attribute to people high in verbal aggressiveness and argumentativeness. Self- and peer ratings of verbal aggressiveness are positively correlated, and the same is true of self- and friend ratings of argumentativeness. Both of these traits seem to be clearly exhibited to others. Attributions about verbally aggressive people are generally negative. Verbal aggressiveness is associated with lower relational satisfaction. Verbal aggression in parents is directly connected to authoritarian parenting styles, which have been in turn associated with a number of negative results for children. In organizational settings, verbally aggressive supervisors are seen as damaging one’s self-concept, and they are rated as less relaxed, friendly, and attentive. Finally, verbal aggressiveness reduces one’s credibility. Results for people high in argumentativeness are essentially the mirror image of these findings. Such people participate in more satisfying relationships, and engage in more reason-exchanging parenting. At work, such supervisors are more affirming and better liked. They are rated as being more credible.
Behavioral Consequences Of Verbal Aggressiveness And Argumentativeness
The original impulse that led to this research was the everyday observation that some people attack others while some attack positions. This is a robust result, whether evidenced by the face validity of the instruments, peer ratings, or actual behavioral observation.
Perhaps the most interesting behavioral issue connected to verbal aggressiveness is its relationship to domestic violence. Infante et al. (1989) introduced the concept of an argument skill deficiency, and provided the first of several pieces of evidence for it. The idea is that as a domestic dispute begins, participants deal with it verbally. If they have arguing skills, they reason and have a good chance of resolving things peaceably, but without such skills, frustration sets in. The person believes that he or she is right, but cannot say why, cannot answer the other’s remarks properly, and cannot reach the other persuasively. Aggression increases, possibly culminating in physical violence. Verbal aggressiveness is not held to be a direct cause of the violence, but it is seen as a triggering element and a nearly inevitable stage in the sequence leading to violence.
In the case of argumentativeness, a recurring research topic has been whether those high in argumentativeness actually cause more arguments while interacting. If it were necessary to offer a simple conclusion, we would say that they do; however, the work shows several interactions between own and partner’s argumentativeness. This is an expected outcome. Each remark by the other constitutes an instantaneous change in the situation, and the situational character of argumentativeness reasserts itself differently from instant to instant. Several investigations have shown that own arguing behavior is more responsive to other’s behavior than to own predispositions (Hample 2005).
Researchers in the area are committed to the proposition that people are better off if they are argumentative and worse off if they are verbally aggressive. Consequently, interventions have been designed to increase people’s argumentativeness and depress their verbally aggressive impulses (Rancer & Avtgis 2006). Researchers have applied a system originally designed by Infante to adults, high school students, and middle school children. While the length and content of the interventions vary, they generally include both conceptual instruction and guided practice in conflictive interaction. Immediate and long-term (up to a year after the intervention) results show that argumentativeness can be increased; however, some of the programs also generated a rise in verbal aggressiveness. These efforts are very hopeful and generally valuable, but perhaps improved handling of verbal aggressiveness will be developed.
- Beatty, M. J., Heisel, A. D., Hall, A. E., Levine, T. R., & La France, B. H. (2002). What can we learn from the study of twins about genetic and environmental influences on interpersonal affiliation, aggressiveness, and social anxiety? A meta-analytic study. Communication Monographs, 69, 1–18.
- Hamilton, M. A., & Mineo, P. J. (2002). Argumentativeness and its effect on verbal aggressiveness: A meta-analytic review. In M. Allen, R. W. Preiss, B. M. Gayle, & N. A. Burrell (eds.), Interpersonal communication research: Advances through meta-analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 281–314.
- Hample, D. (2005). Arguing: Exchanging reasons face to face. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Heisel, A. D., La France, B. H., & Beatty, M. J. (2003). Self-reported extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism and predictors of peer rated verbal aggressiveness and affinity-seeking competence. Communication Monographs, 70, 1–15.
- Infante, D. A., & Rancer, A. S. (1982). A conceptualization and measure of argumentativeness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 46, 72 –80.
- Infante, D. A., & Rancer, A. S. (1996). Argumentativeness and verbal aggression: A review of recent theory and research. Communication Yearbook, 19, 319–351.
- Infante, D. A., & Wigley, C. J. (1986). Verbal aggressiveness: An interpersonal model and measure. Communication Monographs, 53, 61–69.
- Infante, D. A., Chandler, T. A., & Rudd, J. E. (1989). Test of an argumentative skill deficiency model of interpersonal violence. Communication Monographs, 56, 163–177.
- Levine, T. R., Beatty, M. J., Limon, S., Hamilton, M. A., Buch, R., & Chory-Assad, R. M. (2004). The dimensionality of the verbal aggressiveness scale. Communication Monographs, 71, 245–268.
- Rancer, A. S., & Avtgis, T. A. (2006). Argumentative and aggressive communication: Theory, research, and application. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.