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Perceived Instructor Affinity Seeking and Verbal Aggressiveness in the College Classroom

Scott A. Myers, and members of COM 200, Creighton University

NDSTA Journal
Volume 16, 2003


Abstract

The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between perceived instructor affinity seeking, perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness, and perceived instructor use of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages. Participants were 273 students enrolled in a variety of courses at a small midwestern university. Results indicated that perceived instructor affinity seeking is negatively correlated with perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness, significant negative relationships exist between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor use of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages, and instructors were perceived to use all 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages infrequently.

Keywords: affinity seeking, verbal aggressiveness, verbally aggressive messages

About the authors.

The quality of the student-instructor relationship in the college classroom has been one focus of instructional communication researchers over the past several decades (Waldeck, Kearney, & Plax, 2001). One way in which this relational quality is realized is through the study of instructor communication behaviors, two of which are affinity seeking and verbal aggressiveness. Affinity seeking, which is “the process by which individuals attempt to get other people to like and feel positive toward them” (Bell & Daly, 1984, p. 111), is generally associated with positive student outcomes. These outcomes include increases in student liking, student affective and cognitive learning, student state motivation, and perceived teacher credibility (Wanzer, 2002). Verbal aggressiveness, which is a message behavior that attacks a person’s self-concept in order to deliver psychological pain (Infante & Wigley, 1986), is generally associated with negative student outcomes. These outcomes include decreases in student affective and cognitive liking, student state motivation, and perceived teacher credibility (Myers, 2001; Myers & Knox, 2000).

Given the disparity in the outcomes associated with perceived instructor affinity seeking and verbal aggressiveness, it stands to reason that a negative relationship will exist between perceived instructor affinity seeking and verbal aggressiveness. Because the recipient of a verbally aggressive message usually feels humiliated, embarrassed, or inadequate as a result of the verbally aggressive message (Infante, 1995), students who are the recipients of such a message from an instructor will undoubtedly perceive the instructor as engaging in less affinity seeking, particularly in light of the fact that the goal behind an individual’s use of affinity seeking is to generate liking (Daly & Kreiser, 1992). Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness in the college classroom. By exploring the relationship between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived verbal aggressiveness, it is possible to garner a more comprehensive picture of the quality of the student-instructor relationship in the college classroom.

Review of Literature
The two variables under investigation in this study are affinity seeking and verbal aggressiveness. The first variable is affinity seeking. In the college classroom, instructors use any number of 25 affinity-seeking strategies (Dolin, 1995; Frymier, 1993, 1994a, 1994b; Frymier & Thompson, 1992; Gorham, Kelley, & McCroskey, 1989; McCroskey & McCroskey, 1986; Myers, 1995; Richmond, 1990; Roach, 1991). [For a complete description of these 25 affinity-seeking strategies, see either Dolin (1995) or McCroskey and McCroskey (1986).] Researchers have concluded, however, that instructors tend to use several of these affinity-seeking strategies more often than other strategies. These strategies include conversational rule-keeping, dynamism, elicit other’s disclosures, listening, nonverbal immediacy, physical attractiveness, sensitivity, supportiveness, and trustworthiness (Gorham et al., 1989; Frymier, 1994b; McCroskey & McCroskey, 1986; Myers, 1995; Roach, 1991). Conversely, there is consensus that some affinity-seeking strategies are used less frequently. These strategies include inclusion of others, reward association, and self-inclusion (Frymier, 1994b; Frymier & Thompson, 1992; McCroskey & McCroskey, 1986; Myers, 1995; Richmond, 1990). Other infrequently used strategies include concede control (Frymier & Thompson, 1992; McCroskey & McCroskey, 1986; Myers, 1995), personal autonomy (Gorham et al., 1989; Frymier, 1994b; Frymier & Thompson, 1992; Richmond, 1990), and similarity (Frymier, 1994b).

For many students, perceived instructor use of affinity-seeking strategies is directly related to perceptions of instructor communication. Perceived instructor use of affinity-seeking strategies is positively related to student perceptions of instructor credibility (Frymier & Thompson, 1992; Thweatt, 1999), instructor competence (Prisbell, 1994a), and instructor establishment of a supportive classroom climate (Myers, 1995). Moreover, researchers have found that perceived instructor use of affinity-seeking strategies is positively and significantly correlated with student outcomes such as state motivation, affective learning, and cognitive learning, and satisfaction (Dolin, 1995; Frymier & Thompson, 1992; Prisbell, 1994b; Richmond, 1990; Roach, 1991). Conversely, instructor use of affinity-seeking strategies is negatively related to student perceptions of instructor misbehaviors (Dolin, 1995).

The second variable is verbal aggressiveness. In the college classroom, verbally aggressive instructors are perceived as unresponsive (Myers, 1998), unfriendly and inattentive (Myers & Rocca, 2000b), lacking in nonverbal immediacy (Rocca & McCroskey, 1999), lacking credibility (Martin, Weber, & Burant, 1997; Myers, 2001; Schrodt, 2003), and engaging in inappropriate classroom communication behavior (Martin et al., 1997). Moreover, perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness is negatively associated with student outcomes such as state motivation, affective learning, cognitive learning, and satisfaction (Myers, 2002; Myers & Knox, 2000; Myers & Rocca, 2001). A negative relationship also exists between perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness and establishment of a supportive classroom climate (Myers & Rocca, 2001).

Instructor verbal aggressiveness can also emerge in the form of specific messages. Infante (1987) identified 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages. These message types are character attacks, competence attacks, background attacks, physical appearance attacks, malediction, teasing, ridicule, threats, swearing, and nonverbal emblems (i.e., use of nonverbal gestures that have a direct verbal translation). When instructors engage in character, competence, and background attacks as well as ridicule, malediction, threats, and nonverbal emblems, students report lower amounts of affective learning (Myers & Knox, 1999) and state motivation (Myers & Rocca, 2000a). Instructor use of physical appearance attacks and teasing is also negatively related to perceived student affective learning (Myers & Knox, 1999). Of the 10 message types, instructor swearing is the only type that is not correlated significantly with either student affective learning (Myers & Knox, 1999) or student state motivation (Myers & Rocca, 2000a). Moreover, Myers and Rocca (2000b) found a relationship exists between perceived instructor communicator style and perceived instructor use of the 10 types of verbally aggressive messages. They reported, for instance, that the impression leaving, friendly, attentive, and animated instructor communicator style attributes are negatively related to instructor use of character, competence, and background attacks. Furthermore, Myers and Rocca found impression leaving is negatively related to instructor use of physical appearance attacks, malediction, ridicule, threats, and nonverbal emblems.

Based on these two bodies of literature, not only should a negative relationship exist between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness, but perceived instructor affinity seeking should also be negatively related to instructor use of verbally aggressive messages. To investigate this query, the following two hypotheses are posited:

H1: A negative relationship will exist between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness.

H2: A negative relationship will exist between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor use of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages.

Although the effects of perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness have been well-documented by instructional communication researchers (Myers, 2003), little is still known about the specific types of verbally aggressive messages used by instructors in the college classroom. To date, the only research conducted on instructor frequency of message use has been conducted by Myers and Knox (1999). Using Infante’s (1987) typology of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages, Myers and Knox reported that instructor use of these 10 types of message is infrequent, although instructor use of these messages negatively affects student affective learning (Myers & Knox, 1999), student state motivation (Myers & Rocca, 2000a), student perceptions of instructor communicator style (Myers & Rocca, 2000b), and student perceptions of instructor credibility (Myers, 2001). In an attempt to corroborate the earlier findings proffered by Myers and Knox (1999), the following research question is posed:
RQ1: To what extent are the 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages as identified by Infante (1987) perceived by students to be used by instructors in the college classroom?

Method
Participants
Participants were 273 students enrolled in a variety of courses at a small midwestern university. The participants included 150 male and 123 female students. The age of the respondents ranged from 18 to 53 years (M = 20.29, SD = 3.39). Seventy-four (n = 74) participants were first year students, 87 participants were sophomores, 54 participants were juniors, 48 participants were seniors, and 10 participants were graduate students.

Procedures and Instrumentation
Undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory research methods course at a small midwestern university collected the data to fulfill a course requirement. Prior to questionnaire distribution, the undergraduate students were provided with questionnaire distribution guidelines and participated in discussions regarding research ethics. Each student was then instructed to recruit 15 college students to voluntarily complete a set of questionnaires. Using the methodology advocated by Plax, Kearney, McCroskey, and Richmond (1986), participants completed the instruments in reference to the instructor of the course they attended immediately prior to the questionnaire completion. Data were gathered toward the end of the semester.
As part of a larger project, participants completed three instruments in addition to providing demographic data. These instruments were (a) the Affinity-Seeking Short Form instrument (Dolin, 1995), (b) a modified version of the Verbal Aggressiveness scale (Infante & Wigley, 1986), and (c) the Recall of Verbal Aggression instrument (Infante, Sabourin, Rudd, & Shannon, 1990).

The Affinity-Seeking Short Form instrument is an 11-item instrument that asks respondents to report their perceptions of their instructors’ general use of affinity-seeking behaviors. Seven items represent affinity-seeking behaviors; four items are filler items and are not included in the calculation of perceived instructor affinity seeking. Responses are solicited using a five-point scale ranging from very often (4) to never (0). Previous reliability coefficients ranging from .75 to .87 have been reported for the instrument (Dolin, 1995). In this study, a coefficient alpha of .92 (M = 18.76, SD = 6.92) was obtained for the seven-item instrument.

The Verbal Aggressiveness scale is a 20-item instrument that asks respondents to report their perceptions of their own verbally aggressive behaviors. Responses are solicited using a five-point scale ranging from almost always true (5) to almost never true (1). In this study, two modifications were made. First, although the scale was originally designed as a self-report measure, respondents were asked to report their perceptions of their instructors’ general, traitlike use of verbally aggressive behaviors. Second, to reduce respondent fatigue, a 10-item version of the scale was used (see Myers & Rocca, 2000b). Previous reliability coefficients ranging from .75 to .85 have been reported for the 10-item version (Myers, 1998; Myers & Knox, 2000; Myers & Rocca, 2000b). Due to concerns raised by Beatty, Rudd, and Valencic (1999) in regard to the factor structure of the Verbal Aggressiveness scale, it was decided to use only the six items that directly measure verbal aggression. In this study, a coefficient alpha of .82 (M = 12.28, SD = 5.21) was obtained for the six-item scale.

The Recall of Verbal Aggression instrument provides participants with a checklist of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages: character attacks, competence attacks, background attacks, physical appearance attacks, malediction, teasing, ridicule, threats, swearing, and nonverbal emblems. Participants were asked to report the frequency to which their instructors used each specific type of message directed toward the class as a whole. Responses are solicited using a five-point scale ranging from very often (4) to never (0). A previous reliability coefficient of .86 has been reported for the instrument (Myers & Knox, 1999; Myers & Rocca, 2000a). In this study, a coefficient alpha of .90 (M = 6.17, SD = 7.18) was obtained for the instrument.

Data Analysis
The hypotheses were examined using a series of Pearson Product-Moment correlations. The research question was answered by assessing the frequency of use for each of the 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages. Low frequency of a verbally aggressive message was defined by counting the percentage of responses in the “0” and “1” categories, and high frequency of a verbally aggressive message was defined by counting the percentage of responses in the “3” and “4” categories. This form of data analysis (using either a 1-5 scale or a 0-4 scale) has been used in previous research (Myers, 1994; Myers & Knox, 1999; Roach, 1991).

Results
The first hypothesis predicted that a negative relationship would exist between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness. The hypothesis was supported, r = -.50, p <.001.

The second hypothesis predicted that a negative relationship would exist between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor use of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages. The hypothesis was supported. Significant negative relationships were reported between perceived instructor affinity seeking and character attacks (r = -.55), competence attacks (r = -.58), background attacks (r = -.37), physical appearance attacks (r = -.34), malediction (r = -.32), teasing (r = -.28), ridicule (r = -.53), threats (r = -.34), swearing (r = -.19), and nonverbal emblems (r = -.56). All correlations were significant at the p <.01 level.

The research question inquired about the extent to which 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages are perceived by students to be used by instructors in the college classroom. All 10 types of verbally aggressive messages were perceived to be used infrequently by college instructors (see Table 1). That is, students did not report that their instructors used any of the 10 types of verbally aggressive messages with regularity.


Discussion
The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness in the college classroom. It was found that not only is perceived instructor affinity seeking negatively correlated with perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness, but perceived instructor affinity seeking is negatively correlated with instructor use of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages. Given that affinity seeking and verbal aggressiveness measure opposite constructs, these findings are not wholly surprising. As such, what these findings suggest is that college instructors who engage in affinity-seeking behaviors are perceived to be lacking in verbal aggressiveness as well as in their use of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages.

The negative correlations obtained between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness indicate that when instructors engage in behaviors that suggest affinity, they are also perceived as failing to engage in verbally aggressive behaviors. Intuitively, this finding makes sense. Individuals who engage in affinity seeking essentially are stating they possess a positive attitude toward another individual (McCroskey & Wheeless, 1976). Inherently contained within this positive attitude are feelings of similarity, attraction, and liking (Frymier, 1994b). On the other hand, individuals who engage in verbal aggression essentially are stating they possess a negative attitude toward another individual or, at the least, a negative attitude toward communicating with the individual. Verbally aggressive individuals are considered to be unresponsive (Martin & Anderson, 1996), lacking character and competence (Kassing & Infante, 1999), and less communicatively and cognitively flexible (Martin, Anderson, & Thweatt, 1998). Moreover, verbally aggressive individuals are less sensitive about the use of verbally aggressive messages (Infante, Riddle, Horvath, & Tumlin, 1992) and believe the use of verbally aggressive messages is justified (Martin, Anderson, & Horvath, 1996), even if there is a possibility the recipient of the verbally aggressive message will be hurt (Infante, 1987). In the classroom, perceived instructor affinity seeking is positively related to student liking and affect toward the instructor (Frymier, 1994b) whereas perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness is negatively related to student affect toward the instructor (Myers & Knox, 2000). Thus, it is not surprising that a negative relationship exists between perceived instructor affinity seeking and perceived instructor verbal aggressiveness, particularly if verbally aggressive instructors also engage in the behaviors associated generally with verbally aggressive individuals.

Instructors may also be perceived as engaging in less affinity seeking when they use specific types of verbally aggressive messages, particularly messages such as teasing, nonverbal emblems, character and competence attacks, and ridicule. Although any type of a verbally aggressive message can be used to attack an individual’s self-concept (Infante & Wigley, 1986), it may be that in the college classroom, instructor use of some types of verbally aggressive messages has more of an impact on student perceptions of their instructors’ communication behaviors than other types of verbally aggressive messages. For college students, it is possible that instructors’ use of verbally aggressive behaviors that directly challenge the student role, or affect student involvement in classroom discussion, are tied somehow to perceived affinity seeking. For example, Myers and Knox (1999) noted that when instructors use character and competence attacks, student attitudes toward the course content, the recommended course behaviors, and teacher evaluation all decrease; yet, when instructors use malediction, only student attitudes toward the teacher evaluation decrease. Among the 10 types of messages, instructor character and competence attacks exert the strongest impact on student state motivation (Myers & Rocca, 2000a). Thus, instructor use of these two verbally aggressive messages, as well as teasing, nonverbal emblems, and ridicule, may be perceived as a way in which instructors negatively comment on students’ ability to successfully play the student role, and consequently results in decreased perceptions of instructor affinity-seeking.

The secondary purpose of this study was to corroborate the earlier findings proffered by Myers and Knox (1999), which indicated that college instructors are perceived to infrequently engage in the use of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive messages. This finding is encouraging, and suggests that college instructors infrequently use these verbally aggressive messages. It is entirely possible, however, this finding is confounded by the instrument used to measure instructor use of these messages. A closer examination of the 10 items contained on the Recall of Verbal Aggression Instrument reveals that these 10 types of messages may be too broad, too generic, and/or too general in their application to the college classroom. Moreover, because verbally aggressive individuals, as well as verbally aggressive instructors, engage in verbal aggression for any number of reasons (Infante et al., 1992; Myers, 1998), it is highly likely additional types or forms of instructor verbal aggression exist. It is also important to note that an individual’s verbally aggressive behaviors can emerge as a result of the influence of situational factors (Infante & Rancer, 1996); consequently, the full range of perceived instructor verbally aggressive behaviors, and use of specific messages, cannot be fully captured through the use of this instrument. Future research should focus on identifying the specific types of, as well as the effects of, verbally aggressive behaviors used by instructors in the college classroom.

In sum, the findings obtained in this study suggest that college instructors who engage in affinity seeking are perceived to be lacking in verbal aggressiveness as well as in their use of 10 specific types of verbally aggressive behaviors. Because the ultimate goal of affinity seeking is to produce liking (Daly & Kreiser, 1992), instructors who are concerned about gaining the affinity of their students should consciously monitor their use of verbally aggressive behaviors and messages. By doing so, the quality of the student-instructor relationship may be enhanced.

 

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About the authors
Scott A. Myers (Ph.D., Kent State University, 1995) is an Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Studies, P.O. Box 6293, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506-6293, (304) 293-3905 office, (304) 293-8667 fax, smyers@mail.wvu.edu. Members of COM 200 include Libby Abdo, Eric Brown, Sara Cizek, Colleen Dugdale, Samantha Herbster, Samuel James Herrera, Samantha Jensen, Shelby Joseph, Courtney Kurowski, Karen Meredith, LeAnne Mistysyn, Kaili Nguyen, Andrew Niehaus, Krista Phair, Michaela Piller, Gina Tielebein, Angelina Walls, and Jill Zuerlein. At the time this project was completed, the members of COM 200 were undergraduate students in the Department of Communication Studies, Creighton University, Omaha, NE 68178. A version of this paper was presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the Central States Communication Association, Milwaukee, WI.

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