Hostile Attribution Bias and Aggressive Behavior: Virtual Reality as a Promising Tool?

By Danique Smeijers (The Netherlands) and Massil Benbouriche (France)

John is walking down a shopping street. He had a rough night and is in an irritated mood. In the distance a man is walking in his direction. “Why is he looking at me?” thinks John. “He grins at me! What does he want from me?” When the man passes John by, he bumps into John quite firmly. John yells: “Watch out! Why did you do that?! You did that on purpose! Why? Do you want to fight?” The man apologizes: “I’m sorry, I just stumbled.”


Hostile Attribution Bias (HAB)—or the misattribution of hostile intent to others—is an important construct for the assessment and the treatment of aggressive individuals. While aggression is a multifactorial phenomenon, HAB has repeatedly been found to be associated with higher levels of aggression and to differentiate aggressive from non-aggressive individuals. Despite a strong theoretical rationale and empirical evidence on the role of HAB in aggression, the validity of methods used to measure HAB may raise controversy. Specifically, their inability to appropriately account for the social context in which HAB occurs has been identified as an important limitation. In this post, we will discuss the potential of virtual reality as an assessment and treatment tool for the HAB.

Current Measures: A Need for a More Ecological Method

To assess the HAB, studies generally rely on the use of written vignettes, videos, or pictures. Specifically, a hypothetical situation is presented in which someone is provoked by a peer whose behavior is purposely ambiguous. Participants are then asked to indicate the intent of the peer. Such a design may allow us to measure the attribution of (hostile) intent; however, its ecological validity (i.e., the extent to which the results are generalizable to real-life settings) may be criticized because the complete social context which influences social information processing generally and in HAB in particular has not been approximated. For example, considering their importance in social interaction, facial expressions are likely to play an important role in HAB. In real-life situations, facial expressions always appear within a given context, including a previous and ongoing (i.e., dynamic) interaction, a physical environment surrounding the face, and multichannel information from the sender. Consequently, specific contextual information, as well as one’s expectations of the context, are likely to modify how we interpret others’ facial expressions.

Beyond theoretical implications on the exact role of HAB in aggression, a more ecologically valid method may be expected to be particularly useful from a clinical point of view. In such settings, a more ecologically valid method would be expected to (1) improve patients’ awareness of their own tendency to automatically misattribute hostile intents to others, (2) improve patients’ ability to recognize the role of social context in HAB, (3) help clinicians to identify cognitive bias in social information processing, and (4) assess the efficacy of cognitive restructuring, and other therapeutic strategies, to limit HAB and to favor a more appropriate processing of social information. Amongst recent methodological innovations in psychology, virtual reality appears to be a promising tool to study HAB.

Virtual Reality as a Promising Tool


Virtual reality is generally defined as “an application that lets users navigate and interact with a three-dimensional, computer-generated (and computer-maintained) environment in real time.” While many social behaviors, including aggression, have proved to be context-dependent, virtual reality simulates—at least partially—social contexts. The overall aim is not to reproduce reality perfectly, but to simulate an environment close enough to it that allows for the investigation of the cognitive, social, and emotional mechanisms involved in social behaviors, as they may occur in real-life situations.

Thus, virtual reality better simulates an environment than written vignettes or pictures. This methodology may be ideal for the study of “on-line mental operations” involved in aggressive behavior, including HAB. Specifically, virtual reality allows researchers and clinicians to gather information on how aggressive individuals perceive their immediate environment and to assess the “in the moment” cognitive processes as they occur in real time. While virtually immersed, participants could be explicitly asked to answer several questions regarding different aspects of the situation to determine, for example, how facial expressions or social interactions are interpreted. Gaze direction could also be used to better understand how social information is perceived and extracted (e.g., whether participants focus on hostile or non-hostile cues).

Virtual reality is also ideally suited to inform clinical treatments. For instance, it can be used to expose patients to provocative social situations, but in a safe environment (e.g., within a clinical setting and under the supervision of a professional). Not only is it possible to elicit aggressive behaviors, but it also offers the opportunity to practice and evaluate relevant skills, such as self-regulation abilities and aggression control, anger management, facial affect recognition, or intent attributions.

Virtual Reality and HAB: What’s Next?

Over the last decades, virtual reality has become increasingly popular in health and mental health settings. In forensic psychiatry, virtual reality is gaining recognition as a tool for assessment and intervention. While promising, empirical studies and clinical research are needed to support the relevance of virtual reality for the assessment and the treatment of the HAB in aggressive and violent individuals.

Danique Smeijers is a senior researcher at Forensic Psychiatric Centre The Pompestichting in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Massil Benbouriche is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Lille in France and an associate researcher at Philippe-Pinel Institute of Montreal in Canada.