What can be learned from the general literature on threats

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned ReportResearch


The Oxford English Dictionary defines threats as “a declaration of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage or other punishment in retribution”. The behavioural science literature occasionally attempts to distinguish between ‘internal and external’ definitions of threat. External definitions are independent both of the intention of the actor and of the response of the recipient e.g. “a threat is the communication of one’s intentions to take an action harmful to another party (Sawyer & Guetzkow, 1965). Internal definitions focus on the cognitive and emotional states of either or both of the threatener and threatened e.g. a threat is an utterance which produces in its recipient fear or anger (Brody & Benham, 1966), or the reverse, an utterance produced by fear or anger directed at the supposed source of those experiences. Meloy (1996) has noted a failure to be precise in defining the conceptual elements of threat has retarded the progress of research in the area. Perhaps for our purposes the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary is more germane focussing as it does on the intentions of the threatener. Threats can be conveyed in a variety of ways including gesture and symbol (e.g. sending an RIP card) as well as spoken and written utterances. The central problem is the relationship between making a threat and posing a threat. How often do threats convert into attacks? The social psychologists teasing out of the interpersonal and communicative elements involved in the threat situation are interesting (Milburn & Watman, 1981) but of little obvious relevance to this central question. What we need to distinguish between is a threat which represents a commitment to gain some advantage through the act of threatening, and a threat which represents a stage on an emerging commitment to greater aggressive action.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2005


  • Threats

Cite this