U. Nebraska Study Examines Psychology Threats E-mailed To Congress

This story was written by Adam Ziegler, Daily Nebraskan
After looking at hundreds of threats to members of Congress, a study conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers found people who send threats in e-mails show fewer signs of mental illness than people who send similar messages through letters.

The study was conducted by looking at 301 letters and 99 e-mails provided by the United States Capitol Police that contained threats to members of Congress. Katherine Schoeneman, a graduate student and researcher with UNL's Department of Psychology, said she began the study after noticing people were sending inappropriate e-mails to their political representatives.

"I saw an opportunity to study behavior that would be helpful to law enforcement as they worked to prevent harm," Schoeneman said.

The threatening messages were used to study risk assessment. Psychologists and law enforcement officers use risk assessment to determine how dangerous people are and how to prevent them from doing anything violent.

"It assesses the level of danger patients pose to themselves or others," said Grace Chang, a clinical psychology doctoral student at UNL.

The study also found angry e-mail writers used more obscene language and disorganized writing than letter writers. Chang said the more immediate nature of e-mail was the main reason e-mail threats were more disorganized.

"It's sort of a heat of the moment thing where if they're mad they can rant and send it off quickly," Chang said.

Researchers used several indicators to determine if a writer showed signs of mental illness. Delusions, references to hallucinations and statements that the government was out to get them were some of the more common signs.

"We looked for signs that suggested the presence of psychosis or impaired contact with reality," Schoeneman said.

Chang said the messages researchers examined contained a variety of threats. Some threats were specific about what the writer wanted to do to the Congress member, while other threats were vague and only said something bad would happen to the Congress member if he or she didn't listen to the writer.

Chang said even though most threats are never acted upon, they're still a big concern for law enforcement.

"It doesn't matter if they're veiled or direct; threats are something police take very seriously," Chang said.
© 2007 Daily Nebraskan via U-WIRE