What is aggressive behavior?

Updated 12 months ago on April 03, 2023

Aggression - motivated destructive behavior that contradicts the norms of human coexistence, harms the objects of attack, causes physical or moral harm to people or causes psychological discomfort to them.

In all societies, aggressive behavior directed at members of society is condemned and the aggressor is punished regardless of whether his aggressive actions have affected the interests of the punisher ("third-party punishment"). This norm is realized by people in very early childhood, at least from the age of eight months. "Third-party punishment" is a universal norm of human culture.

There are various approaches to the definition of this phenomenon. Let us denote only some of them:

  • The normative approach means that in definitions of aggression a special emphasis is made on its unlawfulness, "contradiction" to social norms. Some experts define aggression as "purposeful destructive behavior that contradicts the norms and rules of coexistence of people in society. The term "criminal aggression" is also defined within the normative approach and denotes "behavior aimed at intentional infliction of physical and moral harm to another living being, due to which the actions of the aggressor come into conflict with the norms of criminal law, although he himself does not always become the object of criminal-law impact. Other experts express the opinion that behavior can be called aggressive if two necessary conditions are present: a) when consequences detrimental to the victim take place; b) when norms of behavior are violated.
  • Deep-psychological approaches assert the instinctive nature of aggression. In this case aggression seems to be an innate and inherent property of any person. The brightest representatives of this approach are psychoanalytic and ethological schools (K. Jung, Z. Freud, G. Hartmann, E. Chris, K. Lorenz, Ardry, Morris).
    • Representatives of psychoanalysis connect aggression with manifestations of the "instinct of death" in man (the Thanatos and the shadow).
    • К. Lorenz believes that "aggression in humans is absolutely the same spontaneous instinctive drive as in other higher vertebrate animals. Besides, in his work "Aggression" he notes that in some animals "aggressive" behavior in its manifestations practically does not differ from sexual behavior.
  • Purposive approaches include definitions of aggression in terms of its functionality. Thus, aggression is seen as a tool for successful evolution, self-assertion, dominance, adaptation or appropriation of vital resources. Shwab, Couroglou see aggression as "specifically oriented behavior aimed at elimination or overcoming everything that threatens physical and/or mental integrity of the organism" (Shwab, Couroglou). H. Kaufma argues that "aggression is a means by which individuals try to get their share of resources, which, in turn, ensures success in natural selection. E. Fromm regards malignant aggression as a tool of domination, which expresses itself in "an individual's desire for absolute domination over another living being. Sometimes aggression is viewed as an integral part of human homeostasis. Homeostasis is a normal state of equilibrium of organic and other processes in a living system and aggression, in this case, is a tool of mental self-regulation.
  • Approaches that focus on the consequences of aggression describe its results. Wilson defines aggression as "the physical action or threat of such action by one individual that reduces the freedom or genetic fitness of another individual. Matsumoto writes that "aggression can be defined as any act or behavior that hurts another person physically or mentally. A. Bass, within the framework of the above approach, offers several definitions of aggression. "Aggression is a reaction that results in painful stimuli to another organism." "Aggression is not a property, but a phenomenon realized in a specific behavior, in a specific action - threatening, or harming others" (Buss). Zillman offers a similar definition. He believes that "aggression is the infliction or attempted infliction of bodily or physical harm.
  • Approaches based on assessment of aggressor's intentions (Kretsch D., Crutchfield R., Livson N.). Here aggression is understood as "a type of behavior, physical or symbolic, which is motivated by the intention to harm someone else" (L. Berkowitz) or as "a form of behavior aimed at insulting or harming another living being who does not want such treatment" (R. Baron, D. Richardson). The 9th edition of Webster's Dictionary defines aggression as "active action or decisive measures, especially with the intention to achieve dominance or take possession of something by force.
  • Emotional approaches pay special attention to the sensual component of the act of aggression. Therefore, aggression is understood as "a manifestation in the feelings and actions of an individual (social group) of hostility - antagonism, unfriendliness, hostility, hatred...". Specialists understand verbal aggression as "hurtful communication, verbal expression of negative emotions, feelings or intentions.
  • Multidimensional approaches include all of the above approaches or a combination of them, the most appropriate from the point of view of the individual author. Here are a number of examples. Aggression is purposeful, destructive, offensive behavior that violates the norms and rules of coexistence of people in society, harming objects of attack (animate and inanimate), causing physical harm to people and causing them mental discomfort, negative feelings of fear, tension, depression. Aggression (aggressiveness) is a systemic socio-psychological property that is formed in the process of human socialization and is described by three groups of factors: subjective (intrapersonal, characterizing the psychological activity of the aggressor), objective (characterizing the degree of destruction of the object and harming it) and socio-normative, evaluative factors such as moral and ethical standards or the criminal code.
  • Undifferentiated approaches, as a rule, are reflected in private psychological theories and do not explain the essence of aggression, defining it in narrow theoretical frameworks. Behaviorism interprets aggression "as a drive", "a natural reflex of a person", "as a consequence of frustration" or a form of response to physical and mental discomfort, etc. (D. Dollard, S. Fischbach, L. Berkowitz). Representatives of cognitive theories believe that "aggression is a result of learning" (A. Bandura). Other researchers suppose that aggression is "a tendency to approach an object or to move away from it" (L. Bender) or "an internal force which makes a person capable of resisting external forces" (F. Allan). Within the framework of interactionism aggression is seen as a consequence of an objective conflict of interests, incompatibility of goals of individuals and social groups (D. Campbell, M. Sheriff). Such definitions, as mentioned above, are general formulations and do not always clearly explain what aggression is.

Despite the large number of approaches, none of them provides a complete and exhaustive definition of aggression, reflecting only one or another facet of this phenomenon.

"The role of anger in mental development, especially in the dynamics of such terrible experiences that can destroy the entire forward movement of life, has long been known. The Latin scholars and poets Seneca and Plutarch wrote extensively on anger. In a recent paper, Averill reports that some 90 years ago the famous American psychologist J. S. Hall counted some 2,200 states of anger described in his research. Today, various schools of psychology are actively studying anger and discussing how to deal with it, how to get rid of it, and how to use it.

A. Bass and A. Darkey distinguish the following five types of aggression:

  1. Physical aggression (physical actions against someone);
  2. Irritation (irascibility, rudeness);
  3. Verbal aggression (threats, shouting, cursing, etc.)
  4. Indirect aggression, directed (gossip, angry jokes) and non-directed (shouting in a crowd, stomping, etc.);
  5. Negativism (oppositional behavior).

Erich Fromm distinguished the following forms of aggression:

  • Playful aggression - used for the purpose of showing off one's dexterity, skill, not for the purpose of destruction. Not motivated by hatred or destructiveness.
  • Reactive aggression is the protection of life, liberty, dignity, and one's own or someone else's property:

According to George Simon, aggression can be divided into overt and covert. The latter most often serves as a mechanism of interpersonal manipulation. People characterized by covert-aggressive behavior always try to insist on their own, to subdue other people and control the situation, but they use techniques that disguise their aggressive intentions. They may look polite, charming, and attractive, but they are unprincipled, conniving, and vindictive fighters.

A person's aggressiveness is not related to their gender, but depends on the cultural (social) environment. For example, in one archaic society both men and women are equally aggressive, while in the neighboring similar society men are more likely to be aggressive than women.

The level of physical aggression depends on genetic factors, in particular the susceptibility of androgen hormone receptors, which is determined by the length of the CAG (Cytosine Adenine Guanine) triplet repeat chain in the androgen receptor gene. Researchers who studied African tribes found that more aggressive men had a shorter chain. The level of aggression is influenced by genes:

-increasing the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine;

-reducing the activity of GABA;

-reinforcing sex hormones;

-reinforcing actions of stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol).

However, aggression is a complex behavioral response, and the length of the chain encoding androgen receptors is not the only genetic factor.

Aggression can also be viewed from a neurophysiological point of view. Initially, it is worth explaining that aggression is one of the active-defensive variants of response to an irritant, which is explained by an innate need for safety. In its turn, the amygdala and the posterior hypothalamus are responsible for aggression (the brain command "fight!"). An interesting fact is that cancerous tumors in the amygdala body of the brain can cause manic behavior.

The amygdala ensures the collection of stressogenic signals and their conduction to the hypothalamus, through which endocrine and autonomic reactions, as well as emotions, develop. The associative frontal lobe and cingulate gyrus are also worth mentioning, because behavioral (motor) reactions develop through them: the cortex triggers movements, selects the program ("hit" or "run"), and the gyrus compares real and expected results, triggers generation of "quick" emotions. Aggressive people have high activity of the amygdala and low activity of the cingulate gyrus.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are secreted by the sympathetic nerves and the brain matter of the adrenal glands, influence quickness of reaction. Therefore, it can be argued that these two hormones increase the level of aggression.

The adrenal cortex produces corticosteroids, some of which (cortisol) control glucose metabolism in the body, especially increasing its formation from other substances (proteins, fats). This effect is most often seen under stress, hence cortisol indirectly affects the level of aggression.

In addition, aggression is influenced by such hormones as dopamine and serotonin. The former interacts with the substantia nigra and ventral cap nuclei of the brain, therefore, if there is a lot of dopamine, the movements are sharper, its reaction and activity of the positive emotion center increases. Serotonin, on the other hand, affects the negative emotion center: its excess reduces the activity of this center (in other words, serotonin acts as an antidepressant), which means that, just like dopamine, it reduces the level of aggression if enough of it is present.

Personal characteristics that influence the development of aggression

  • Tendency to impulsive actions.
  • Emotional susceptibility - a tendency to feel dissatisfaction, resentment, discomfort.
  • Thoughtfulness (instrumental aggression) and dissipation (emotional aggression).
  • Hostile attribution is the interpretation of any ambiguous stimuli as hostility.
  • A child who observes a parent who uses physical expressions of anger, such as hitting a wall, is more likely to use the same behavior. A child who observes a parent calmly dealing with anger is more likely to do the same.
  • "Mission Serenity", 2005 science fiction feature film, USA. According to the plot of the film, the highest political leadership of the Alliance (the name of the intergalactic federative state) conducted a secret experiment on a planet to disperse gas called "Pax", the effect of which was to minimize the manifestations of aggression in the population. However, the experiment turned out to have monstrous unpredictable consequences.
  • "A Clockwork Orange. One of the main themes raised in Anthony Burgess' famous work was the suppression of aggression and other malevolent impulses in the individual. In the course of the story, the main character undergoes many changes in his personal life after spending a corrective session in prison.

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