The Nature of Aggression

Aggression can be physical or verbal, inwardly or outwardly directed, and range from a sarcastic comment or roll of the eyes all the way up to rape and murder. Unfortunately, it is also a legacy of human evolution. Freud , for example, even came to believe that aggression was a fundamental part of the human psyche.

The Nature of Aggression

Aggression can take many forms. The most obvious example is physical assault, such as punching, kicking, or scratching. Then of course there is verbal assault – shouting and swearing at someone who cuts in front of you in a traffic jam, for example. But aggression can take more subtle forms. Many people are passive-aggressive, avoiding physical violence or obscene yelling but still causing immense distress. Indeed, some live most of their lives in a passive-aggressive state. For example, if you are ever unfortunate enough to work with a passive-aggressive colleague, you may find that they deliberately procrastinate, avoid eye contact when you are speaking to them, disguise hurtful suggestions as compliments, and make you late for appointments.

Perhaps most surprising of all, aggression can be turned inwards as well as outwards. Some people live with a torturer inside their head – one that often resembles the voice of a school bully or critical father. Such a voice will constantly tell them how ugly and unloveable they are, or accuse them of stupidity and incompetence. During a schizophrenic breakdown, these voices can assume a character and personality of their own, literally screaming abuse and even encouraging suicide. Sometimes, inward directed aggression can be physical as well, with the victim cutting, hitting, and, in extreme cases, killing himself.

Impulsive Aggression

Psychiatrists often separate aggression into the impulsive and the instrumental. Impulsive aggression, as the title suggests, is aggression that occurs suddenly. When an individual admits to having a “quick temper,” they normally mean that they are impulsively aggressive. So, for example, imagine you are standing in line for the cinema. Your friend is laughing and joking and seems to be in a good mood. Then a man cuts in front of her when he thinks she is distracted. Immediately, she yells at him to get back in line. Her fists are clenched and her face is red. At one point you fear she may actually attack him. This instant switch from happy to enraged is an example of impulsive aggression.

Instrumental Aggression

But aggression doesn’t always involve a loss of temper. Psychopaths, for example, can generate horrifying levels of aggression without becoming particularly emotional. Soldiers and boxers are also taught how to control and channel violent aggression. All three use aggression as an instrument, employing it to achieve a specific goal rather than allowing the aggression to suddenly take them over. The mugger who punches his victim until she surrenders her money is also using instrumental aggression. Like the soldier or the boxer, the mugger probably feels little anger or hatred towards the person he attacks – he summons up aggression to achieve a particular goal, nothing more. Another good example is the army drill sergeant. His job is to knock the civilian mentality out of his recruits and instil discipline and self-control. To that end he will stand eye to eye with his men and scream in their face. But this is planned, almost ritualised, aggression. And, of course, though he shouts and yells, he isn’t actually angry. Again, he is using aggression to achieve something rather than being swept away by it.


Aggression causes enormous problems and, naturally, a great deal of research has gone into explaining it. As with so many psychological problems, anyone who attempts to understand aggression immediately runs up against the nature-nurture debate. Are people born aggressive? Or are they made that way by experience? Of course, the answer depends on the individual. And it should be stressed that we are what we are due to a complex interplay of genes and environment. In other words, the question is not whether aggression is due to nature or nurture, but which has been most important in shaping the particular individual.

Whether or not people inherit an aggressive streak, it is clear that childhood experiences play a role. Neglected children often react to a lack of love by throwing tantrums or developing anger issues later in life – though this is not inevitable. Aggression is also common among those suffering from post-traumatic stress. And Bandura’s famous Bobo Doll experiments (in which children observed, and then imitated, adults punching and kicking life-size inflatable dolls) suggest that children can learn to be aggressive by watching their parents and older siblings. So a child raised in a home in which people screamed, shouted and occasionally attacked one another will probably grow up both traumatised and likely to imitate what he saw – though again it must be stressed that this is not inevitable.

The Psychoanalyst’s Explanation

Psychoanalysts continue to debate the nature of aggression. Freud came to believe that libido (which he envisaged as a kind of sexualised energy animating the body and mind) existed alongside a destructive, aggressive drive. In other words, human beings were motivated by two distinct forces, one a life drive and the other a death drive, with aggression being a derivative of the second. Freud was so shocked by the insane, irrational slaughter of the First World War that he became convinced some part of the human psyche craved destruction for its own sake. Modern Psychoanalysts still disagree. Some hold the view that it is a primary drive, others see it as a reaction to damned up libido.

Unless someone is fighting to save his life or the life of those he loves, aggression is rarely helpful. And people frequently confuse aggression with assertiveness, which is in fact quite different and much healthier. Aggressive people often ruin relationships, reduce those around them to nervous wrecks, and even end up in trouble with the police. Thankfully, anger management therapy is now well established and generally effective, though many find they need to get to the root cause of their aggression as well.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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