Factors That Lead to Aggression

A woman showing physical aggression
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In psychology, the term aggression refers to a range of behaviors that can result in both physical and psychological harm to yourself, others, or objects in the environment. This type of behavior centers on harming another person either physically or mentally. It can be a sign of an underlying mental health disorder, a substance use disorder, or a medical disorder.

Forms of Aggression

Aggression can take a variety of forms, including:

  • Physical
  • Verbal
  • Mental
  • Emotional

While we often think of aggression as purely in physical forms such as hitting or pushing, psychological aggression can also be very damaging. Intimidating or verbally berating another person, for example, are examples of verbal, mental, and emotional aggression.

Purposes of Aggression

Aggression can serve a number of different purposes, including:

  • To express anger or hostility
  • To assert dominance
  • To intimidate or threaten
  • To achieve a goal
  • To express possession
  • A response to fear
  • A reaction to pain
  • To compete with others

Types of Aggression

Psychologists distinguish between two different types of aggression:

  • Impulsive aggression: Also known as affective aggression, impulsive aggression is characterized by strong emotions, usually anger. This form of aggression is not planned and often takes place in the heat of the moment. When another car cuts you off in traffic and you begin yelling and berating the other driver, you're experiencing impulsive aggression. Research suggests that impulsive aggression, especially when it's caused by anger, triggers the acute threat response system in the brain, involving the amygdala, hypothalamus, and periaqueductal gray (PAG).
  • Instrumental aggression: Also known as predatory aggression, instrumental aggression is marked by behaviors that are intended to achieve a larger goal. Instrumental aggression is often carefully planned and usually exists as a means to an end. Hurting another person in a robbery or car-jacking is an example of this type of aggression. The aggressor's goal is to obtain money or a vehicle, and harming another individual is the means to achieve that aim.

    Factors That Can Influence Aggression

    A number of different factors can influence the expression of aggression, including:

    • Biological factors: Men are more likely than women to engage in physical aggression. While researchers have found that women are less likely to engage in physical aggression, they also suggest that women do use non-physical forms, such as verbal aggression, relational aggression, and social rejection.
    • Environmental factors: How you were raised may play a role. People who grow up witnessing more forms of aggression are more likely to believe that such violence and hostility are socially acceptable. Bandura's famous Bobo doll experiment demonstrated that observation can also play a role in how aggression is learned. Children who watched a video clip where an adult model behaved aggressively toward a Bobo doll were more likely to imitate those actions when given the opportunity.
    • Physical factors: Epilepsy, dementia, psychosis, alcohol abuse, drug use, and brain injuries or abnormalities can also influence aggression.
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