What exactly is aggression?

by TheEditor

Categories: Investigative, Medicine

Unfortunately, there is no exact definition of aggression. But that’s the beginning of this exploration, rather than the end of it. Aggression is realised when it is witnessed by observers. By contrast a person may feel aggressive but display no aggression. Feeling aggressive is not aggression until it is witnessed or its effects felt.[AC_PRO id=913]Concept

Aggression is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, encompassing a wide range of behaviours, emotions, and cognitive processes. While definitions and interpretations may vary, some key concepts that generally constitute aggression include:

  1. Intent: Aggression typically involves a deliberate intent to cause harm or assert dominance, whether physical or psychological.
  2. Behaviour: Aggressive behaviour may be expressed either physically (e.g., hitting, kicking, biting) or verbally (e.g., insulting, yelling, threatening). These behaviours can be direct (face-to-face) or indirect (e.g., spreading rumours, cyberbullying).
  3. Emotions: Aggression is often associated with strong emotions, such as anger, frustration, or hostility. These emotions can be triggers for aggressive behaviour or can arise as a result of it.
  4. Motivation: The underlying motivations for aggression can vary widely, including the pursuit of personal gain, the expression of social dominance, or a reaction to a perceived threat or provocation.
  5. Cognitive processes: Aggression is influenced by cognitive processes, such as perception, interpretation, and decision-making. For instance, individuals may perceive a situation as hostile or threatening, interpret others’ actions as intentionally harmful, and decide to respond aggressively.
  6. Biological factors: Certain biological factors, such as genetics, hormones, and neurological processes, can predispose individuals to aggression or influence the intensity and frequency of aggressive behaviours.
  7. Environmental factors: Aggression can be shaped by social, cultural, and situational factors, including upbringing, social norms, and exposure to violence or other forms of aggression.
  8. Types of aggression: Aggression can be categorised into various types, such as
    1. proactive (goal-directed, instrumental) aggression,
    2. reactive (impulsive, emotional) aggression,
    3. relational (social) aggression, and
    4. passive (non-assertive) aggression.

Not all aggressive behaviours are universally perceived as negative or harmful. In some contexts, aggression may be considered adaptive or functional, such as in competitive sports or self-defence. However, aggression is generally seen as problematic when it leads to physical or psychological harm, disrupts social relationships, or violates social norms.

Aggression v Violence

Aggression and violence are related but distinct concepts. While both involve behaviours that can cause harm or assert dominance, there are differences in their nature, intent, and severity.

Aggression is a broader term that refers to any behaviour, whether verbal, physical, or relational, that is intended to cause harm or assert dominance over another individual. Aggression can take many forms, such as yelling, threatening, gossiping, or engaging in physical altercations. Not all aggressive behaviours are violent, and the severity of the harm caused by aggression can vary widely.

Violence, on the other hand, is a subset of aggression that specifically involves the use of physical force with the intention to cause significant harm, injury, or even death. Violence is typically characterised by more severe consequences and a greater potential for lasting physical or psychological harm than other forms of aggression.

While all violent acts are aggressive, not all aggressive acts are violent. Understanding the distinction between aggression and violence is important for accurately assessing and addressing harmful behaviours and developing appropriate interventions and prevention strategies.

Aggressive traits can be connected to violence in various ways, as individuals with a propensity for aggressive behaviour may be more likely to engage in violent acts under certain circumstances. It is important to note that not all individuals with aggressive traits will become violent, but the presence of these traits may increase the risk. Some connections between aggressive traits and violence include:

  1. Impulsivity: Impulsive individuals may be more prone to react aggressively and violently to perceived provocations or threats, as they may act without considering the consequences of their behaviour.
  2. Anger and hostility: Individuals with a tendency to experience frequent anger or hostility may have a lower threshold for engaging in violent behaviour, as strong emotions can impair judgment and increase the likelihood of aggressive responses.
  3. Lack of empathy: A lack of empathy or concern for the feelings and well-being of others can contribute to violent behaviour, as individuals may not be motivated to consider the impact of their actions on others or may be more willing to cause harm to achieve their goals.
  4. History of aggressive behaviour: A history of aggressive behaviour, particularly if it has been reinforced or rewarded in some way, can increase the likelihood of engaging in violent acts, as individuals may have learned that aggression is an effective means of achieving their objectives or asserting control over others.
  5. Sensation-seeking or risk-taking: Individuals with a propensity for sensation-seeking or risk-taking may be more likely to engage in violent behaviour, as they may be drawn to the excitement, stimulation, or perceived rewards associated with aggressive acts.
  6. Poor emotion regulation: Difficulty regulating emotions, particularly anger or frustration, can contribute to violent behaviour, as individuals may struggle to manage their emotional responses in a healthy and adaptive manner.
  7. Social learning: Exposure to aggressive or violent behaviour in one’s environment, such as through family, peers, or media, can contribute to the development of aggressive traits and increase the likelihood of engaging in violent behaviour.

It is crucial to recognise that the presence of aggressive traits does not guarantee that an individual will engage in violent behaviour, as various factors can influence the relationship between aggression and violence, including situational factors, social and cultural norms, and individual differences in temperament, coping strategies, and resilience. Understanding the connection between aggressive traits and violence can help inform prevention and intervention efforts aimed at reducing the risk of violent behaviour and promoting healthier, more adaptive responses to conflict and stress.


Intent is a crucial factor in assessing aggression because it helps distinguish between aggressive behaviours that are purposeful and those that are accidental or unintentional. Aggression is generally defined as any behaviour intended to cause harm or assert dominance over another individual. Understanding the intent behind a behaviour allows for a more accurate assessment of whether an act should be considered aggressive or not.

Considering intent in the assessment of aggression is important for several reasons:

  1. Differentiating between aggressive and non-aggressive behaviours: Assessing intent helps to differentiate between behaviours that are meant to harm or dominate others (aggressive) and those that result in harm inadvertently (non-aggressive). This distinction is essential for determining the most appropriate interventions and strategies to address the behaviour.
  2. Identifying the underlying factors: Evaluating the intent behind aggressive behaviours can help identify the underlying factors and motivations driving the aggression. This information can be valuable in designing targeted interventions and support strategies to address the root causes of the behaviour.
  3. Legal and ethical considerations: Intent plays a crucial role in legal and ethical considerations related to aggression. In many legal contexts, the intent to cause harm is an essential element in determining criminal liability and assessing the severity of a crime. In ethical contexts, intent is often considered when evaluating the moral implications of an action.
  4. Treatment and intervention planning: Understanding the intent behind aggression can help inform treatment and intervention planning. For example, interventions for intentional aggression may focus on addressing the individual’s motivations and teaching more appropriate ways to assert themselves, while interventions for unintentional aggression may focus on improving social skills, emotional regulation, or communication.

While intent is a key component in assessing aggression, it is also important to consider other factors, such as the nature of the harm caused, the context in which the behaviour occurred, and the individual’s history of aggressive behaviours. A comprehensive assessment that takes into account all of these factors is crucial for understanding the nature of the aggression and determining the most appropriate interventions and support strategies.

Emotional connections

Emotion is closely connected to aggression, as aggressive behaviours often arise from or are fuelled by strong emotional experiences. Emotions such as anger, frustration, jealousy, and fear can trigger aggressive responses in various situations. However, it is important to note that not all aggression is driven by intense emotions, and not all strong emotions lead to aggression. The relationship between emotion and aggression is complex and can be influenced by several factors, including individual differences, situational factors, and social and cultural norms.

Some ways in which emotions are connected to aggression include:

  1. Emotional arousal: Heightened emotional arousal, particularly feelings of anger or frustration, can increase the likelihood of aggressive behaviour. When people experience strong emotions, their cognitive processes and decision-making abilities may be impaired, leading to impulsive or reactive aggression.
  2. Emotional regulation: Difficulty in regulating emotions can contribute to aggressive behaviour. Individuals who struggle with managing their emotions, particularly anger or frustration, may be more prone to acting aggressively in response to perceived threats or provocations.
  3. Emotion-driven goals: Aggressive behaviours can sometimes arise from emotion-driven goals, such as seeking revenge, asserting dominance, or protecting oneself or others. In these cases, aggression may be viewed as a means to achieve an emotionally-charged goal.
  4. Emotional contagion: Emotions can spread between individuals or within groups, influencing aggressive behaviour. For example, if one person displays anger or hostility, others may be more likely to respond with aggression due to the emotional atmosphere.
  5. Emotional context: The emotional context of a situation can influence the likelihood of aggression. For instance, situations that provoke strong emotions, such as high-stress environments or emotionally-charged conflicts, may increase the risk of aggressive behaviour.

Despite the close connection between emotion and aggression, it is important to recognise that not all aggression stems from strong emotions, and individuals may engage in aggressive behaviour for various reasons, such as instrumental aggression (goal-oriented aggression), social learning, or cultural influences. Understanding the relationship between emotion and aggression is essential for developing effective interventions and strategies to manage and prevent aggressive behaviour.

Lack of emotional connection

Some forms of aggression may not be directly associated with strong emotions like anger, frustration, or hostility. These types of aggression are typically more instrumental, goal-directed, and planned, rather than impulsive or reactive. Examples include:

  1. Proactive aggression: Also known as instrumental or predatory aggression, this type of aggression is motivated by a specific goal, such as obtaining resources, social status, or power. Proactive aggression is usually premeditated and calculated, rather than driven by strong emotions.
  2. Passive aggression: This form of aggression is characterised by indirect or covert behaviours that express hostility or resentment without open confrontation. Examples include procrastination, deliberately withholding information, or subtle sabotage. Passive aggression can be driven by a range of emotions, but it may not necessarily involve intense or overtly negative emotions.
  3. Relational aggression: Also known as social aggression, this type of aggression targets a person’s social relationships, reputation, or sense of belonging, rather than causing direct physical harm. Examples include gossip, social exclusion, or spreading rumours. While relational aggression can be emotionally driven, it may also be strategic and goal-oriented, with the aggressor attempting to manipulate social dynamics for personal gain or control.
  4. Cyber aggression: This form of aggression takes place online and can involve behaviours such as cyberbullying, harassment, or trolling. Although cyber aggression can be emotionally driven, it may also be motivated by a desire for attention, amusement, or personal satisfaction, rather than strong emotions.

It is important to note that even in these types of aggression that are not primarily driven by strong emotions, emotions can still play a role in shaping the aggressor’s behaviour or response to a given situation.

Aggression that is not associated with intention and strong emotions is usually a by-product of other factors or circumstances rather than a deliberate attempt to cause harm. Here are some examples:

  1. Accidental aggression: This type of aggression occurs when an individual unintentionally causes harm to another person. For example, a person may accidentally bump into someone, knock something over, or cause injury while playing a sport. In these cases, the behaviour may be perceived as aggressive, but the intention to cause harm or inflict pain is absent.
  2. Defensive aggression: Defensive aggression can occur when an individual perceives a threat and responds instinctively to protect themselves or others, even if the response may be aggressive. In this case, the aggressive behaviour may not be driven by strong emotions or a deliberate intent to harm but rather a need for self-preservation.
  3. Reactive aggression in response to provocation: This type of aggression can be triggered by provocation, such as teasing or taunting, even if the individual does not experience strong emotions. The person may react aggressively as a reflex or automatic response to the provocation, without conscious intent or strong emotional arousal.
  4. Aggression resulting from misinterpretation or misunderstanding: Sometimes, an individual’s behaviour may be perceived as aggressive when it was not intended to be. This can happen due to cultural differences, miscommunication, or misreading social cues. In these cases, the intent to harm or cause pain is absent, and strong emotions may not be involved.
  5. Aggression related to medical or psychological conditions: Some individuals may exhibit aggressive behaviour due to medical or psychological conditions, such as brain injuries, neurological disorders, or mental health issues. In these instances, the aggression may not be intentional or emotionally driven but rather a symptom of the underlying condition.

It is important to recognise that these examples may not fit the strictest definition of aggression, as they lack the deliberate intent to cause harm or assert dominance that is typically associated with aggressive behaviour. However, they can still result in negative consequences and may be perceived as aggression by those affected.

Self-inflicted aggression

Aggression that is self-inflicted is often referred to as self-directed aggression or self-injurious behaviour (SIB). This type of aggression involves intentionally causing harm to oneself without the intention of suicide. Self-inflicted aggression can manifest in various forms, such as cutting, burning, scratching, hitting oneself, or engaging in other harmful behaviours.

There are several reasons why individuals might engage in self-inflicted aggression, including:

  1. Emotional regulation: Some people use self-inflicted aggression as a means of coping with overwhelming emotions, such as sadness, anger, anxiety, or frustration. The physical pain caused by self-injury can provide temporary relief from intense emotional pain.
  2. Expression of distress: Self-injurious behaviour can serve as a way to communicate emotional distress or to seek help from others. For individuals who struggle with expressing their emotions verbally, self-inflicted aggression might be a way to convey their emotional state.
  3. Self-punishment: Some individuals engage in self-inflicted aggression as a form of self-punishment, driven by feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness.
  4. Sensation-seeking: In some cases, self-inflicted aggression might be driven by a desire to experience intense sensations or to provide stimulation in response to feelings of numbness or boredom.
  5. Control: Engaging in self-directed aggression can provide individuals with a sense of control over their pain or their environment, especially when they feel powerless or overwhelmed by external factors.

Self-inflicted aggression is a complex and multifaceted issue that often requires professional intervention to address the underlying factors contributing to the behaviour. Treatment for self-injurious behaviour may include psychotherapy, medication, or other interventions aimed at improving emotional regulation, developing healthier coping strategies, and addressing any underlying mental health concerns.

Loss of contextual awareness

Aggression in situations where an individual does not understand the social context or cannot appreciate the consequences of their actions, and their behaviour is not deliberate, can be attributed to various factors, such as cognitive impairments, developmental disorders, or cultural differences. This type of behaviour may not fit the strict definition of aggression since it lacks intent, but it can still result in negative consequences and be perceived as aggressive by others. Some examples include:

  1. Cognitive impairments: Individuals with cognitive impairments, such as dementia or traumatic brain injury, may exhibit aggressive behaviours without understanding the social context or consequences of their actions. In these cases, the aggression may stem from confusion, disorientation, or frustration, rather than a deliberate intent to harm.
  2. Developmental disorders: People with developmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disabilities, may struggle with understanding social cues, norms, and the consequences of their actions. As a result, they may engage in behaviours that are perceived as aggressive, even though they may not have malicious intent or be aware of the impact of their actions.
  3. Cultural differences: In some cases, behaviours that are considered aggressive or inappropriate in one culture may be acceptable or even expected in another. Individuals who are unfamiliar with the social norms of a particular culture may inadvertently engage in aggressive behaviours without realizing the consequences or the negative impact on others.
  4. Limited social skills or emotional regulation: Some individuals may have difficulty navigating social situations or regulating their emotions due to a lack of experience, trauma, or other factors. They may engage in behaviours that are perceived as aggressive without understanding the social context or being aware of the potential consequences of their actions.

In these cases, it is important to consider the underlying factors contributing to the perceived aggression and to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Interventions and support strategies should be tailored to the individual’s needs and focus on teaching appropriate social skills, promoting emotional regulation, and addressing any underlying issues that may be contributing to the behaviour.

Behavioural contexts and interventions

It is important to remember that each individual is unique, and the most effective strategies will depend on the person’s specific needs, abilities, and circumstances. A thorough assessment and ongoing monitoring of progress are essential for identifying the most appropriate interventions and support strategies.

For individuals displaying aggression due to cognitive impairments, developmental disorders, cultural differences, or limited social skills and emotional regulation, tailored interventions and support strategies can help address the underlying factors and promote more appropriate behaviours. Some strategies include:

  1. Psychoeducation: Teaching individuals about social norms, expectations, and appropriate behaviours can help them better understand the social context and consequences of their actions.
  2. Social skills training: Providing structured training in social skills, such as communication, empathy, assertiveness, and conflict resolution, can help individuals improve their ability to navigate social situations and reduce the likelihood of engaging in aggressive behaviours.
  3. Emotional regulation strategies: Teaching individuals techniques to manage their emotions, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, or cognitive restructuring, can help them better cope with frustration, anger, or other emotions that may contribute to aggressive behaviour.
  4. Behavioural interventions: Implementing behavioural strategies, such as positive reinforcement, token economies, or time-outs, can help shape and encourage more appropriate behaviours while reducing aggression.
  5. Individual or group therapy: Therapy sessions, either one-on-one or in a group setting, can help individuals explore the underlying factors contributing to their aggressive behaviours, develop coping strategies, and improve their overall emotional well-being.
  6. Family support and education: Involving family members in the intervention process and providing them with education and resources can help create a supportive environment that fosters positive behaviour change.
  7. Cultural sensitivity training: For individuals who struggle with aggressive behaviours due to cultural differences, providing education on the cultural norms and expectations of their new environment can help them adapt and better understand the social context.
  8. Medication: In some cases, medication may be recommended to help manage symptoms related to aggressive behaviour, particularly if the individual has an underlying medical or psychological condition. It is important to consult a healthcare professional to determine if medication is appropriate and to closely monitor its effects.
  9. Collaboration with professionals: Working with a team of professionals, such as therapists, social workers, and educators, can help ensure a comprehensive and coordinated approach to addressing aggressive behaviours and supporting the individual’s overall well-being.
  10. Environmental modifications: Adjusting the individual’s environment to reduce stressors, promote a sense of safety, and provide opportunities for positive social interactions can help minimise the likelihood of aggressive behaviours.

Aggression and antisocial personality disorder

Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is a mental health condition characterised by a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others. Individuals with ASPD often exhibit aggressive behaviours, although the nature of these behaviours can vary depending on the individual and the situation. Some core characteristics of aggression in the context of ASPD include:

  1. Impulsivity: Individuals with ASPD often act impulsively and without considering the consequences of their actions. This impulsivity can lead to aggressive behaviours, such as verbal outbursts, physical altercations, or other acts of violence.
  2. Lack of empathy: One of the hallmark features of ASPD is a lack of empathy or concern for the feelings and well-being of others. This disregard for others’ emotions can result in aggressive behaviours that cause harm, as the individual may not be motivated to consider the impact of their actions on others.
  3. Manipulation and deceit: Individuals with ASPD may use aggression as a tool to manipulate or control others. This can take the form of intimidation, coercion, or even physical violence to achieve their goals or exert power over others.
  4. Recklessness: People with ASPD often display a pattern of reckless behaviour, which can include aggressive acts that put themselves or others at risk. This recklessness can manifest in various ways, such as reckless driving, engaging in physical altercations, or participating in other dangerous activities.
  5. Irritability and anger: Individuals with ASPD may experience frequent irritability and anger, which can contribute to aggressive behaviours. This can result in a low tolerance for frustration, leading to verbal or physical aggression in response to minor provocations or perceived slights.
  6. Criminal behaviour: Aggressive behaviour in individuals with ASPD is often associated with criminal acts, such as assault, robbery, or other violent crimes. This propensity for criminal behaviour is a key diagnostic criterion for ASPD.
  7. Lack of remorse: After engaging in aggressive behaviours, individuals with ASPD typically show little to no remorse or guilt for their actions. This lack of remorse can perpetuate a cycle of aggression, as the individual does not experience the internal constraints that might otherwise inhibit such behaviour.

Not all individuals with antisocial personality disorder display aggressive behaviour, and the severity and frequency of aggression can vary widely among those who do. Treatment for ASPD often involves a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and interventions aimed at addressing specific aggressive behaviours, improving impulse control, and fostering empathy and prosocial behaviours.

Risk of violence

The risk of violence is related to aggression in that individuals who exhibit aggressive behaviours or traits may be more likely to engage in violent acts under certain circumstances. It is important to note that not all aggression leads to violence, but the presence of aggression can increase the risk of violence. Several factors can influence the relationship between aggression and the risk of violence:

  1. Type of aggression: There are different types of aggression, such as verbal, relational, and physical aggression. Physical aggression is more closely related to the risk of violence, as it involves the use of force or harm to others.
  2. Intensity and frequency of aggression: Individuals who exhibit more intense or frequent aggressive behaviours may be at a higher risk of engaging in violent acts, as their aggressive tendencies may be more ingrained or difficult to control.
  3. Emotional arousal and regulation: Strong emotions, such as anger or frustration, can contribute to aggressive behaviour and increase the risk of violence. Individuals who struggle with regulating their emotions may be more likely to act impulsively or violently in response to perceived provocations or threats.
  4. Social and environmental factors: Social and environmental factors, such as exposure to violence in one’s family, peer group, or community, can contribute to the development of aggressive traits and increase the risk of violence. Additionally, certain situational factors, such as high-stress environments or situations involving conflict, can exacerbate aggressive tendencies and increase the likelihood of violent behaviour.
  5. Personality traits and mental health: Certain personality traits, such as impulsivity, low empathy, or high levels of hostility, can be associated with a higher risk of violence. Mental health issues, such as antisocial personality disorder or substance abuse, can also contribute to aggressive behaviour and increase the risk of violence.
  6. Coping strategies and resilience: Individuals with poor coping strategies or low resilience may be more likely to resort to aggression or violence in response to stress or conflict, as they may have limited resources for managing their emotions or resolving disputes in a nonviolent manner.

It is essential to recognise that aggression does not always lead to violence, and various factors can influence the relationship between aggression and the risk of violence. Understanding these factors can help inform prevention and intervention efforts aimed at reducing the risk of violent behaviour and promoting healthier, more adaptive responses to conflict and stress.

Closing points

  1. Aggression is a complex concept.
  2. Not all aggression is negative or harmful.
  3. Aggression can be distinguished from violence.
  4. Aggression is a factor in the risk assessment of the probability of violence, as is any history of previous violence.
  5. There may be bio-psychosocial pre-determinants of aggression.
  6. Interventions are not necessarily about medication.
  7. What may seem to be aggression, may not be aggression in persons suffering with disorders of intellectual development.


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