The aggressiveness: a complex phenomenon


Aggression is part of life and, for better or worse, everyone presents this trait albeit maybe to a different extent, but also because aggression has played an important role in the survival of the human being as a species. Aggression, in fact, from an ethological point of view, represents a basic instinct to benefit the continuation of the species. In addition, the most aggressive individuals are more likely to win in the competition for food and reproduction, thus tending to transmit this trait to their offspring.

In animals, however, aggression, especially in species that in a fight can result in the death of the contenders, is often ritualized by subjecting it to a process of re-direction “The re-direction of the attack is the most ingenious expedient that evolution has invented to force aggression onto harmless tracks.” [1] bringing into play submission mechanisms that block the attack. These mechanisms, exquisitely phylogenetic, are not activated in humans; while when, for example, two wolves fight and the one that loses surrenders by showing its throat and the other freezes and the fight ends, this does not happen between humans: if one contender goes to the ground the other not only does not stop, but uses the position to their advantage.

Aggression also has another function which is to determine the position of an individual within a group or society according to the so-called ‘hierarchical principle’ (Lorenz) whereby knowing their position in the hierarchy the weakest avoids competing with the strongest and the strongest does not attack the weakest because he knows that they will stay in their place. This works in the animal world and avoids the extinction of the species (at least due to intra-specific aggression), but it does not work among humans where these natural inhibitory mechanisms do not exist.

In highlighting aggressive behaviour in humans, both physiological and cultural components are intertwined.  Some neural systems are implicated in its genesis (Amygdala, Brain Stem, Limbic System) and some hormones seem to be particularly involved in modulating this type of behaviour, such as testosterone which appears to be present in greater amounts in aggressive individuals. Since testosterone is a male hormone, its connection with aggressive behaviour would seem to explain the greater tendency of men, compared to women, to behave in an aggressive way even if all this is also modulated by culture. If we look instead at the genesis of aggressive behaviour from the point of view of the neurotransmitters involved, we see that serotonin shows an inhibiting action while acetylcholine and norepinephrine seem to have a favouring action.

Generally, there is a tendency to highlight the existence of two main types of aggressive behaviour.

We therefore talk of hostile aggression, which seems to be impulsive, connoted by an intense emotional participation and a strong urge to do harm, and instrumental aggression [2] that, on the other hand, is planned and carried out with a cold mind and aims to achieve something, but does not have the main purpose of doing harm even if it may do so: its main purpose, in fact, is the search for personal gain.

Anger and aggression are often linked, but let us remember that being angry does not necessarily imply becoming aggressive: anger, in fact, represents an emotion that does not necessarily lead to an action.

The excitement produced by anger makes you ready to carry out an aggressive action, but for the aggressive reaction to take place in practice, associated stimuli, present or previous, are needed that send appropriate signals.[3]

If we see aggression from a social psychology perspective, we can define it as a behaviour that aims to harm an individual who does not wish to suffer harm. In this definition it is therefore specified that in order to talk about aggression in this scope it is necessary that an aggressive intent is perceived, for example in a car accident, although there is damage, there is no aggression since there is no aggressive intent, moreover this intent must also be aimed at harming the person: the doctor who causes pain in making a necessary treatment does not implement an action that falls within the habit of aggressive behaviour since the intent is not to harm the patient but to do him good. But always in this perspective, aggression doesn’t have to necessarily be physical, but can also be verbal or social or even relational. These types of aggression, in a society like ours, tend to be more used since they allow us to attack without appearing blatant aggressors and thus maintaining the social respect of our group to which we belong. Talking behind someone’s back, criticizing, gossiping, isolating someone from the group, are all examples of social aggression that do not imply a confrontation payback, but that are no less aggressive behaviours: they are just more subtle.

Does this type of aggressive personalities exist?

That is, are there individuals whose lifestyle and way of relating are fundamentally aggressive?

This subtle type of personality, and the resulting behaviour, has various origins that are both biological and environmental, and also shows traits in common with narcissistic type personality.

But what characterizes an aggressive personality?

First of all, there is the search for dominance. This applies in relationships but also in any other context, also to social ones. They are individuals who do not tolerate authority, other than their own, and this often leads them to be at odds with society. They can adapt formally, because they can’t do anything other, but inside they will continue to seethe. The rights of others interest them little, or rather, not at all, and if necessary they can trample on the rights of those around them without thinking twice. Quite simply, they believe that there are winners and losers in life… and they want to win.

These aggressive traits can be manifested at any age, albeit with different characteristics and often different motivations.

In children, aggressive behaviour is often determined by not having interpersonal skills, or a deficiency of them, but also by imitative behaviours: a child who sees violent behaviours in his daily life will tend to relate violently with others. In the case of aggressive behaviour in a child it is necessary that the reference figures are careful how they react: giving a lot of attention to the aggressive behaviour of a child can lead to the opposite result to the desired one: attention is seen as a reward and leads to repetition of the action. To this can be added the violent behaviours that are at the base of real pathologies such as autism: of course, in these cases the intervention must be included in an overall therapy of the disorder that underlies and supports the behaviour.

In adolescents, blatantly violent behaviour tends to be more common than in children and adults. Certain behaviours, like violently arguing, screaming, having an attitude that can appear abrupt and rude, are frequent in a time of stress and transition like that of adolescence. All this until you overdo it, if screaming becomes the only way to talk, if there are bullying behaviours, if raising your hands becomes a mode of communication then it is time to do something about it.

In the context of issues relating to aggressive behaviour in children and adolescents, the importance of the role of the family in general and of parents in particular should be emphasised. As highlighted, for example, in the study of Wilz and Patterson[4],  appropriate training applied to parenting figures involves “[…] a significant decrease in the rate of deviant behaviour of children. In the treatment of aggression in the child, but also in the adolescent, they are necessary”, according to Sukhodolsky and al.[5] in addition to the assessment of the previous motives and consequences of the aggressive act, “[…] learning strategies for recognizing and regulating anger expression, problem-solving and cognitive restructuring techniques […]”, and here too it affirms the need for active parental participation.

It is therefore clear that it is not only possible to act on the aggressive individual, but that therapeutic intervention is necessary which also affects the socio-family environment.

In the case of manifest aggressive behaviour, regardless of who the subject is, it is substantial to identify the causes underlying and supporting this behaviour: in fact this relational mode has its own profound reason that must be identified in order to arrive at a solution.

It appears necessary to identify both those cognitive patterns that lead to aggressive behaviour, and to understand how social information is processed in individuals who tend to be aggressive. Society therefore has its own relevance in determining the implementation of aggressive behaviour, although most present-day societies tend to demonstrate models that are intended to limit aggression, which seems obvious when one considers that the purpose of society is to keep the social group cohesive.

Another important thing is that the person who exhibits aggressive behaviour is guided towards implementing strategies that help them to adopt appropriate behaviour in all those situations that can cause frustration or stress, and it may also be useful to try to develop empathy towards others in the individual.

Aggression, and consequently aggressive behaviour, are, as we have seen, not only a complex phenomenon but also a phenomenon that has a multifactorial genesis and which is inherent in human nature, so while on the one hand the intervention of the psychotherapist to remedy the problem is substantial, on the other hand we must not forget that active intervention is necessary of all those individuals who play an educational role and who can therefore carry out active prevention.

Dr. Patrizia Pietropaolo

[1] Konrad Lorenz The So-called Evil For a Natural History of Aggression

[2] Barbara Krahe Social Psychology of Aggression, 2005

[3] Berkowitz, L. Aggressive cues in aggressive behavior and hostility catharsis. (1964). Psychological Review, 71(2), 104–122.

[4] Wiltz, Patterson An evaluation of parent training procedures designed to alter inappropriate aggressive behavior of boys Behavior Therapy Volume 5, Issue 2, March 1974

[5] Denis G. Sukhodolsky, Stephanie D. Smith, Spencer A. McCauley, , Karim Ibrahim, Justyna B. Piasecka, Behavioral Interventions for Anger, Irritability, and Aggression in Children and Adolescents J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2016 Feb 1; 26(1): 58–64.)


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