Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

What Lies Beneath: The Surprising Truth About Aggressive People

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An aggressive strike can come out of the blue, when there seems to be little or no incentive or motivation. Sometimes subtle, sometimes not, they can be at their most damaging when expectation of attack isn’t even on the radar.

Researchers have now uncovered what may lie beneath an unexpected aggressive encounter.

Rather than being about inflicting harm, pre-emptive aggressionseems to be a form of self-defence, motivated by the fear of being attacked first. The underlying assumption being that ‘those who strike first don’t get hurt’.


 

The Research. What They Did.

In a study published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers devised a game in which participants were faced with a decision:

  1. Press a red button, resulting in the player paying 100 points, the opponent paying 1000 points and losing capacity to press the button; or
  2. Do nothing, with the risk that the opponent will press the red button.

If neither player pressed the button, both players received the highest possible payoff of 1500 points. The only reason for either participant to press the button was to defend against the possibility of the other player pressing the button and costing the player 1000 points.

What They Found

When players considered their opponent as capable of attack, most made a preemptive strike by pressing the red button first. However, when the partner was seen as not having the capability, they did nothing.

There didn’t necessarily need to be any history that would point to an attack being likely, just the belief that the other person was capable of attack.


This defensive type of aggression seems to be different to other forms of aggression as it is done to protect the self, rather than to hurt the other person.

Despite the intention, defensive aggression can produce consequences as serious as those of spiteful aggression.

Aggression feels like aggression and whether or not harm is intended, harm is often what is done.

It’s not always possible to avoid angry people. Similarly, it is not always possible to know what fuels an angry fire. What we do know is that something fuels it – anger is a secondary emotion. There is always another emotion hiding beneath it. Always. The common ones are jealousy, sadness or, as demonstrated by this study, fear or insecurity.

Having this knowledge won’t calm a savage beast, but it can help blanket the temptation to take their aggression personally and let their emotional fallout seep beneath your skin.

Knowing that for some people an aggressive response is a self-preservation one, there is a lot to gain in showing your hand as a safe, unloaded one.

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