Aggression is any behavior intended to harm others. The harm can be physical or psychological.
Here, the key word is ‘intended’ because unintended harm is not aggression. For instance, accidental harm like hitting someone with your car is not aggression. Punching someone definitely is.
It gets blurry and controversial when we talk about the different types of aggression.
Types of aggression
1. Impulsive/emotional aggression
These are aggressive acts carried out in the heat of the moment, usually in response to a strong emotion like anger or fear. For example, slapping someone who cracks a joke about your wife.
2. Instrumental aggression
These are well-planned acts of aggression to obtain a benefit. For example, threatening someone with dire consequences if they don’t comply.
Instrumental aggression is primarily driven by the potential benefit of the aggressor, not necessarily by the intent to cause harm. But the intent to cause harm is there. The aggressor knows full well that what they’re planning to do will harm the victim.
Is emotional aggression intentional?
It’s hard to say. We’re expected to have control over our emotions. If we get into a fit of anger and aggress over someone, it’s our fault for not controlling our anger.
But people tend to be forgiving of emotional aggression with not-so-large consequences. Apologizing and saying something like, “I said it out of anger” usually works. People understand that when emotions take over us, we lose control.
Emotional aggression is intentional in the moment. When you get angry and are about to hit someone, you want to hit them in that moment. You may later regret it and apologize, but the intent to harm is there in that fraction of a second.
We typically think of physical aggression (violence) when we think of aggression. But aggression can also be non-physical or psychological. You may not do any physical harm to someone, but you can still cause significant damage with your words and actions.
Examples of non-physical aggression:
- Spreading rumors
The goal of aggression
Why would someone want to harm others?
There are many reasons, but they all revolve around self-interest. People harm others for selfish reasons- to gain something.
Aggression is a means to resolve a conflict in the path of achieving one’s goals. Where there is conflict, there’s a conflict of interest.
What are the goals of people?
On the surface, it may look like people have very different goals. But almost all human goals come down to the goals we share with other animals- survival and reproduction.
People behave aggressively to enhance their survival and reproduction. They compete for resources that will enhance their chances of survival and reproduction, such as food, territory, and mates.
The goal of aggression is to remove obstacles in the path to enhanced survival and reproduction.
Levels of aggression
As with other animals, human aggression plays out on different levels.
1. Individual level
Ultimately, it all comes down to the individual. Everything an individual does is for the individual’s benefit. We’re genetically programmed to look after ourselves first for survival reasons.
If we survive, we can pass on our pure genetic code to the future generation.
I don’t care how close you are to someone; if it was a life and death situation and you had to choose between you and someone else, we know who you’d choose.
Examples of aggressive actions to protect your self-interest include:
- Bad-mouthing your colleague who’s about to get a promotion over you.
- Excluding your sibling from your parents’ inheritance.
- Threatening the person who flirts with your romantic partner.
2. Kin level
We’re wired to care for our closest genetic relatives because they have some of our genes. We’re in mutually beneficial relationships with them. If you’re in trouble, your family members are the first people you’d rush to.
Instead of helping a stranger, most people would prefer to help a family member. By helping family members and increasing their odds of surviving and reproducing, we help our own genes. Self-interest. Again.
Family as a unit competes with other families for resources that enhance survival and reproduction. Hence, families commit aggressive acts over other families. Family feuds and blood revenge are common in many parts of the world.
3. Community level
Since the explosion of the human population, humans have been living in vast communities. These communities are essentially extended families tied together by a common race, history, language, or ideology.
Communities and countries fight with each other for the same things- survival and reproduction enhancing resources.