The Psychology of Aggression: Understanding Types, Triggers and Strategies for Reduction

Cover Image for The Psychology of Aggression: Understanding Types, Triggers and Strategies for Reduction

The simplest definition of aggression is that it is any behavior that hurts others. This type of behavior centers on harming another person either physically or mentally.

Aggression can take a variety of forms, including:

  • Physical (punching, biting, spitting)
  • Verbal (insulting, harassment, or intimidation)
  • Emotional (gaslighting, spreading rumors)
  • Mental (berating someone)

We need to distinguish hurtful behavior from hurtful intentions. Aggression is defined as any action that is intended to hurt others.

Types of Aggression

  • Anti-social aggression: Any type of conduct that violates the basic rights of another person and any behavior that is considered to be disruptive to others in society. Unprovoked criminal acts that hurt others, violate social norms, and thus are anti-social acts.
  • Instrumental aggression: Aggressive behavior intended to achieve a goal. The harm inflicted as a means to some goal other than causing pain. For example, a bully who gains the respect of his peers or mother spanks a child to discourage him from repeating a tantrum.
  • Pro-social aggression: Any act of instrumental aggression that has socially constructive and desirable consequences, aggressive acts that are actually dictated by social norms. For example- intervening to prevent theft.
  • Hostile aggression: It is a harmful behavior motivated by frustration or anger. It is typically sudden and impulsive with the simple goal of causing harm to another person. For example- almost every bar fight we have heard about.
  • Sanctioned aggression (in between antisocial and prosocial): includes acts that are not required by social norms but that are well within their boundaries; they do not violate accepted moral standards, for example, women who strike back a rapist or a coach who scolds a disobedient player.

Sources of aggression

  • Attack or provocation: One of the most common sources of anger is an attack or intrusion by another person. People often respond to attack with relation, in an "eye for an eye" fashion. This response can produce an escalation of aggression when we are on the receiving end of some form of provocation from others like criticism we consider unfair, sarcastic remarks, or physical assault. We tend to reciprocate returning as much aggression as we have received or perhaps even more especially if we are certain that the other person meant to harm us.
  • Frustration: frustration results from interfering with or blocking the attainment of a goal. The original frustration-aggression theory suggests that aggression always stems from frustration, and frustration always produces aggression.
  • The expectation of retaliation: Experimental research shows that men who have been angered and who expect to be able to retaliate are more likely to remember negative information, including negative information unrelated to the initial cause of their anger. In short, people who expect to be able to retaliate may stay angrier longer about a wider variety of things.
  • Competition: competitive circumstances are often the precursors to destructive patterns of anger, arguments, and aggression. When situations are cooperatively structured, aggression is less likely.
  • Learning to be aggressive: We learn to behave aggressively in certain situations and not in others. Some mechanisms that shape our aggressive behaviors include imitation/modeling and reinforcement.
  • Dehumanization: It is the denial of human characteristics and capacities to other humans and is frequently associated with intergroup conflict and violence.
  • Media and violence: Research on exposure to violent television shows, movies, video games, and music indicates that such material significantly increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior by people exposed to them.
  • Alcohol: People become more aggressive when they consume alcohol. Alcohol impairs higher-order cognitive functions such as the evaluation of stimuli and memory, making it harder for individuals to evaluate others' intentions.
  • The "weapon effect" (gun availability): Guns not only permit violence, but they can also stimulate it as well. Perhaps the weapon effect occurs because weapons are closely linked to aggression in our brains and also gun(weapons) makes us feel safe and secure, hence we behave aggressively without worrying about the consequences.
  • The heat of anger (temperature and aggression): Research suggests that there may well be a link between temperature and human aggression. Many people report that they feel especially irritable and short-tempered on hot and steamy days.
  • Physical factors: Epilepsy, dementia, psychosis, alcohol abuse, drug use, and brain injuries or abnormalities influence aggression.
  • Other situational factors as well as culture and gender differences can also influence aggression.

Reduction in aggressive behavior

Aggressive behavior is a major problem for human societies. Individual crimes and large-scale social violence are harmful both to individual well-being and to the general social fabric. Aggression is not an inevitable or unalterable form of behavior; it can be prevented or reduced. The possible techniques for reducing aggressive behavior are as follows:

  • Punishment and retaliation: it is obvious that the fear of punishment or retaliation will reduce aggressive behavior. People are expected to consider future consequences and avoid behaving aggressively if punishment seems likely. Consistent with these findings, younger children are more likely than older children to be victims of domestic violence because they are weaker and less likely to retaliate (Straus et. al. 1981)
  • Reducing frustration and attack: frustration and attack are a major source of anger; therefore a more effective technique for reducing aggression might be to reduce the potential for them to occur.
  • Learned inhibitions: one technique for reducing aggression is for people to learn to control their aggressive behavior. Just as people learn when aggression is desirable or permissible they must also learn when aggressive behavior should be suppressed.
  • Distraction: as we mature we learn strategies for coping with our emotions, including anger. If we ruminate on the cause of our anger and think about it continuously anger tends to increase. Several studies have been done to see if distracting oneself is effective in controlling anger. The result suggests that distraction is less likely to feed aggressive behavior. However, it is not always successful as anger is a difficult emotion to dispel.
  • Pain cues: the learned inhibitions are triggered by cues that tell us what kind of situation we are in one that calls for expression of aggression or one that calls for inhibition of it. Baron conducted several studies and concluded that pain cues reduce aggression.
  • Catharsis: when anger has been released the chance of further aggression may be reduced. Freud calls this process catharsis. In simple language catharsis involves "letting off steam" or "getting it out of our system". Catharsis can be successful in reducing aggression when an angry person expresses that anger directly against his or her frustration.


  • Social Psychology 16th ed. Shelley E. Taylor, Letitia Anne Peplau, David O. Sears
Sayani Banerjee
Author: Sayani Banerjee

Hey there, curious minds! I'm Sayani Banerjee, and I'm thrilled to be your companion on the fascinating journey through the realm of psychology. As a dedicated student pursuing my master's in Clinical Psychology at Calcutta University, I'm constantly driven by the desire to unravel the mysteries of the human mind and share my insights with you. My passion for teaching and my love for research come together on my blog,, where we explore the world of psychology in the simplest and most engaging way possible.

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