Anger, Aggression, and Violence: It Matters That We Know the Difference

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From domestic violence to public rallies and terrorist acts, it is clear that anger, aggression, and violence have a widespread impact on society. Although these terms—anger, aggression, violence—are often used interchangeably, they are different and must be uniquely managed by care professionals and policy makers. In this post we will examine these important differences and discuss the implications for social phenomena such as mass murder, domestic violence, and links between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior.

The Differences

Anger is an emotion that motivates and energizes us to act. Anger can push people towards destructive behavior, such as in the Charlottesville riots, where public protesting turned violent. However, anger can also energize people to make constructive changes. Many great reformers such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi channelled their anger to great social benefit, and many peaceful protests such as the Women’s March and the March for Science have done the same.

Aggression is a behavior motivated by the intent to cause harm to another person who wishes to avoid that harm. Violence is an extreme subtype of aggression; a physical behavior with the intent to kill or seriously injure another person. Aggression and violence are rarely constructive and are sometimes motivated by anger.

These differences are exemplified in the Columbine school shooter Eric Harris. Harris was receiving anger management treatment a year before the shooting and, in his essay, noted its efficacy and his own commitment to controlling his anger. Nevertheless, Harris, along with classmate Dylan Klebold, coldly and meticulously drew up plans to kill their classmates and destroy their school in the subsequent year. Their diaries revealed some anger, but most notable were their thoughts, beliefs, fantasies, and attitudes, many of which involved and approved violence. Clearly, therapies aimed at managing emotions like anger did not sufficiently change the way Harris thought about aggression and violence.

The Research

Aggression is a behavior, and can be physical (e.g., punching), verbal (e.g., hurting another with words), or relational (e.g., damaging another person's relationships), and can be situated on three key dimensions: the degree to which the goal is to harm the victim versus benefit the perpetrator, the level of hostile or agitated emotion (such as anger) that is present, and the degree to which the aggressive act was thought-through.

The General Aggression Model (GAM) is the most widely used current model of aggression. The GAM suggests that certain events (e.g., an insult, or slap) can increase physiological arousal, and activate aggressive thoughts, aggressive emotions, or a combination of both, which can in turn trigger an aggressive impulse. Whereas higher levels of arousal typically increase the likelihood that the person will act on an aggressive impulse, thinking through consequences and considering alternate responses usually (but not always) reduces aggression. Crucially, anger need not be present at all.

 
 The GAM (adapted from Anderson & Bushman, 2002).

The GAM (adapted from Anderson & Bushman, 2002).

 

Although anger can be channelled constructively, aggressive actions most often increase the likelihood of further aggression, and there is overwhelming evidence that aggression is not cathartic (i.e., does not reduce aggressive impulses). 

In addition, instances of violence and greater-than-mild aggression never have a single cause. Rather, they are almost always caused by a confluence of multiple risk factors (e.g., aggressive personality, impulsivity, access to weapons, delinquent peers, etc.), with insufficient protective factors (e.g., positive parenting, conflict resolution skills, self-control, pro-social peers) being present to mitigate their effect. 

GAM and these findings have clear implications for how anger, aggression, and violence should be managed. Anger can be channelled but aggression cannot. To reduce the incidence of aggression, or of aggression escalating to violence, risk factors should be reduced, and protective factors enhanced. Reducing arousal and increasing opportunities to ‘think-through’ will further reduce the likelihood of both aggression and violence. 

Policy and Practice

It can be easy for professionals (such as those working in law enforcement, social services, and mental health care), as well as policy makers, to confuse the terms anger, aggression, and violence—leading to avoidable errors. Sometimes, we think that curbing anger is enough to stop aggression. However, anger management programs can be ineffective unless they are complemented with strategies to also change aggressive attitudes and beliefs. Thus, combatting pervasive issues such as domestic violence requires an integrated approach that works with feelings (like anger), challenges aggressive thoughts, identifies and mitigates risk factors, and encourages calmness, reflection, and nonviolent solutions to interpersonal conflict.

This is exemplified in the case of Neha Rostagi, who suffered 10 years of abuse at the hands of her husband despite him being mandated to 52 weeks of anger management classes for previous domestic violence charges.

Mistaking aggression for violence can also lead to public confusion about important issues. For example, in the media violence debate, detractors of the research showing that media violence is linked with increased aggression point out that societal violence has decreased whilst media violence exposure has increased, thus—wrongly, in our opinion—drawing the conclusion that this must mean media violence does not influence aggression. Apart from the obvious problem with this line of argument—violence always has multiple risk factors and so one risk factor can be increasing whilst others are decreasing—this conflates aggression and violence. Although some links to violence have been found, the vast majority of research in this area points to increases in lower level aggressive behaviors. Statistics about societal violence, such as murders, simply do not apply. Rather, media violence research should be taken into account by policy makers because it has implications for acts of everyday aggression (e.g., bullying, saying cruel things, or sabotaging other people’s relationships) that, although less serious than murder and violent assaults, are taken very seriously in homes, schools, and professional practice.

In our view, policy makers, professionals, and society at large would benefit from better understanding and more clearly differentiating anger, aggression, and violence.

We would like to thank Distinguished Professor Craig Anderson and Professor Douglas Gentile, of Iowa State University, for their comments and advice.

Chanelle Tarabay is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Macquarie University. Wayne Warburton is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University.
This post is based on an article of the same name published in
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