When we think of aggression, regardless of whether it’s verbal or physical, we often imagine someone losing control. I mean who hasn’t lashed out in the heat of the moment at some point in their lives? But there’s another, more dangerous type of aggression – and acting like they’re the same can cause real problems.
Neuroscience News recently published an article entitled Aggression Is A Result of Self-Control, Not Lack Thereof. (1) While the title is misleading (it ignores the lack of self-control involved in things like bar fights and crimes of passion), it does make an important point.
The Aggression Spectrum
According to a research paper (2) by Richard Wrangham of Harvard University’s Department of Human Evolution, “reactive aggression is a response to a threat or frustrating event, with the goal being only to remove the provoking stimulus.” He goes on to list four qualities that are always associated with it:
- A sudden increase in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (in other words, the fight-or-flight response);
- Failure of self-control (specifically, regulation of the cerebral cortex); and
- An easy switching among targets.
Proactive aggression is an entirely different matter. Wrangham describes it as involving “a purposeful planned attack with an external or internal reward as a goal.” Emotional arousal is typically lacking (no anger or sympathetic nervous system activation required), and aggressive actions are normally taken when success is likely to be achieved at a low cost (a decision requiring clear thinking and cortical regulation). Proactive aggression is also directed toward a consistent target.
That sounds a lot like abuse, doesn’t it?
While many acts of aggression fall into one category or the other, they don’t always happen in isolation. Someone who becomes angry and aggressive during an argument (reactive aggression) may start planning his revenge (proactive aggression), and someone who attacks their target proactively may react emotionally when they don’t get the expected response. But Wrangham points out that, at any given time, one of those motivations will dominate. Furthermore, one type will outweigh the other in most people.
This is consistent with scientific evidence suggesting that the two types of aggression involve different neural pathways. They also respond differently to drugs and hormones; reactive aggression is easier to treat.
Wrangham discovered that lithium carbonate reduced impulsive acts of aggression in prisoners, but didn’t affect proactive aggression. He also learned that reactive aggression can be suppressed by high concentrations of serotonin in the brain or facilitated by raising testosterone levels. (2) This makes intuitive sense because reactive (but not proactive) aggression is associated with anger and increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Why We’re So Confused About Aggression
As a culture, we tend to see things in black and white. For years, pop psychology portrayed aggressive people as out of control, victims of defective brains or upbringing. Lately, the tide has turned, and we’re more likely to view them as cold, heartless manipulators – unless we’re in a relationship with one.
Dr. George Simon, author of In Sheep’s Clothing and other books about manipulation and emotional abuse, explains the problem well in a blog post entitled They Know What They’re Doing. (3) He says that in his work with people stuck in abusive relationships, he hears the same questions over and over again:
- “Do you think they really meant to hurt me?”
- “Why can’t they see what they’re doing?”
- “How do I get them to recognize the harm they do?”
Like many of those patients, Simon once believed that abusers were driven by unconscious issues like childhood trauma and fear of intimacy. That all changed when he started to work with some. He quickly discovered there was nothing unconscious about their behavior.
Emotions and your health
Simon now understands that abusive men – and women – are engaging in proactive aggression. While they may appear to be out of control, enraged by some little thing their partner did or didn’t do, that’s usually an act. And it’s a useful one, too. It can be hard to hold someone accountable for something you believe they can’t control.
Simon’s clients, along with many targets of emotional and even physical abuse, are failing to recognize the difference between reactive and proactive aggression. It’s no surprise; abusers love to blame their aggression on someone or something else, making it look like an emotional reaction rather than a planned attack. And it usually works. No one wants to believe that someone they trust is deliberately hurting them – especially if they’ve become emotionally or financially dependent on them.
This confusion can make it even harder to walk away from abuse. Believing that the perpetrator is at the mercy of his own emotional issues makes it harder to leave – and all too easy to keep hoping he’ll change. If only he realized how much he was hurting her. If only she could find a way to make him realize how much he’s loved!
Of course, he’s not the one in need of greater awareness.
How to Recognize Proactive Aggression
It can be hard to recognize proactive aggression, especially when someone you trust dresses it up as an emotional reaction that you (or maybe an unfair world) are somehow responsible for. But you can find some clues by looking at the differences between the two.
Some of those differences aren’t much help when you’re trying to find the truth. Things like anger, increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and failure of cortical regulation are either invisible or easy to fake. But there is one question that can help you see through the haze: What’s the end game?
Remember, reactive aggression happens in the moment; it’s an attempt to stop a perceived threat (often to the ego). Proactive aggression is purposeful, and the goal is some form of reward. In the case of abuse, it’s the ability to control someone.
That’s the key to telling the difference. If you want to understand someone’s aggressive behavior, ask yourself what they’re after. Are they defending themselves from being seen as weak or wrong, or are there more long-term effects? Is this aggression making the target easier to control? Is it punishment for stepping out of line? Does it act as a warning?
The answers to these questions aren’t always obvious. If you’re unsure, watch what happens next. See what changes. And if that isn’t enough, keep watching. As Wrangham points out, people tend to favor one type of aggression over the other, so you should be able to see a pattern over time.
Why This Matters So Much
Every day, we make decisions about whom to let into our lives and how we’re willing to be treated. Most of us base those decisions, at least in part, on our perception of others. There’s a big difference between a bully and someone having a moment of insecurity, and our choices tend to reflect that. That’s why it’s important to question our perceptions once in a while.
By paying more attention and asking the right questions, we can recognize abusive behavior early on, before it becomes part of our lives.
Wrangham, R. W. (2018). Two types of aggression in human evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(2), 245-253. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1713611115