The Echoes of the Mind – Aggression & Violence

Aggression & Violence

The tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man. ~ Sigmund Freud

Aggression is a behavior of implicit violence. Aggression is irrespective of the emotion or motive behind it.

Violence is an interaction that leaves its victim worse off. There are many forms of violence, including physical, psychological, social, economic, and environmental.

As with many other animals, aggression runs higher in human males than females. This owes only partly to sexual selection, where male aggression is rewarded with mating opportunities.

Aggression creates an evolutionary advantage in other ways. For one, it provides a ready means for acquiring resources from others with only the labor expenditure of intimidation and violence. Prejudice renders rationalization for aggression practically effortless. Extending this to the group level neatly explains the abiding popularity of conflict and war throughout human history.

Despite tremendous effort, discrimination, oppression, brutality, and tyranny remain all too common features of the human condition. Rather than resolving the problems of intergroup hostility, we merely appear to stumble from viciousness to viciousness. ~ Jim Sidanius & Felicia Pratto

Selective discrimination toward groups is a common form of economic violence. Human proclivity to aggression is abetted by embracing territoriality. Nothing new here. Competition for resources is as old as prokaryotes poking at each other for favored molecules.

There is perhaps no more dangerous force in social relations than the human mind. ~ American psychologists Dacher Keltner & Robert Robinson

Whatever difference in cunning evolution delivered to humans than other primates it did not provide an innate intelligence to resist conflict and wholeheartedly embrace cooperation; quite the contrary. Human mental faculties are honed to perpetuate violence and feel justified in doing so.

The human being can keep fighting and killing because we can goad ourselves with our concepts, our principles, our categorical imperatives to do whatever we feel we have to do. ~ Aldous Huxley

In their minds, perpetrators minimize the violence they have wrought, whereas victims conversely magnify consequence. (These psychological syndromes are commonly apparent in rapists and rape victims, respectively.) These self-serving biases are lessened when the involved parties see some advantage in lessening hostilities. A positive relationship leads to more benign interpretations of transgressions, sowing the potential for forgiveness.

Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Individual Violence

At the personal level, aggressive conflict is born of frustration, coincident with irritability, abetted by provocation, and fostered in cultures which tolerate aggression as acceptable behavior.

Aggression as a characteristic way of solving social problems usually emerges early in life. ~ American psychologist Rowell Huesmann et al

Short-tempered individuals – “hot heads” – are aggression-prone. While humans behave according to context and exhibit varying degrees of consistency in different personality traits over time, aggressiveness tends to be persistent.

Children learn that aggression is acceptable to various degrees from parents, teachers, siblings, peers, and social media. Once inculcated, an individual’s propensity to violence tends to be set for life.

Aggression sex differences are a function of perceived consequences of aggression that are learned as aspects of gender roles and other social roles. ~ American social psychologists Alice Eagly & Valerie Steffen

Whereas males are more prone than females to engage in overt physical aggression, women tend to employ passive-aggressive and more oblique techniques. This is consistent with upbringing and gender roles.

People behave aggressively to the extent that their beliefs legitimize aggression by its consequences. Males and females hold contrasting social representations of aggression.

Women perceive aggression expressively: for showing anger and reducing stress. In contrast, men view aggression instrumentally: as a means for social or material reward.

Genders differ in what mediates aggression. Women are more subject to guilt and anxiety when they aggress. They are also more concerned about the physical dangers of retaliation. That females are generally more empathic than males, both by disposition and social role, also tends to inhibit aggression.

Men and women react somewhat differently to aggressive cues and provocation. What is anger-provoking for men may raise anxiety in women.

Men both dish out and receive more violence than women. Aggression toward women is tempered by both sexual dimorphism and their subordinate social status. The death toll from bloodshed is higher for males than females. But women suffer much more physical spousal abuse and sexual assaults. All told, the toll of savagery on females throughout the world, mostly instigated by men, far surpasses that suffered by males.

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Most people desire to determine their fate. Not being able to influence outcomes is frustrating and can be motivationally debilitating when perpetually powerless. A pallor of helplessness and depression can settle in.

Disposition and varied life experiences create a spectrum of beliefs regarding control. At one extreme are internals, who feel that they can influence events in a wide variety of contexts. At the other end are externals, who feel at the mercy of forces beyond their control.

Internals typically view aggression as instrumental: a social tool for achieving desired ends. In contrast, externals perceive little instrumental value in aggression, and resort to violence only when provoked beyond endurance.

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Aggression only moves in one direction – it creates more aggression. ~ American management consultant Margaret Wheatley

Incidents that begin with verbal conflict escalate into physically violent ones if one of the individuals involved is so inclined. Preemptive aggression can be expected by those who feel that their adversary has malicious intent. An attack may be a presumed means to deter future aggression.

Hostile attributional bias is the inclination to perceive hostile intent by others, irrespective of indication. It is a common bias among chronic aggressors and correlates with overreactive aggression: the tendency toward extreme retaliation in response to even mild provocation.

There are 2 groups of pathological aggressors: under-controlled and over-controlled. Both are relatively small in number to population size, but socially significant.

Under-controlled aggressors are those people prone to violence. They account for a very high proportion of violent acts. Part of this is positive self-feedback: aggression may be personally satisfying. Hostile attributional bias is common in under-controlled aggressors.

American social psychologist Hans Toch studied violent men and women for decades and developed the following major categories of under-controlled aggressors.

Over-controlled aggressors are people with strong internal controls against aggression, but once unleashed, their violence is extreme. Mass murderers typify this persona. They are often mild-mannered people who, once sufficiently provoked, have a tantrum that is positively homicidal. Once the outburst is over, they revert to their typical passive state.

Wife-beaters may fall into either category. The primary difference is that under-controlled aggressors approve of their acts, while over-controlled individuals do not, but excuse themselves by feeling they had no other resort.

Alcohol lubricates aggression by loosening inhibitions. But provocation must still present itself for fists to fly.

Barroom brawls are legion. Many violent crimes are fueled by booze, imbibed by the perpetrator or the victim or both. Much domestic violence ensues after knocking back more than a few drinks.

Aggression is deeply rooted in the personality structure of violent people, especially sadists and bullies. Psychological treatment may help those that recognize they have a problem.

In contrast, incarceration – the universal recourse – is detrimental to the individual, the institution, and ultimately society; better to eliminate such pathogenic organisms.

Bystanders may play a role in aggression, even when not involved. Their presence may enhance aggressiveness when approval is anticipated or dampen it if censure is expected.

The environment affects aggressive tendencies. Pastoral settings are antithetical, whereas urban streets, with their noise, pollution, and crowding, are encouraging.

Moderately high temperatures help make tempers run hotter. When temperatures become sweltering, potential aggressors are more interested in escape than in prolonging discomfort.

Aggression may be enhanced or inhibited by situational aspects which affect an individual’s degree of self-consciousness. Decreased self-awareness – being caught up in the moment – enhances aggression.

When concerned with response by potential victims or authorities, people are said to be publicly self-aware. Hence, the mere presence of police tends to reduce violent encounters among the citizenry.

Aggression is strongly influenced by the attitudes of the individuals involved, both aggressors and victims.

Attitude refers to the categorical mental representation to an object, event, or situation. Attitude has 3 components: beliefs, evaluation, and behaviors. Attitudinal beliefs are axiomatic opinions held about the attitude objects. Evaluation is the attraction-repulsion for certain objects. Behavioral attitude is the predisposition to act in certain ways toward specific objects or in certain situations. Attitudes develop through personal experiences and cultural influence.

Violence in Society

“Early farmers were at least as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so. Farmers had more possessions and needed land. In simple agricultural societies with no political frameworks beyond village and tribe, human violence was responsible for about 15% of deaths, including 25% of male deaths.” ~ Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari

Violence is inherent in societies which distribute material well-being unequally on a class basis. Capitalism is an incubator for aggression and intrinsically violent.

“By abolishing private property one takes away the human love of aggression.” ~ Sigmund Freud

Conflict and incessant violence pervade all human societies. They are only modestly tempered by cultural mores, which deem select savageries tolerable. Dominance hierarchies permit favored aggressions with relative impunity. Violence by agents of the state against ordinary citizens, by those with economic means against those less well off, by those of the dominant tribe against individuals belonging to minority groups, and by men against women, are largely tolerated and censured only when egregious.

“Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.” ~ American social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz

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Aggression is engendered in those cultures which celebrate violence as enjoyable sensory stimulation, which is to say: worldwide. Cinematic displays of violence are commonplace and considered acceptable viewing for children.

Sports contests excel at demonstrating aggression as socially acceptable. Most video games are exercises in unleashing aggression.

“Football changed my life and it gave me a platform to get out my aggression and it gave me a sense of value.” ~ American athlete and actor Dwayne Johnson

People are more aggressive when they feel powerful. Winning conflicts increases aggression, not releases it.

It is a myth that venting anger is an effective way to reduce anger and aggression. ~ American psychologists Brad Bushman & Rowell Huesmann

Viewing violence against women with erotic overtones increases male aggression toward females.

“Mass media can contribute to a cultural climate that is more accepting of violence against women.” ~ American psychologist Neil Malamuth

The acceptance of violence in the media or in sports contrasts with the reluctance in many cultures to tolerate public nudity. Whereas bashing bodies is okay, baring boobs is not. This bizarre incongruity owes to religious strictures, notably the physical-modesty mores of Christians and Muslims which developed because the weak-minded men who follow these faiths lack self-control.

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“We all decry prejudice yet are all prejudiced.” ~ Herbert Spencer

Prejudice is a preconceived, negative attitude toward members of a social group. Racial prejudice is a hoary tendentiousness that still runs strong in many societies, most notably the United States, and has been the source of much bloodshed and adverse discrimination in all forms throughout history.

Religious prejudice has been another strong source of social exclusion and aggression, especially by those with a fervent belief in a faith. While Christians have historically been vigorously prejudice, especially against Jews, Islamists now take the cake for violence in the name of Allāh.

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Perceived conflict of interest, including holding different values or beliefs, is often a motivation for group prejudicial aggression. Derogatory stereotypes are socially constructed and maintained among in-group members through gossip. The greater the felt motivation to harm the stronger the tendency to dehumanize.

“Opposing partisans to social disputes will exaggerate (a) the magnitude of their conflict, (b) their opposition’s extremism, and (c) their opposition’s ideological biases.” ~ Dacher Keltner & Robert Robinson

Intergroup violence is fostered by fear, often stemming from propaganda aimed at dehumanization: that “they” are predacious. This tried-and-true technique is regularly employed by governments to whip up enthusiasm for war. The human propensity to symbolic objectification, and to think of others as meaningfully less than oneself, facilitates rationalization for aggression.

With rare exceptions, civilizations throughout history were built upon coercion and the bones of the easily expendable. Violence is the bedrock of exploitation, upon which some men prosper at others’ expense.

“Humankind seems to have an enormous capacity for savagery, for brutality, for lack of empathy, for lack of compassion.” ~ Scottish singer-songwriter Annie Lennox


People generally think of violence as directed against other people. The exploitation of other animals, plants, and ecosystems is considered nonviolent: acceptable to such a degree as to be completely unremarkable. But violence is any act which lessens the quality of life for any organism. That animals must necessarily commit interspecific violence to sustain themselves does not excuse the excesses which humans routinely exercise.

Callous neglect of respecting life, fostered by a senseless sense of superiority and abetted by technology, ensured environmental destruction on a planetary scale. This prolonged regime of unrelenting violence has eventuated in a mass extinction event, whereupon humans are also claiming themselves as victims.

“Nothing good ever comes of violence.” ~ Martin Luther