What is Aggression?

See also: Anger Management

Aggression is a complex subject, not least because it is subjective. One person may see their behaviour as an acceptable way of expressing anger or frustration, whereas others may see the same behaviour as unacceptably violent or threatening.

Like bullying, however, it seems best to consider aggression from the point of view of the recipient: if someone perceives that behaviour towards them is aggressive, then it should be addressed as such.

This page defines aggression, and describes behaviours and physical changes that are associated. It also explains why people may act aggressively.

Defining Aggression

aggression, n. a first act of hostility or injury.

aggressive, adj. making the first attack, or prone to do so, discourteously hostile or self-assertive.

Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.

Aggression, therefore, involves making a ‘first attack’, and this can be either verbal or physical.

In other words, you cannot by definition, be aggressive in response to someone else’s first move: if you respond, you are simply defending yourself. However, there are ways of responding that are more and less likely to make the situation worse!

Psychologists have made a distinction between:

  • Natural or positive aggression, also known as instrumental aggression, which is aimed largely at self-defence, or combating prejudice or social injustice, and

  • Pathological or hostile aggression which is solely for the purpose of hurting someone else, and often results when an individual’s inner nature has become twisted or frustrated.

Physical violence is never acceptable

It is impossible to perceive an act of physical violence as anything but aggressive.

No matter what your point of view or perspective, it is not acceptable to assault another person. If you are subject to a physical assault, or you witness one, this is a matter for the police. It is a not a question of ‘managing behaviour’.

It also makes no difference what verbal provocation was received: the ‘first act’ of physical violence is the offence.

Types of Aggressive Behaviour

Aggression can be distressing or harmful to the recipient. Types of behaviour that may be considered aggressive include:

  • Shouting
  • Swearing
  • Personal insults and name calling
  • Racial or sexual comments
  • Verbal threats
  • Posturing and threatening gestures
  • Abusive phone calls, letters, or online messages
  • Other forms of harassment
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sarcasm

A fundamental human right

Being able to live and work in ‘freedom from fear’ is a fundamental human right.

Being faced with aggression can be extremely frightening.

Public- and customer-facing organisations have therefore recognised that their staff should not be subjected to abuse or aggression by their customers. They have made clear that they will not permit aggression towards staff, and have often set out specific penalties. These may include prosecution of offenders.

If your work requires you to deal with customers who may become aggressive, make sure that you know your organisation’s policy on handling aggression—and never be afraid to call it into action.

It is your right to work free from fear.

How to Recognise Aggression

There are a number of signs that someone may be becoming aggressive. These include both physical and behavioural changes.

Signs Include:

Physical Changes Behavioural Changes
Sweating / perspiring Loud speech or shouting
Clenched teeth and jaws Pointing or jabbing with the finger
Shaking Swearing/verbal abuse
Muscle tension Over-sensitivity to what is said
Clenched fists Standing too close
Staring eyes Tone of voice
Restlessness, fidgeting Problems with concentration
Flushed face or extreme paleness of face Stamping feet
Rapid breathing/sharp drawing in of breath Banging/kicking things
Rise in pitch of voice Walking away

  • Some of these responses are classed as open or direct responses and are more likely to be the reactions of aggressive individuals, for example clenched fists, swearing, verbal abuse, or the adoption of an aggressive posture.

  • Over-sensitivity to what is said or crying are classed as passive or indirect responses, and are more likely to be associated with passive individuals.

Adrenaline and Anger

Individuals may experience a number of physical and emotional sensations when they become angry, such as a dry mouth, a feeling of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, and a faster heartbeat and rate of breathing.

These are the results of adrenaline (the fight/flight/fright hormone) being released into the body. Adrenaline serves a purpose: if you were being faced by a sabre-toothed tiger, it would definitely help to prepare your body to run away. It is, however, less helpful when you are facing an individual who has the misfortune to have to tell you something unpleasant!

Adrenaline is also associated with deep emotional responses, such as fear and anger. These are associated with a different part of our brain from logical thinking—and often seem to ‘switch off’ the thinking part.

When you feel these sensations, it is worth taking a deep breath, and consciously applying your brain to the situation before responding.

There is more about this in our page on Recognising and Managing Emotions.

When someone shows several of the more extreme signs of aggression, this may show that they are becoming increasingly agitated. This may mean that the situation rapidly escalates into a much more complex and potentially dangerous one.

Anyone working in situations where aggression leading to violence is a threat should make sure they have adequate protection. Merely being able to recognise a potential problem is not enough.

Why Do People Become Aggressive?

The precise reasons for an individual behaving aggressively will vary enormously from person to person and situation to situation. There are, however, a number of factors that may make aggression more likely.

These include that the person concerned:

  • Is more aggressive by nature.
  • Has gained from previous aggressive behaviour in similar circumstances.
  • Believes that their goals will be best achieved through an aggressive response.
  • Is frustrated (e.g., from an inability to communicate effectively).
  • Feels threatened or powerless.
  • Is in pain, either physically or mentally.
  • Expects to be confronted/treated with hostility, perhaps because of previous experience.
  • Is in a state of physiological arousal, e.g. excited, anxious, heart beating faster. Such arousal could be brought about by exercise, stress, a previous argument and many other things. Someone in this state is less likely to keep calm.
  • Is witnessing others behaving aggressively around them.
  • Is under pressure from friends or peers to behave aggressively.
  • Feels justified in being angry.

There are also a number of behaviours that can exacerbate or encourage aggression in others, particularly when people are dealing with large or bureaucratic organisations.

These behaviours include:

  • Adopting a patronising attitude.
  • Humiliating or talking down to someone.
  • Using the wrong name or inappropriate form of address (for example, calling someone by their first name without permission).
  • Using jargon.
  • Telling individuals they are wrong to feel/behave as they do.
  • Telling people how they feel or how they should feel (e.g. “You really must calm down”).
  • Making assumptions.
  • Trivialising a person’s problems, worries or concerns.
  • Being overly familiar or making jokes about the situation.

If your professional life involves dealing with potentially aggressive individuals, it is important to avoid these behaviours.

A final thought

It is worth remembering that many people become aggressive because they feel uncomfortable.

This may be because the situation is unfamiliar, or because they are worried about what might happen. If they are trying to deal with a large and bureaucratic organisation, they may be apprehensive about approaching the organisation, and also because of the reasons they are making contact.

They may therefore already be upset, distressed or frustrated. They could also in an unfamiliar place and expect to have problems getting what they need.

Most people don’t want to become angry and aggressive. They would much rather be treated like an adult, and have their needs met.