64 The Open Psychology Journal, 2011, 4, (Suppl 1-M7) 64-72
1874-3501/11 2011 Bentham Open
Justification of Emotional and Instrumental Aggression in Hong Kong and
Spanish University Students
J. Martín Ramírez1,*, Annis Lai-chu Fung2, Jesus M. Alvarado3 and Luis Millana1
1Psychobiology Department & Institute for Biofunctional Studies, Universidad Complutense Madrid
2Department of Applied Social Studies, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, City University of Hong Kong
3Department of Methodology of Behavioral Sciences & Institute for Biofunctional Studies, Universidad Complutense Madrid
Abstract: This study reports the degrees of approval for different aggressive acts in a number of instrumental and
emotional situations. A nationally-adapted version of the Lagerspetz and Westman questionnaire  was administered to
332 university students of both sexes in Spain and Hong Kong. Respondents had to indicate levels of justification of
several aggressive acts of d ifferent quality and intensity in the context of different social justifications. Our results
replicated the general findings of previous research in other cultures: in both samples, more drastic forms of aggression
(e.g., killing, torture) were less accepted than non-dangerous forms of such behavior (e.g., hindering, being ironic);
aggressive acts more socially justified (in terms of protection of self or other) were clearly more accepted than others with
no such justification (problems of communication); and instrumental-motivated aggression was higher justified than
emotional-motiv ated aggression. Some differences in the lev el of acceptance according to th e sex of the participants were
found: women were more prone to a higher acceptance of acts and situations more related to emotion. Although both
sexes justified aggression in a higher degree for instrumentally motivated situations than for emotional ones, males
showed a higher acceptance than females for instrumental situations and a lower one than females for emotional ones.
There were also some minor culturally bound differences in these attitudes: Spaniards accepted less than HK students
aggression in emotional situations, specially for the cases of punishment and lack of communication, but more emotional
acts, such as rage and shouting. Thus, patterns of moral approval of various kinds of aggressive acts are in a large part
common to both cultures. Findings also confirmed a two-factor solution and the respective predictive power of
justifications for aggression in instrumental vs. emotional motivated situations. The reliability and validity of this brief
self-report have been further established by the present study, paving the way for future studies to measure instrumental
and emotional aggression.
Keywords: Aggression, Hong Kong, Spain, attitudes.
Far from being an unequivocal, one-dimensional term,
aggression is a heterogeneous and complex phenomenon
with substantial semantic overlap with terms for many
different forms of behaviour categorised by the intention to
harm others . This implies that it is not enough to agree on
a general definition without first establishing the existence of
specific functional types of aggression, each with different
regulatory mechanisms and determinants . The analysis
of the attitude toward different kinds of aggression offers
an important perspective that sheds light on a better
understanding of the intrinsic motivation of aggressive acts.
For instance, a distinction can be made b etween hostile or
emotional aggression (based simply on the pleasure of
causing harm or on an impulsive feeling) and instrumental
aggression (aimed at achieving non-aggressive goals) [4- 6].
Other classifications distinguish between reactive and
proactive aggression [7, 8] or between impulsive and
premeditated aggression [9-11]. A statistical analysis of
*Address correspondence to this author at the Psychobiology Department &
Institute for Biofunctional Studies, Universidad Complutense Madrid;
Tel: 34 918 444 695; Fax: 34 913 943 069; E-mail: email@example.com
empirical data in our laboratory revealed a significant link
between instrumental, proactive and premeditated
aggression, on the one hand, and hostile, reactive and
impulsive aggression, on the other . The first socio-
cognitive type of aggression is often seen in a positive light
due to its instrumental-premeditated-proactive-controlled-
calculated-offensive-predatory-in cold blood focus associated
with a positive view of aggression, whereas a second type is
often viewed negatively due to its hostile-impulsive-reactive-
The extent that a person justifies aggression is based
on an interaction of physiological and psycosocial factors,
from biology and personality traits to aspects of lifestyle,
such as choice of profession, attitude toward life, the
Weltanschaaung and prevailing societal norms [14-16].
The present study sought to clarify the personal degree of
approval of different aggressive acts in various instrumental
and emotional-motivated situations, by people from two
quite different cultures, in the understanding that a finer
discrimination in the conceptualization of aggression could
contribute to refine preventive, therapeutic, and policy
interventions aimed at reducing aggression.
Justification of Aggression in Hong Kong and Spain The Open Psychology Journal, 2011, Volume 4 65
We expected the results to mirror past findings in
different cultures from several continents [17-25]. To a large
extent their justification would correspond to universal rules,
based on common sense and embedded in our human
biology: mild acts, such as verbal aggression, would be more
acceptable than stronger ones involving physical aggression;
gross provocation would permit greater approval than
unprovoked aggression; and people would be more likely to
approve acts motivated by altruism than those by selfishness.
However, norms, values, and beliefs about the morality
of particular aggressive acts might vary by culture as well as
by specific circumstances . Some differences in culture
may be linked to differences in the way the self is construed
as well as in societal regulations. Markus and Kitayama [27,
28] pointed out that there are cross-cultural differences in the
construals of the self, of others, and of the interdependence
between the self and others; and that they have a set
of specific consequences for cognition, emotion and
motivation. Europeans typically have an independent view of
the self and seek independence from others. The prototype of
a western society is independence, autonomy, and free spirit,
with the primacy of the individual as its kernel value .
On the contrary, Asian cultures have an interdependent
construal of the self, they are socially oriented, and they are
concerned with fitting in, belonging, promoting other's goals
and being indirect. Consequently, findings from Spain, a
WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and
Democratic) society, following the known acronym ,
a member of the European Union, may not generalize
across other cultural contexts, such as Hong Kong, a
former British colony in Asia, from 1843 to 19971. Both are
diverse on several sociodemographic dimensions, including
predominant religion, economic indicators, and indices of
child well-being, as well as psychological characteristics
such as individualism and collectivism.
Although Markus and Kitayama did not examine the
consequences of their theory on aggression, these differences
are expected to affect aggression too: Asians may be more
repressed compared to Westerners. Hofstede’s individualism
vs collectivism theory [33, 34] would also lead to the
prediction that Asians would show a lower justification of
aggression, because in high uncertainty avoidance cultures,
aggressive behavior of the self and others is acceptable;
however, individuals prefer to contain aggression by
avoiding conflict and competition . A recent study with
Chinese adolescents showed collectivism negatively related
to their aggression, while individualism was positively
related to it .
Some eventual differences inherent to each sex, have
already been described in the literature on aggression. Even
if both sexes may be equally aggressive, they tend to express
it in different ways [37, 38]: males tend to be more direct
1 Sociological studies assure us that powerful bicultural influences are present in many
aspects of its societal level, which promote acculturation on individual psychological
levels  Despite English being the official language in government and schools,
Chinese language and Chinese history, taught in Chinese, are required in schools.
Street names and announcements on public transits are bilingual. Furth ermore,
Buddhist temples and Christian churches, as well as architecture in traditional Chinese
and British styles, are cu ltural symbols commonly seen in daily life. Societal
progression in Hong Kong is the result of inseparable bicultural contributions and its
democratic infrastructu re allows all traditions to flourish, regardless of their Chinese or
western origins .
physically aggressive, females are more direct non-verbally
aggressive, whereas no sex differences are usually found on
indirect aggression, i.e. aggressors hide their identities [39-
42]. These psychobiological characteristics allude to similar
male and female tendencies in instrumental and emotional-
motivated aggression across cultures? .
Thus, based on the abovementioned arguments, the
following hypothesis were proposed: H1 the degree of
acceptance of aggression is by and at large common to all
human beings, H1a a similar trend in the personal degree of
approval of the different acts during particular circumstances
would be predicted for these two cultures, with a lower
justification of the more serious forms of aggression than
mild ones, and H1b a higher willingness of instrumental
aggression than of hostile or emotional aggression would
also be expected . H2 Congruent with the aforementioned
H1, some minor characteristics peculiar to each cultural
group would also be expected. H3 Even if both sexes may be
equally aggressive, each might prefer a different expression
 and, consequently, some sex differences would be
For this purpose a brief self-report that reliably assesses
the hostile/emotional-reactive and instrumental-proactive
dichotomy of aggression [44, 45] was employed. Originally
constructed by Lagerspetz and Westman  and
subsequently revised by Ramirez  it is known by its
Spanish initials CAMA (Cuestionario de Actitudes Morales
Three hundred and thirty-two undergraduate students,
with 219 females and 108 males between 18 and 26 years of
age, participated in the present study. Our sample seemed to
represent the indigenous population in Spain and Hong
Kong. All had grown up in an urban environment and were
natives of their country: 156 in Madrid (age M =20,56 SD=
1,26) and 171 in Hong Kong (age M= 20,89 SD=2,06). The
data from students of non-Chinese or non-Spanish origin
were excluded from the analysis, even if most of them were
born or lived there for most of their lives.
The CAMA questionnaire is a particularly appropriate
instrument because it distinguishes between the two factors
we wanted to study. Since the degree of approval would
depend on the qualities of the behavior observed, its items
describe different types of aggressive acts in combination
with diverse situations in which they may be conducted. The
eight categories of aggressive acts are: hitting (ht), killing
(ki), shouting angrily (sh), being ironic (ir), using torture
(to), having a fit of rage (ra), threatening (th) or hindering
another person from doing something (hd). Each category of
acts is accompanied by a list of six different circumstances in
which the aggressive behavior may be justified, namely:
in self-defense (SD), in protecting another person (DO),
in defense of one’s property (DP), as a consequence of
emotional agitation (EM), as a punishment (PU), or as a way
of overcoming communication difficulties (NC).
66 The Open Psychology Journal, 2011, Volume 4 Ramírez et al.
The survey was administered in classrooms and
participation was on a volunteer basis. The average time taken
to complete the self-report measures was approximately15
minutes. The Madrid students answered to the questionnaire in
Spanish, and the Hong Kong counterparts in Chinese, even if
English is widely understood and spoken by more than one-
third of the Hong Kong population. The scale was translated
by a professional and the accuracy was verified by bilingual
Instructions were concise and simple, and in order to
facilitate a non-defensive response style, they started with
the acknowledgment that most people feel angry at times.
Each positive answer to the justification of an act was scored
with 1 point (“yes” = justified = 1), whereas the negative
answer to the justification of an act was scored with 0 points
(“no” = no justified = 0). Mean scores were calculated so
that a higher score indicated more justification (minimum
value = 0; maximum value = 6 for situations, and maximum
value = 8 for acts).
Cronbach's Reliability Coefficient, Confirmatory Factor
Analysis (CFA) and Repeated Measures Analysis of Variance
(ANOVA) were applied to assess the data. Statistical analysis
was carried out using SPSS 19 and Lisrel version 8.80. Tukey
LSD post hoc comparisons between each act and between
each situation were also done.
The internal consistency of the scale reported was a
Cronbach's alpha coefficient of .84 for total sample. A
confirmatory factorial analysis supported a significant fit for a
bifactorial structure of the CAMA questionnaire, confirming a
two-factor model. All items loaded significantly on their
respective factors. In both samples: Goodness of Fit Index
(GFI)=0.95 and Standardized RMR = 0.074. Fig. (1) shows
the existence of two factors, which correspond to instrumental
and emotional motivations for aggression.
A repeated ANOVA was performed to determine the
impact of two independent variables (country and sex) on the
justification of aggression in the six d ifferent situations
evaluated by the CAMA test. The differences between the
situations were statistically significant: F(5, 1615) = 83.28,
p<0.001), while country and sex covariables were found to
be statistically non-significant: F(1, 323) = 0.869 (p=0.352)
for country; and F(1,323)=0,01 (p=0.989) for sex.
Fig. (2) shows a clear-cut difference between the degree
of justification for instrumental factor (self-defense, defense
of other people, and defense of property) and emotional
factor (lack of communication, punishment and anger).
Aggression was more justified for solving instrumental
situations (3’8 from a maximum of 6) than for emotional
ones (2’7 from 6).
Tukey LSD post hoc comparisons showed significant
differences (p<0.02) between all pairs, except between self-
defense and defense of property (p=0.417) and between
punishment and anger (p=0.684). Gross provocation led to a
higher approval of retaliation than unprovoked aggression
(e.g., killing was considered more justified for altruistic
reasons than as a mere expression of bad temper). Socially
justified aggressive acts, such as those conducted in
protection of self or other, were clearly more accepted than
ones with no such justification (e.g. as an expression of
emotions, as a result of communication difficulties). Within
the defensive situations, defending others and self defense
received more moral approval than defending property did.
On the other hand, punishment and emotional reaction had
very low level of justification, and communication problems
as circumstances for aggression action were seen as the least
justified in both populations.
Another ANOVA showed Interactions between the
justification of aggression in the different situations and
countries F(5,1615)=7.535 (p<0.001), where the main effect
of situation was significant and the main effect of country
was not significant (Fig. 3). While there was a continuous
and progressive slope along the different situations for the
Hong Kong population, Spaniards showed a clearer
difference across the two factors: their justification of
aggression was lower for emotional situations (especially in
the situations of punishment and because of lack of
communication) than in instrumental situations.
Finally, no significant sex differences were observed
(Fig. 4) -aggression was justified to a higher degree for
instrumental situations than for emotional ones. Interactions
between CAMA situations and sexes, however, were
observed F(5,1615)=4.681 (p<0.001), with aggression
justified in a higher degree in instrumental situations by men
than by women, whereas that trend was inverted in
emotional/hostile situations, with women justifyin g
aggression in a higher degree than men did.
Fig. (1). Two-factor model.
Justification of Aggression in Hong Kong and Spain The Open Psychology Journal, 2011, Volume 4 67
A second repeated ANOVA was performed to determine
the effect of variables country and sex on the justification of
aggression in the 8 acts included in the CAMA test. The
ANOVA showed significant differences in the justification
of different acts: F(7,2261)= 217,42 (p<0.001) (Fig. 5). The
mean scores for justification were around 70% for milder
aggressive acts (ir, sh, and ra) and passive aggression (hd),
which were much higher than the justification for more
severe ones (th, ht, to, and ki).
ANOVA also showed a significant Interaction between
the justification of different aggressive acts and countries
F(7,2261)=8.540 (p<0.001), with non-significant differences
between both countries. Although there was the same trend
in both populations (the more severe were the aggressive
acts, the less justified they were), Hong Kong students
seemed to accept severe acts more than Spaniards, whereas,
on the contrary, Spaniards were able to better justify mild
aggression than Hong Kong students (Fig. 6). There were
significant differences (p<0.05) between both countries for
each act, with the exception of sh, and hd.
Fig. (2). Justification of aggression for each situation.
Fig. (3). Justification of aggression for each situation (discontinuous orange line = Hong Kong; continuous green line = Spain).
68 The Open Psychology Journal, 2011, Volume 4 Ramírez et al.
There was also a significant interaction between the
justification of different aggressive acts and sexes F(7, 2261)=
8,717 (p<0.001). Women were more open to milder forms of
aggression and found severe aggression less acceptable, as
compared to men (Fig. 7).
Fig. (4). Justification of aggression for each situation by sex (continuous blue line = Male; discontinuous red line = Female).
Fig. (5). Justification of different aggressive acts.
Justification of Aggression in Hong Kong and Spain The Open Psychology Journal, 2011, Volume 4 69
The results showed a high consistency in the level of
approval of interpersonal aggression in both samples studied.
Trends among people of such contrasting cultures were quite
similar. For instance, certain acts were never justified,
regardless of cultural context, and serious aggression was
Fig. (6). Justification of different aggressive acts by countries (continuous green line = Spain; discontinuous orange line = Hong Kong).
Fig. (7). Justification of aggression for each ACT by sex (continuous blue line = Male; discontinuous red line = Female).
70 The Open Psychology Journal, 2011, Volume 4 Ramírez et al.
always less accepted than mild aggression . These
overall similarities in moral approval for aggression by
people of different societies suggest a sharing of similar
standards of approval, as if there were some common moral
code ruling their justification. Depending upon the situation,
some behaviors appear to be considered admissible by most
people. In a favorable atmosphere, for instance, people
engage in aggression more frequently and with greater
intensity than in situations in which there is a predominance
of common disapproval . Therefore, the hypothesis H1a
The finding of a bifactorial model highlights the potential
importance of differentiating between different motivations
for aggression in order to obtain a clearer understanding of
the etiology of aggression . People obstructed from
reaching a desired goal may become aggressive when the
obstacle is thought illegitimate or arbitrary. Even justified,
reasonable, and legitimate frustrations, ¨for which excusable
reasons exist¨, can activate an instigation to aggression
[46, 47]. High justification may be also expected in cases of
a personal attack, such as self-defense and defense of others,
as it has been shown in the present research. Consequently,
H1b was also corroborated: there is a higher willingness
of instrumental aggression than of hostile or emotional
These biological roots of morality, however, do not
preclude certain cultural differences on judgments about
aggression. Each society has a code, written or not, about
acceptance or justification of different forms of aggression in
specific circumstances. Prevailing cultural norms and role
expectations in any given society influence what is judged to
be healthy self-assertion. We should not dismiss that culture
may also have a significant effect on the acceptan ce of
aggressive acts, influencing on some attitudes toward
aggression, even if others do not change. Following H2,
therefore, some minor characteristics peculiar to each
cultural group would also be expected.
There are several consistencies between some of the
present data and what has been previously described in the
literature. For instance, the higher acceptance by Spaniard s
of aggressive acts related to emotion, such as rage and
shouting, a typically feminine stereotype (females approve
more of emotional reasons), is congruent with their low
masculinity score previously found (19, 33. But, at the same
time, Spaniards’ justification of aggression in situations
motivated by emotion, such as communication problems, is
relatively low as compared to Hong Kong students. Also, a
more striking departure from expectation is the relatively
high justification of physical aggression among Hong Kong
students. In fact, previous cross-cultural studies [25, 36, 48-
51] have found that Asian youth are less likely to engage in
physical aggression, misconduct, and problem behavior than
western youth. One explanation may be that western
cultures, characterized by an individualistic orientation, are
more conducive to acting out behaviors (i.e., expressing
deviance) compared with cultures with a more collectivistic
orientation such as Chinese . This is also what has
been previously observed in Beijing  and in Hong Kong
: those girls who adopted more individualistic, western
values were more likely to engage in more misconduct and
adolescent aggression, whereas collectivism was negatively
related to their use of overt and relational aggression.
Finally H3 was also corroborated. Even if both sexes may
be equally aggressive, in a quantitative way, some qualitative
preferences have been observed in the present research:
physical aggression was more accepted among men whereas,
following the above mentioned typically feminine
stereotype, women approved more than men those
aggressive acts closely related to emotions, like ra or sh, and
showed a higher justification of aggression in emotionally
motivated circumstances, such as due to communication
Generalizing the present results with undergraduate
students to other less educated populations may pose some
problems. Overt expressions of anger are clearly not
something observed very often in normal university students;
they score low on questionnaires dealing with the frequency
of overt aggression and angry and aggressive dispositions.
Future studies need to be replicated in other educational
levels, professional backgrounds, and ages, because
subpopulations defined in terms other than geography may
also have different codes for the acceptance of aggression
[52, 53]. For instance, presumably consciousness objectors
would show a much lower justification of violence than
policemen or prisoners.
The utilization of self-reports has often been criticized
because th ey are likely to be influenced by social
desirability. Actual behavior needs not conform to ideal
models of conduct . Subjects may give only desirable
answers to the hypothetical situations described to them .
Our present research with the CAMA however does not
focus on absolute levels of aggressive behavior, but only on
the relationship between the different samples. Also, high
self-awareness magnifies the correlates between self-reports
and behavior [55, 56]. A meta-analysis has found a positive
correlation between aggression, measured by self-reports and
personality dimensions . This assures the usefulness of
these instruments in the early identification of individuals
with a personality prone to aggression and, consequently, in
facilitating appropriate treatment . Moreover, the
intrinsic motivation for action may be obscure to independent
observers, yet salient to the initiator. This is better measured
by self-report scales, such as the CAMA, which provides a
brief but reliable and valid instrument to help further in this
process of understanding the heterogeneity of aggression,
with its critical distinction between instrumental and emotional
It is more than advisable to establish an appropriate
categorisation of the different functions and aims of
aggression, especially if further research is to examine the
mechanisms and functions of aggression or to shed light on
the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of abnormalities and
lack of control. We must never forget that biology does not
condemn humanity to violence (Ramírez 2010). In fact, the
opposite is true: the better our knowledge of human biology,
the more capable we will be of controlling violence. As the
already 25 years old Seville Statement on Violence 
concludes: ‘‘The same species who invented war is capable
of inventing peace. The responsibility lies with each of us.’’
Justification of Aggression in Hong Kong and Spain The Open Psychology Journal, 2011, Volume 4 71
In conclusion, a comparison of results from Hong Kong
and Spain shows similar but not identical levels of
justification of aggressive acts in different situations with
some minor cultural differences. In both populations: a)
mild aggressive acts were more acceptable than seriou s
aggression; b) provoked aggression was approved more
than unprovoked aggression; c) people of both cultures were
more likely to approve acts motivated by altruism than by
selfishness; and d) aggression is more justified when there is
an instrumental motivation than in merely emotional
situations. These overall results suggest a certain universal
moral code, common to all humanity, although with minor
differences according to sex, culture, education, and
professional background. Civilizations so far away among
them as Spain and China share similar beliefs, practices,
and signals, and the deep common patterns in human
development. Aggressiveness is a deeply rooted attitude that
overpasses cultural or national borders [22, 25, 60]. But
these findings, however, do not preclude the importance of
examining intracultural variations of cultural values in
relation to aggression.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
The paper has been written during a sabbatical year spent
by the senior author at Stanford University, as a fellow of the
Hoover Institution on War, Revo lution and Peace. A
previous version was presented at the 28th CICA on
Attitudes toward Conflict and Aggression, Bodrum (Turkey),
September 2009. The research was partly supported by the
grant GR35/10 from Universidad Complutense Madrid. We
would like to gratefully acknowledge the students who
participated in this research, such as Lucia Halty, and
especially the colleagues who assisted in the application of
the test in different countries, as well as to Dr. Violet
Cheung, who kindly offered to edit it.
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Received: January 04, 2011 Revised: April 19, 2011 Accepted: April 20, 2011
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