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The Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression, Peter Sturmey (Editor-in-Chief).
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2017 by John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.
Johnie J. Allen and Craig A. Anderson
Iowa State University, USA
Aggression is a phenomenon that can take many forms, ranging from relatively minor acts
(such as name calling or pushing) to more serious acts (such as hitting, kicking, or punching)
to severe acts (such as stabbing, shooting, or killing). The fact that aggression appears in so
many forms can sometimes make it difficult to determine whether or not aggression has
occurred. To further complicate matters, as is the case for many psychological constructs,
there is often a divide between the general public’s notions of aggression and violence and the
definitions used by scientists. Frequently, the word “aggression” is used in ways that do not
meet the scientific social–psychological definition. For example, people may describe an ener-
getic and persistent salesman as “aggressive,” exhort their soccer players to “be more aggres-
sive,” or characterize rapid changes in mood as “violent.” Medical afflictions and treatments
are also sometimes described as aggressive (e.g., an aggressive tumor, aggressive chemotherapy).
None of these examples, however, meet social–psychological definitions of aggression or vio-
lence. This chapter focuses on answering the question “What are aggression and violence?” by
describing in detail what constitutes aggression and violence according to social–psychological
research. It also outlines the many forms that aggression can take in order to help readers dis-
tinguish between subtypes of aggression. Finally, similar but distinct concepts that are some-
times confused with aggression and violence are described so that readers can better distinguish
between these concepts.
Definitions ofAggression andViolence
Although the scientific definition of aggression has changed slightly over the years, the defini-
tions utilized by aggression researchers have (mostly) converged to support a single definition.
In social psychology, aggression is most commonly defined as a behavior that is intended to
harm another person who is motivated to avoid that harm (Bushman & Huesmann, 2010;
DeWall, Anderson, & Bushman, 2012). This harm can take many forms (as will be discussed
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2 Johnie J. Allen and Craig A. Anderson
throughout this chapter), such as physical injur y, hurt feelings, or damaged social relationships
(to name just a few). Although definitions vary slightly, highly similar definitions have been
utilized by many prominent aggression researchers (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Baron &
Richardson, 1994; Berkowitz, 1993; Geen, 2001; Krahé, 2013). For example, in order to
better distinguish between certain subtypes of aggression, Anderson and Bushman (2002)
more specifically defined human aggression as “any behavior directed toward another individual
that is carried out with the proximate (immediate) intent to cause harm. In addition, the per-
petrator must believe that the behavior will harm the target, and that the target is motivated
to avoid the behavior” (p. 28).
Both of the definitions provided above include several key characteristics that help to distin-
guish aggression from other phenomena. First, aggression is an observable behavior—not a
thought or feeling. Although aggressive cognitions (e.g., hostile attitudes, beliefs, thoughts,
or wishes) and aggressive affect (e.g., feelings of anger, rage, or desire for revenge) can and
frequently do serve as important precursors to aggressive behavior, neither aggressive cogni-
tion nor aggressive affect is considered aggression. Second, the act must be intentional and be
carried out with the goal of harming another. This means that accidental harm (e.g., uninten-
tionally elbowing someone in a crowded room) does not count as aggression. The focus on
intent also outweighs the outcomes of the behavior in question (i.e., whether or not harm has
actually occurred). This means that scenarios in which one person harms another for their
benefit (e.g., a doctor amputating a patient’s leg to save their life but thereby causing pain) are
not considered aggression. Conversely, scenarios in which individuals attempt to harm another
but fail to do so (e.g., a person shoots to kill someone but misses) are considered aggression.
Third, aggression involves people, meaning that damaging inanimate objects (e.g., kicking a
wall, smashing plates, or pounding one’s fists on a table) is not considered aggression unless it
is carried out with the intention of harming another person (e.g., slashing the tires on your
enemy’s car). Finally, the recipient of the harm must be motivated to avoid that harm. This
condition excludes phenomena such as masochism (i.e., deriving pleasure, often sexual, from
pain), suicide, and assisted suicide from the realm of aggression. This does not mean that some
of these latter forms of behavior are totally unrelated to aggression. Indeed, some of the same
psychological processes are likely at work. Nonetheless, research over many decades has shown
that the more specific definition of “aggression” used by social psychologists has proven to be
extremely useful in developing and testing high-quality theories of aggression, and shown that
the various types of behavior that do meet this specific definition are very similar in etiology
and underlying processes.
Although violence is sometimes treated as separate from aggression—especially by criminolo-
gists, political scientists, public policy makers, and the general public—most social psychologists
consider violence to be a subset of aggression. Specifically, the most common scientific
definition of violence is as an extreme form of aggression that has severe physical harm (e.g.,
serious injury or death) as its goal (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Bushman & Huesmann,
2010; Huesmann & Taylor, 2006). Like aggression, a behavior does not have to cause actual
harm to be classified as violent. Attempting to fatally wound someone with a knife, but missing,
is still considered a violent act, for example.
Aggressive and violent behaviors are best conceptualized as being on a continuum of severity
with relatively minor acts of aggression (e.g., pushing) at the low end of the spectrum and
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Aggression and Violence: Definitions and Distinctions 3
violence (e.g., homicide) at the high end of the spectrum. Thus, all acts of violence are con-
sidered instances of aggression, but not all acts of aggression are considered instances of vio-
lence. For example, a child pushing another child away from a favored toy would be considered
aggressive but not violent. An extreme act, such as attempted murder, however, would be
considered both aggressive and violent (with violent being the more descriptive term).
In recent years, some nonphysical forms of aggression have earned the label “violence” when
the consequences are severe. For example, certain types or patterns of verbal aggression are some-
times labeled “emotional violence,” usually when directed at children or intimate partners with
the goal of severely harming the target’s emotional or social well-being. Nonetheless, “violence”
is most often researched in the context of extreme physical aggression. Since violence is consid-
ered a subset of aggression, the remainder of this chapter will focus primarily on aggression with
the understanding that most of the classifications of aggression are also applicable to violence.
In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation classifies murder, forcible rape,
aggravated assault, and robbery as violent crimes, with the definition of each crime closely
resembling social–psychological definitions of violence. But, even here, there is some ambi-
guity. Although the relevant research is sometimes considered politically controversial, some
studies of rape have found that the primary intent of some rapists is not to harm the victim but
rather sexual gratification. This does not mean that the harm to the victim should be down-
played, of course, or that the crime should be considered less offensive. But the focus on intent
is important if one wants to thoroughly understand such heinous behavior in order to devise
interventions that reduce its occurrence. Similarly, many robberies have as their primary goal
the attainment of money or other valuable resources, and to the robber the harm that is visited
upon the victim is incidental. Again, the scientific goal of understanding the criminal act of
robbery requires a full understanding of the various motivations that underlie it, and theories
of aggression and violence are designed to do just that.
As previously noted, aggression can come in a wide variety of forms, and many different types
of aggression have been identified in the literature (Krahé, 2013; Parrott & Giancola, 2007).
Several categorization schemes have been proposed to organize the many types of aggression,
but there is still controversy regarding which taxonomy is best (Parrott & Giancola, 2007).
Two of the most recently proposed taxonomies of aggression are provided in Table 1.1 and
Table 1.2 as examples. These provide an overview of the many different types of aggression
while avoiding redundancy. Given the huge number of subtypes that have emerged in the lit-
erature and the considerable overlap between many of those subtypes, the discussion is neces-
sarily incomplete, but the most common classifications are discussed. Furthermore, this
chapter asks the reader to consider that there may not be a single “best” taxonomy of aggres-
sion. That is, which distinctions are most useful may well depend on the research question
One of the most common distinctions made in classifying aggressive behavior is response mode.
Aggression is most often classified as physical, verbal, or relational in nature (Bushman &
Huesmann, 2010). Physical aggression involves physically harming another person (e.g., punching,
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4 Johnie J. Allen and Craig A. Anderson
kicking, stabbing, or shooting). Verbal aggression involves using words to harm another person
(e.g., name calling, swearing, or screaming). Relational aggression (sometimes called social aggres-
sion) involves harming another person by damaging their social relationships or making them feel
unaccepted or excluded (e.g., spreading rumors, neglecting to invite someone to a social event, or
telling others not to hang out with someone). It has also been proposed that aggression can be
postural in nature (e.g., making threatening gestures or invading personal space; Krahé, 2013;
Table 1.1 Aggression taxonomy proposed by Krahé (2013).
Aspect Subtypes Examples
Response modality Verbal Shouting or swearing at someone
Physical Hitting or shooting someone
Postural Making threatening gestures
Relational Giving someone the “silent treatment”
Immediacy Direct Punching someone in the face
Indirect Spreading rumors about someone behind their back
Response quality Action Making another person engage in unwanted sexual
Failure to act Withholding important information from a
colleague at work
Visibility Overt Humiliating someone in front of others
Covert Sending threatening text messages to a classmate
Instigation Proactive/unprovoked Grabbing a toy from another child
Reactive/retaliative Yelling at someone after having been physically
Goal direction Hostile Hitting someone out of anger or frustration
Instrumental Taking a hostage to secure a ransom
Type of harm Physical Broken bones
Psychological Fears and nightmares
Duration of effects Transient Minor bruises
Lasting Long-term inability to form relationships
Social units involved Individuals Intimate partner violence
Groups Riots and wars
Table 1.2 Aggression taxonomy proposed by Parrott andGiancola (2007).
Direct Expression Indirect Expression
Active Expression Subtypes Subtypes
Damage to property Damage to property
Passive Expression Subtypes Subtypes
Damage to property Damage to property
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Aggression and Violence: Definitions and Distinctions 5
Parrott & Giancola, 2007), but this classification is less common than the other response modes.
Similarly, some researchers (e.g., Parrott & Giancola, 2007) suggest treating damage to property
and theft as distinct forms of aggression (as long as they are carried out with the intent to harm
Traditional Dichotomous Distinctions
Throughout the study of human aggression, many dichotomous distinctions have been pro-
posed. This section describes the most common distinctions made in classifying aggressive
behavior, some of the issues associated with these traditional distinctions, and some suggested
methods of dealing with those classification issues. Generally speaking, each of the response
modes described earlier can vary along the characteristics discussed in this section. For example,
physical aggression can be considered hostile or instrumental, direct or indirect, and active or
passive. The same is true for verbal and relational aggression.
Hostile Versus Instrumental Aggression
The distinction between instrumental and hostile aggression is one of the oldest and most
prevalent classification schemes (Bushman & Anderson, 2001; see Buss, 1961; Feshbach,
1964; Hartup, 1974 for early discussions). Hostile aggression is motivated by a desire to
hurt a person and is characterized as affectively “hot” behavior that is angry and impulsive.
This type of aggression is also known as “angry,” “affective,” “retaliatory,” “impulsive,”
and “reactive” aggression. Hitting someone who has made you angry (perhaps by insulting
you) would be an example of hostile aggression. In contrast, instrumental aggression (also
known as “premeditated” and “proactive” aggression) is motivated by a desire to attain
some other goal (e.g., money, social status, or sex) and typically is characterized as affec-
tively “cold” behavior that is calm and calculated. The harm caused to the victim by instru-
mental aggression is simply a means of attaining the other desired goal. Shooting at the
police in order to safely escape from a bank robbery would be an example of instrumental
The dichotomies of hostile versus instrumental aggression, impulsive versus premeditated
aggression, and reactive versus proactive aggression overlap considerably and are often used
interchangeably, but each of these dichotomies emphasizes slightly different aspects of aggres-
sive behavior (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003). The hostile versus instrumental distinction
emphasizes the goal of the aggressive behavior (i.e., hurting someone versus obtaining some
other goal). The impulsive versus premeditated distinction emphasizes how thoughtless
(impulsive) versus thoughtful (premeditated) the behavior is. Finally, the reactive versus pro-
active distinction emphasizes whether the behavior occurred in response to provocation (reac-
tive) or without provocation (proactive).
Despite their popularity, some researchers (Anderson & Carnagey, 2004; Anderson &
Huesmann, 2003; Bushman & Anderson, 2001) have pointed out that traditional dichotomous
approaches fall short in classifying aggression, especially when treated as nonoverlapping
dichotomous categories, because they fail to include mixed motive aggression and are con-
founded with other common dichotomies. The key to understanding this problem lies in the
term “dichotomy”—this means that each instance must be classified into only one of two pos-
sible categories. But aggression is more complex, and the most popular aggression and violence
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6 Johnie J. Allen and Craig A. Anderson
dichotomies overlap. For example, the hostile versus instrumental dichotomy overlaps with
the dichotomy of automatic versus controlled information processing, but it isn’t exactly the
same. The traditional hostile versus instrumental distinction requires aggressive behavior to be
motivated by either a desire to hurt or a desire to attain some other goal, leaving no room for
aggression motivated by multiple goals. Say, for example, an unpopular high school student is
bullied on a daily basis and often fantasizes about taking revenge on the bully to finally end the
bullying and earn the respect of their peers (a premeditated plan with safety and social respect
as instrumental rewards). One day, the bully pushes the victim over the edge, and the bullied
student lashes out in a fit of rage (a hostile retaliation), earning the desired rewards. This
example has elements of both hostile and instrumental aggression, and cannot be easily classi-
fied using the traditional dichotomy.
Similarly, traditional classification requires that hostile aggression be relatively automatic
(i.e., impulsive) whereas instrumental aggression is regarded as relatively controlled (i.e., cal-
culated), but sometimes hostile aggression has controlled aspects and instrumental aggression
has automatic aspects. Say, for example, that two men get into an argument at a bar. One man
angrily prepares to punch the other man until he notices a gun in that man’s pocket. The
would-be aggressor then quickly backs down and decides to scream a verbal insult instead.
Thefact that the intended aggression was driven by anger and that the verbal insult would also
be considered hostile would classify it as a hostile act, but the fact that potential negative
consequences were considered (i.e., getting shot) would classify the same act as instrumental.
Again, the traditional hostile versus instrumental dichotomous classification scheme falls short
in describing this behavior.
One way to deal with these classification issues is to (1) distinguish between the proximate
and ultimate goals of aggressive behaviors and (2) adopt a dimensional approach to classification
(Anderson & Carnagey, 2004; Anderson & Huesmann, 2003). Using this scheme, the proxi-
mate (or immediate) goal of aggressive behavior must be to harm another, but the ultimate
goal can be hostile in nature (e.g., wishing only to bring harm to another person), instru-
mental in nature (e.g., aggressing only in order to steal money), or a mixture of both (e.g.,
aggressing against another because you dislike that person and want to steal his or her money).
Similarly, any act of aggression can be located at various points on at least four different con-
tinuous (i.e., not dichotomous) dimensions: (1) how much hostile or agitated affect is present,
(2) how automatic the behavior was, (3) the extent to which the ultimate goal is to benefit
theperpetrator versus harm the victim, and (4) the extent to which consequences of the
aggressive action were considered. This dimensional approach allows for a more nuanced
classification of aggressive behavior that accommodates mixed motives and relatively automatic
but consequence-sensitive forms of aggression.
Direct Versus Indirect Aggression
Aggression can also be classified as direct or indirect (Buss, 1961; Krahé, 2013). Direct
aggression occurs when the victim is physically present whereas indirect aggression occurs
when thevictim is physically absent (DeWall etal., 2012). For example, punching someone
in the face would be considered direct physical aggression whereas hiring a hit man to assas-
sinate the same person would be indirect physical aggression (although the hit man’s action
would bedirect). Similarly, insulting someone to their face would be direct verbal aggression
whereas anonymously sending mean emails to the same person would be indirect verbal
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Aggression and Violence: Definitions and Distinctions 7
Unfortunately, like the hostile versus instrumental dichotomy, there are classification issues
associated with the direct versus indirect aggression dichotomy because the latter classification
confounds (1) the visibility of the act and actor to the victim with (2) proximity to the harm-
producing act (Anderson & Carnagey, 2004). For example, if a jury sentences a criminal to
death, the presence of the criminal during the trial would classify this action as direct aggres-
sion. However, the fact that the actual execution will take place at a later time with no jury
members present suggests that this action is better classified as indirect aggression. Choosing
instead to classify this behavior as highly visible (i.e., overt rather than covert) but low in
proximity resolves this issue. In some scenarios, however, it may be necessary to refine the
dimensions of visibility and proximity even further. For example, if a sniper assassinates
someone from a great distance, the act of aggression is low in visibility (i.e., the victim could
not possibly see who was responsible), high in temporal proximity (i.e., the victim will suffer
the consequences immediately), and low in spatial proximity given the large distance between
the aggressor and victim. Similarly, if an assassin were to put slow-acting poison in a person’s
drink and then inform the victim, this act of aggression would be high in visibility and low in
temporal proximity (i.e., immediacy) but high in spatial proximity.
Displaced andTriggered Displaced Aggression
Aggression is also sometimes classified as displaced (vs. not displaced) or triggered displaced
aggression (a subset of displaced aggression). Displaced aggression occurs when an inno-
cent substitute target becomes the victim of aggression (Bushman & Huesmann, 2010).
For example, say a waiter is insulted by a customer at work. Although the waiter is very
angry, he refrains from retaliating. If he then goes home and yells at his girlfriend for no
apparent reason, displaced aggression has occurred. Instead of retaliating against the cus-
tomer, the waiter’s innocent girlfriend becomes the target of his aggressive outburst.
Triggered displaced aggression occurs when the substitute target is guilty of some relatively
minor offense (Miller, Pedersen, Earleywine, & Pollock, 2003). For example, if the same
waiter had come home to find that his girlfriend still had not taken out the trash (as she had
promised to do), this minor offense may have triggered him to aggress against her verbally.
Here, there is an apparent reason for the waiter’s aggressive outburst (i.e., the unfinished
household chore), but his aggressive response is disproportionate to the severity of his girl-
friend’s offense. Research has shown that the likelihood and/or severity of triggered dis-
placed aggression increases if the potential aggressor ruminates about the initial provocation,
and that such rumination can sustain a readiness to aggress over long periods of time
(Bushman, Bonacci, Pedersen, Vasquez, & Miller, 2005). Triggered displaced aggression is
also more likely if the aggressor dislikes the substitute target, if the target is dissimilar to the
aggressor, or if the target is a member of an outgroup (Pedersen, Bushman, Vasquez, &
Both types of displaced aggression occur for two primary reasons (Bushman & Huesmann,
2010). First, sometimes it is unfeasible to retaliate against the provocateur. This can happen
because the provocateur is either absent (e.g., one receives poor job performance evaluations
by email) or an intangible entity (e.g., heat, foul odors). Second, the aggressor may fear
retaliation from the provocateur (as in the case of an employee refraining from retaliating
against a frustrating boss for fear of getting fired). This fear of consequences inhibits
aggressionagainst the dangerous provocateur and facilitates aggression against less dangerous
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8 Johnie J. Allen and Craig A. Anderson
Active Versus Passive Aggression
Aggression can also be classified as active or passive (Bushman & Huesmann, 2010; Buss,
1961; Krahé, 2013). Active aggression involves engaging in harmful behavior whereas passive
aggression involves failing to engage in helpful behavior. For example, kicking or insulting
someone would be considered active aggression whereas intentionally “forgetting” to invite
someone to a party and intentionally withholding help from someone who is drowning would
both be considered passive aggression (in fact, the latter could be considered passive violence,
given its severity).
Overt Versus Covert Aggression
Aggression is also sometimes classified as overt or covert (Krahé, 2013). Overt aggression is
highly visible behavior, such as making fun of someone or beating them up in front of their
friends. In contrast, covert aggression is relatively low in visibility, such as leaving mean notes
for a person or spreading rumors about people behind their back.
Legitimate Versus Illegitimate Aggression
It has also been proposed that aggression can be classified as legitimate versus illegitimate
(Krahé, 2013). For example, capital punishment (which meets the social–psychological defini-
tion of aggression) is legal in many countries and thus could be considered legitimate aggres-
sion. In contrast, homicide would be considered illegitimate aggression. Unfortunately, the
distinction between legitimate and illegitimate aggression outside the legal realm is highly
subjective. For example, if a group of slaves were to rise up and aggress against their masters
in order to gain their freedom, this would be likely to be considered legitimate aggression by
the slaves and anyone else who is against slavery. The same behavior, however, would be likely
to be considered illegitimate aggression by the slave masters and anyone else supportive of
slavery. This same problem appears when one considers who gets labeled as rebels versus free-
dom fighters. Indeed, at least one of Israel’s past prime ministers (Menachem Begin) was con-
sidered by many to be a terrorist in his youth but a freedom fighter later in his career.
Another excellent example of the subjectivity of the legitimate–illegitimate aggression dis-
tinction is found in the controversy surrounding corporal punishment (e.g., spanking children).
Although corporal punishment is considered a criminal act in many countries, it is completely
legal for parents in the United States and is considered by many to be a legitimate form of
behavioral control and child rearing. However, despite the legal status of and support for
corporal punishment in the United States, there are still plenty of parents (and nonparents) who
consider it an illegitimate form of aggression. Similarly, although capital punishment is legal in
some parts of the United States, there is still a great deal of controversy concerning its legiti-
macy. Thus, even when a given act of aggression is clearly legal or illegal, there is still a large
amount of subjectivity in classifying that behavior as legitimate or illegitimate aggression.
Personological andSituational Aggression
The general aggression model (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Anderson & Carnagey, 2004;
DeWall & Anderson, 2011; DeWall etal., 2012)—a widely used, integrative, and comprehen-
sive theoretical framework for understanding human aggression—emphasizes that aggressive
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Aggression and Violence: Definitions and Distinctions 9
behavior is heavily (and interactively) influenced by both personological and situational vari-
ables. As such, any given instance of aggressive behavior can be dimensionally classified based
upon the extent to which it is influenced by person factors, situation factors, or both. Examples
of person factors that increase the likelihood of aggression include traits (e.g., narcissism or
susceptibility to hostile attribution, perception, and expectation biases), sex (males tend to be
more physically aggressive and more likely to engage in violent behaviors), beliefs (e.g.,
aggression-related self-efficacy1 and outcome-efficacy2 beliefs), attitudes (e.g., positive atti-
tudes toward violence in general or violence against certain groups), values (e.g., valuing
personal honor and answering violations of honor with violence), long-term goals (e.g.,
desiring to be feared or desiring wealth by any means necessary), and scripts (e.g., believing
that the only viable response to being punched is to punch back). Examples of situation factors
that increase the likelihood of aggression include aggressive cues (e.g., the presence of weapons
or recent exposure to media violence), provocation (e.g., being insulted or shoved), frustra-
tion (e.g., being blocked from obtaining a goal), pain and discomfort (e.g., being kicked or
exposure to loud noises or hot temperatures), drugs (e.g., alcohol and caffeine), and incentives
(e.g., money, social status, and goods). In behaviorist terms, situation factors can be thought
of as antecedents that increase (e.g., establishing operations) or decrease (e.g., discriminative
stimuli) the likelihood of aggressive behavior, depending upon their associations with different
consequences (i.e., rewards and punishments). For example, if a person often retaliates when
provoked and is always satisfied after retaliating, the satisfaction reinforces the aggressive
behavior and provocation becomes an establishing operation (i.e., it increases the likelihood of
aggression in the presence of provocation). In contrast, if a child is always punished for push-
ing other children in front of his parents, then parental presence becomes a discriminative
stimulus and decreases the likelihood of aggressive behavior.
Thus, if a pacifistic individual is provoked to the point of engaging in uncharacteristic
aggression, this would be classified as situation-based over person-based behavior. In contrast,
if a highly aggressive individual attacks someone in the relative absence of situational risk
factors for aggression, that behavior would be classified as person based over situation based.
Of course, in many (if not most) scenarios, aggressive behavior is both personologically and
situationally determined, as in the case of a narcissistic individual retaliating against someone
who has insulted them or a sexist man becoming especially aggressive toward women after
drinking alcohol. Therefore, most instances of aggressive behavior are not clearly person versus
situation based, but it can nonetheless be helpful to consider the extent to which a behavior is
instigated by personological and situational variables.
This section defines and discusses concepts that are similar to but distinct from aggression and
violence to help readers differentiate between them.
Antisocial behavior is any behavior that violates the social norms of appropriate behavior
(DeWall & Anderson, 2011; Krahé, 2013). Whether or not a particular behavior is considered
antisocial depends on the social context. Many acts of aggression and violence are considered
antisocial behavior, but not all. For example, engaging in a physical fight at a funeral would be
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10 Johnie J. Allen and Craig A. Anderson
considered antisocial behavior, but fighting someone in a boxing ring would not be antisocial
behavior, even though both examples count as aggression. Similarly, social norms in most soci-
eties dictate that killing others is wrong, but these constraints are loosened in times of war,
when killing the enemy becomes socially normative behavior. Thus, killing would not neces-
sarily be classified as antisocial behavior in a war zone.
Antisocial behavior is broader in scope than aggression because it also includes nonaggres-
sive behaviors. For example, littering, vandalism, and lying are all considered antisocial behav-
iors in most societies, but they do not necessarily constitute aggression. Note, however, that
each of these examples could also be classified as aggressive behavior if the action were carried
out to harm another person who was motivated to avoid that harm (e.g., littering in your
neighbor’s backyard to annoy them).
Definitions of juvenile delinquency are much more closely tied to legal factors than are
social–psychological definitions of aggression and violence. For example, Siegel and Welsh
(2014) define juvenile delinquency as “participation in illegal behavior by a minor who falls
under a statutory age limit” (p. 13). The concept of juvenile delinquency encompasses a wide
range of behaviors from relatively minor acts such as loitering to extreme acts such as murder.
For example, the self-report measure of delinquency included in National Youth Surveys (for
more information see Anderson & Dill, 2000; Elliott, Huizinga, & Ageton, 1985) includes
items that assess vandalism, theft, illegal drug use, prostitution, disorderly conduct, obscene
prank phone calls, drug trafficking, breaking and entering, rape and attempted rape, and
assault and attempted homicide. Like antisocial behavior, some types of juvenile delinquency
are aggressive in nature, but not all delinquent acts are aggressive. Like aggression, delinquency
is sometimes classified as overt or covert, with overt delinquency (e.g., assault, murder, rape)
being aggressive and covert delinquency (e.g., shoplifting, or selling or using illegal drugs)
being nonaggressive (Hoeve etal., 2009). Although juvenile delinquency bears a striking
resemblance to antisocial behavior, it places greater emphasis on laws being broken as opposed
to social norms being violated and is also limited to a younger population.
Coercion can be defined as “any action taken with the intention of imposing harm on another
person or forcing compliance” (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994, p. 168). Coercive actions take three
primary forms: threats, punishments, and bodily force (Krahé, 2013; Tedeschi & Felson,
1994). Threats communicate an intention to harm another person (e.g., a police officer threat-
ening to shoot a criminal if they make a move); punishments carry out harm on another person
(e.g., a parent putting a child in time-out for misbehaving); and bodily force uses physical
contact to elicit compliance (e.g., one person physically restraining another to stop that person
from escaping). Coercion is viewed as a form of social influence that focuses as much on
obtaining compliance as it does on harming others. Although harm and compliance are the
proximate goals of coercion, coercive actions are carried out in order to attain some other ulti-
mate goal (e.g., money, cooperation, social status, or sex), meaning that coercion most closely
resembles traditionally defined instrumental aggression. Since coercion focuses on obtaining
compliance as well as inflicting harm, it is a broader construct than aggression.
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Aggression and Violence: Definitions and Distinctions 11
Assertiveness can be defined as behavior that allows one to stand up for personal rights and
express one’s thoughts and feelings in a respectful manner to others (Parham, Lewis,
Fretwell, Irwin, & Schrimsher, 2015; Warland, McKellar, & Diaz, 2014). Definitions of
assertiveness are sometimes contrasted with inaction (i.e., lack of assertiveness) or with
aggressive styles of standing up for oneself. For example, if someone were to cut in front of
you in line at the grocery store, there would be at least three responses to choose from. You
could (1) sacrifice your personal rights by doing nothing and letting the person cut ahead of
you (the inactive, unassertive response), (2) stand up for your personal rights by speaking
with the person about how it is unfair for them to cut in front of you and asking them to
please go to the back of the line (the assertive response), or (3) aggressively push the person
to the back of the line to make sure you keep your spot (the aggressive response). Thus,
although laypeople sometimes incorrectly describe assertive people as aggressive, assertiveness
stands apart from aggression given its focus on respecting the rights of others (and, in doing
so, not harming them).
Aggressive cognition includes factors such as aggressive beliefs and attitudes (e.g., believing
that getting into fights is common and acceptable), aggressive perceptual schemata (e.g., a
tendency to perceive ambiguous situations in a hostile manner), aggressive expectation sche-
mata (e.g., a tendency to expect others to behave aggressively), and aggressive behavioral
scripts (e.g., believing that the appropriate response to an insult is attacking the insulter;
Anderson & Bushman, 2002). The sum of these different cognitive components can bethought
of as knowledge structures, and the sum of a person’s knowledge structures can be seen as
what determines their personality (Mischel, 1973; Mischel & Shoda, 1995). People who char-
acteristically have aggressive cognitions easily accessible—that is, those who frequently see the
world as an aggressive place and who can easily think of aggressive solutions to interpersonal
conflict—tend to behave aggressively. Similarly, situations that increase aggressive thinking
(e.g., provocation, media violence) tend to increase aggression. However, the activation (or
thinking) of aggressive cognitions does not always lead to aggressive behavior, nor are aggres-
sive cognitions required for aggressive behavior to occur. Thus, aggressive cognitions, though
related, are distinct from aggressive behavior.
Aggressive affect includes feelings of anger, hostility, and irritability (Anderson & Bushman,
2002; Prot & Anderson, 2013). The presence of aggressive affect increases the likelihood of
aggressive behavior occurring, but, like aggressive cognition, aggressive affect is not a necessary
condition for the elicitation of aggressive behavior. It is quite possible for aggression to occur
in the absence of aggressive affect (as in traditionally classified instrumental aggression).
Similarly, the presence of aggressive affect does not guarantee that aggression will occur.
Thankfully, being angry at others does not mean that one will necessarily aggress against them.
Aggressive affect and aggressive cognitions work interactively to influence aggressive behavior
(Anderson & Bushman, 2002). For example, in ruminatively based triggered displaced aggres-
sion, an initial provocation elicits aggressive affect, which is sustained over time by rumination
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12 Johnie J. Allen and Craig A. Anderson
(i.e., aggressive cognition), leading to later aggressive behavior (Miller etal., 2003). But,
again, it is important to maintain the distinction between aggressive affect and aggressive
behavior (e.g., aggression).
Many measures of aggressive personality include aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, and
aggressive behavior, mainly because they so frequently co-occur. This sometimes leads to con-
fusion in the research literature by clouding the distinctions between these three very different
Although the fact that there are so many different forms that aggression and violence may
make comprehensive classification of these phenomena a difficult task, many years of research
have provided us with empirically supported taxonomies. Aggression is most often defined as
behavior carried out with the intent to harm another person who is motivated to avoid that
harm. Violence is an extreme form of aggression that has severe harm (usually physical injury
or death) as its goal. The most common response modes for aggression are physical, verbal,
and relational in nature. Aggression can be classified in many ways. It can be hostile or instru-
mental, reactive or proactive, impulsive or premeditated, direct or indirect, active or passive,
overt or covert, and legitimate or illegitimate. It can also be characterized as displaced or trig-
gered displaced versus not displaced, and person based, situation based, or both person and
situation based. Although aggression shares similarities with antisocial behavior, juvenile
delinquency, coercion, assertiveness, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect, it stands apart
from each of these concepts. In sum, the question “What are aggression and violence?” has a
great many answers given the many types of aggression that have been identified. We hope that
this chapter has provided the reader with a much clearer understanding of what aggression and
violence are and what they are not.
1 Aggression-related self-efficacy beliefs refer to beliefs about how successful one is likely to
be in carrying out an aggressive behavior (e.g., “Am I strong enough to win a fight against
2 Aggression-related outcome-efficacy beliefs refer to beliefs about whether or not an
aggressive action will produce the desired outcome (e.g., “If I hit this person, will they stop
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