The Role of Executive Functions in the Control of Aggressive Behavior

Department of Neurology, University of Lübeck Lübeck, Germany.
Frontiers in Psychology (Impact Factor: 2.8). 07/2011; 2:152. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00152
Source: PubMed


An extensive literature suggests a link between executive functions and aggressive behavior in humans, pointing mostly to an inverse relationship, i.e., increased tendencies toward aggression in individuals scoring low on executive function tests. This literature is limited, though, in terms of the groups studied and the measures of executive functions. In this paper, we present data from two studies addressing these issues. In a first behavioral study, we asked whether high trait aggressiveness is related to reduced executive functions. A sample of over 600 students performed in an extensive behavioral test battery including paradigms addressing executive functions such as the Eriksen Flanker task, Stroop task, n-back task, and Tower of London (TOL). High trait aggressive participants were found to have a significantly reduced latency score in the TOL, indicating more impulsive behavior compared to low trait aggressive participants. No other differences were detected. In an EEG-study, we assessed neural and behavioral correlates of error monitoring and response inhibition in participants who were characterized based on their laboratory-induced aggressive behavior in a competitive reaction time task. Participants who retaliated more in the aggression paradigm and had reduced frontal activity when being provoked did not, however, show any reduction in behavioral or neural correlates of executive control compared to the less aggressive participants. Our results question a strong relationship between aggression and executive functions at least for healthy, high-functioning people.

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Available from: Ulrike Krämer
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    • "The classic case study linking frontal lobe damage and behavioral disinhibition is Phineas Gage, who, after a metal rod pierced his forebrain, lost social inhibitions and acted inappropriately and aggressively. Evidence suggests that individuals without a history of brain injury or trauma and who perform poorly on tests of executive function are also more likely to engage in antisocial behavior (Krämer et al., 2011). Blake, Pincus, and Buckner (1995) identified differences in the structure and function of the frontal lobes between adults awaiting trial or sentencing for murder and adults in the general population. "
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    • "The current data, including the mediation model, indicate that these observed effects in executive function performance may be explained by underlying WM changes. The BPAQ is often used as a trait-based measure of aggression (Buss and Perry, 1992; Kramer et al., 2011), and as such, future research on the role of the executive network in aggression based on behavioral reports of specific aggressive or violent acts will be an important addition to the literature. However, the BPAQ, in particular the Verbal and Physical subscales that were significant here, have been shown to correlate with measures of violent behavior against others and against the self (Bushman and Wells, 1998; Archer and Webb, 2006; Zhang et al., 2012), thus we believe that BPAQ 'Acts' scores can serve as a good index of the likelihood of an individual engaging in real-life aggressive behaviors. "
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