Aggression: Types & Causes

Aggression happening in the world are on the rise, and they can be divvied up to different kinds of aggression. Many factors can cause a particular aggression, such as social, biological, psychological and even environmental factors. This essay will discuss the definition of aggression, the causes of aggression, the types of aggression, a case study analysis of one type of aggression, and a conclusion.

Aggression is defined as a “hostile act or feeling” (Fowler, Fowler & Sykes, 1978). It is a strong emotion that can be triggered through internal or external factors, such as physical or environmental factors. An act is only considered as ‘aggression’ when the pre-conditions are met: physical or psychological pain is intended and causing another person harm.

Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mower, and Sears (1939), when proposing the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis, defined aggression as “the state that emerges when circumstances interfere with a goal response” (Beck, 2005).

Aggression can also be defined as an act aimed to harm or injure another person, who is inclined to avoid such treatment (Baron, 1977). In his book, Baron (1977) also provided some examples of acts of aggression, such as physical violence occurring in families and marriages – marriage abuse, parental abuse, family and sibling abuse – as well as murders or homicides. It was also mentioned in his book that the most common sources of aggression are physical and psychological pain.

Acts of aggression can range from anger to murder, and sometimes it is a natural response to conflicts, confusion and anger. It can stem from anger or frustration from internal or external conditions. Receiving disapproval regarding social, political or religious beliefs, social inequalities and competition over material resources are examples that can cause an aggressive response (Fuentes, 2012).

It is also be triggered by a particular reason – when a change is brought about – or for a cause – to bring about a change. In The Journal of Psychology, Holm (1983) proposed the definition of aggression as having a similar concept – “with intent to harm”. This intent subsequently leads to specific purposes or goals one hopes to achieve when carrying out an act of aggression. The term “cause” in this case is limited to mean an intended action. Two conditions are to be met for an action to be deemed as aggressive: the acknowledgement to the actor of an intent to harm, and invalid reasons provided by the actor to justify his actions. The term “actor” is referred to as someone who had performed or carried out an act of aggression (Holm, 1983).

Other factors that can cause the probability of aggression are alcohol consumption, pain and discomfort, direct provocation, imitation, environmental stress, high expectations, size, strength and distance and reciprocal aggressiveness.

A hypothesis explaining the relationship between aggression and frustration, “The Frustration-Aggression Theory” by Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mower, and Sears (1939), suggested that the more frustrated a person is, the higher the probability of showing aggression. Frustration occurs when one is held back from achieving his goals. The closer he is to his goal, the more frustrated he will be when being held back from it (Holm, 1983).

Beyer (2014) also mentioned “The Frustration-Aggression Theory” and explained that frustrations are linked to negative stimuli, where a desired result is expected but one is prevented from achieving it. This deprivation of the expected reward motivates oneself to perform acts of aggression in hopes of achieving that reward. The definition of frustration here is given as the “interference with the occurrence of an instigated goal-response”.

Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can make a person highly irritable and easily provoked. It leads to certain actions that are unacceptable in the social norms. The aggressive acts could be because of competition for attractive partners, over-crowding and other irritations like cigarette smoke, which can affect the irritability of others.

Pain and discomfort are sources of aggression as they can make one highly irritable and easily agitated. When coming across an irritant causing pain or discomfort, one attacks the nearest available object, carrying out an act of aggression in an attempt to reduce the pain or discomfort. Such irritants can be a rise in temperature, where the weather becomes too humid and one tries to escape the heat by pushing through a crowd of people.

Environmental stress also suggests a similar outcome – when one experiences a subtle change in the environment which is perceived as unpleasant, such as high temperatures or overcrowding, this will make him feel agitated and highly irritable, thus leading him to lash out at other people in an attempt to reduce this unpleasant change.

Direct provocation suggests that tension and provocation can result in aggressive behavior as well. This is similar to reciprocal aggressiveness, which suggests that when one finds himself in a situation where he is being treated aggressively, he will respond in a similar manner. Aggressive treatment in this case are such as inappropriate teasing or harsh criticism.

Children learn to perform acts of aggression from their parents or violent scenes on the television through observational learning. Bandura (1971) explained in his Social Learning Theory where the constant association with a certain person demarcates the kind of behavior one will grow to imitate. Parents in a household showing acts of aggression observed by their children indirectly teach their children that these acts are socially acceptable to achieve their goals. Youngsters will take these acts of aggression as a way to resolve conflicts, and when they are older, repeat the cycle as a way to socialize their own children. Similarly, when children are exposed to violent scenes on the television or other medias, they will take it as a socially acceptable way to achieve their goals.

The size, strength and distance of the source of frustration, however, can also determine the degree of aggressive response – it is more unlikely to carry out an act of aggression when the person who made one frustrated is bigger in size and is in one’s personal space. Also, the possibility of an aggressive response shown out of frustration during a phone call is higher, as the source of frustration is indefinite.

There are numerous acts of aggression shown in the world, and each of these acts can be categorized into three different kinds of aggression – each depending on the degree of hurt intended, the goal one wants to achieve and whether or not it is a valid reason to justify one’s action. These types of aggression are: hostile aggression or violence, emotional aggression and instrumental aggression.

Hostile aggression or better known as “violence”, is a type of aggression where its source is from the feeling of anger. When one feels angry at a person and has an intention to harm and inflict pain on the person, this act of aggression is labelled as “violence”. The term “violence” as defined by the World Health Organization (n.d.) is an act with “”the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, [or] maldevelopment”.

Emotional aggression is a type of aggression with the intent to hurt a victim psychologically, or rather sometimes physically. This aggression type is mostly associated with bar fights and arguments in a relationship.

Instrumental aggression, on the other hand, occurs with an aim to achieve something that is of value to a person or even to be in control of specific resources. Things that can be of value are such as inheritance. This type of aggression can also occur when one’s aim is to gain compliments and approval from peers for acting in a tough manner.

Case Analysis of a Type of Aggression: Aggressive Communication in Relationship

This case study focuses on a type of psychological abuse in relationships – aggressive communication. It includes the definition of relationship abuse, how one shows psychologically-aggressive behavior in a relationship, the psychological effects of verbally-abusive relationships and proposed solutions to these key problems.

When the term “relationship abuse” is used, it usually refers to the physical or psychological aggression in a relationship, in most cases, involves a male and a female. A relationship is the bond two people have that connects them on an intimate or romantic level. An abuse is an act of aggression, usually with an aim to hurt a person, be it physically or psychologically (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, 2016).

Relationship abuse is a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a former or current intimate partner. Abuse can be emotional, financial, sexual or physical and can include threats, isolation, and intimidation. Abuse tends to escalate over time. When someone uses abuse and violence against a partner, it is always part of a larger pattern of control (Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, 2015).

A romantic and passionate relationship between two people can change for the worst when a partner demands more control or power in the relationship. An outburst of violence in a relationship forces the other partner into vulnerability and give in to these demands. It is an act of aggression to claim superiority and to put oneself in a position to be the one who gets to make the decisions.

Psychological abuse in a relationship include making demands, threaten to hurt or leave the relationship, showing superiority, and criticizing the partner (Chang, 1996). In her book, Chang also provided a thorough definition of psychological abuse in relationships, which is a relationship that involves aggressive communication such as “verbal attacks, threats, accusation, verbal hostility, unrealistic expectations, domination, and/or name calling”.

The outcome of aggressive communication varies in different relationships, but usually a partner has an aim to agitate the other or to hurt the other psychologically and receive satisfaction (Rancer, 2009). In his chapter, one trait of aggression is assertiveness, defined as “the ability to stand up for one’s or another person’s rights” (Skills You Need, n.d.). In association with this trait is argumentativeness, which is given the definition: “a trait that predisposes individuals involved in a conflict to defend positions on controversial issues and to verbally attack the positions of others”. Another trait of aggressive communication is hostility, which involves the use of verbal communication to “express irritability, negativity, resentment and suspicion”.

Verbal aggressiveness such as the ones explained above can also be in the form of attacks on the characteristics of a person, competence attacks, use of vulgarities and profanities, and attacks on one’s background and physical appearance (Rancer, 2009).

Aggressive communication can also be in the form of complaints, where one expresses his dissatisfaction and disdain towards the other. Complaints and criticism may have a good influential purpose, but in others, they damage the self-perception of a person, and makes one feel worthless (Trees, 2009).

The psychological effects of aggressive communication in relationships include the emotional effects, the impact on one’s well-being and the relational quality of the relationship.

When one finds himself or herself in the receiving end of a verbally-abusive relationship, he or she will usually feel hurt, disgraced, worthless and miserable. One might even feel angry and frustrated at the aggressor in the relationship for deliberately putting him down and belittling him. The aggressor, on the other hand, may feel a little remorseful and regret his verbal actions.

These emotional drives lead to the damaging of the individual’s well-being. Partners may feel pressured, tense and stressed. The psychological distress may lead to depression, which can in turn, lead to impaired mental health.

The relational quality of the relationship can be corroded by aggressive actions, be it verbal or physical. Verbal abuse, in a way, can be damaging in the relationship as it ruins the intimacy and passion (Trees, 2009). It is where one basically states his or her dissatisfaction and expectations outright, in a harsh manner. If taken seriously, one can find him or herself in the negatively-emotional state as mentioned above.

There is no one solution to this key problem in a psychologically-abusive relationship, which is communication. The relationship lacks understanding in both parties and couples must be able to understand each other in order to keep the relationship stable and comfortable. A frequent visit to a marriage counselor or a therapist can help both parties keep tabs on each other, and also understand each other a little more deeply. Having a third-person point of view of the relationship can also be helpful, unless it is biased and one-sided. It helps one see the big picture of the problems faced in the relationship, and upon seeing the bigger picture, one can subsequently identify the issues that caused the miscommunication in the relationship, and decide whether or not to make an effort to repair that relationship.

Because verbal aggressiveness in a relationship basically means one demands either attention or power through communication, the best way to solve certain issues identified is through talking it out. One cannot expect the other to simply know what he or she wants in a relationship if one does not communicate. Also, the way one communicates and the timing of the discussion must be taken into consideration for this method of repairing the relationship to be effective.

From this essay, aggression is explained as a form of attack that can be damaging to the physical, psychological, emotional and mental well-being of an individual. Not only is it a demand for power over valuable resources, it can also be an expression of dissatisfaction or anger. There are many types of aggression and they can be found in various situations, also depending on factors such as the goal of the act of aggression, and the source of aggression.

Aggressiveness can be triggered or caused by one or many sources, such as anger or frustration, receiving disapproval, excessive alcohol consumption, pain and discomfort, direct provocation, imitation, environmental stress, reciprocal aggression and size, strength and distance of the source of aggression.
Based on the case study analysis above, “Aggressive Communication in Relationships”, it is also explained how aggressiveness can be carried out in relationships and why individuals resort to using verbal abuse. It is easier to understand that there are reasons pertaining to acts of aggression in the world, and that the issues that caused this aggression can be identified using theories such as the Frustration-Aggression Theory. One can learn to communicate with others better lest an aggressive response is triggered.



  1. Aggression. (n.d.). Reading. In Social Behavioral Studies. (pp. 7-1-7-19). (2012). MDIS.

Books and Websites

  1. Beyer, C. (2014). Human Nature and the Essence of Aggression. Inequality and Violence: A Re-appraisal of Man, the State and War (pp. 39-50). Ashgate Publishing Group.
  2. Fowler, F. G., Fowler, H. W., & Sykes, J. B. (1978). The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English (6th ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  3. Fuentes, A. (2012). The Roots of Human Aggression: Many Forms of Violence Require Extensive Cooperation. Retrieved from
  4. Holm, O. (1983). Four Factors Affecting Perceived Aggressiveness. The Journal of Psychology, 114(2).
  5. Beck, H. P. (2005). Social Psychology: The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis. Retrieved from
  6. Baron, R. (1977). Human Aggression. New York: Plenum.
  7. Bandura, A. (1971). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.
  8. Definition and typology of violence. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  9. Relationship. (2016). In Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus. Cambridge University Press.
  10. What is Relationship Abuse? (2015). Retrieved from
  11. Chang, V. N. (1996). I Just Lost Myself: Psychological Abuse of Women in Marriage. Praeger.
  12. Rancer, A. S. (2009). Aggressive Communication. In H. T. Reis & S. Sprecher (Authors), Encyclopedia of Human Relationships (pp. 65-68). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
  13. Assertiveness – An Introduction. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  14. Trees, A. R. (2009). Criticism in Relationships. In H. T. Reis & S. Sprecher (Authors), Encyclopedia of Human Relationships (pp. 365-368). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

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