You, Illuminated

Commonsense explanations of neuroscience

The Origin of Fighting

The adaptive use of aggression.

three stoogesI've always sided more with the lovers than the fighters of the world, so on first look aggression perplexed me. Wouldn't the world be a better place without people vengefully cutting each other off in traffic or callously cursing at cashiers in the supermarket? Some forms of aggression seem unnecessary for the continuation of our species and therefore maladaptive and atavistic, an evolutionary leftover like male nipples.

Aggression is a social behavior that intends to harm another individual, and the individual finds that harm aversive and would seek to avoid it. Hence, the aggressor must not only willingly harm the target, but must do something the target dislikes. No matter how hatefully you smile at someone, it's not aggressive unless the other person finds your smile despicable.

On a recent rainy afternoon at a music festival, Austin City Limits (ACL), I observed a situation that epitomized the intrinsic utility of aggression. I went to ACL with my friend Jennifer*, and early in the day we acknowledged an inherent problem with large crowds: bathroom availability. Add alcohol, and the problem multiplies. Ingenuously, we didn't want to miss part of a good show unless it became an emergency, but by seven in the evening we had reached a bursting point. We barreled our way out of the crowd towards a row of fifty port-o-potties only to find a forty-person line in front of each one. Flustered, we stood at the back of two different lines hoping to reach the front sooner.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

After ten minutes of waiting, it started raining again and I realized that during the hurried trek to the restroom line, I had lost my poncho. Like many other overly hydrated concertgoers, I would endure getting wet as long as I made it to the front of the line. I would suffer through anything.

In humans, aggression historically served not only to hunt and protect us from wild animals, but also to establish and maintain social order. In the modern day, we rely on the legal system and other institutions to carry out many of these functions, but in the absence of a bathroom authority at ACL, we relied on common courtesy.

I had made it to within thirteen people of the bathroom when two ladies, a blonde and a brunette, marched up from behind me, past the grimacing onlookers waiting not-so-patiently, and stood right in the front echelon. Were they really cutting? We were all in agony, and it seemed undoubtedly rude for anyone to expect special treatment.

Jeers came from the peeved crowd, "Back of the line, back of the line." The blonde and brunette stayed put. When I commented to a girl in front of me how surprised I was that someone would have such audacity, an auburn-haired lady from behind joined our conversation.

She told us, "I just want to let you know, those two ladies are my friends.  They asked me to go up with them, but I didn't feel right about it."  She had better sense.

She explained her friends' thought process.  Apparently they noticed that one of the occupancy signs was green and had been for a while, so they thought that perhaps it had been overlooked.  By starting a new line they would help everyone get to the restroom faster. This clarified the motive, but it did not sufficiently excuse the guilty party. Clearly, when a man exited the port-o-potty with the green sign, the ladies should have realized they were wrong and returned to their spot. On the contrary, despite numerous protests, the brunette charged right in.

Often, aggression is a tool used to remove an unwanted stimulus. According to the definition, the target of aggression finds it aversive and hence should act to avoid it. Just as a lion can chase hyenas away with a threatening paw swipe, the risk of ridicule and confrontation may prevent people from trying to cheat the waiting game.

Suddenly, a movement came from the crowd, and another girl went up and began pounding on the port-o-potty housing the brunette. The occupancy sign was still green as if unlatched, but when the girl tried pulling on the door it didn't open. I looked closer, and to my surprise it was Jennifer. She turned and stood between the port-o-potty and the blonde and told her to go back and wait her turn. The blonde stood her ground and waved her hands, emphatically presenting her case. As the argument ensued, the crowd cheered Jennifer on like a superhero.

"Who wants this lady to go to the back of the line?" Jennifer asked.

Chants resumed, "Back of the line, back of the line."

I now had the opportunity to return the confession to the auburn-haired lady. "You see the girl arguing with your friend? Well, that's my friend." We both laughed.

In a fever, the crowd continued to yell and mock the blonde. Just as Jennifer became the hero, the blonde became the villain, even though her friend assured me she was the nicest person you'd ever meet. Just then, the brunette vacated the stall, and everyone looked to see if the blonde would try to dart around my friend or relent and return to the back.  To everyone's approval, the blonde left without using the bathroom. She and the brunette hid their faces and scurried off.

In other circumstances, Jennifer may not have been so unabashed, but the combination of alcohol, anger and being egged on facilitated her confrontation. Once she emerged as the crusader for a cause célèbre, standing up for the rest of the people in line, her actions were reinforced by the crowd's appreciation.

In the absence of an authority to govern the bathroom line, aggression served to establish and maintain social order. No one else dared cutting to the front, not even with benevolent intentions.

imageIn seeking to better understand both the social and biological underpinnings of aggressive behavior, further inquiry confirmed that aggression is not unique to humans and predators. The graceful swan will chase and bite you if it has a cygnet to protect, and a bare hand outstretched towards a wild bunny may withdraw with one less finger. Even the simplest slug will push a fellow slug out of the way to gain access to food, no matter if it spells the demise of the first little creature. In terms of evolution, the more a trait has been preserved across species, the more essential it seems to be. Not all species have opposable thumbs, so it must not be absolutely necessary. However, every creature with a heartbeat engages in some form of aggression, so it must be indispensable for survival.

As I was talking with the cutters' friend, we remarked that if nothing else, the squabble certainly amused us during the forty-minute wait for the bathroom. We were now only a few spots from the front, and the rain picked up.

"I still can't believe I lost my poncho in my hurry to get here; I could have taken my time, still had it and not have waited any longer," I sighed.

"You know," she said, "I happen to have an extra poncho in my bag. Why don't you take it?"

If it weren't for the ordeal between our friends, she may not have offered me that poncho. On the other hand, her kind gesture demonstrated how cooperation could solve problems effectively without aggression and leave everyone happy. In the end, I'm still left wondering--is aggression necessary?

*Name changed for the purpose of the story.

Notes:

I defined aggression for this post based on the definition in the 1994 textbook Human Aggression by Baron and Richardson.

 

Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

more...

Subscribe to You, Illuminated

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?