Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What You Need to Know About How Aggressive People Think

Role-related biases in memory of aggressive encounters are discussed.

Key points

  • Individuals in the victim role tend to recall an aggressive encounter as more harmful and less justified.
  • Victims explain perpetrators’ actions by referring to background factors (e.g., offender’s personality).
  • Victims justify their own actions by referring to mental reasoning (e.g., their painstaking deliberations).
  • But perpetrators tend to explain their aggression in ways that make the behavior appear rational and sensible.
Source: VietFotos/Pixabay

Published in Psychological Reports, a recent study by McCarthy and collaborators concluded that compared to victims, perpetrators who are asked to recall an aggressive act tend to rate the aggression as more justified and less harmful.

In the rest of this article, we will look at the study and its findings in detail.

Investigating aggression from the perspective of perpetrators, victims, and witnesses

Sample: 408 MTurk workers and psychology students; average age of 29 years old (range of 18 to 70 years); 54 percent men; 64 percent White.


Participants were asked to recall a time when they had...

  1. ...caused intentional harm (perpetrator memory).
  2. ...been intentionally harmed (victim memory).
  3. ...seen someone purposely harm another person (witness memory”).

For each scenario, they were then asked additional questions, such as if they knew the victim or offender and whether the act was justified.

The type of aggression recalled: victim vs. perpetrator

There were three findings, the first of which concerns the type of violent incident recalled. Specifically, when asked to recall a harmful act as its perpetrator (i.e., perpetrator memory), participants usually selected an act that was less socially undesirable and more easily justified. This may be motivated by a desire to protect their ego and reputation.

When instructed to recollect an incident where someone else had harmed them (i.e., victim memory), participants were more likely to remember a time when the harm appeared obvious and unjustifiable.

Overall, victims recalled a greater number of damaging and severe events than did perpetrators.

Ratings of the aggression: victims, perpetrators, and witnesses

The second finding concerned how the remembered hostility was rated.

Participants rated the violent behavior that they had engaged in as perpetrators, compared to victims or witnesses, as more justified and less damaging.

Crucially, the difference in self-ratings was greater than the ratings of independent raters.

There were also rater (self vs. independent) and role (victim vs. perpetrator) interactions, suggesting that differences in ratings were not due to selective recall only. Specifically, personal involvement in an aggressive incident encouraged more self-serving assessments.

Explaining the aggression: victims, perpetrators, and witnesses

The third finding showed that elucidating the causes of aggression depended on one’s particular role.

Notably, when explaining a violent act as its perpetrator, people often discussed their thought processes and deliberations. They wanted to show that what occurred was a sensible response to an isolated and atypical event—meaning they were not violent by nature.

When discussing the aggression as a victim, however, participants referred to background causal factors. For example, they mentioned an offender’s:

  • Personality (e.g., jealous, manipulative, power-hungry, paranoid, sadistic)
  • State of mind (high, drunk, sexually aroused)
  • Situation (high temperature, excessive noise)


We tend to remember or reconstruct violent events we have experienced in ways that:

  • Make us appear rational and in control.
  • Help us avoid punishment.
  • Maintain or enhance our reputation.

This is accomplished using three strategies: recalling, rating, and explaining the event in a self-serving manner.

So, an offender is more likely to highlight the complex mental processes behind their hostile behavior in order to portray it as rational and sensible.

The victim, in contrast, is more inclined to emphasize background factors, like the offender’s personality or state of mind (e.g., manipulative, entitled, drunk) rather than their reasoning.

Source: Ryan McGuire/Pixabay
Source: Ryan McGuire/Pixabay


The next time you recall an aggressive encounter (whether as victim, perpetrator, or witness), be mindful of role-related biases that could affect the memory and interpretation of it.

For instance, if, while at a club, you are a victim of an act of violence (getting shoved), you may not be thinking at all about what the offender had assumed (that you were blocking the club’s exit on purpose) or what they intended to do (reach their car before it got towed).

Indeed, such differences in attributing causality illustrate why conflict resolution can be so difficult.

Of course, knowing an offender’s cognitions does not mean agreeing that their reasoning was sound. The goal is not to excuse or justify the aggression but to better understand its potential causes.

More from Arash Emamzadeh
More from Psychology Today