Why Are Some People Habitually Aggressive?

Identifying the cognitive cause of interpersonal aggression.

Posted May 13, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Interpersonal (instrumental) aggression may take physical, verbal, emotional, or others forms, the examples of which consist of abuse, assault, bullying, intimidation, threat, exploitation, harassment, blaming, dominance, road rage, coercion, and other types of injuries in the contexts of human interactions involving disagreement, conflict, power disparity, or non-provocation.

Predictably, the perpetrators comprise a range of individuals, including some of the justice-involved persons, juvenile delinquents, family members, coworkers, strangers, and administrators or managers with psychopathic traits. Although the majority of the hostilities involve verbal or emotional encroachments, this type of viciousness has jeopardized interpersonal relations and mental well-being and threatened the health and safety of all relevant individuals, workplaces, families, and the society.

Why do some people habitually undertake interpersonal aggression with the lack of capacity to engage in peaceful and rational communication? In other words, why do moral education and emotional regulation seem powerless in helping them to interact with others by conveying logical reasoning, new information, facts, and agreed principles?

Although some explanations for the behavior are plausible, such as aggressive instinct (Freud), frequent exposure to violence during childhood, lack of inhibitory control, and possessing the personality trait of low conditionability (see How Managerial Psychopaths Use Emotions), their distorted interpersonal cognition appears to serve as a better account for their inability to interact beyond their dysfunctional behavioral spectrum.

Interpersonal communication is regulated by one’s cognitive structures (social knowledge), which include mental representations of how and why each other process, validate, or invalidate the interpersonal messages.

Research with correctional populations and juvenile delinquents has shown that misperceiving others serves as the cognitive cause for interpersonal aggression (e.g., Sun, 2013, 2014). Violence-prone persons have distorted cognitions about interacting with others, with the false belief about the validity of fear-backed messages or actions for the recipients. For example, the perpetrators not only tend to misconstrue the goodwill gestures of others as carrying hostile intentions but also believe that they can control others by using actual or threatened violence and imposing fear or other emotional agonies. They perceive people as motivated to avoid pain, thus the victims will behave in the way the assailants have desired, such as obeying their orders and satisfying their needs. 

However, regardless of how much confidence they have in aggression, it has no external validity for their victims with normal mentality, who can and will mentally invalidate the hostility by viewing it as violating the standards of equity and truth. The aggressors have false cognition of interpersonal reality when they misrepresent the victims’ mind (including how and why the victims evaluate, explain, and invalidate their mental and physical activities; and the victims’ related intentions, cognitive structures and processes, emotions, and contexts).

Then why don’t the aggressors recognize the invalidity of their approach and start to engage in peaceful and rational communication supported by logical reasoning, new information, facts, and agreed principles?

It is because they are cognitively incapable in this domain and their cognition is yet to develop in order to reach the higher level. All individuals operate at different levels (from the low to high continuum) of social cognition about interpersonal reality. Violence-prone persons are guided by their misunderstanding of what actually regulates others’ behavior in interaction. Their inaccurate or distorted cognition of interpersonal reality (e.g., believing in fear and violence as the method of influencing and controlling others) represents the lowest level of the cognitive stage.

Thus, individuals cannot act and think beyond their level of cognition about interpersonal reality by using a motivation or willpower to elevate their knowledge of human reality, just as they are unable to obtain new knowledge about advanced math or a foreign language by their strong craving. On the other hand, more accurate social cognition or a higher cognitive level involves the understanding that human communications are mediated by the mind’s relations with reality. Namely, people’s acceptance of the validity of a message is based on its truthfulness and fairness. In particular, people change their perceptions guiding their behavior only when they are aware that their perceptions have violated or contradict reality. Violence does not create a perceived discrepancy with reality; only by interacting with new interpersonal reality can the person develop a higher level of social cognition.

Therefore, effective interventions for reducing interpersonal aggression involve modifying and rectifying the persons’ distorted interpersonal cognitions about others and about violence. At least two methods can be implemented:

  1. Never validate their distorted cognitions about you and about violence. Any approaches involving fear, coercion, intimidation, violence, and belligerence in human interaction are counterproductive because violence only corroborates interacting partners’ cognitive distortions about the validity of violence. For example, in a situation where two groups of gang members have a physical fight. One side’s violence typically aggravates the other’s violence because violence conveys the message about the misperceived validity of violence.
  2. In counseling or educational settings, the approach needs to help violence-prone persons to develop a higher level of interpersonal cognition by assisting them to evaluate, perceive, interpret, and react to interpersonal situations in an alternative or more accurate way. This approach includes helping them understand how to avoid validating others’ distorted cognitions of interpersonal reality, and how to validate and interact with others whose cognitions match human reality (including the reality of the perceiver’s mental structure and processes).

In short, identifying distorted interpersonal cognitions help us understand and reduce interpersonal aggression.