There are two distinctions that are crucial in the psychology
of aggression and violence. The first is impulsive vs. instrumental
aggression, and the second is individual vs. group aggression.
Conveying these fundamental concepts to students is essential
for teaching the psychology of intergroup conflict and genocide,
where the costs of human aggression are highest.
Impulsive Aggression Is Different from Instrumental Aggression
Psychologists understand aggression to be behavior aimed
at harming another member of the same species, and most psychologists
distinguish between impulsive and instrumental aggression.
Impulsive aggression (also known as irritable, angry, or expressive
aggression) is marked by strong emotion, especially anger,
and is aimed at hurting another. Instrumental aggression is
cooler and the hurt delivered to another is not an end in
itself but only the means to some other end. Aggression in
a mugging, for instance, is aimed at getting the victim's
money; aggression against Saddam Hussein's Iraq is aimed at
repelling an aggressor.
Of course a particular instance of aggression may involve
both impulsive and instrumental aggression, as when a parent
spanks a child for going into the street. The spanking may
be aimed at keeping the child out of the street in the future
(instrumental aggression), but it may at the same time express
the parent's fear and anger in reaction to the child's danger
and disobedience (impulsive aggression). Although pure cases
of impulsive or instrumental aggression may be rare, it is
often useful to ask about a particular case of aggression
whether it is predominantly impulsive or instrumental. Studies
of aggression in children, for instance, have found it useful
to distinguish reactive (impulsive) from proactive (instrumental)
Sociologists and criminologists studying violent crime are
also beginning to use this distinction. Psychopaths are individuals
with defective emotions; they do not experience normal levels
of shame, guilt, or fear. Possibly as a result of this defect,
they also have weak and transitory social attachments; they
treat other people as objects. Psychopaths show predominantly
instrumental aggression, as they use aggression coldly, as
a means of controlling others. They are likely to continue
aggressive acts despite conviction and punishment, and they
are over-represented in prison populations.
Compared with instrumental aggression, impulsive aggression
may be more easily deterred, or at least recidivism is less
for crimes involving anger. A man who kills in anger in a
bar brawl is less likely to kill again than a man who kills
in the conduct of a robbery. Similarly, it appears that men
who assault their female partners or their children in anger
are more likely to quit than those who use aggression coldly,
as a means of controlling those around them. There is also
evidence that impulsive aggression, but not instrumental aggression,
is related to low levels of serotonin in the brain.
If impulsive aggression looks like the lesser of two evils,
it may be because anger, like shame and guilt, is a moral
emotion. Aristotle said that anger is a reaction to insulta
specific form of moral violation. Modern frustration-aggression
theory says that anger is a reaction to any noxious experience,
including frustration. However, frustration-aggression theory
recognizes the importance of moral violation as justifying
the expression of anger and aggression. Further indication
of the importance of moral violation in anger and aggression
is provided by survey data indicating that the most common
occasions of anger are perceived infringements of authority
or independence, or other threats to positive self-image.
Aristotle and modern psychology are agreed in seeing moral
violation at the center of anger and impulsive aggression.
Group Violence Is Different from Individual Violence
The psychology of individual aggression is importantly different
from the psychology of intergroup conflict. In general terms,
it is the least socialized who are disproportionately involved
in individual violence, whereas it is often the best socialized
who are involved in intergroup violence.
Individual violence is represented in the statistics of violent
crime: murder, robbery, assault, and rape. Although violence
associated with organized crime groups and youth gangs makes
some contribution to these statistics, the overwhelming majority
of violent crime offences are individual offences. Violent
crimes are committed disproportionately by individuals of
lower socioeconomic statusindividuals poorer and less
educated than average. These are often individuals who do
not accept the larger societal norms that give to the state
a monopoly of the use of violence. Their weak socialization
may be more cultural than personal, that is, the individual
may be part of a deviant subculture in which violence is more
acceptable than it is in the dominant culture. Still, from
the point of view of the state and its norms, violent crime
is predominantly a problem of undersocialized individuals.
In contrast, intergroup violence depends upon the leadership
and example of well-socialized individuals. The prototype
of intergroup violence is the violence of interstate war,
and studies of U.S. and Israeli soldiers show consistently
that the best soldiers are above average in civilian qualifications.
Despite the many films based on a "dirty dozen"
of career criminals forged into an effective combat team,
the reality is that success in modern war depends on soldiers
with middle-class levels of intelligence and education, multiplied
by entrepreneurial virtues of initiative and cooperation.
As war becomes more complex, success depends more on having
good people up front.
The crucial role of well-socialized individuals is evident
particularly in the extent to which good people do bad things
in the name of the state. It was not the worst but some of
the best of American boys who dropped firebombs on Dresden,
Hamburg, and Tokyo and atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It was no less obvious then than now that, in time of war,
city bombing is killing mostly noncombatantsold people,
women, and children. Similarly, studies of police and military
torturers reveal these individuals to be unremarkable except
perhaps for a stronger-than-ordinary sense of duty and respect
Thus it is the least socialized who are disproportionately
involved in individual violence, whereas the best socialized
are the foundation of intergroup violence. The distinction
is important because the origins of individual violence are
mostly to be found in individual differences that tell us
little about group conflict. Rather the origins of group conflict
are in the power of group dynamics, and the origins of genocide
are in the power of the state.
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