Aggressive Behavior and Provocation

Anger is a primal emotion that is present from infancy. Whether plain annoyance or full-fledged rage, we get angry sometimes. Some of us get angry only when provoked, but many others feel this emotion even with little or no provocation.

According to a recent study on human behavior, irritability and anger are linked with aggressive behavior even when a person is not provoked.

The study on aggressive behavior

In a recent meta-analysis of 63 studies that appeared in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin (September 2008 issue), researchers attempted to explain why some people exhibit aggressive behavior when provoked while others do not. Specifically, they examined the link between aggressive behavior and personality variables, under provoking and somewhat neutral conditions.

Authors Jeffery Valentine from the Duke University, Arlin James Benjamin from the Panhandle State University, and Amelia Talley and Ann Bettencourt from the University of Missouri (Columbia) found that certain personality variables like irritability or anger could predict one’s tendency to either become aggressive without provocation or to become aggressive when provoked.

The personality variables

The team identified the following personality variables: trait irritability, trait aggressiveness, Type A personality, and trait anger. They also identified other personality factors like emotional susceptibility or the tendency to feel vulnerable or inadequate, dissipation-rumination, impulsivity, and narcissism. 

They subjected participants (7 years old to 48 years old) to various types of provoking conditions like verbal insults, physical aggression, reproachful comments, loud noises, and frustration situations in the form of difficult puzzles. They were also subjected to neutral conditions, which were the same as the provoking conditions, but ones which acked frustrating, irritating, and insulting situations.

"Hot-blooded" reaction

The review found that the provocation level and personality variables interrelate to encourage aggressive behavior. For example, those who have Type A personalities are more likely to express anger, mull-over upsetting situations, become narcissistic, feel emotional susceptible, and exhibit impulsive and self-destructive tendencies. They also have the tendency to show signs of aggressive behavior only when provoked.

This reaction is called "hot-blooded." Here, a person usually gets angry by a provoking situation, which induces his or her aggressive behavior. Bettencourt labeled the two patterns of associations between aggressive behavior and personality as provocation-sensitive and aggression-prone.

"Cold-blooded" reaction

The review also revealed that those identified as having an irritable or aggressive personality had the tendency to behave aggressively regardless of whether the situations were provoking or not. According to Bettencourt, "This may suggest that these persons have the capacity to engage in cold-blooded style of aggressive behavior, reacting harshly as a result to little or no agitation."