Recognising Aggression

Nydile Mohan

When was the last time you felt angry? Really, truly angry with someone, or something. Maybe even yourself. Remember those times of frustration, when you thought you could really act on it. Did your anger affect what you said, what you did?


That’s aggression. ‘Behaviour that is intended to harm another individual, who does not wish to be harmed.’ Aggression can be subtle — it’s not always immediately recognisable. But it’s also an inevitable part of emotional expression; its causes and effects are worth looking into.




When discussing aggression, an important point to note is intent. If no harm is intended, the action cannot, by social psychological definition, be identified as aggression. It’s the difference between, say, someone simply forgetting to reply to your message, or purposefully ‘seen-zoning’ out of spite. Granted, both can hurt pretty badly, but with the former, it’s an innocent slip of memory. While the latter is an action intended to hurt another individual — quite literally, textbook aggression.


Types of Aggression


Whenever deliberate harm is involved, there are a few more levels to think about. Such as the level of planning, or forethought, going into the aggressive act. On one hand, there’s emotional/impulsive aggression — which involves little to no forethought; often regarding an ‘in the heat of the moment’ type of situation. There’s intent, but it’s an instantaneous impulse that urges it forward. (A good example would be suddenly shouting at your friend in the middle of an argument.) 


On the other hand, there’s instrumental/cognitive aggression — which involves planning; seen in premeditated actions. Intent is inarguably present, and it’s usually aimed at hurting someone to gain some benefit back. (Good examples would be a playground bully pushing a child to take his toys, or, on a more gruesome note, hiring a hitman.)


Just because it’s in the heat of the moment, doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Planning an act of aggression in advance is a red flag — stop for a moment, and recognise that what you are doing will harm another person. Try to identify another route. If you keep these categories in mind, defining aggression in yourself and others might be a little clearer.


Learning to see aggression works both ways. This isn’t a cop-out to condemn others, or to justify your own behaviour. Holding yourself accountable is a crucial part of the process.


Aggression vs. Violence; Physical vs. Non-Physical


Violence is a subset of aggression. Typically, it’s aggression ‘with the goal of extreme physical harm, such as injury or death’. An obvious example would be intentional murder. To separate it from the overarching term of aggression, think of it like this: slapping someone in the face would be violent, but calling them names would be aggressive.


That’s not to say that the latter was less harmful. Indeed, it’s usually non-physical acts of aggression that hurt most deeply. Physical violence is easy to recognise — little inference is needed to tell if someone’s throwing a punch. But we often talk ourselves into invalidating non-physical aggression, into saying ‘it doesn’t matter’, or ‘they’re just words’. Why? Even when the damage it does is equal, or even greater, why do we brush it aside?


Consider the difference. Verbal aggression has the tendency to go unnoticed for prolonged periods of time — getting away with a few comments is easier than getting away with starting a fistfight. Verbal aggression is also harder to define. It’s a basic evolutionary trait to classify physical violence as bad, but with words, the line is blurrier. You might ask yourself, “Am I just being sensitive? Is it really that bad? Is it worth telling anyone? What if it’s nothing?”


Remember: Verbal aggression holds as much weight as physical. 


It can hurt your feelings and self-esteem on a more personal level. The key to recognising verbal aggression is the way you feel. Even if it’s a joke, do you feel hurt? Upset? If you’re not laughing, then it’s not a joke to you. It’s pain. Ask yourself, did they do it intentionally? If they misspoke, that’s another issue, but if not? The best way to check is communication. Your friend, classmate, relative, whoever — tell that person how you feel. Understand where they're coming from. And if it is intentional, well— Now you can recognise aggression in yourself well enough to prevent yourself from spiting them back.


Some people will say and do hurtful things. It’s a fact, and we can’t control that. But remembering the effects aggression has on you, and the effects you can pass to other people, is a step closer to empathy. Don’t brush pain — yours, or others’ — aside. It is valid. It is better to identify aggression and actively work through it, than to pretend it’s not there at all.


[1] Stangor, Charles. Principles Of Social Psychology. 1st ed.

[2] "Aggression And Violence". Goodtherapy.Org, 2020,