Aggression is often attributed to a lack of self-control, but a new psychology paper argues that aggression can also stem from successful self-control, as individuals employ cunning and restraint to exact retribution. The article was published by the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass and summarizes evidence from dozens of existing studies in psychology and neuroscience
For decades, the prevailing belief has been that aggression is driven by a lack of self-control — the effortful psychological process through which people inhibit immediate impulses in favor of ultimate goals. We often envision violent outbursts as impulsive acts, triggered by an inability to restrain our worst impulses in the heat of the moment. This perspective has guided research, interventions, and public perceptions of aggression.
“My job is to understand aggression and I saw a largely one-sided approach to this phenomenon — one that emphasized self-control as an aggression-reducing panacea when there was considerable evidence that self-control often facilitated aggression,” said study author David S. Chester, an associate professor of social psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “So I took it upon myself to make the case for the alternate possibility, that self-control can also exacerbate aggression, in order to bring balance to our understanding.”
Traditionally, self-control has been seen as a force that purely inhibited aggression. However, there is evidence that self-control can have a dual role. While it certainly helps in curbing impulsive aggression by reigning in aggressive urges, it can also be harnessed to facilitate aggression when individuals deliberately choose to act aggressively.
The article presents recent research findings that question the traditional perspective on self-control and aggression. These findings include:
- The correlation between heightened aggression and low conscientiousness is weaker than expected, with agreeableness and neuroticism showing stronger correlations. Conscientiousness is a personality trait associated with being organized, responsible, and disciplined.
- Psychopathic individuals, who tend to exhibit high levels of aggression, can also possess intact and high-functioning self-regulation. This means that they can control their impulses effectively and behave in a calculated and strategic manner.
- Brain imaging studies have found heightened prefrontal cortex activity during aggressive behavior. The prefrontal cortex is a brain region associated with executive functions, including self-control.
- Studies on vengefulness indicate that individuals can use self-control to delay immediate retaliation and pursue delayed, greater vengeance.
Many of the findings surprised Chester. “I was trained in the tradition that self-control is almost always an effective way to inhibit aggression,” he explained. “This entire venture was motivated by seeing data that disagreed with my prior understanding and then following that evidence to reach the conclusion that self-control can readily make people more aggressive.”
Chester distinguished between reactive and proactive aggression. Reactive aggression is characterized by impulsive, emotional responses to provocation. Proactive aggression, on the other hand, involves planned, goal-oriented actions that may not be emotionally driven. Proactive aggression is a form of aggression that could be considered self-controlled, as it involves deliberate planning and execution.
The review article noted that the existing literature on self-control and aggression tends to focus on reactive aggression, overlooking the role of self-control in proactive aggression.
Traditional views of self-control largely focused on its role in preventing reactive aggression. Strong self-control was thought to help individuals resist impulsive, anger-driven responses to provocation. While this perspective is valid, Chester argued that self-control’s influence goes beyond just inhibition. Self-control also plays a pivotal role in facilitating proactive aggression. In situations where individuals consciously choose to pursue aggressive goals, self-control can enable them to override anti-aggressive urges and proceed with planned aggressive actions.
“Self-control is a means to an end, and that end can be violence,” Chester told PsyPost. “Indeed, some people may seek to be aggressive but find that their impulses stand in the way (for example, a shy and fearful person who wants to stand up to a bully). In such situations, self-control can inhibit those non-aggressive impulses and subsequently magnify aggression.”
“Just as self-control can inhibit desires to aggress (which allows the person to remain non-aggressive), it can also inhibit desires not to aggress (which allows the person to become aggressive when they otherwise wouldn’t be). Self-control can also be used to delay the gratification of immediate retaliation and allow people to bide their time and inflict severe revenge at a later time.”
“Similarly, it can help people be more subtle about their harm-doing, as in the case of ‘successful’ psychopaths who inflict great harm on others but who (often) don’t get caught. Thus, self-control can be used to both constrain and facilitate aggressive behavior.”
The article emphasizes the need for a more nuanced view of self-control, acknowledging that it can have both positive and negative consequences. It challenges the idea that self-control is universally beneficial and calls for a balanced perspective.
The review suggests interventions designed to reduce aggression should consider individual differences. While self-control training may effectively prevent impulsive aggression in some cases, it could inadvertently increase aggression in others who choose to exert self-control to carry out aggressive acts.
“The main lingering issue at hand is that there are many interventions that seek to reduce violence by improving self-control,” Chester explained. “These interventions may be effective for some people in some situations, but it’s also likely that such self-control interventions might also increase aggressive behavior for some people in some situations, especially those who want to harm others but lack the self-discipline to effectively do so.
“We need greater caution in employing self-control trainings at scale. Instead, they need to be tailored to those who will benefit from them and avoided for those who might use these new skills to inflict harm.”
The study, “Aggression as successful self-control“, was published July 5, 2023.