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Aggression is defined as behavior that is intended to harm others and that is perceived as harmful by the victim. Because aggression is such a broad phenomenon, subtypes of aggression have been proposed to reconcile discrepant research findings—for example, that not all aggression is angry. Subtypes of aggression abound, but two classifications are most important: reactive versus proactive aggression, and physical versus social aggression.
Reactive aggression is angry, impulsive, and typically occurs in response to provocation, whereas proactive aggression (sometimes called instrumental aggression) is more cool and deliberate and is deployed to achieve a social goal. Although reactive and proactive aggression are highly correlated, they seem to be related to different correlates and developmental outcomes (Coie and Dodge 1998). Reactive aggression is related to overattributing hostility in social interactions, whereas proactive aggression is related to expecting that physical aggression will have positive outcomes. Reactive aggression is associated with parental abuse, behavior problems in the classroom, and peer rejection and victimization. Proactive aggression is related to friendship similarity and leadership, and also predicts future antisocial behavior.
Because hurtful behavior can take nonphysical forms, perhaps especially for girls, other important subtypes to consider are physical and social aggression. Social aggression is behavior that hurts others by harming their social status or friendships. This form of aggression includes malicious gossip, friendship manipulation, and verbal and nonverbal forms of social exclusion (Underwood 2003). Social aggression is sometimes called indirect or relational aggression, but the construct of social aggression acknowledges that harm to relationships can be both direct and indirect, and that social exclusion can be both verbal and nonverbal. Here again, children’s propensities to engage in social and physical aggression are highly correlated. Both social and physical aggression may take reactive or proactive forms.
Across almost all cultures that have been studied, boys and men are more physically aggressive than girls and women are. However, evidence for gender differences is much less clear for social aggression. Because base rates for girls’ physical aggression are so low, without a doubt girls are more socially aggressive than they are physically aggressive. However, this does not necessarily mean that girls are more socially aggressive than boys are, and research findings conflict. Future research should examine whether social aggression unfolds differently in girls’ groups than in boys’ groups.
Developmental Origins and Outcomes of Physical Aggression
Physical aggression emerges in the first two years of life (Tremblay et al. 2005) and may have biological correlates. Experts disagree as to whether there is a strong genetic component for physical aggression, but genes likely underlie temperamental qualities that have been shown to be related to aggression in childhood, which appears in such forms as impulsivity, negative emotionality, and reactivity. Although testosterone has long been thought to be related to physical aggression, the relation between this hormone and physical fighting is complex and at best indirect. Elevations in testosterone are more related to social ascendance than aggression specifically.
Socialization experiences may relate to a child’s propensity for physical aggression. Children who experience harsh, abusive parenting may develop a bias toward interpreting ambiguous social cues as hostile, which leads them to be sensitive to slights and prone to reactive aggression. Children whose parents have an authoritarian style (punitive and low on warmth) may be more likely to have behavior and peer problems. Children who engage in coercive cycles with parents, in which the child’s behavior escalates until the parent gives in, thereby reinforcing the highly noncompliant behavior, are more prone to a number of antisocial behaviors that may include physical aggression. Children may also become increasingly aggressive as a result of exposure to media violence on television or in video games, although the direction of causation is difficult to disentangle because physically aggressive children may be more drawn to violent media content.
Physical aggression is associated with a number of adjustment problems, in childhood and beyond. Children who fight are at risk for peer rejection and academic difficulties; as adolescents, they are at risk for dropping out of school, delinquency, and substance use. Although fewer girls than boys fight physically, those that do are just as much at risk for these negative outcomes (Putallaz and Bierman 2004). For girls, physical aggression in childhood is associated with adolescent childbearing, and these adolescent mothers who were aggressive as children are at heightened risk for having children with health and behavioral problems.
Developmental Origins and Outcomes of Social Aggression
Although much less is known about the developmental origins of social aggression, interesting hypotheses are emerging. Children may learn the power of social aggression by watching their parents resolve marital conflicts in ways that involve triangulating others and threatening relationship harm, or by watching how parents refrain from open conflict with friends but instead malign others behind their backs. Children may also learn social aggression by observing peers or siblings, or perhaps even by seeing relationship manipulation and malicious gossip gleefully depicted in television and movies, not only those aimed at children and adolescents but also adult programming.
Engaging in high levels of social aggression and chronically being victimized are both associated with psychological maladjustment for children. Children, especially girls, who are frequently victimized report elevated levels of depression, loneliness, anxiety, and low self-concept. In addition, children who frequently perpetrate social aggression are disliked by peers, and they report feeling lonely and anxious. In young adult women, being nominated by peers as high on social aggression has been shown to be related to bulimia and borderline personality disorder. As suggested by Nicki Crick and Carolyn ZahnWaxler (2003), high levels of social aggression may be associated with the psychological problems to which girls and women are most vulnerable.
Future research should examine how physical and social aggression are related and unfold together in both real and developmental time. Promising strategies to reduce physical aggression involve training parents to respond strategically to their children by rewarding positive behavior and not reinforcing aggression, and teaching children skills that will help them regulate emotions and form relationships. Some of these same strategies may be helpful for reducing social aggression, and adding components that address social aggression may enhance the effectiveness of violence prevention programs.
- Coie, John D., and Kenneth A. Dodge. 1998. Aggression and Antisocial Behavior. In Handbook of Child Psychology, ed. William Damon. Vol. 3, Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, ed. Nancy Eisenberg, pp. 779–862,. New York: Wiley.
- Crick, Nicki R., and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler. 2003. The Development of Psychopathology in Females and Males: Current Progress and Future Challenges. Development and Psychopathology 15, 719–742.
- Putallaz, Martha, and Karen L. Bierman. 2004. Aggression, Antisocial Behavior, and Violence Among Girls: A Developmental Perspective. New York: Guilford.
- Tremblay, Richard E., Willard W. Hartup, and John Archer. Developmental Origins of Aggression. New York: Guilford.
- Underwood, Marion K. 2003. Social Aggression Among Girls. New York: Guilford.
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