Talking about aggression is not easy, as it is a polysemic and multifactorial concept. The meanings are really many, so much so that in the literature we find more than 250 different definitions of aggression (Harre et al, 1983).
In the first place it is a manifestation of the conduct present in the animal world and in this sense it is not to be considered pathological. It can be, in some situations, essential for environmental adaptation. Among humans, especially in its ritualized aspects, it can be a cultural expression directly related to customs and environments. In other cases it can be the expression of a social unease in which aggressive behaviors are to be interpreted as an epiphenomenon. In still other cases it can be the expression of a psychopathological state.
Aggression: definitions and characteristics
We already understand that the equivalence between aggression and mental disorders is not valid . In the collective imagination, however, the relationship between aggression and psychic disturbance is one of the oldest and most consolidated associations. In reality, not even in biological terms can aggression be considered a unitary concept as revealed by the analysis of a series of very different behaviors.
The fluidity of the subject has allowed the multiplication of a vast literature in which ethology, genetics, neurochemistry and psychiatry sometimes come into conflict with psychology, philosophy and sociology. What is certain is that in the current phase we find ourselves experiencing a paradox. The aggressive behavior , present in the animal and human behavioral repertoire, with the task of safeguarding the individual and the species, man has become a threat to survival.
Trying to understand the topic better, a biological definition could be the following: a component of normal behavior that in different forms, depending on the finalisms to be reached and the stimuli that arouse it, is put in place to remove or overcome any threat to the ‘physical and / or psychological integrity, guaranteeing the protection of the individual and the species, not necessarily resulting, except in predatory aggression, in the destruction of the opponent (Valzelli 95).
A very authoritative definition regarding aggression in the human being remains that of Bond (’92): “A behavior directed by an individual against a similar, an object or towards oneself with the aim of causing harm “. Some may think of aggression by imagining extreme forms, two strangers punching or stabbing each other. In reality we have to imagine it in a dimensional perspective that starts from light, almost imperceptible forms, to arrive at extreme forms.
Recent research from Georgia Regents University found that in most cases, aggression in everyday life is more likely to be directed at the people around us: family, friends, colleagues or partners. Always considering aggression in the dimensional component and in the various modes of expression, the cliché that sees the male as more aggressive than the woman is dispelled. In reality, it seems that men show aggression through direct forms while in women indirect forms of expression prevail. A phenomenon of aggressive behavior tends to distinguish different types (Attanasio, 2012):
- An active aggression, in which the individual tries to cause harm to his fellow man, through the use of force;
- A passive aggression, characterized by acts of omission (for example not providing aid operations towards those in a state of need);
- A direct aggression, in which damage is done in a targeted manner, in which one’s body is used to cause suffering;
- An indirect aggression(for example, defaming a subject to harm him)
- A self-directed aggression(in which the object to be attacked becomes the self);
- U ‘ heterodirect aggressiontowards objects or people;
- A reactive aggression, provoked by a wrong suffered and fueled by the feeling of revenge;
- A proactive aggressionin which violence, be it physical or psychological, is programmed with a strategy designed to harm the other.
How important is the genetic component?
A study carried out at the University of Montreal managed to conduct a psychosocial evaluation of 555 pairs of twins, of which 223 are monozygotic and 332 heterozygous. Having both types of twins available allowed us to assess whether the individual differences detected were linked to genetic or environmental factors. The aggressive behavior were recorded by teachers, to have a neutral point of view outside the family, at the age of 6, 7, 9, 10 and 12 years. Researchers focused on proactive and reactive aggressive behaviors. By proactive aggression we mean a form of aggression characterized by physical and verbal behaviors aimed at dominating or obtaining a personal advantage at the expense of others. Forreactive aggression refers to that type of aggression characterized by a defense response when a perceived one is perceived.
The evaluation of the results revealed that at the age of 6 both types of aggression, reactive and proactive , are observed in children , sharing almost the same genetic factors. With growth, it is observed that aggressive behavior tends to decrease, concluding that between 6 and 12 years of age, environmental factors have a greater weight than the genetic component.
From this point of view, aggression is considered a physiological and constitutive element of the child’s psycho-social development. As the child grows, he learns to manage his emotions better, managing to adopt more suitable communication methods for good social functioning, a path that should continue and refine more and more in adulthood.
The authors of the study confirmed some hypotheses already advanced in terms of prevention. In the forms of reactive aggression, programs aimed at reducing victimization experiences would work better, while in the proactive forms programs based on the development of pro-social values could have greater preventive power.
Mechanisms that intensify aggression
A transversal element that unites the different situations is the distortion in which the belief that interpersonal conflicts must be managed through the enhancement of aggression prevails . But only the cognitive distortions are not sufficient to explain the phenomenon that sometimes presents itself in a disproportionate way compared to the situation and that is often recognized, a posteriori, by the same subject acting as something highly dysfunctional and maladaptive.
A factor that amplifies the aggressive manifestations is certainly the individual’s neurophysiological susceptibility. We can understand this phenomenon well in subjects with borderline or narcissistic personality traits (to give an example; obviously in the disorder that fully satisfies the diagnostic criteria these phenomena can present themselves in a more marked way); people with intellectual disabilities or with brain damage; drug or alcohol abusers ; alterations related to psychopathological states. To name a few.
Also in this context, the neurological structures involved are different and depend on the functioning of the amygdala and on the efficiency of the frontal cortex, it being understood that the result depends on the brain as a whole more than a single area. Among the neurotransmitters, serotonin seems to play an important role in the management of aggression which appears inversely proportional to the levels of serotonin. Among hormones, importance was given to testosterone levels. Let us not forget that brain functioning is also conditioned by environmental factors including urban overcrowding, noise and environmental pollution, very high temperatures and more (Aronson, Wilson and Akert, 2010).
Unfortunately at the moment we have few specific biological therapies for aggression itself, mostly we try to cure the underlying problem and in this the cognitive behavioral psychotherapy can be a valid help.