When we’re in situations that make us angry, we often want to respond by doing things like yelling, throwing something, or hurting someone. It’s not unusual for those things happen, but does anger always lead to aggression?
Although anger and aggression are terms that are often used interchangeably, they’re not actually the same thing. In fact, the two can operate independently; people can be aggressive without being angry, and angry without being aggressive. Reidy and colleagues (2010) provide evidence this when they investigated the relationship between narcissism and aggression. They found that the higher people scored in narcissism, the more likely they were to aggress toward people without provocation. In other words, when narcissistic people sense an ego threat, they may respond with aggression as a way to protect themselves from being seen in an unfavorable manner, rather than aggressing as an expression of anger.
Perhaps more common than unprovoked aggression, though, is anger not accompanied by aggression. Research indicates that a major predictor of whether anger will lead to aggression is the individual’s ability to control his or her emotional expression. A study by Roberton and colleagues (2015) found that people who have more control over their behaviors are less likely to respond with aggression. Such people don’t necessarily feel less angry, but have better control over how that anger is expressed. One way to help control aggressive behavior is to practice controlling the anger itself, which allows the situation to be dealt with in a less reactive manner. As is explained by Lohr et al. (2007), anger can be reduced in a number of ways, such as relaxation, reappraisal, and distraction.
Considering these studies together, what we find is that while anger and aggression often go hand-in-hand, anger does not always lead to aggression.
By Allie Nelson
Allie is a senior with majors in Psychology and Human Development. She graduates in May of 2015.
Lohr, J. M., Olatunji, B. O., Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). The psychology of anger venting and empirically supported alternatives that do no harm. The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5(1), 53-64.
Reidy, D. E., Foster, J. D., & Zeichner, A. (2010). Narcissism and unprovoked aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 36, 414-422. doi: 10.1002/ab.20356
Roberton, T., Daffern, M., & Bucks, R. S. (2015). Beyond anger control: Difficulty attending to emotions also predicts aggression in offenders. Psychology of Violence, 5(1), 74-83. doi: 10.1037/a00037214