Human Aggression and Violence – A Necessary Evil?

Here, I explore, perhaps, the darker realm of the human experience. Clearly, we are bombarded by aggression and violence in various media and entertainment outlets depicting serial killing and mass murders. I will outline subtypes of human aggression and violence and suggest when they are necessary for survival and adaptation. I will differentiate necessary aggression from that of destructive kinds that most all cultures severely punish when committed. And I will summarize known risk factors of aggression and violence.

Based upon my review of the professional literature, I find at least six subtypes noted: predatory, anti-predatory, impulsive, defensive, affiliative, and dominant. Predatory aggression targets those we find to be the most threatening to our well-being. Anti-predatory aggression is aimed at anyone we have an issue with. Road rage is often thought of as impulsive. Parents or coaches behaving badly at youth soccer matches, that I referee, are another example. Some refer to these events as “crimes of passion”. When any of us are threatened personally, we may resort to defensive actions. Affiliative aggression is aimed to protect others dear to us who are being threatened. And finally, males across most cultures are expected to show dominance.

In response to real or perceived threats to our well-being, we can react in three ways: fight, flight, and freeze. We also engage in a thinking process referred to as primary cognitive appraisals. That is, does the event pose a possible harm, a possible loss, or an opportunity of challenge? At a genetic level, we are programmed with a threat alarm, often generated in the part of the brain called limbic. I refer to the limbic brain as are “immediate reactive brain”. From an evolutionary perspective we need to quickly size-up friend or foe.

As a species, we humans cannot be absolutely passive in our environments as it would not bode well based on survival of the fittest. Males especially, are expected to show degrees of aggression and dominance. We are far more likely than females to cross the line and become sexually aggressive, and commit homicide in far greater numbers than our female counterparts. When stressed, males tend to externalize and act out our emotions and blame others. Women tend to internalize difficult emotions and blame themselves. We are far more likely to also kill ourselves. By far, firearms are our chosen tools of action. And in the US, we have plenty of them! In fact, our Constitution protects our right to defend ourselves from threats in this manner. Testosterone, in my clinical opinion, affords males a significant risk. Until, we age into our 40’s and 50’s, we are far more likely to die in accidents than from diseases.

Being raised in dysfunctional and toxic psychosocial environments posses another large risk. Having an anti-social global personality orientation also ups the ante. And of course, over use of psychoactive substances, especially, alcohol, puts us over the top. Though the events at Sandy Hook are having us reconsider care of the mentally ill, the fact is that less than 5% of crimes are committed by our clients!

Sadly, we clinicians are poor predictors of dangerousness. However, ethically, we are charged with 4 simultaneous actions in regard to client dangerousness: protect, warn, predict, and prevent. This is true only when our clients are actively involved in our care. Prevention and reduction of undue aggression and violence is likely to be a multi-faceted endeavor. But, for the sake of all victims of violence, we must give this our very best effort!


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Image via val lawless / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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