Aggression is a common feature of social interactions. Therefore, it is important for social scientists to develop a well-rounded understanding of this phenomenon. One valuable approach to understanding aggression is laboratory-based research, which requires researchers to have usable and valid methods for measuring aggression in laboratory settings. However, behaviors that are clearly aggressive, such as one person forcefully striking another person with a weapon, are fraught with ethical and safety considerations for both participants and researchers. Such behaviors are, therefore, not a viable option for displayed aggression within lab-based research. For these reasons, aggression researchers have developed a repertoire of tasks that purportedly measure aggression, are believed to be safe for participants and researchers, and are ethically-palatable. I collectively refer to these tasks as “lab-based aggression paradigms.” The major concern herein is whether the behaviors exhibited within lab-based measures of aggression are representative of “real” aggression.
Extending Baron and Richardson’s (1994) definition, Parrot and Giancola (2007) proposed a taxonomy of how such aggressive behaviors may manifest. Within their taxonomy, aggressive behaviors vary along the orthogonal dimensions of direct versus indirect expressions and active versus passive expressions. For example, a physical fight would be considered a direct and active form of physical aggression whereas not correcting knowingly-false gossip would be considered an indirect and passive form of verbal aggression (to the extent the individual believes their inaction will indirectly harm a target individual). Because Parrot and Giancola strongly adhere to the definition of aggression proposed by Baron and Richardson, each of these forms of aggression are still required to meet the criteria described in the previous paragraph. The purported usefulness of this taxonomy is that factors that incite one form of aggression may not incite other forms of aggression. Thus, Parrot and Giancola assert that using their taxonomy to classify the different behavioral manifestations of aggression, and which antecedents causes those different behavioral manifestations, will lead to a nuanced understanding of the causes and forms of aggression.
The first dimension of Parrot and Giancola’s (2007) taxonomy is the direct versus indirect nature of the aggressive behavior. In describing the distinction between direct and indirect aggression, Parrot and Giancola state that direct aggression involves “face-to-face interactions in which the perpetrator is easily identifiable by the victim. In contrast, indirect aggression is delivered more circuitously, and the perpetrator is able to remain unidentified and thereby avoid accusation, direct confrontation, and/or counterattack from the target” (p. 287). However, several lab-based aggression paradigms seemingly have features of both direct and indirect forms of aggression. Many of these paradigms involve contrived interactions where participants communicate with a generic “other participant,” for example, via computer or by evaluating one another’s essays. These contrived interactions are not really face-to-face and they are not really anonymous. So the behaviors within lab-based aggression paradigms are not cleanly classified as being either direct or indirect within Parrot and Giancola’s taxonomy.
Collectively then, it is questionable whether behaviors within lab-based aggression paradigms are considered “direct.” Nevertheless, it is clear that these behaviors do not include face-to-face aggression or physical aggression that includes direct physical contact. And the time of many of the behaviors within lab-based aggression paradigms are asynchronous with the (ostensible) delivery of harm to the recipient.
The second dimension of Parrot and Giancola’s (2007) taxonomy is the active versus passive nature of the behavior. Active aggression involves an individual actively engaging in a behavior that harms the recipient. In contrast, passive aggression is characterized by participants’ lack of action that is believed to cause harm to the recipient. All of the major lab-based aggression paradigms involve behaviors that are considered active.
In summary, within lab-based aggression paradigms, the harmfulness of the behaviors is on the extreme low end of the range of possible harmfulness, participants may believe their behaviors will only cause mild amounts of harm, participants may believe the recipient may only be mildly motivated to avoid the behaviors, and the form of participants’ behaviors may only cover a limited amount of the conceptual space of possible forms of aggression. Collectively, the behaviors exhibited in lab-based aggression paradigms seem to be limited and unrepresentative of the multi-faceted nature of aggression.