All aggression is instrumental

Aggression is commonly defined as a behavior done with the intent to harm another individual who is motivated to avoid receiving the behavior. Some researchers go further and try to classify aggression as being either “reactive aggression” or “instrumental aggression.” I do not believe this distinction is useful.

Briefly, reactive aggression is supposedly an impulsive aggressive behavior in response to a provocation or instigation and is typically accompanied by feelings of anger or hostility. The supposed goal of reactive aggression is merely to “cause harm” to the recipient of the behavior. Think of snapping at another person in the heat-of-the-moment. Instrumental aggression is supposedly an aggressive behavior that is enacted to achieve a particular goal.  Think of a bank robber who shoots the guard while trying to make a getaway. 
Several researchers have pointed out that this distinction is difficult, if not impossible, to make (e.g., Bushman & Anderson, 2002; Tedeschi & Quigley, 1999). I agree. With a little thought, one can see that “snapping” at another person can be used to achieve several goals such as restoring a perceived slight to one’s reputation or exerting social control. Thus, the above example of reactive aggression also can be construed as instrumental. Similarly, one also can see that shooting a bank robber probably was in response to some feature of the situation such as the perception that the guard was impeding the goal of successfully executing the robbery.  Thus, the above example of instrumental aggression can be construed as being in response to something and, thus, reactive.

Wait! Am I saying that snapping at another person is the same as a bank robber shooting the guard? No. These are very different behaviors, but the distinctions is not that one is “reactive” and one is “instrumental.”

The argument that the reactive-instrumental distinction is a false distinctions is fairly simple. Aggression is, by definition, a behavior that was done intentionally (i.e., non-accidentally). Intentional behaviors are used to achieve social motives. Thus, aggression is one specific type of intentional behavior that is used to achieve social motives. What are some examples of social motives that can be achieved with aggressive behaviors? Protecting oneself, acquiring resources, restoring one’s reputation, enforcing a violated social norm, etc.

Further, the belief that aggression can be done “to cause harm” is logically incorrect. Because the definition of aggression requires the aggressive behaviors to have been done with intent and with the belief the recipient wants to avoid the behavior, some believe this definition implies that “causing harm” can be the end goal of the behavior rather than merely a means to achieving some other ends. Therefore, “causing harm” can seemingly be the goal behind reactive aggression. Although this is a common belief, this conflates the definitional criteria of aggression with the motive for why an individual would use an aggressive behavior. This is an easy conflation to make because “to cause harm” seems like a reasonable and satisfactory answer to the question “why did this person behave aggressively?” However, this only seems like a satisfactory answer, but it’s not. One cannot explain the causes of a phenomenon (aggression) merely by referring to a necessary component of the phenomenon (an intentionally-caused harmful behavior): A person who behaves aggressively did so with the intent to harm the recipient by definition.

I sincerely hope that we can move beyond the reactive-instrumental definition because I do not believe it is a scientifically useful distinction. Aggression is one behavior in our repertoire of behaviors we use to navigate our complex social environments. All aggression is instrumental. 

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