Which behavior is more aggressive?

First, some mental stretching

If you compared two aggressive behaviors, would you be able to tell which one was more aggressive?

Let’s test your intuition. Consider these two scenarios.

(a) Person B insults Person A. Person A punches Person B in the face.

(b) Person 2 insults Person 1. Person 1 punches Person 2 in the face.

Which behavior was more aggressive, Person A’s behavior or Person 1’s behavior? Most people would say these are equivalently aggressive behaviors based on the information that is provided. Let’s try a different scenario; same game, different behaviors.

(a) As part of an experiment that is ostensibly about how tactile experiences affect cognitive performance, Person A assigns Person B to hold their hand in ice water for 45 seconds

(b) As part of an experiment that is ostensibly about how tactile experiences affect cognitive performance, Person 1 assigns Person 2 to hold their hand in ice water for 45 seconds.

Which behavior was more aggressive, Person A’s behavior or Person 1’s behavior? Again, your intuition would probably say these are equivalently aggressive behaviors based off the information that is provided. I mean, 45 seconds is the same as 45 seconds, right? Let’s try a final example.

(a) As part of an experiment that is ostensibly about how tactile experiences affect cognitive performance, Person A assigns Person B to hold their hand in ice water for 45 seconds.

(b) As part of an experiment that is ostensibly about how tactile experiences affect cognitive performance, Person 1 assigns Person 2 to hold their hand in ice water for 30 seconds.

Which behavior was more aggressive, Person A’s behavior or Person 1’s behavior? Your intuition would probably say that Person A’s behavior is more aggressive than Person 1’s. After all, 45 seconds is greater than 30 seconds.

OK, now that your intuition is warmed up, let’s poke and prod these ideas a little bit.

Aggression is the combination of several necessary things

What is aggression? There must be several factors present for aggression to occur. Aggression is commonly defined as a “behavior that is done with the intent to harm another individual who wants to avoid receiving the harm” (Baron & Richardson, 1994). Thus, for aggression to occur, there needs to be a behavior that, if successfully executed, would cause harm. This behavior also must have been done with intent (e.g., it is not an accident) and with the belief the recipient wanted to avoid the behavior.

Each of these features are necessary for aggression to occur; if one of the features is not present, then there is no aggression. For example, there must be a behavior (i.e., it is insufficient to merely desire to harm another individual). Further, a behavior can cause harm and not be aggressive if it is unintentional (e.g., accidentally dropping a hammer on somebody’s foot). And even an intentional behavior can cause harm and not be aggressive if it is believed the recipient does not want to avoid the behavior (e.g., two adults who engage in BDSM can intentionally cause tissue damage to one another as part of consensual sexual activities).

The amount of aggression is not defined based on the extremity of the consequences of the behavior

So what specifically does it mean when determining which of two aggressive behaviors was more aggressive? Does more aggression correspond to a more harmful behavior? Does it merely correspond to more intention to cause harm regardless of the actual harm? Both? As far as I can tell, this is an unanswered question (at least in the social psychology literature on aggression that I am familiar with).

Go back to the scenarios in the warm-up exercise. Suppose you intuited that having both individuals hold their hand in ice water for 45 seconds was equally aggressive and you intuited that having an individual hold their hand in ice water for 45 seconds is more aggressive than having an individual hold their hand in ice water for 30 seconds. If this indeed was your intuition, then it seems like your intuition is that more actual harm (defined here as how long one has to hold their hand in ice water) corresponds to more aggression.

However, it is not difficult to see how this “more actual harm = more aggression” correspondence can break down. Imagine a bar. You know, a place where everybody knows your name. Suppose Norm is really pissed at Sam. Norm throws an empty beer stein at Sam and strikes him in the head. Sam’s head hurts, but is otherwise OK. Now suppose that Woody is only slightly peeved at Cliff. Woody gives Cliff a firm and assertive push. Cliff stumbles backwards, accidentally falls, strikes his head against the bar, and ends up dying before the ambulance arrives. Woody, who only wanted to give a little push, is horrified that he killed Cliff.

Clearly dying is more harm than a headache, thus, Cliff has clearly been more severely harmed than Sam. However, is it really the case that an assertive push is more aggressive than throwing a heavy glass beer stein at an individual’s head? Probably not. Or at least that’s not what your intuition might say. It’s just that in this scenario the less intuitively aggressive behavior (i.e., the push) resulted in a more harmful consequence than the more intuitively aggressive behavior (i.e., throwing the beer stein).

The previous two paragraphs highlight an important concept to grasp. When comparing two aggressive behaviors, it is not the actual amount of harm, but it is the intended amount of harm, that determines which behavior was more aggressive. This would mean that Norm throwing the beer stein at Sam is more aggressive than Woody pushing Cliff even though Woody’s behavior resulted in more actual harm. Why? Because Norm intended to harm Sam more than Woody intended to harm Cliff.

So Woody’s behavior caused more harm than Norm’s even though Norm’s behavior was more aggressive than Woody’s. But Woody’s behavior only caused more harm because of all of the unintended stuff that happened after the behavior (i.e., Cliff stumbled and fatally hit his head on the bar). We cannot judge which of two behaviors is more aggressive based off the unforeseen and unintended things that happen after an intended behavior is executed. For example, what if Sam takes an aspirin for his headache, but the aspirin is actually a poison that slowly and painfully kills Sam over the course of several miserable days. Would Norm’s behavior now become equally as aggressive as Woody’s because Sam and Cliff both ended up dying? After all, Norm’s behavior caused Sam to take the aspirin/poison.

What does this mean for determining which behavior is more aggressive? 

Because we cannot evaluate the aggressiveness of a behavior based on the actual consequences, the best way to determine which of two behaviors is more aggressive is to compare the level of harm that was intended by the aggressor. There will be a series of events that unfolds once these intentions are manifested as actual behaviors, but only the consequences that are foreseen and intended by the aggressor can be used to evaluate the aggressiveness of the behaviors.

So Norm’s behavior is more aggressive than Woody’s because Norm intended to cause more harm than Woody. Full stop. For the purposes of determining who was more aggressive, it does not matter what unforeseen and unintended consequences follow. These are not relevant for evaluating the aggressiveness of the behavior.

As a mental exercise, you could evaluate Norm and Woody’s behaviors at the conclusion of their intended behaviors to determine who behaved more aggressively. For Norm, you could look at the amount of harm that was caused at the moment the intentionally-thrown beer stein hit Sam’s head. For Woody, you could look at the amount of harm that occurred at the point of the intentional push. If that is the behaviors these two intended to do, then this is what their aggressiveness ought be evaluated on. Everything that happens after their intended behavior is executed (e.g., Cliff falls and hits his head; Sam ingests poison) does not matter for evaluating who was more aggressive.

Now let’s return to the final scenario of the warm-up exercise. Here it is so you don’t have to scroll back up.

(a) As part of an experiment that is ostensibly about how tactile experiences affect cognitive performance, Person A assigns Person B to hold their hand in ice water for 45 seconds.

(b) As part of an experiment that is ostensibly about how tactile experiences affect cognitive performance, Person 1 assigns Person 2 to hold their hand in ice water for 30 seconds.

I believe most people would intuit that Person A was behaving more aggressively than Person 1 because 45 seconds is longer than 30 seconds. This would mean that we believe that Person A intended to cause more harm than Person 1. But aggression researchers must be careful not to “affirm the consequent“.  That would go something like this.

If Person A intends to cause more harm, then Person A will assign a longer time;

Person A assigns a longer time;

Therefore, Person A intended to cause more harm.

We only can assume that Person A intended to cause more harm than Person 1 if we also assume that their intentions map on directly to their behavior (e.g., there is a linear relationship between their intention and the amount of time selected in the cold water task). Further, when comparing the amount of aggression between individuals, it is necessary to assume that individuals’ intentions are similarly manifested into behaviors. However, it’s possible, for example, that Person A has a high tolerance for pain and assumes that holding your hand in ice water for 45 seconds is not that bad. It’s also possible that Person 1 has a low tolerance for pain and thinks that holding your hand in ice water for 30 seconds would be excruciating. In this case, Person 1’s 30 seconds would be intended to be more harmful than Person A’s 45 seconds.

What should aggression researchers do?

Option 1: Describe the results in a way that does not refer to participants’ intentions. For example, you could merely say “Person A assigned their recipient to hold their hand in ice water for a longer amount of time than Person 1”. Do not say “Person A was more aggressive than Person 1” because that is making a statement about their intentions.

Option 2: If you want to make claims about aggression, then you must explicitly state your assumptions. For example, you could say “For the ice water task, we are assuming that the amount of time assigned will directly correspond to participants’ intended harm to the recipient.” If you accept this assumption, then you could conclude that the behaviors that cause more actual harm are more aggressive. However, people are not required to accept your assumptions.

Option 3: You can measure aggression within-participants. It may not hold that two separate individuals’ responses directly correspond to their intentions. That is, what one person intends when they, for example, assign another person to hold their hand in ice water for 30 seconds may not be the same thing as another person intends when they also choose 30 seconds. In other words, their intentions can differ even if their behaviors are identical. However, imagine comparing two behaviors by the same individual. It seems way more plausible that the more harmful behavior for that individual is more aggressive than the less harmful behavior for that individual.

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