Hostile Aggression

The Deeper Meaning of Hostile Aggression

Hostile aggression may sound like an oxymoron.  After all, isn’t all aggression hostile, by definition?  A bit of further thought, however, quickly reveals that this is not the case.  Passive aggression, as we well know, is a much more indirect form of aggression that involves more complicated and circuitous means of delivery.  So what is hostile aggression?


Hostile Aggression Defined

Hostile aggression is an aggressive action sparked by anger and whose primary purpose is to injure another individual.  We might differentiate it from other forms of more subtle aggression which are not felt quite so viscerally and which may have other ends.  The distinction that psychologists point out is between hostile aggression and instrumental or predatory aggression.  In this second kind of aggression, the aggressive tendencies are used as a means to achieve a particular goal rather than as an attempt to use this aggression to express anger towards an irritant.

A second distinction between these two forms of aggression is in the level of control involved in each.  In hostile aggression, the individual is thought to be out of control, a puppet to his (or sometimes her) emotions, lashing out in a paroxysm of anger.  In predatory aggression, however, the anger or aggressive tendencies tend to be converted to aid in the project at hand.  Thus, we might think of predatory aggression as being a useful form of aggression that helps, or can help, individuals motivate themselves to achieve culturally acceptable goals.  Hostile aggression, on the other hand, is usually unacceptable in most civilized situations and can often be self destructive, keeping the individual from achieving his or her goals.  In fact, often hostile aggression accompanies by overt acts of self harm.


The Slippery Nature of Focused Aggression

Predatory aggression is often used to help guide behavior into acceptable venues.  We might think of this in terms of group sports.  Individuals who might otherwise not have an avenue or outlet for their aggressions often find football and other forms of organized sports a useful venue for venting their otherwise unacceptable tendencies.  Even in football however, the type of aggression expressed is of the predatory rather than the hostile variety.  In fact, undirected hostility can be counterproductive to the overall goals of the team.  The player that loses control and lashes out outside of the controlled norms of the rules, may earn his team a personal foul and get censured by his teammates for having put their own aggressions above the team’s interests.

Even in this controlled environment, however.  The line between hostile and directed aggression is not always clear.  You will often find that some players in order to put themselves in a mental frame of mind that allows them to play fully must foster a hatred of their opponent as an individual and that this hatred is difficult to distinguish from the kinds of aggression we associate with hostile aggression.  For many players, if you were to ask them in the heat of passion on the field if they wanted to physically harm their opponent, they would say yes.  This slipperiness of aggression from goal orientation to specifically focused has a great deal to do with aggressions origins as part of our survival instinct.

The lesson for those that would harness these energies—managers as well as coaches—is that such aggressions are useful, but that they must be carefully monitored lest they become counterproductive.  Larger goals must always be emphasized and a team spirit fostered, otherwise individuals may lose sight of their overall goals and lash out in ways that are destructive to both community and individuals.  Furthermore, managers must be careful in choosing candidates to place in positions of power as well since overly aggressive individuals may foster similarly undirected behaviors in groups of individuals, thus extending the damage beyond themselves.