Anger, Aggression and Violence: It Matters That We Know the Difference

From domestic violence to public rallies and terrorist acts, it’s clear that anger, aggression and violence are widespread in society.

Although these terms – anger, aggression, violence – are often used interchangeably, they are different and must be uniquely managed by care professionals and policy makers.

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Cases of mass murder, domestic violence, and links between violent video games and aggressive behaviour highlight the importance of these differences.

Emotion vs behaviour

Anger is an emotion that motivates and energises us to act.

Anger can drive destructive behaviour, such as in the Charlottesville riots, where public protesting turned violent. But anger can also energise people to make constructive changes.

Many great reformers such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi channelled their anger to great social benefit.

Peaceful protests such as the Women’s March and the March for Science have done the same.

Aggression is a behaviour motivated by the intent to cause harm to another person who wishes to avoid that harm.

Violence is an extreme subtype of aggression, a physical behaviour with the intent to kill or permanently injure another person. Aggression and violence are rarely constructive, and are only sometimes motivated by anger.

These differences are highlighted by the Columbine school shooter Eric Harris. Harris was receiving anger management treatment a year before the shooting and, in his essay, noted its efficacy and his own commitment to controlling his anger.

But the next year Harris and his friend Dylan Klebold coldly drew up plans to kill their classmates and destroy their school. Their diaries revealed some anger, but most notable were their thoughts, beliefs, fantasies and attitudes, many of which involved and approved violence. Clearly, anger management did not sufficiently change the way Harris thought about aggression and violence.

This article was originally published by The Conversation.

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