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5 Reasons Why People Act Passive-Aggressively

These common reasons help explain what makes people behave this way.

Key points

  • Passive-aggression is anger, hostility, and/or learned helplessness in disguise.
  • There are four subtypes of passive-aggressiveness.
  • Causes of passive-aggression are often varied and situational.
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The NYU Medical Center defines a passive-aggressive individual as someone who "may appear to comply or act appropriately, but actually behaves negatively and passively resists." Oftentimes, passive-aggression is comprised of anger, hostility, or learned helplessness in disguise, expressed in a covert, underhanded way to "even the score," and with the hope of "getting away with it."

Subtypes of passion-aggressiveness include disguised verbal hostility, disguised relational hostility, disguised task hostility, and hostility towards others through self-punishment.

Disguised verbal hostility can be understood as negative gossip, sarcasm, veiled hostile joking—often followed by "just kidding," repetitive teasing, and the habitual criticism of ideas, solutions, conditions, and expectations. Disguised relational hostility is the silent treatment, social exclusion, neglect, backstabbing, deliberate button-pushing, overspending, sullen resentment, and indirectly hurting something or someone of importance to the targeted person. Disguised task hostility can take the form of chronic procrastination or tardiness, stalling, withholding resources or information, professional exclusion, denying personal responsibility, making excuses, lack of follow through, stubbornness, and inefficiency. Hostility towards others through self-punishment can present as deliberate failure, exaggerated or imagined health issues, victimhood, dependency, self-harm, and deliberate weakness to elicit sympathy and favor.

Why do people act passive-aggressively? Although research suggests the causes are varied and situational,[1][2] below are five common reasons, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People and A Practical Guide for Passive-Aggressives to Change Towards the Higher Self. While people may occasionally exhibit these tendencies, which might not be a major issue, chronic passive-aggression will routinely express itself through one or more of the actions below, without awareness of, or concern for, the destructive impact of passive-aggression in relationships.

  1. Learned Helplessness. Passive-aggressiveness may occur when a person is unwilling or unable to communicate directly and assertively, possibly with an individual perceived to have greater power. Instead, the passive-aggressor will say one thing but do another to avoid direct confrontation.
  2. Covert Power Play. To compensate for one’s inability to speak directly and solve problems assertively, a passive-aggressive individual may resort to covert means of manipulation, domination, and control in order to gain leverage. In a twisted way, one feels more powerful by agitating, frustrating, disappointing, and/or failing others.
  3. Covert Negative Emotions. The passive-aggressor may feel anger, resentment, or dissatisfaction in a relationship, and act out his displeasure in various underhanded ways. Typically, the covert negative emotions are expressed in such a way that, when confronted on the matter, the passive-aggressor can easily pretend innocence, and deny their true intentions and actions.
  4. Normalize Low Expectations. In some cases, a passive-aggressor wants to purposely frustrate a task in order to set low expectations, shed responsibility, and hopefully avoid being asked again. In this way, a low baseline is established.
  5. Low Self-Esteem and Low Self-Efficacy. At some level, a chronically passive-aggressive individual may be signaling, “I’m not good enough to accept responsibly, so don’t ask me or I may fail your expectations.”

For tips on how to handle passive-aggressive people, and how passive-aggressive individuals can change for the better, see references below.

© 2021 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.


Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People. PNCC. (2014)

Ni, Preston. A Practical Guide for Passive-Aggressives to Change Towards the Higher Self. PNCC. (2016)

Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People — 2nd Edition. PNCC. (2006)

[1] DiGiuseppe, R., & Tafrate, R. C. Anger Disorders Scale: Manual. Multi Health Systems. (2003).

[2] Dittmann, Melissa. Anger Across the Gender Divide. American Psychological Association. (2003)

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