The Promise of Studying Human Aggression in the Wild
New methods make it easier to test how our environments influence aggression
Posted March 15, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Research has identified several person-level attributes that are likely to lead to aggressive behavior.
- Understanding what physical and social-environmental factors might influence reactive aggression is a challenge.
- New methods that can be used in real environments provide an opportunity to carefully test these effects.
- Insights from this work can be used to reduce violence by changing our environments rather than trying to change individuals.
What causes some individuals to act out violently when provoked, while others turn the other cheek? For decades, psychologists, criminologists, and sociologists (among others) have tried to understand the causes of this type of behavior, referred to as ‘reactive aggression’. From this work, we know that there are some vital ingredients that when combined, are a recipe for reactive aggression.
What makes some people likely to react aggressively?
Being angry is one key ingredient. Trait-level characteristics like being quick to anger, or temporarily being in an irritable emotional state, increase the likelihood that individuals will respond aggressively. Another common ingredient is a loosening of inhibitions, such as what is observed due to alcohol intoxication. In individuals with a history of reactive aggression, there are differences in brain activity that correspond to heightened reactivity to provocation and a hard time stopping oneself from reacting to an insult with violence.
But even if we don’t consider ourselves aggressive people or haven’t seriously harmed another person (intentionally), it’s a very human experience to want to lash out with words or fists, or just punch a pillow, when we’ve been angered by someone. Many pioneering social psychologists argued that, under the right circumstances, almost anyone could act immorally or aggressively. A less extreme version of this is the notion that all behaviors (good and bad) arise from the interaction of the person and their environment (Lewin, 1936). So can our environments make us aggressive?
What do we know about the role of our surroundings?
Unfortunately, understanding what role the external, physical or social environment plays in leading people to act aggressively is quite a challenge. Experimental research on human behavior is usually conducted in the lab, a distinctly unnatural environment for a human being**. And due to (reasonable) ethical constraints, scientists can’t ask participants to inflict significant physical harm on another human. Given this, how can we know what elements and features of our surroundings might lead to reactive aggression?
For example, say we want to know if and why nature exposure might reduce aggression. Some research has shown this through virtual nature interventions and lab-based aggression tasks in which people are ostensibly paired with a person in another room toward whom they are acting aggressively (Wang et al., 2018). But what about doing so in real natural environments?
Steps toward testing aggression in the wild
Trying to address this type of question is what led me and my colleagues to create a new task, which we call the Retaliate or Carry-on: Reactive AGgression Experiment (RC-RAGE for short), a browser-based task of impulsive, reactive aggression, recently published in Behavior Research Methods (Meidenbauer et al., 2023). We validated the task in a large online sample of US adults and found that, consistent with other literature, being in an angry emotional state and having a history of physical aggression or being quick to anger was associated with reactive aggression on our task.
Another interesting thing we found was that the people most likely to react aggressively when provoked were those who tended to act impulsively. We found this impactful in its own right, but given that research has suggested nature interactions can reduce impulsivity (Berry et al., 2014), this suggests another mechanism that might explain why we see less violence and aggression in people or areas with greater nature exposure.
Additionally, our task was designed to be portable and flexible enough to use outside the lab, opening up a variety of opportunities to study aggression in real environments. It should be noted that, like all other aggression tasks, ours suffers from some limitations; for example, we can’t inflict great harm for ethical reasons so our acts of aggression involve stealing money and shooting an avatar.
Changing our environments to reduce violence?
Nonetheless, it does create an exciting means to examine how different types of physical environments and social contexts can influence reactive aggression. And when it comes to the physical environment, it’s much easier to change an external environment than to change an individual. Thus, research on this topic can generate insights for reducing violence by changing individuals' physical surroundings. In fact, some researchers are already trying to reduce violence by greening vacant lots or planting trees, with very promising results (Kondo et al., 2018).
While there is still plenty of work to be done on this front, it’s a truly exciting time to see what we can learn by moving aggression research into real-world environments.
** Notable exceptions include grad students, professors, research assistants, postdocs, and other scientists who have come to think of the lab as a totally reasonable place to spend many, many hours of their lives.
Lewin, K (1936). Principles of Topological Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Wang, Y., She, Y., Colarelli, S. M., Fang, Y., Meng, H., Chen, Q., Zhang, X., & Zhu, H. (2018). Exposure to nature counteracts aggression after depletion. Aggressive Behavior, 44(1), 89–97. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.21727
Meidenbauer, K. L., Choe, K. W., Bakkour, A., Inzlicht, M., Meidenbauer, M. L., & Berman, M. G. (2023). Characterizing the role of impulsivity in costly, reactive aggression using a novel paradigm. Behavior Research Methods. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-023-02066-9
Berry, M. S., Sweeney, M. M., Morath, J., Odum, A. L., & Jordan, K. E. (2014). The nature of impulsivity: visual exposure to natural environments decreases impulsive decision-making in a delay discounting task. PloS One, 9(5), e97915. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0097915
Kondo, M. C., Andreyeva, E., South, E. C., MacDonald, J. M., & Branas, C. C. (2018). Neighborhood Interventions to Reduce Violence. Annual Review of Public Health, 39, 253–271. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040617-014600