- Passive aggression is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.
- A study identified three distinguishable tendencies of passive aggression, including sabotage.
- The Passive Aggression Scale is a tool that can be used to measure passive aggression.
A recent study published in Behavioral Sciences offers a better way to understand the elusive psychological trait of passive aggression. According to the researchers, led by psychologists Young-Ok Lim and Kyung-Hyun Suh of Sahmyook University in Korea, passive aggression is comprised of three distinguishable but overlapping tendencies:
- The tendency to induce criticism of a disliked person
- The tendency to avoid or ignore a disliked person
- The tendency to sabotage a disliked person, often in underhanded ways
The authors state,
"In modern society, where violence is strongly prohibited, people rely on indirect attacks and express their hostility toward the other person verbally, timidly or nonverbally. This type of aggression is also known as indirect hostility, indirect aggression or passive aggression."
While most of us have a general idea of the types of behaviors that qualify as passive aggression, a standardized tool to measure such behaviors has been missing from scientific literature—until now.
To create their Passive Aggression Scale, Lim and Suh recruited experts (people with a background in psychology, human behavior, or counseling) to answer a series of open-ended questions about passive aggression. From these responses, the researchers were able to put together a series of statements that described different aspects of passive-aggressive behavior.
They then recruited a larger sample of participants to respond to these statements, as well as complete other related questionnaires, to determine which statements were most relevant to the experience of passive aggression.
Using advanced statistical grouping techniques, they landed on a final list of 21 questions—which gauge an individual’s level of overall passive aggression, as well as the subcomponents of inducing criticism, avoidance/ignoring, and sabotage. The scale is as follows (answers are given on a scale of “not at all true” to “very true”):
Passive Aggression Scale: Inducing Criticism Component
- When I talk about someone I dislike or find uncomfortable, I pretend to praise their strengths but also drop hints about their weaknesses.
- I tattle on mistakes made by someone I don’t like or find uncomfortable to a higher authority to ruin their reputation.
- I intentionally reveal embarrassing events or the dark pasts of someone I dislike or find uncomfortable in public.
- I ask someone I don’t like or find uncomfortable questions they can’t answer in front of others to make them uncomfortable.
- I mock someone I don’t like or find uncomfortable by being sarcastic and pretending it’s just a joke.
- When I have something I want to say about someone I dislike or find uncomfortable, I talk about it with others in plain sight of them.
- I pretend I am the victim to give someone I dislike or find uncomfortable a hard time.
Passive Aggression Scale: Avoiding/Ignoring Component
- I purposefully avoid eye contact with someone I don’t like or find uncomfortable.
- When I meet someone I dislike or find uncomfortable, I try to get away from them intentionally.
- I cut ties with someone I dislike or find uncomfortable even though I know they want to get in touch with me and find out how I am doing.
- When someone I dislike or find uncomfortable tries to connect with me by phone, I deliberately choose to ignore them.
- I give someone I dislike or find uncomfortable the silent treatment.
- When someone on social media I dislike or find uncomfortable asks me a question, I pretend I never saw the question in the first place.
- I have a cold and dismissive attitude toward someone I dislike or find uncomfortable.
Passive Aggression Scale: Sabotaging Component
- I deliberately delay someone I dislike or find uncomfortable to give them a hard time.
- I pretend to help someone I dislike or find uncomfortable but sabotage their work behind their back.
- When I work with someone I dislike or find uncomfortable, I intentionally don’t do my share of the work and end up penalizing them.
- I come up with excuses and say things like “I forgot” to someone I dislike or find uncomfortable.
- I deliberately procrastinate when someone I dislike or find uncomfortable asks me to do something.
- When someone I dislike or find uncomfortable asks me for a favor, I don’t give it my all and do a sloppy job.
- When someone I dislike or find uncomfortable asks me to do something, I don’t do it properly and come up with excuses like “I didn’t know it was important.”
The researchers note that while their test provides a better understanding of passive aggression, it does have its limitations. For one, all respondents were Korean, so it may not be representative of people globally. It also may yield different results based on context—e.g., whether one is thinking about passive aggression through the lens of their work life, romantic relationships, or friendships.
Nevertheless, if one feels like they, or someone they know, is struggling with passive-aggressive tendencies, it’s important to seek help, as passive aggression may be a cause or symptom of other problems, such as depression, self-harm, stress-related disorders, or eating disorders.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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