Responsibility Towards Others: Thinking about anger, aggression and violence


By Warren Heggarty

There is a surprising amount of disagreement about anger, aggression and violence and how they interrelate. Ultimately the solution is to stop, think and consider the consequences for yourself and others. However, understanding more about these three terms might help us understand ourselves and our behaviour a bit better.

We often use the terms anger, aggression and violence interchangeably. (Tarabay & Warburton, 2017) Indeed, some people refer to verbal aggression (causing insult and offence) as a form of violence on a par with physical aggression, like punching. Others equate anger with aggression despite the fact that aggressive behaviour does not necessarily require anger to fuel it. 

Anger is a feeling, aggression is a behaviour (Morin, 2011). What’s more, anger is an acceptable behaviour because it can energise and motivate us towards actions which are good. Anger can be channelled constructively as well as destructively. There is a choice. 

Our hormones make anger a little complicated. Because anger releases endorphins which mask sadness and hurt, anger can actually make us feel better, even if the people around us might not agree! In what way is anger a precursor to aggression and violence which are behaviours rather than emotions? (Morin, 2011)

Tarabay and Warburton tell us that the Columbine School murderer Eric Harris had a mindset that clearly approved of violence as a response to the world. Although Harris had previously had anger management (and had noted its effectiveness) it was clear that being able to control his anger did not change his views on aggression and violence. (Tarabay & Warburton, 2017)

Just as anger and aggression are not the same thing, the same could be said of violence and aggression. Aggressive behaviour might sometimes involve a desire to harm the victim, but equally it might be about bringing benefit to the perpetrator. Anger, then, need not be present in aggressive behaviour and aggressive behaviour need not involve physical violence. Examples of non-physical aggression might be insulting, offending, screaming at people, gossiping, sabotaging relationships and so forth. 

Some behaviour that appears angry is merely aggression. A person screams and throws things not because they feel hard done by, but because they cynically know it will get them what they want. 

Likewise the presence of anger, even severe anger, does not need to lead to violence. If a person is wise enough to channel their anger towards solving problems, anger might even achieve the opposite of violence! 

An example might be the civil rights campaign of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Dr King was able to tap into the anger of African American people at a time when they were not equal in the sight of the law in the United States. However, he was able to channel that anger towards non-violent legislative and attitudinal change. 

Not everyone would agree that anger, aggression and violence are three separate if inter-related things. Some people see them as a continuum, meaning that anger can lead to aggression can lead to violence.

Behaviour Data Systems, a company which develops and sells psychological tests takes this approach with its Anger-Aggression-Violence Assessment instrument: ‘…triad theory postulates shades… of anger-aggression and violence exist as points on a continuum of emotional reactivity. This triad theory is based on the theorem that “as anger increases, it can evolve into aggression, which in turn can intensify and evolve into violence.”’ They admit that this is an obvious oversimplification but nevertheless argue that it is useful for both psychological practice and criminal justice situations. 

How would one explain cases like Columbine where cold calculation seems much a precursor of violence as anger? Those who espouse the triad or continuum view might claim that anger can evolve from hostility or cynicism. (Anger Aggression, 2005) 

Be that as it may, according to Tarbay and Warburton, enacted aggression does not reduce one’s aggressive impulses. While anger can be channelled constructively, the same cannot be said of aggression and violence. 

The key is to replace impulsive actions that derive straight from emotions with thinking things through and considering the consequences of proposed actions. 


Anger Aggression (2005). Anger Aggression Violence Assessment (AAVA). (Behaviour Data Systems Ltd Phoenix Arizona USA) Retrieved October 5, 2018, from Online Testing (Professional Online Testing Solutions Inc):

Morin, A. (2011, October 27). The difference between anger and aggression. Retrieved from The Marriage Counselling Blog:

Tarabay, C., & Warburton, W. (2017, September 1). Anger, aggression and violence: it matters that we know the difference. Retrieved from TheConversation:

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