Reactive Aggression

Reactive Aggression article header image

Reactive aggression is motivated by an outside threat to a persons physical or mental well being. The fear of loss or disrespect sparks an aggressive reaction to protect oneself from a perceived threat.

Reactive aggression is healthy and necessary in some circumstances. However, even when the purpose for our anger is appropriate, our response may not be. A behavior becomes maladaptive when the aggression interferes with important personal goals.

​​We see maladaptive reactive aggression in sports, when a player reacts to a perceived wrong, penalizing his team. A player may be angered by an opponents style of play, feel disrespected, and retaliate. If the retaliation is excessive, the behavior may be destructive to team goals, such as winning the game or competing in the playoffs.​

Key Definition:

Reactive Aggression refers to aggressive behavior in response to perceived threat or provocation.

Reactive Anger vs. Proactive Anger

Scientists, philosophers, and psychologist divide aggression into two basic forms: reactive and proactive aggression.

Reactive Anger

​Erich Fromm wrote, “we must distinguish in man two entirely different kinds of aggression. The first, which he shares with all animals, is a phylogenetically programmed impulse to attack (or to flee) when vital interests are threatened” (1992, Kinde location 253). This type of aggression is reactive aggression. Phillips and Lockman refer to this type of anger as “hot-blooded” aggression (2003). Fromm calls it benign aggression.

Fromm considers benign (reactive aggression) is natural-an inborn natural response. He explains, “mobilization of aggression in the corresponding brain areas occurs in the service of life, in response to threats to the survival of the individual or of the species; that is to say, phylogenetically programmed aggression, as it exists in animals and man, is a biologically adaptive, defensive reaction” (1992, location 1,961).

A longitudinal study that followed young children from birth to adulthood found that “aggressiveness in a young child is correlated with effectiveness and competence as an adult” (Valliant, 2012).

Proactive Anger

​The other type of aggression is proactive aggression, or “cold-blooded” aggression (2003). We characterize proactive aggression as “harming innocent targets in the absence of provocation is deemed proactive aggression” (Chester, et al., 2019). Causing harm to others is one of humankinds’ darker delights. A wealth of new evidence suggests that positive valance affect plays a role in motivating revenge and retaliatory aggressive behavior (2019).

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was aware of the sadistic pleasure humans find in dealing out hurt to others. He wrote, “the bit of truth behind all this – one so eagerly denied – is that men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment” (1930).

Phillips and Lockman explain that proactive anger is unemotional and seems to be aggressive to establish power or dominance over others. Alfred Adler would characterize proactive aggression as being motivated by the masculine protest to avoid feelings of insecurity.

Freud added that “those who love fairy-tales do not like it when people speak of the innate tendencies in mankind towards aggression, destruction, and, in addition, cruelty” (1930). 

Sadly, for some, a feedback loop rewards proactive aggression with positive feelings. Perhaps, biological predispositions may increase the likelihood of proactive aggression—cruel destructive acts because they promote good feelings.

Erich Fromm

Fromm refers to proactive aggression as “malignant aggression.” He describes it as being cruel and destructive, “specific to the human species and virtually absent in most mammals; it is not phylogenetically programmed and not biologically adaptive; it has no purpose, and its satisfaction is lustful” (1992, location 254). Fromm argues that “​malignant aggression, though not an instinct is human, potentially rooted in the very conditions of human existence” (location 3,754).

Dangers of Reactive Aggression​

Just because an aggression of the reactive variety doesn’t make the aggression adaptive, or even beneficial to survival. A young man, not to far from here, was angered by a car that rudely cut him off on the roadway. He chased them down (aggression), exited his vehicle, confronted the driver, and where sadly the other driver fatally shot the young man.

This victim’s reactive aggression to a perceived wrong cost him his life.

Daniel Goleman explains that expressions of aggression require skill. In his book Social Intelligence, he wrote, “the skillful use of an implicit threat of physical aggression lies not in the application of force itself but in neural mechanisms that fine-tune a response to best fit the circumstances. It combines self control with empathy and with social cognition” (2006).

Perceptions of Threats

A huge obstacle to appropriate reactive aggression is that we are responding to a perceived threat, not an actual threat. Perception complicates the matter. Our perceptions arise from programmed interpretations of events that often drift from reality. So we may be reacting to a threat that doesn’t exist.

Reactive Aggression and Subjective Interpretations

Eckhart Tolle wrote that “every ego is a master of selective perception and distorted interpretation.” He explains that our ego misinterprets situations as attacks that diminish its worth. “The ego takes everything personally, emotion arises, defensiveness, and maybe even aggression” (2006).

Our cognitions play a role in amping up the anger that bursts from appropriate protective reactive aggression to unnecessary violence. Goleman explains, “a thought that comes later in this buildup triggers a far greater intensity of anger than one that comes at the beginning. Anger builds on anger; the emotional brain heats up. By then rage, unhampered by reason, easily erupts in violence” (2012, location 1,383).

When anger build up, eventually it explodes into violence. We revert to our most primitive instincts, shut down cognitions, and charge at a car full of unknown men to express our displeasure with their driving.

Reactive Aggression and Justification

Reacting with aggression directly against another person often harms them in someway. Our normal sensitivities, and beliefs in our own character collides with the aggressive action, creating cognitive dissonance. According to cognitive dissonance theory, we seek means to lesson the conflict by justifying the behavior. Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain, “when you do anything that harms someone else—get them in trouble, verbally abuse them, or punch them out—a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did” (2020, Location 449).

Justifying is easy with reactive aggression. We are reacting to something, whether that something is legitimate or not. We point to the incident that spiked an emotion, magnify it, manipulate it, and create justified reasons for righteous indignation.

Pure Evil and Aggression

Jonathan Haidt warns of the “myth of pure evil.” Perhaps, we can expand this to pointing to justifications that simply label the recipient as “bad.” They are ‘bad,’ therefore it is okay I was violent. ‘Bad’ and ‘evil’ do not need any further qualification to determine appropriate level of aggression. 

Haidt explains, “the myth of pure evil is the ultimate self-serving bias, the ultimate form of naïve realism. And it is the ultimate cause of most long-running cycles of violence because both sides use it to lock themselves into a Manichaean struggle” (2005).

Tavris and Aronson warn that “justifying his first hurtful act sets the stage for more aggression” (2020). Once we justify with an all encompassing label of ‘evil’ or ‘bad,’ we no longer need to waste precious cognitive resources evaluating our aggression, because they deserve it. And we slowly travel down a road where the line between reactive aggression and proactive aggression begins to blur.

Fromm warns that healthy reactive aggression may quickly turn to destructive proactive aggression. He explains “it is important to be aware how easily purely defensive aggression is blended with (nondefensive) destructiveness and with the sadistic wish to reverse the situation by controlling others instead of being controlled” (1992, location 3,987).

Other Defensive Mechanisms in Play

Justification is not the only way we deal with aroused emotions, pushing for reactive aggression. We may repress, displace, or project.

  • in repression, we deny the feelings of anger
  • in displacement, we find a less threatening target to express aggressions
  • in projection, we project negative feelings about ourselves onto someone else, and then focus aggression on them

Each of these reactions to aroused emotion, impulses for aggression are maladaptive because they do not address the underlying cause of the anger.

Is Aggression and Anger Different?

I found in my research that researchers and writers have defined aggression in with several conflicting terms, creating confusion.

George Valliant defined aggression as assertive confidence, specifically pointing out that violence and aggression are different (2012).

Leslie S. Greenberg, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Psychology at York University in Toronto, remarks, “​anger should not be confused with aggression, which comprises attacking or assaultive behavior.” Greenberg adds that “the typical expression of anger seldom involves aggression but rather is directed to correct the situation or prevent its recurrence” (2015, location 3,331).

Greenberg’s expression of anger equates with Valliant’s definition of aggression as assertive confidence. Sigmund Freud, like Valliant, defined expressions of anger as a form of aggression. 

Healthy Expressions of Reactive Aggression

Fromm also refers to healthy expressions of aggression, similar to Valliant’s assertive confidence. He wrote that “the person with unimpeded self-assertive aggression feels less easily threatened and, hence, is less readily in a position of having to react with aggression” (1992).

The concepts are the same, just the definition differs. Expressions of aggression, or as Greenberg would say, expressions of anger, are adaptive, and should be done in a way that protects from wrongs without sabotaging futures.

Expressing Anger with Aggression

​Byron R. Pulisfer, a retired criminologist, wrote “anger expressed in a healthy and positive way means that we channel emotional anger towards resolution not attack.”

Aristotle said, “anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

We refine our skill, learning appropriate use of reactive anger through careful observation and keen social awareness. As quoted earlier, Goleman stated healthy aggression is through “neural mechanisms that fine-tune a response to best fit the circumstances. It combines self control with empathy and with social cognition” (2006).

Join 50.2K other subscribers


Chester, D., DeWall, C., & Enjaian, B. (2019). Sadism and Aggressive Behavior: Inflicting Pain to Feel Pleasure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(8), 1252-1268.

Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association; 2nd edition.

Freud, Sigmund (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents.  ‎ GENERAL PRESS; 1st edition.

Fromm, Erich (1973/1992). The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Holt Paperbacks; Revised and Rev edition.​

Goleman, Daniel (1995/2012). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  ‎Bantam; 1st edition

Goleman, Daniel (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam; 1st edition.

Haidt, Johnathan (2005). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; 1st edition

Phillips, N., & Lochman, J. (2003). Experimentally manipulated change in children’s proactive and reactive aggressive behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 29(3), 215-227.

Tavris, Caroll; Aronson, Elliot (2007/2020). Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books; Revised, New edition

Tolle, Eckhart (2006). A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Penguin Life; Reprint edition

Vaillant, G. E. (1977/2012). Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from Psychology Fanatic

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading

%d bloggers like this: