Instrumental Aggression

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Have you ever taken a self-defense class? Activities like karate or krav maga can be a great workout and help you channel your aggression toward a certain goal, but they come with codes of conduct. Most practitioners promise to never use what they’ve learned to attack someone, only to defend themselves when being attacked. In the end, the attacker still might get hurt. Using self-defense is one example of instrumental aggression.

This page will provide a basic definition of instrumental aggression, what it looks like, and how it can be used. Not all aggression is only destructive. There are ways to channel aggression with intention. 

What Is Instrumental Aggression? 

Instrumental aggression is a type of aggression intentionally used to achieve a larger goal. This goal may or may not be ethical in the environment where the aggression is displayed. A person may plan out their instrumental aggression as a strategy or tactic. 

What Is Aggression?

Aggression is any behavior or action that aims to hurt or destroy. A person can be aggressive toward another human, an animal, or a plant. Their aggression may come in the form of mean words, punches, poisoning, or other methods. You may have encountered aggression today, over the phone, at work, or at home. 

Instrumental aggression is unique in that it is used to achieve a goal beyond harming or destroying another being. A person may have tried to achieve that goal previously without using aggression but finds aggression appropriate in that circumstance. Another person may have witnessed someone using aggression to achieve their larger goal and decides to repeat their behavior. Yet another person may have been taught that aggression is the only way to achieve certain outcomes. 

There are many reasons why someone might use instrumental aggression on another person, and there are many different effects that may come from that instrumental aggression. 

Instrumental Aggression is Also Called…

  • Predatory aggression
  • Cognitive aggression

When Does Instrumental Aggression Usually Occur? 

Aggression occurs all the time, around the world, in many different situations. When talking about instrumental aggression, however, a lot of psychologists are talking about sports. Think of your favorite sports. A lot of them involve a bunch of grown adults harming themselves or others in order to win a game. Your favorite forward uses their head to hit a soccer ball into the net. Hockey players might use violence as they play their game (even when it’s not in the rules!) Many athletes are familiar with, and skilled at, using instrumental aggression. 

(Interested in how the worlds of sports and psychology collide? You may want to consider a career as a sports psychologist!) 

Examples of Instrumental Aggression

The following situations are instrumental aggression. Remember, instrumental aggression doesn’t always have a positive outcome or goal! 

  • A bank robber threatens and points a gun at a teller in order to rob the bank. 
  • Children who recognize that calling their parents names will get their parents to relent or give in to what the child wants may lean into that aggression to meet their goals. 
  • A woman may stomp on a man’s foot with her high heel to get out of the chokehold he has her in. 
  • After getting dumped, a man may say hurtful and vile things about his ex, knowing that she will hear them and feel upset. 
  • A person may assassinate or harm a political figure in the hopes that they can achieve a larger political goal. 

Other Types of Aggression

Aggression comes in many forms. Not everyone is aggressive for a larger purpose. 

Hostile Aggression

Hostile aggression is never premeditated. Often, this aggression is caused by sudden feelings of anger. The person displays hostile aggression, also called reactive or impulsive aggression, in an attempt to process those feelings. 

Examples of hostile aggression include: 

  • A child throwing themselves on the ground in the middle of a grocery store in response to being told “no.” 
  • Yelling at, or flipping off, a driver who just cut you off. 
  • Getting in a referee’s face or punching an opponent after a bad call was made in a game. 
  • Throwing a phone at the wall while in an argument with a partner. 

Hostile vs. Instrumental Aggression

Whereas instrumental aggression is used to achieve a goal beyond the act of aggression, hostile aggression doesn’t have a goal in mind. Hostile aggression can be more reckless than instrumental aggression, but the consequences are not always more severe. A violent criminal may actually face a reduced sentence if they can argue that they committed a “crime of passion.” Whereas many crimes face high sentences if there was intent behind said crime. 

Passive Aggression 

Although hostile and instrumental aggression are often the two types of aggression identified by psychologists, there is a third form of aggression: passive aggression. Passive aggression is a type of communication that opens the door to violence or aggression but does not directly cause it. Often, this is more frustration than actual direct aggression! 

What Causes Aggression?

In the earliest days of human existence, aggression was just as vital to humans as it was to polar bears, antelope, or sabertooth tigers. Aggression is a tool for defending precious resources and the family unit. That aggression is still engrained in humankind today. 

Have you ever experienced “fight-or-flight mode?” When faced with a threat, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode and you feel encouraged to attack the situation that is threatening you or run away. Of course, humans in 2022 don’t just go into fight-or-flight mode because they’re faced with a grizzly bear. A range of situations put us into fight-or-flight mode. How we handle those feelings within the body depends on other factors.

Learning Aggression vs. Awareness

The Bobo Doll Experiment was groundbreaking. It showed how children can become aggressive simply by watching adults express aggression. Children learn how to behave by watching the people around them behave. If they see adults screaming, yelling, and pouting to get what they want, the children will do the same. If they see adults taking a moment to breathe deeply or express their emotions calmly, they will be more encouraged to do the same. 

Instrumental aggression can be useful in the context of sports, but it’s important to teach a child when it’s okay to use aggression and when it’s better to sit with negative feelings and deal with them in a nonviolent way. This begins with being a nonviolent person yourself.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, November). Instrumental Aggression. Retrieved from

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