Proactive aggression: Ill hit if you dont hit back

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

Aggression researchers have increasingly supported the notion of two specific types of aggressive behaviors: proactive and reactive aggression. Reactive aggression is usually fear-based and impulsive in nature. We all remember the child that would hit at the sightliest sense of threat or anxiety. In contrast, proactive aggression is predatory and calculated such as what you see in some types of bullying behaviors. Kids with high levels of proactive aggression are not necessarily reacting to the perception of threat, but instead may engage in aggression coldly to obtain rewards or impose their will.

Studies with both humans and non-human primates have shown that these two types of aggression have distinct physiological profiles. For example, last year we published a study showing that reactive aggressive children have significant higher endocrine responses during a stress task while proactive aggressive children do not (see Lopez-Duran et al. 2008 DOI: 10.1007/s10802-008-9263-3). However, less is known about how these two types of aggressive behavior differ in their underlying neurocognitive processes. For example, we know little about how executive functioning (e.g., planning and response inhibition) as well as cognitive bias (hostile attributions) affect the presence of reactive and proactive aggression in children.

A study scheduled to be published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology explored neurocognitive and social cognition processes in reactive and proactive aggression. The authors examined 83 boys ages 9 to 12. These children completed a neuropsychological battery of tests that measured various aspects of executive functioning. Teachers also completed a measure of child aggression that assesses proactive and reactive aggressive behaviors. Finally, the authors measured attributional biases using a story-based measure that explores the extent to which children attribute hostile intentions to others in ambiguous situations.

The results:

  1. Problems with response inhibition were associated with reactive aggression but not with proactive aggression.
  2. Surprisingly, hostile attributions was not directly related to either type of aggression. However:
  3. Hostile attributions interacted with planning deficits in predicting both types of aggression. Here the story gets equally interesting and complicated.

As you can see below, when kids had high levels of hostile attributions, deficits in planning ability predicted reactive aggression. In contrast, with low levels of hostile attributions, the deficits in planning ability predicted lower levels of reactive aggression.

So if you think others have hostile intentions AND you have difficulties planning, you may be more likely to show reactive aggression. But if you dont think others have hostile attributions, your difficulties in planning actually reduces your changes of aggression.

The opposite pattern was found for proactive aggression. As seen below, for those with hostile attributions, poor planning ability was associated with a decrease in aggression. In contrast, for those with low levels of hostile attributions, poor planning ability was associated with increased aggression.

What does this mean? It seems that in proactive aggressive kids, hostile attributions may increase the demands for planning. So for example, if you are a predatory bully, thinking that another child has hostile attributions and may fight back requires you to plan more. Thus, if you have deficits in planning ability you may be less likely to engage in the aggressive act.

In sum, this article provides an interesting picture on how executive functioning and social cognition interact in the phenomenology of aggressive responses. The results confirm the notion that reactive aggression is associated with deficits in response inhibition, which have implications for the development of treatment interventions for these children. The interaction of planning ability and hostile attribution is intriguing and likely to also help us develop better treatment interventions for proactive aggression.

The reference: Ellis, M., Weiss, B., & Lochman, J. (2009). Executive Functions in Children: Associations with Aggressive Behavior and Appraisal Processing Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s10802-009-9321-5