What is Instrumental Aggression? - Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:04 1994 Olympics
  • 0:43 Aggression Types
  • 1:40 Instrumental Aggression
  • 2:28 Generalized Aggression Model
  • 3:41 Example
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

There are two primary forms of aggressive behavior. This lesson will discuss instrumental aggression by examining how it differs from impulsive aggression. We will also go over relevant psychological theory and provide some examples.

1994 Olympics

At the Olympic figure skating tryouts in 1994, the world watched in shock as images of a battered skating hopeful, Nancy Kerrigan, flashed across television screens. Initially it appeared as though a random attacker had approached Kerrigan and battered her around the leg and knee area. But, after an intensive investigation, it was soon determined that the attack was anything but random. Her rival, fellow competitor Tonya Harding, along with her ex-husband, had hired someone to carry out the attack in order to secure Harding's spot in the Olympic figure skating competition. Instead, Harding was banned from ever competing in the sport again.

Aggression Types

Although Harding did not personally carry out the attack on Kerrigan, this example demonstrates the meaning of indirect instrumental aggression. Unlike impulsive aggression, which tends to occur spontaneously in the heat of the moment and is motivated by pure hostility, instrumental aggression is planned. While both impulsive and instrumental aggression take place with the intent to cause harm or injury, instrumental aggression is much more calculated.

Like Harding hiring a hitman to ensure she had a better chance of winning the Olympic competition, instrumental aggression tends to be goal oriented. This means that the purposes of planning or committing the aggressive act are self-serving and take place because the aggressor wants to achieve some type of personal gain. In Harding's mind, by knocking Kerrigan out of the competition, she removed an obstacle to her success at the Olympics.

Let's look at some behaviors that differentiate instrumental aggression from impulsive aggression.

Instrumental Aggression

Instrumental aggression has some unique characteristics that differentiate it from reactive or impulsive aggression. Some characteristics associated with instrumental aggression are that it is:

  • Intentional and planned out beforehand
  • Goal-oriented
  • Committed with the intent to cause harm (physical, social, or emotional)
  • Intended to place the aggressor in a favorable position
  • To avoid failure or unfavorable consequences

Hostile or impulsive aggression, on the other hand, while also motivated by intent to commit harm, occurs much more spontaneously. It's not planned and thought out beforehand, not committed to achieve a goal, and the consequences of the aggressive action are rarely considered. Hostile or impulsive aggression can't really be reasoned with and typically occurs in the heat of the moment.

Generalized Aggression Model

There are many different theories that attempt to explain aggressive behavior. The Generalized Aggression Model, otherwise referred to as GAM, combines these theories into one comprehensive model to explain why aggressive behavior occurs. GAM asserts that there are certain risk factors that make individuals more prone to act aggressively.

There are two types of risk indicators. The first is personal. These factors are centered around a person's worldview and outlook. Do they perceive aggressive behavior to be productive, are they easily irritated, do they view the world as being biased and against them? Or do they view aggression as counterproductive, exude positive and agreeable attitudes, and value diversity? The second is situational. These factors include multiple things, ranging from the temperature of the environment and violence viewed in the media, to stress level and the ability to remain anonymous.

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