Instrumental aggression and hostile aggression, how they differ

Robert Johnston
Instrumental aggression and hostile aggression, how they differ

Yelling in anger, punching a wall, driving violently, knocking out an opponent in a boxing match, hitting a pedestrian for distracted driving, harming someone in a robbery, or murdering an enemy soldier in a war. All of these are actions that we categorize as assaults and that carry a harmful consequence that harms other people in one way or another. However, each of these actions is very different from the others and they do not share the same definite cause. What is the difference?


  • What are assaults?
  • Hostile aggression What is?
  • What is instrumental aggression?
  • Aggression and its perception

What are assaults?

Defining what is or is not an assault can be difficult and this is a well-known problem among legal professionals. This happens because for something to be considered an aggression, it must not only be considered an attack on other people, but it must have the purpose of deliberately causing this damage, as a specific objective.

For this reason, it is sometimes difficult to catalog what an aggression is, since, although an attack may have occurred that harms other individuals, it may have been the result of objectives that were not focused on doing this damage per se..

In this context, the social psychologists Baron and Richardson define aggression as a behavior whose intention is to harm another person who does not want to be harmed. This can lead to seeing certain types of damages that some people commit as very intentional or less, without disregarding the degree of damage that their behaviors cause to others.

In this way, we understand the aggressions according to their form, being able to be physical aggressions when the damage occurs in the body of other people, verbal aggression, when physical violence is not used, but if the words or social aggression, when harm to others is sought through manipulation, criticism or marginalization.

In addition to these classifications of form, concepts emerge that categorize aggression into two very different typologies according to its causality: hostile aggression and instrumental aggression..

Hostile aggression What is?

Hostile aggression is harmful behavior that usually takes little premeditation and responds to certain emotional urges. The intention that causes this type of aggression is to do deliberate damage or harm, but little premeditated and that can be the consequence of a violent state of rage experienced by a person. In colloquial terms, hostile aggression is damage that one person does to another because of a specific emotion, which does not exempt this fact from the damage it causes to others.

Some examples of hostile aggression can be:

  • Shout angrily in the middle of an argument
  • Hitting someone in a fight
  • Driving violently cutting off other cars
  • Killing others in an act of rage or hatred

What is instrumental aggression?

Instrumental aggression, also known as cognitive aggression, is less emotional. It is a type of damage and harm towards others that occurs deliberately or planned, but unlike hostile aggression, the ultimate intention of this type of aggression is not, however, to cause damage to other individuals per se, but to achieve certain benefits concrete that can only be achieved by carrying out this damage towards others.

If these benefits could be achieved in other ways, the harm to others would probably not occur, so this type of behavior is more planned and cold, responding to previously deliberate strategies..

Some examples can be:

  • Pushing a boy in the schoolyard to get his food
  • Assaulting someone in a robbery to get money
  • Lying about someone to hurt them at work
  • Assassinate someone for political ideas

Aggression and its perception

Anything that harms other people in one way or another is harmful behavior for our coexistence as a species. But categorizing a behavior as aggressive or not depends on the perception that one and the other have of the causes of these behaviors. This generates an inequality of thoughts and actions that can cause our perception of justice to differ from one person to another. For example, for a government to spend its budget on the purchase of nuclear weapons may be considered an instrumentally aggressive act for a large majority of people, but others may claim that it is an act of self-defense. In any case, from the Psicoactiva team we consider any act of harm to other people to be an error, because whatever the type of aggression these acts may be, these acts only lead us to take a step back in our evolution as human beings..

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