Is aggression a valid personality construct?

August 19, 2010

I’ve given Jonah Lehrer a fair amount of crap for not being radical enough. I shouldn’t complain. He’s giving me a niche to occupy. In that spirit, I’ll give Jonah a belated fistbump for providing an independent reason to believe that aggression patterns in men and women would be influenced by a variety of factors, both individual and social, as opposed to some essential difference between the sexes:

One of [Walter Mischel’s] classic studies documented the aggressive behavior of children in a variety of situations at a summer camp in New Hampshire. Most psychologists assumed that aggression was a stable trait, but Mischel found that children’s responses depended on the details of the interaction. The same child might consistently lash out when teased by a peer, but readily submit to adult punishment. Another might react badly to a warning from a counsellor, but play well with his bunkmates. Aggression was best assessed in terms of what Mischel called “if-then patterns.” If a certain child was teased by a peer, then he would be aggressive.

This led Mischel to construct a new metaphor for human personality. While modern psychology still clung to a model of personality rooted in the humors of the ancient Greeks – we were born with a certain amount of choleric temperament and that was it – Mischel proposed a model of personality called interactionism. One of his favorite metaphors for interactionism concerns a car making a screeching noise. How does a mechanic solve the problem? He begins by trying to identify the specific conditions that trigger the noise. Is there a screech when the car is accelerating, or when it’s shifting gears, or turning at slow speeds? Unless the mechanic can give the screech a context, he’ll never find the broken part. Mischel wanted psychologists to think like mechanics, and look at people’s responses under particular conditions.

In other words, there is no gland that secretes aggressive impulses and is bigger on average in men than in women. There is only an organism with x properties (physical size and strength; verbal fluency and social intelligence; upbringing and cultural background) finding itself in y situation, with z outcome. Of course, people’s habitual thought patterns may cause them to gravitate toward the same kinds of situations over and over again. And, to bring it back to sex differences, it’s not as if sex has nothing to do with the norms that apply in those situations.

To grab a study at random, here’s a meta-analysis of sex differences in aggression in a sample of heterosexual partners biased toward young dating couples in the US. The researcher, John Archer, found that women were slightly more likely to use physical aggression in that context, although they were more likely to be the ones injured by physical aggression. Archer chalks up the pattern to cultural norms against male violence toward women and the absence of norms prohibiting the reverse.

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