Aggressive and violent behavior is the result of strong negative emotions. However, individuals who experience avoidant negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, tend to be less aggressive. “The current research focuses on one trait that is linked to both negative affect and behavioral avoidance—individual differences in disgust sensitivity—that should be associated with lower levels of aggression,” said Richard S. Pond, Jr. of the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky and lead author of a recent study examining which emotions mediate aggressive behavior. “Because disgust is a defensive emotion, people who are highly sensitive to it should be oriented towards avoidant or withdrawal types of behavior,” said Pond. “This orientation towards behavioral avoidance is in direct conflict with physical aggression, which is approach oriented.”
Pond and his colleagues conducted five separate studies to determine exactly what effect disgust had on behavior towards strangers and romantic partners. In the first two studies, participants who exhibited high levels of disgust were less verbally and physically aggressive towards strangers than participants with little disgust. In the remaining studies, Pond found that the participants who had elevated disgust sensitivity also engaged in less violence within their intimate relationships than participants who had little or no disgust sensitivity. The researchers also discovered that the type of disgust, either sexual or moral, directly weakened the aggression relating to those domains.
“Our results demonstrate the utility of considering the motivational direction of emotional states when predicting aggression,” said Pond. “Disgust facilitates avoidant behaviors that potentially protect us from infection and contamination. Our results show that this emotion also serves an additional protective function by motivating us to avoid potentially harmful physical conflict.” Pond added, “By understanding how emotions can influence aggressive behavior, over and above the effect of their valence, scientists can gain a clearer understanding of the factors that increase and decrease violence.”
Pond, Jr., Richard S., Nathan C. DeWall, Nathaniel M. Lambert, Timothy Deckman, Ian M. Bonser, and Frank D. Fincham. “Repulsed by Violence: Disgust Sensitivity Buffers Trait, Behavioral, and Daily Aggression.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102.1 (2012): 175-88. Print.
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