Gender Differences in Proactive and Reactive Aggression

Reactive and proactive aggression are seen as subtypes of generalized aggression. Reactive aggression is linked to negative outcomes and can stem from perceived threat. People with high levels of impulsivity and underlying anger tend to engage in this type of anger expression. Proactive aggression is a more manipulative type of aggression and is associated with individuals who exhibit interpersonal impairments, egocentric personalities, and narcissistic traits. However, more passive, proactive aggression can be just as damaging as reactive aggression. Anger can cause severe damage to relationships and quality of life. To address these specific types of anger, it is important to understand the characteristics that influence them. That precise issue was the focus of a recent study led by Leonardo Bobadilla of the Psychology Department at Western Carolina University. For his study, Bobadilla examined specific psychological traits and their relationship to both reactive and proactive aggression in a sample of 122 male and female participants.

Bobadilla assessed certain executive functions and administered skin-conductance response tests to all the participants after they were prompted with manipulated threat scenarios. He found that the male participants with the lowest levels of anxiety toward punishment and threat engaged in the highest levels of proactive aggression. Character traits such as egocentric personalities and manipulation were evident in these men, but not in the women. Men with indications of narcissism and self-absorption were more likely to engage in reactive aggression. For women, both narcissism and self-absorption were related to reactive aggression that was manifested indirectly and directly.  Bobadilla believes these findings can help clinicians working to resolve varying levels of anger in clients. However, more research needs to be conducted to better identify the unique and independent factors that contribute to these subtypes of anger, especially in women who display unprovoked anger. He added, “These data point to factors that uniquely influence each aggression subtype and their co-occurrence, and highlight the role of gender in the expression of aggression.”

Bobadilla, L., Wampler, M., Taylor, J. (2012). Proactive and reactive aggression are associated with different physiological and personality profiles. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31.5, 458-487.

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  • Fred

    May 23rd, 2012 at 12:44 AM

    Generalizing anger and aggression based on gender? Not precise enough. Almost everybody is different and it’s sometimes surprising to see the varying attitudes and reactions people respond with to the same kind of issues.

  • Jade

    May 23rd, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    Aggression that is not used for positive gain is never going to have any kind of positive outcome. I am all for fighting for what is yours and being aggressive to go after something that you want. But too often I have seen those who use being aggressive as a way to manipulate other people and to get something that is not rightfully theirs. That’s the kind fo aggression that can get someone hurt and never comes to anything good.

  • gordon bates

    May 23rd, 2012 at 12:24 PM

    I suppose that I have a really bad temper so that makes me someone who is reactive aggressive. It’s not like I plan to be this way but if someone ticks me off, then you better believe that I am gonna go off on him. Why wouldn’t I? What is wrong with taking up for what you think is right? I mean, what am I supposed to do instead, let someone walk all over me? I am not physically aggressive, but I think that my words can say it all a whole lot better than physical violence could. I just think that if I can take up for myself or others in my life who need it, then it should not be wrong to be aggressive in going out of my way to make things even.

  • regan

    May 24th, 2012 at 12:48 AM

    it’s like two volcanoes one active and another bigger but dormant..both are dangerous..!

  • Melody

    May 24th, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    Any thoughts on whether women exhibit lower rates of aggression in general? I have always thought so but after reading this thought that maybe they just show it in different ways than guys do.

  • ARS

    March 21st, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    Models are just tools to perceive and handle very complex realities, so I understand where the comments come from and the articles premise. All models will fail to address reality as it is impossible to incorporate all factors. However I find the proactive/reactive model enlightening despite its limits. Richard Wrangham has a CARTA you tube on Violence in Human Evolution where he explains the different parts of the brain that are operative in the different aggressions. While no two people have the same brain it helps to see different aspects function, giving varying manifestations. I know females who operate more like males and there are those who say there is no such thing as a male or female brain anymore. I don’t know, they are always changing things up and our socialization has got to have an impact on our brain development and function, endocrine parameters acknowledged. But the models do help to make a little more sense out of the creature which really makes no sense. We are not logically motivated, we are emotionally motivated is my conclusion as we carry our behaviors to points which are disadvantageous to civilized society. We are animals, not supreme spiritual or logical beings. Our aggressive and unequal society is the proof.

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