Is Your Anger Proactive or Reactive?

Psychologist Nicholas Thomas explains the role fear plays in aggression.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 22, 2022

A new study published in Physiology and Behavior divides our anger into proactive aggression (a fearless kind of anger) and reactive aggression (a result of fear).

I recently spoke to Psychologist Nicholas Thomas of Virginia Commonwealth University to understand how recognizing our type of anger can help us tackle it better. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of aggression in men and women?

My research explores the mechanisms of violence with the goal of using this information to improve interventions to reduce violence in both men and women.

In your study, you distinguished two types of aggression. Could you explain what these are and how they are developed differently within a person?

Reactive aggression is often in response to a perceived provocation whereas proactive aggression is goal-directed.

You cite the fearlessness theory of aggression. Could you please elaborate on this and tell us if your results were congruent with its theoretical underpinnings?

The theory suggests that some people are aggressive because of a lack of fear. Research has demonstrated that children who have a fearless temperament are more likely to engage in risky and harmful behaviors.

If a person does not feel fear in response to risk-taking or the potential consequence of harmful behaviors, like being told off by a teacher, then this behavior is not discouraged.

Our research shows that, at the biological level, men and women who engaged in higher levels of premeditated and goal-directed aggression (proactive aggression) displayed different physiological profiles that support remaining more calm and alert during threatening situations, which supports the fearlessness theory of proactive aggression.

However, this was not true for men and women who reported higher levels of reactive aggression.

Instead, men and women with higher levels of aggression in response to provocation had higher reactivity to fear induction.

Collectively, this research supports that there are different forms of aggression and these may have different developmental pathways.

It also highlights that violence interventions need to target these subtypes of aggression to become most effective.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

Our findings for reactive aggression were similar for men and women. Our findings for proactive aggression were somewhat different for men and women, in that men had low overall physiological reactivity to fear, whereas women did respond with an increase in parasympathetic activity.

Both of these physiological responses suggest proactive aggression is related to remaining in greater physiological control, either through low autonomic nervous system reactivity or augmented parasympathetic nervous system reactivity.

Do you have plans for follow-up research?

Yes, our goal is to extend the study to children using age-appropriate stimuli. We hope to understand if these physiological profiles occur in children and if these contribute to the stability of aggression subtypes during the child's development.