Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Anger and violent behaviour

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Anger and violent behaviour:
What is the effect of anger on violent behaviour?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Anger plays a major role in everybody's lives. It is typically marked by cognitive distortions and physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. Although anger is important in an adaptive sense, when this emotion is experienced to a high degree or frequency it may lead to violence. There are many theories that attempt to explain the relationship between anger and violent behaviour as well as give ideas about some of the potential causes of anger. The anger avoidance model suggests that violent behaviour is a reaction to anger. According to the cognitive content specific model, individuals experiencing anger may become violent in order to reduce their levels of anger. Many hormones and chemicals are involved in anger and violent bahaviour such as oxytocin, vasopressin and cortisol. These chemicals affect the brain and body in different ways. Neuroimaging studies can show which areas of the brain are involved in the expression of anger as well as how the brains of violent offenders may different from the norm.

Understanding anger and violence[edit | edit source]

Anger is a primary emotion and is considered biologically necessary, however, when it impedes on the daily functioning of an individual or results in unnecessary it can viewed as problematic (Gardner & Moore, 2008). Anger can also be considered to serve as a secondary emotion when used in response to other emotional states e.g. fear (Gardner & Moore, 2008). This primary emotion is often experienced by those with emotional and mood disorders such as borderline personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression (Gardner & Moore, 2008; Quinn, Rollock & Vrana, 2014). Clinical samples suggest that individuals with anger problems often have general emotional regulation difficulties (Gardner & Moore, 2008). Anger has been difficult to study and the term is often used in substitution with aggression and volatility.

Violence can be described as any action intended to cause harm to another. Violence is not only physical, it can be mental or emotion as well and typically violates social norms (Bufkin & Luttrell, 2005). Violent acts can be committed against one’s self, another person or a group of people (WHO, 2015). A study conducted in 2014 on perpetrators of partner violence found that impulsivity was positively correlated with cognition distortion, irrational beliefs and anger reactivity (Persampiere, Poole & Murphy, 2014). This suggests that individuals who commit violent crimes may be impulsive in the way they react to anger which may lead to violence. Violence can include punching, pushing, verbal abuse or emotional manipulation and is usually correlated with negative mood.  

Statistics[edit | edit source]

The Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests that approximately 8% of Australian adults experienced physical violence in 2014 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). This statistic does not include the many individuals who do not report physical violence.

Theories[edit | edit source]

There are many theories that attempt to explain anger and the role it plays in our everyday lives. Some of these theories include trait theories, evolutionary based theories and various cognitive and coping models.

The Anger Avoidance Model[edit | edit source]

The anger avoidance model takes a comprehensive approach to giving an explanation and understanding about anger and violence. It explains anger and reactions associated with anger in a six step model. The first level suggests that individuals with a biological predisposition or past history of abuse or neglect are more likely to experience anger. Level two is about hostile anticipation such that some individuals may have attentional biases and engage in external scanning. The third level is associated with a life event that may trigger an angry emotional response. The fourth level is the experience of anger and involves various physiological responses such as a heightened level of arousal. The fifth level suggests that anger may impair one’s emotional processing and regulation. The last phase is the reaction to anger that an individual may have. There are two different types of reactions; internalized avoidance and externalized avoidance. Internalized avoidance involves hostile ruminations and external avoidance involves aggressive behaviour. Individuals that react with external avoidance are more likely to engage in violent aggressive behaviours.

Cognitive Content Specific Model[edit | edit source]

Suggests that certain thoughts and cognitions may lead to the development of specific emotional reactions[grammar?]. For example, unrealistic expectations about others may lead to anger when expectations are not met (Gardner & Moore, 2008). The cognitive content specific model suggests that aggressive and violent behaviour is simply a way to release or express anger in order to reduce it (Gardner & Moore, 2008).

Physiology of anger[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Vasopressin/oxytocin[edit | edit source]

Vasopressin is a hormone that is generally associated with the maintenance of the volume of water in cells (Utiger, 2013). Oxytocin is also a hormone and neurotransmitter with a similar chemical composition to that of vasopressin (Colman, 2015). Oxytocin is usually secreted during childbirth in females and during ejaculation in males (Colman, 2015). Many animals studies suggest that oxytocin may play a role in aggression in different species (Ferris, 2005). This role has been very difficult to distinguish because in some animals oxytocin appears to promote aggression whilst in other species it seems to inhibit aggression (Ferris, 2005). Ferris (2005) suggests that vasopressin acts on multiple areas of the brain to promote aggression. According to Heinrichs, von Dawans & Domes (2009) both oxytocin and vasopressin play key roles in regulating complex social behaviours. This suggest that both oxytocin and vasopressin play a role in higher order functioning.

Cortisol[edit | edit source]

Cortisol is a hormone with many functions particularly metabolism and immune responses (, 2012). A study was conducted in 2010 that explored the different biological profiles of anger and fear as a response to stress (Moons, Eisenberger & Taylor, 2010). The aim of this study was to observe cortisol levels in individuals experiencing anger and fear. There were 183 participants; 112 women and 71 men. General health questions were gathered from the participants using 5 point Likert scales. Stress responses were initiated by the use of the Trier Social Stress Test. Cortisol levels were measured through testing of saliva samples. The results revealed that anger was correlated with high post-stressor cortisol levels where as fear was negatively correlated. This suggest that individuals who experience anger are more likely to have higher levels of cortisol than those who do not. Another study suggests that violent men with lower levels of cortisol have higher levels of testosterone (Denson, Ronay, Hippel & Schira, 2013). Anger is linked with physiological arousal, which is reflected by sympathetic nervous system arousal and increased muscular tension (Deffenbacher, Demm, & Brandon, 1986; Gardner & Moore, 2008). A longitudinal study was conducted to examine the role of cortisol in the symptoms of PTSD patients. The results suggest that cortisol may not play a role in the hyperarousal symptoms associated with PTSD (Stoppelbein & Greening, 2014). However, experimental studies where cortisol is orally taken has shown increases in levels of aggression (Bohnke et al., as cited by Gowin et al., 2012). It is clear that there is an association between violent and aggressive behaviour and cortisol.

These physiological responses are adaptive in nature and are designed to ready the body to fight against threats.

Testosterone[edit | edit source]

Men exhibit more acts of physical aggression and violence compared to women (Archer, 2004 as cited by Denson et al, 2013). Subsequently there has been research into the effects of testosterone in relation to violent behaviour. There has been mixed results in research examining the relationship between testosterone and anger and such a causal link cannot be made (Denson et al., 2013). According to Romero-Martinez, Lila, Conchell, Gonzalez & Moya-Albiol (2014) individuals who exhibit high levels of aggression are more likely to have high immune system activity. Romero-Martinez et al. (2014) suggest that testosterone may play a role in stimulating the immune system. This suggests that testosterone may play a role in the physiological response to anger and violent bahaviour.

Neuroimaging[edit | edit source]

Research on the brain has recently become more comprehensive with the development of many new technologies such as functional multi resonance imaging (fMRI) (Bufkin & Luttrell, 2005; Soderstrom, Tullberg, Wikkelso, Ekholm & Forsman, 2000). These new technologies allow researchers to examine the activity levels of various areas of the brain during the completion of various activities. A study conducted in 2000 sort to use these new technologies to assess the brain structure and function of violent individuals (Soderstrom et al., 2000). The results suggested that violent individuals may have a decreased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex which may effect executive function and impulse control (Soderstrom et al., 2000). Neuroimaging studies have also revealed that dysfunction in the temporal lobes may be associated with aggressive and violent behaviour, in particular the left-sided medial-temporal lobe (Bufkin & Luttrell, 2005; Soderstrom et al., 2000). According to Denson, Pederson, Ronquillo & Nandy (2009), self reported experiences of anger are related to dorsal anterier cingulate cortex activity.

Addressing anger and violence[edit | edit source]

It is clear that there is a link between anger and violence but how can violence be prevented? Many techniques have been developed to address dysfunctional anger in both adults and children.

Studies have shown that stress early on in life affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis (HPA), ultimately altering cortisol levels (Gowin et al., 2012). According to Vaneema et al. (2006), early life stress has been linked to an increased risk of aggressive behaviour in adult life. This suggests that the key to addressing anger and violent behaviour may be prevention. Preventing young children from high levels of stress may reduce the risk of adult violent behaviour. Prevention may include compulsory treatment for aggressive, neglectful parents.

The biggest challenge in treating anger problems is keeping clients engaged in the treatment process, in particular war veterans suffering from PTSD (Morland et al., 2012). Violent individuals typically have lower levels of executive brain function possibly due to lower levels of blood supply to the prefrontal cortex. The lack of executive brain function becomes an issue when attempting to help such individuals to engage in treatment as it means they are less likely to make informed, well thought out decisions.

Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT)[edit | edit source]

Cognitive behavioural therapy may assist individuals to control anger before it leads to violence. This type of therapy may assist individuals in identifying maladaptive cognitions and triggering events or situations (Deffenbacher, 1999). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of CBT as a treatment for anger found that CBT had at least a 23% risk reduction (Henwood, Chou & Browne, 2015). This meta-analysis included therapy programs such as Anger and Other Emotions Program which focuses on self-management, problem solving skills, effective communication skills and assisting participants in challenging dysfunctional thoughts. Other therapies addressed factors such as arousal reduction and working on relationships.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The link between anger and violent behaviour has not been completely established however it has been suggested that violence is an external reaction towards the emotion of anger. There are many physiological responses to anger. Neuroimaging studies suggest that angry individuals have less blood supply to the prefrontal cortex which may also promote more violent and aggressive behaviours. This is due to an impaired ability for those in a [grammar?] an angry state to make logical and rational decisions. Various studies also suggest that hormones and neurochemical play key roles in anger and its subsequent association with violent behaviour.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

What is cortisol?


[Provide more detail]

References[edit | edit source]

Bufkin, J. L., Luttrell, V. R. (2005). Neuroimaging studies of aggressive and violent behavior: current findings and implications for criminology and criminal justice. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 6(2), 176–191. doi:10.1177/1524838005275089

Colman, A.(2015). Oxytocin. In A Dictionary of Psychology. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 6 Nov. 2015, from

Deffenbacher, J. L. (1999). Cognitive-behavioral conceptualization and treatment of anger. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55(3), 295-309. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1097-4679(199903)55:3<295::AID-JCLP3>3.0.CO;2-A

Denson, T. F., Pedersen, W. C., Ronquillo, J., & Nandy, A. S. (2009). The Angry Brain: Neural Correlates of Anger, Angry Rumination, and Aggressive Personality. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(4), 734–744. doi:10.1162/jocn.2009.21051

Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2008). Understanding Clinical Anger and Violence: The Anger Avoidance Model. Behavior Modification, 32(6), 897–912. doi:10.1177/0145445508319282

Heinrichs, M., von Dawans, B., & Domes, G. (2009). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and human social behavior. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 30(4), 548–557. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2009.05.005

Moons, W. G., Eisenberger, N. I., & Taylor, S. E. (2010). Anger and fear responses to stress have different biological profiles. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 24(2), 215–219. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2009.08.009

Morland, L. A., Love, A. R., Mackintosh, M., Greene, C. J., & Rosen, C. S. (2012). Treating anger and aggression in military populations: Research updates and clinical implications. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice,19(3), 305-322. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12007

Persampiere, J., Poole, G., & Murphy, C. M. (2014). Neuropsychological correlates of anger, hostility, and relationship-relevant distortions in thinking among partner violent men. Journal of Family Violence, 29(6), 625–641. doi:10.1007/s10896-014-9614-5

Quinn, C. A., Rollock, D., & Vrana, S. R. (2014). A test of Spielberger’s state-trait theory of anger with adolescents: Five hypotheses. Emotion, 14(1), 74–84. doi:10.1037/a0034031

Soderstrom, H., Tullberg, M., Wikkelsö, C., Ekholm, S., & Forsman, A. (2000). Reduced regional cerebral blood flow in non-psychotic violent offenders. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 98(1), 29–41. doi:10.1016/s0925-4927(99)00049-9

Stoppelbein, L., & Greening, L. (2014). A longitudinal study of the role of cortisol in posttraumatic stress disorder symptom clusters. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 28(1), 17–30. doi:10.1080/10615806.2014.923844

Utiger, R. D. (2013). Vasopressin. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.

Veenema, A. H., Neumann, I. D., Blume, A., Buwalda, B., & Niederle, D. (2006). Effects of early life stress on adult male aggression and hypothalamic vasopressin and serotonin. European Journal of Neuroscience, 24(6), 1711-1720. doi:10.1111/j.1460-9568.2006.05045.x,. (2012). You & Your Hormones | Hormones | Cortisol. Retrieved 8 November 2015, from

External links[edit | edit source]