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How aggression can arise from successful self-control

A new study questions age-old beliefs that a lack of self-control is the primary cause of aggression

A recent study shifts the focus away from treating self-control as the only way to inhibit aggression.
A recent study shifts the focus away from treating self-control as the only way to inhibit aggression. (Pixabay)

A new study challenges the dominant narrative that aggression stems from poor self-control. For long, aggression, a complex behaviour which has been studied extensively in psychology and related fields, has been linked to a lack of self-control. Now, a recent study shows that might not be the case and shifts the focus away from treating self-control as the only way to inhibit aggression.

The new study, conducted by a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) researcher suggests that aggression can be a calculated act for retribution. The findings, based on a comprehensive analysis of multiple studies in the fields of psychology and neurology, show that aggression could be the product of successful self-control, especially in individuals seeking revenge. The study was published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

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The findings, as revealed by VCU’s press statement, showed that the most aggressive people do not have personalities associated with poor self-discipline and that training programs that improve self-control have not been proven effective in reducing violent tendencies. For instance, a February 2023 study published in the journal, Aggressive Behaviour, showed that twelve weeks of self-control training did not reduce aggression. In the paper, the researchers suggest that self-control training has the strongest effects when the “self-controlled behaviours are goal-relevant and participants are intrinsically motivated to perform them.”

Contradicting age-old beliefs, the new study found evidence indicating that aggression can stem from successful self-control. It shows that individuals with aggressive tendencies often present well-developed inhibitory self-control, enabling them to delay their aggressive impulses and plan acts of retaliation. “Even psychopathic people, who comprise the majority of people who commit violent offences, often exhibit robust development of inhibitory self-control over their teenage years,” David Chester, the study’s author, said in the statement.

The study highlights that aggressive behaviour is linked to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with self-control. Commenting on the findings, Chester said in the statement that the paper pushes back against a decades-long dominant narrative in aggression research, which is that violence starts when self-control stops. “Instead, it argues for a more balanced, nuanced view in which self-control can both constrain and facilitate aggression, depending on the person and the situation,” he added.

The findings argue for a more cautious approach to treatment, therapies and interventions that attempt to reduce violence by improving self-control because there is a risk of teaching some people how to implement their aggressive tendencies.

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