Aggressiveness — A Trait With Many Meanings

What is aggressiveness?

When we try to imagine an aggressive person, some of us would imagine a person who initiates fights or arguments, while others would imagine a person who wants to destroy someone’s social relations, who spreads gossip, or a person who just sees the worst in people and who is skeptical of others’ intentions. There are many ways to express aggression, and trait aggressiveness is the main predisposition of aggression.

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Aggressiveness is a complex, multidimensional trait which captures specific affective, behavioral, and cognitive components, called ABC components. Affective component refers to frequent and easy experiences of anger, while behavioral component refers to a manifestation of aggressive motives and impulses (e.g., physical, verbal, indirect aggression, etc.), and cognitive component refers to a hostile attitude toward others.

Status of aggressiveness in personality models

In the most prominent personality models, the status of the aggressiveness trait is not clear and, in some of them, aggressiveness emerged as the basic trait, and in others, it did not. The two main paradigms in the explanation of human personality are psychobiological and psycholexical. Personality models based on psychobiological paradigm assume the biological basis of traits (e.g., Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory, Zuckerman’s Alternative Five-Factor Model…). In these models, the number and content of each basic trait are pre-defined. These models mostly contain aggressiveness as a basic trait.

On the other hand, personality models based on psycholexical paradigm (e.g., Big Five Model, six-factor HEXACO model…) assume that basic personality traits are coded in our language and that by exploring the dictionary terms referring to personality, we could get the answer to what the basic traits are. In these models, there is no pre-defined assumption about the number and content of basic traits. Models based on the psycholexical paradigm usually do not contain aggressiveness as a separated trait, but indicators of aggressiveness are rather the parts of the other basic traits. For example, indicators which correspond to the behavioral component of aggressiveness are part of the negative pole of the Agreeableness trait, while indicators which correspond to the affective component, are part of the positive pole of the Neuroticism trait. Moreover, in personality assessments, if scales had the same name (e.g., Agreeableness scales), that is not mean that they measure the same components of the trait.

Which component of aggressiveness we actually measure?

The focus of the research titled “When you say aggressiveness, what do you mean by that? Similarities and differences between aggressiveness/agreeableness scales from personality inventories”, published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, was to examine which components of aggressiveness were included in scales developed from both personality paradigms. In this research, we chose only scales which are usually linked to aggressiveness.

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In the psychobiological models, the first used scale is Fight from a questionnaire based on Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory. This scale measures defense, reactive aggression, or a tendency toward immediate aggression as a response to threats. The second scale was Aggressiveness/hostility from a questionnaire based on Zuckerman’s Alternative Five-Factor Model. This scale measures readiness to express verbal aggression, impatience with others, quick temper, vengefulness, and tendency towards rude, thoughtless, or antisocial behavior. In psycholexical models, both used scales called Agreeableness, but from different models. The first was the scale from the Big Five model which refers to trust, forgiveness, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, and tender-mindedness, while the second was the scale from the six-factor HEXACO model which refers to forgiveness, gentleness, willing to compromise and cooperate with others, but it also captures the flexibility and patience which were not indicators of the Agreeableness from the Big Five Model.

In the first study, we explored the contribution of each ABC component to the prediction of each aggressiveness/agreeableness scale. The results showed that scales from psychobiological models capture a broader range of aggressiveness components and that they were more similar to each other compared to scales from the psycholexical models. More precisely, scales from psychobiological models mostly contain the behavioral component of the aggressiveness, followed by the affective. The scales from psycholexical paradigm are broader and capture indicators which were not limited only to aggressiveness. Thus, psycholexical scales capture all ABC components to some extent, but less so, compared to scales from psychobiological models.

In the second study, we used a different methodological approach and asked experts in the field of personality assessment to rate each item from the used scales regarding the contribution of the ABC components. Results showed that scales from psychobiological models had higher ratings on the behavioral component and lower on the cognitive, compared to scales from the psycholexical models. A possible reason for these results could be found in the initial set of descriptors in psycholexical models, which are composed mostly of adjectives. The adjectives related to aggressive behavior are rare in the language since this type of behavior is more easily described using verbs. Beyond that, scales from psychobiological models were more similar to each other, again, and generally favored the behavioral component. On the other side, psycholexical scales seemed more balanced in capturing ABC components, but these scales also had no clear distinction between aggressiveness components, since each item showed almost the same contribution of each ABC components.

Taken together, results pointed out that different approaches in the design of the questionnaires influenced the difference in defining the trait. Thus, there is an imbalance in favoring one of the components of aggressiveness in the reference personality models. Therefore, when we want to compare the results from the scales from different inventories which measure the same trait, we must consider which components these inventories capture.

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These findings are described in the article entitled When you say aggressiveness, what do you mean by that? Similarities and differences between aggressiveness/agreeableness scales from personality inventories, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. This work was conducted by Bojana M. Dinić and Snežana Smederevac from the University of Novi Sad.

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