Aggression From a Heritability Perspective

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"We must distinguish between two facets of emotion, the functional and the experiential" (Kosslyn & Koening, 1992). While it is well understood that there may be genes that make it more likely to people to act on aggressive feelings, it is far less certain whether there are genes that make people more likely to feel those aggressive feelings. Instead, much of the focus has been on impulse control, and the general trend suggests that those who have difficulties controlling their aggressive impulses are also impulsive in other areas of their lives.

The one real exception to this is in the area of gender. Studies suggest that men, generally, feel more aggressive than women and gender-based traits may be a product of genetics, though they can also be the result of gender-specific socialization that elicits particular behaviors from someone based on gender-expectations. Research suggests that these gender-based differences in aggression go beyond cultural expectations and gender norms. Van Goozen et al. examined two studies that focused on anger and aggression in women. One of the studies examined the activating effects of androgen, a male sex hormone, on aggression and anger proneness. The study group consisted of a small group of 22 female-to-male transsexuals. Their aggression and anger proneness was examined in two series of self-report questionnaires. One of the questionnaires was administered before they were given androgens, while the other was administered three months after they began the androgens. The research found that the androgens did make the subjects more anger-prone, although it did not increase overt aggressive behavior (Van Goozen et al., 1994). While a study like this may be difficult to replicate because of the naturally limited available pool of female-to-male transsexuals, it does suggest that something about the androgen increases irritability, so that the more androgen a person has, the more anger-prone the person. Across the board, this would be reflected in males being more anger-prone than females, given that men have greater levels of androgen then women, and this notion is supported by the fact that men have historically been far more aggressive than women. However, it would also support the idea that those men having higher levels of androgen than average would be more anger-prone than men with average levels of androgen.

What does it mean to be more anger-prone? The above study indicates that simply being more anger-prone does not automatically make someone more aggressive, as the transsexuals involved in the study did not begin to exhibit more overtly aggressive behavior. However, the transsexual scenario is an artificial construct; for the most part, people who are naturally more anger prone are going to have grown up with these impulses and experienced them before learning techniques and tools for how to deal with anger in an appropriate manner. Therefore, one might imagine that, generally, people who are more anger-prone are more likely to act in an aggressive manner. Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine this anger-proneness and aggression creating a cycle whereby the person experiences increasing isolation from mainstream society, so that the social factors will only increase the likelihood of aggression. Instead of simply "automatic" forms of aggression, the individual may begin to experience more cognitive forms of aggression.

In fact, while people think of anger as a hot and quick emotion, it is important to realize that all emotions are multi-dimensional. Anger can be an immediate, automatic reaction to an offensive behavior or action by others. For example, a person may feel immediate anger if they experience pain or discomfort. The level of anger that one experiences in those scenarios would seem to be linked to how anger-prone an individual is. However, anger can also be the result of reflection and thought about a particular action or event. Rather than a hot emotion, anger may be a logical and reasoned response after a significant period of thought and reflection. Moreover, in these scenarios, aggressive behavior may be the result of carefully considered alternatives, if it is believed to be the most effective way of accomplishing a particular goal. Should this type of aggression be studied differently than the immediate anger and aggression that much of society has come to see as almost reflexive?

One of the things that Carroll Izzard did to forward studies of aggression was to focus on how emotions were elicited. Rather than simply focusing on the cognitive processes behind emotion, Izzard examined the elements of emotions that he believed went beyond cognitive information processing. What he came up with was the idea that there are four different levels of emotions processing: neural, sensorimotor, affective, and cognitive (Izard, 1993). On a neural level, Izard suggests that a person can respond to an emotion without even recognizing that there is an emotion (Izard, 1993). This can make an emotional response an automatic one, rather than an intentional one. The sensorimotor process also discusses the seemingly involuntary aspects of emotion, such as facial micro expressions, which can reveal aggressive feelings, even in a person who is not acting in an aggressive manner (Izard, 1993). The affective process is Izard's way of suggesting that how a person feels may impact how a person feels. In other words, Izard suggests that a person who senses negative stimuli, even one that is not aggressive, may respond to that with aggression (Izard, 1993). The highest level of emotion activation is cognitive processing.

It may seem as if the level of emotion activation would be related to impulse control and active aggression, because of the idea that a person did not just "feel" the emotion, but instead "thought" the emotion. However, whether or not this is true has not been determined. There is no suggestion that people who experience anger and aggressive feelings after reflection are any less angry or feel any less aggressive than people who experience them at a lower level of emotion activation. Therefore, it may not be reasonable to believe that people who experience anger and aggression at a higher level of emotion activation are then able to exercise better impulse control about those aggressive urges.

The assumption is that, the more immediate and less reflexive the emotion, the better able a person is to control the impulses that are generated by that emotion. While this thought may not be reflected in the psychological literature about the topic, it is a common social belief. It has even made its way into the criminal law. This is important, because many studies of aggression focus on criminality and may be based on conviction rates. Convictions are, themselves, based on many factors, including mens rea. "In jurisprudence, to establish the intent component of mens rea, or guilty mind, and the true attribution of criminal responsibility to an offender, an individual must be shown to have acted with voluntary purpose during the commission of the criminal act. Individual free will has long been the criminological touchstone of determinism, using volition as a key to establishing that intent. Logically then, if volition of action is impaired, so too is the element of mens rea removed" (Mitchell, 2005). There is no suggestion that there is a single gene that somehow renders a person incapable of forming the requisite mens rea to be able to commit a crime. In other words, no gene removes an individual's ability to act willfully. However, "while biological causation has all but been removed from the current notion of criminal determinism, there are, however, numerous implications that remain unresearched with regard to the psychological and subsequent behavioral impact of certain biological factors" (Mitchell, 2005).

What this means in practice is that, from a purely logical perspective, criminal behavior, which is frequently labeled aggressive, often seems to lack explanation. It does not seem logically related to achieving goals and can actually be counterproductive. "Criminal behavior is often irrational, and just as often criminal acts continue to reoccur even when there is little or no reward to the actor. The behavior can persist even when the criminal has been previously punished for that precise behavior" (Mitchell, 2005). Clearly, this is not strictly a biological mechanism. Social factors, such as marriage, have been shown to have a dramatic impact on criminal behaviors. However, "to discount the chemical interactions within the organic structure of the human host where the psyche resides is tantamount to overlooking the foundation on which the free will must essentially rely to formulate those choices. Biological referencing is an evolutionary and essential factor of individual volition" (Mitchell, 2005). In fact, Mitchell is willing to take the argument further, suggesting that biological mechanisms can impact the ability to control impulses, thereby controlling anger and aggression. According to Mitchell, "if the biological decision-making system is faulty or imbalanced, so too will be the behavior be faulty and imbalanced, thus diminishing the component of behavioral volition and mens rea" (2005).

The problem with that argument is that it leads back to older arguments about genetic inferiority. If someone is unable to…