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Exploring Aggression: Getting to Know the Devil on Your Shoulder (Part 2/2)

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Anger. It’s the reason you and that one friend aren’t talking anymore. Frustration. It’s what is building as you wait for us to get to the point. Combine these, and sometimes, you get aggression thanks to a tried and tested recipe passed down for millions of years.

So then why don’t you annihilate your remote control when your favourite sporting team didn’t do good sporting? Ok maybe our recipe missed a few ingredients, but it provides a useful starting point to explore what makes some more prone to such behaviour than others. With domestic violence reports on the rise as people stay home [1] and concerns emerging about police brutality in enforcing lockdown [2], aggression retains relevancy even as the world contends with another crisis.

General Aggression Model (GAM)

The GAM acts as the theoretical foundation for aggressive behaviour as it details processes and underlying mechanisms that govern aggression [3]. Being a comprehensive framework, it incorporates multiple theories and numerous factors, placing an emphasis on knowledge structures as a heavy contributor to the formulation of aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour. More specifically, it integrates two major processes that precipitate aggressive behaviour: proximate and distal processes.

General Aggression Model, adapted from [4]

Proximate processes can be thought of as powerbombing a kid through the coffee table (what childhood trauma?), encompassing the actual manifestation of aggression in a situational context, whereas distal processes involve the caveman DNA that led you to waste that exquisite oak in the first place, describing background influences that in turn affect the proximate processes.

Proximate Processes

Proximate processes comprise of three stages – input, routes, outcomes. Inputs describe the role of person and situation factors that interact to affect appraisals and decisions. Person factors can be thought of as your personality – quite stable and outlining your predisposition to anger and aggression. In terms of the Big 5 personality traits, potential risk factors that make individuals more susceptible to aggressive reactions include high neuroticism, low agreeableness and low conscientiousness, with individuals displaying all three hopefully not in charge of the returns counter at Target.

The other component, situation factors, are environmental circumstances that may influence the likelihood of aggression. These can range from stubbing your toe on that chair you could swear wasn’t there, to earphones getting yanked out forcefully, and worst of all – hearing of people breaching self-isolation to flock to Bondi during a global pandemic, where you watch them all contract coronavirus and subsequently die wondering how they got it despite not encountering a single Chinese person. Weird.

Both these factors influence the individual’s affect, cognition and arousal, the three variables of the next stage, routes. Affect, cognition and arousal make up your internal state, interacting with each other in reciprocal ways, i.e. affect can influence cognition and arousal, and vice versa. Applying this to real life, this seems to make sense – if you are feeling angry, then you begin having angry thoughts that make you tense, or if you interpret a situation as being hostile you start feeling defensive and similarly on edge.

After this occurs, the final stage, outcome, is reached, where appraisals and action take place. Depending on the individual’s internal state, they will appraise a situation to be either provocative or harmless through an automatic, almost subconscious process before deciding on their response to the event. This response is influenced by available resources and the situation itself, so if there’s a guy running right at you and you have a spatula in hand, you can probably guess what your reaction will be.

Responses can be either aggressive or non-aggressive, but crucially, the more frequently people implement either aggressive or non-aggressive knowledge structures, the more likely they are to do the same in future events. It therefore follows that aggressive people often have a history of frequent hostile encounters while non-aggressive people usually have a more passive reaction to similar situations.

Distal Processes

The other half of the aggression puzzle, distal processes, discusses the background operations that guide proximate processes. The two types of distal processes are biological modifiers, such as hormonal imbalances and serotonin levels, and environmental modifiers, which include cultural norms, helicopter parents and well, you get the idea.

Both these modifiers have a multitude of factors that all influence one’s personality, but seeing as the latter is more controllable, it seems appropriate to direct efforts towards reducing these modifiers to modify any risk factors that may adversely influence a person’s personality and potentially culminate in a violent episode.


The GAM acts an important tool to discern the constituents involved in aggressive responding and behaviour. By identifying areas amenable to change, targeted interventions can be more effective in the prevention and treatment of anger issues and violent proclivities.

An increased focus on environmental influences is paramount in the mitigation of risk factors. So how can we help ourselves? There exists a wealth of literature documenting the efficacy of mindfulness meditation in drawing attention/awareness to these cognitive styles to disrupt potential escalation into aggressive behaviour [5]. A strategy useful not only for alleviating aggression, mindfulness meditation elicits numerous benefits spanning across physical, mental and emotional domains [6-9], though more on that in a future post.

Till then, the next time you’re slighted by an enemy combatant, try recalling the entire GAM and odds are you’ll be too confused to be angry and peace is restored once more.

Written by: Joshua Pham


[1] Taub A. A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide [Internet]. The New York Times. 2020. Available from:

[2] Kumar R. Domestic violence comes to a head in locked-down India [Internet]. South China Morning Post. 2020. Available from:

[3] Allen JJ, Anderson CA, Bushman BJ. The general aggression model. Curr Opin Psychol [Internet]. 2018 Feb [cited 2019 Aug 14];19;75-80. Available from: DOI: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.03.034

[4] Allen, J. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2017). General Aggression Model. The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects, 1–15. [cited 2020 April 10] doi:10.1002/9781118783764.wbieme0078

[5] DeSteno D, Lim D, Duong F, Condon P. Meditation Inhibits Aggressive Responses to Provocations. Mindfulness. 2017;9(4):1117-1122.

[6] Khoury B, Lecomte T, Fortin G, Masse M, Therien P, Bouchard V et al. Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. 2013;33(6):763-771.

[7] Chiesa A, Calati R, Serretti A. Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical Psychology Review. 2011;31(3):449-464.

[8] Keng S, Smoski M, Robins C. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review. 2011;31(6):1041-1056.

[9] Donald J, Sahdra B, Van Zanden B, Duineveld J, Atkins P, Marshall S et al. Does your mindfulness benefit others? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the link between mindfulness and prosocial behaviour. British Journal of Psychology. 2018;110(1):101-125.

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