Aggression Definition: What's The Difference Between Aggression And Anger?

Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault

Published 06/27/2022

Often, someone will say, “you’re aggressive” when another individual is acting forcefully out of anger, or you might say that a treatment is aggressive as a way to describe its intensity. This is the correct use of the term “aggressive,” but nonetheless, it can be difficult to differentiate anger as an emotion from aggression when they are so often used together. In this article, we will cover the term aggression as it functions in a behavioral context, provide examples of aggressive behavior, explain some possible reasons why some people may be more aggressive than others, and talk about how to seek support for aggression or aggressive behavior.

The Meaning Of Aggression Vs. The Meaning Of Anger

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “anger” as a noun is “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism.” The dictionary definition of anger as a verb is “to make someone angry.” The dictionary definition of aggression, on the other hand, is "a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master," "the practice of making attacks or encroachments," or "hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior or outlook especially when caused by frustration," according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The most simple differentiation between aggression and anger is that anger is an emotion that doesn’t necessarily have any specific action attached to it, whereas aggression relates to behavior. Anger is a normal and healthy emotion that everyone experiences, and anger itself is not something to be afraid of. The difference between feeling anger and having anger issues is how someone manages anger. If someone manages anger poorly, they may exhibit aggressive behavior.

There are various kinds of aggressive behavior, most of which can be described as either verbal aggression and physical aggression. Examples of verbal aggression are yelling, calling someone names, or making verbal threats. Examples of physical aggression may include punching, kicking, hitting, hair pulling, or biting.

Healthy Expressions Of Anger Vs. Unhealthy Expressions Of Anger

Let’s say that someone is angry, and they have the tools to process anger healthily. That person will acknowledge that they are upset, and they might proceed to process that anger by letting off some steam on their own if needed. For example, they might tell another person, “I am upset, and I’m willing to have this conversation with you, but I need to take some time to cool down.“ then, they might use a tool such as physical activity or writing to calm down. After they are in a better or more relaxed state and are ready to express their feelings peacefully, they will come back to the situation and deal with it effectively and amicably.

Now, let’s say that someone is angry, and they struggle with anger management or don’t have the tools to express anger in a healthy way. They may use verbally or physically aggressive behavior to express their anger, such as yelling or using physical force through hitting or punching. For example, someone might punch a wall out of anger. This reaction isn't acceptable, and if you notice that these are reactions you'd have, know that it doesn't have to stay that way. Someone who struggles with anger management or aggression can learn to manage aggression and anger in a healthy way. However, it is up to them to do it.

Synonyms For Aggression

If you’re struggling to understand the meaning of aggression or if you find yourself wondering, “what is aggression?” understanding the synonyms of the word aggression might help you to gain a better understanding of this term and what it means. Some potential synonyms for aggression include hostility, belligerence, forcefulness, and militancy.

Why Are Some People More Aggressive Than Others?

There are a number of potential reasons that someone might be more aggressive than another person. Some commonly known factors that can make someone more aggressive include:

Nurture - Nurture is a prominent influence on aggression. For example, if aggressive behavior was common in one’s family, or if they had to use aggressive behavior to be heard, seen, or to get their needs met, they may be more aggressive.

Biology - Several biological factors are related to aggression. For example, serotonin is said to decrease aggression, where testosterone is said to increase with aggressive behavior.

Impulse - An individual who struggles with impulse control is more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior. Part of learning to combat aggression is learning to identify when the impulse toward aggression is coming and knowing when to step aside and take some time to cool down and work through one’s initial intense feelings.

Substances - Alcohol is said to increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior.

Climate - Research shows that the likelihood of aggressive behavior increases in areas that are hotter, as does lack of seasonal variation.

A precursor for aggression, however, does not make an excuse. It is important to learn to manage aggression so that it doesn’t impact your functionality or relationships. If aggression has a sudden onset, there is a possibility that it may be attributed to a medical or mental health concern, such as substance use disorder or dementia. Though aggression isn’t a mental health diagnosis on its own, it might co-occur with a mental health disorder. Additionally, aggressive behavior in children might be attributed to environmental factors or a diagnosable condition, in which case, those things should be addressed.

What Does It Mean To Be Passive Aggressive?

One of the ways that you may have heard the words “aggression” or “aggressive” used is when someone says that an individual is being passive-aggressive. The American Psychological Association (APA) dictionary of psychology defines the term “passive-aggressive” as a “characteristic of behavior that is seemingly innocuous, accidental, or neutral but that indirectly displays an unconscious aggressive motive. For example, a person who constantly keeps people waiting and then is baffled at why they resent this behavior is passive-aggressively disavowing an unconscious wish to be special and to provoke those who fail to acknowledge the specialness.” If someone’s being passive-aggressive, their aggressive behavior is covert rather than overt or obvious. Often, people exhibit passive-aggressive behavior in attempts to cover up aggression they feel inside. That way, if confronted, they can deny the aggressive behavior or the aggressive motivation behind their behavior.

Examples of passive-aggressive behavior may include snide remarks or implementing a hostile attitude but proceeding to claim that nothing is wrong and act as though they do not know what you’re talking about if you address it. Some passive-aggressive behavior is intentional, whereas other times, it’s not. People may become passive-aggressive unintentionally because they don’t know how to say no, explain their emotions, or they could be out of touch with their emotions entirely. A passive-aggressive person might struggle to communicate their own needs or boundaries and act this way because they are resentful of the lack of respect for their needs or would-be boundaries. If you notice passive-aggressive behavior in yourself, it’s important to look at the root of why you’re being passive-aggressive so that you can express what you need to express to avoid this type of aggression.

When To Seek Help For Aggression Or Anger Management

If you’re concerned about your behavior or symptoms, seeking help is essential. You’ll know that it’s time to seek help for aggression or difficulties with anger management when:

  • You feel like you’re aggressive behavior is out of control
  • Your aggression is beginning to impact your interpersonal relationships
  • Your aggressive behavior is starting to impact your career, job, education, or other obligations
  • You have engaged in property destruction
  • You have harmed yourself or another person due to aggression, or you fear that you might harm yourself or another person due to aggression
  • Your friends, family, or spouse share concern about your behavior

In severe cases, someone who struggles with aggression may even find that they get into legal trouble as a result of aggressive behavior. If you struggle with aggression, remember that behavior change is very possible and that admitting that you struggle with this is the first step to changing it. You should be very proud of yourself for making this step.

How To Find Support For Aggression

Oftentimes, people who exhibit aggressive behavior feel a high level of guilt or remorse after the fact. They might wonder why they can’t seem to control their aggression or aggressive behavior. If you struggle with aggression, you might have concerns related to how it will impact or continue to impact your life and those around you. The good news is that therapy or counseling can help. Types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT*, can be very beneficial for those who struggle with aggression or anger management. To find a therapist or counselor near you, you can search the web for “counselors near me” or “therapists near me.” You can also look at therapists and counselors profiles on online directories, contact your doctor and ask for a referral, or contact your insurance company or visit their website to see what providers they cover in your area. Another option is getting counseling through an online counseling website, such as BetterHelp. If you need help looking for a provider, you can utilize the search tool on the upper right hand of the Mind Diagnostics website.

Take The Test

Do you struggle with aggression or believe that you might? If so, consider taking one of the mind diagnostics aggression tests. Mind Diagnostics has a test for female aggression, as well as a test for male aggression. It is important to remember that anyone, regardless of gender, can struggle with aggression. Mind Diagnostics tests are not a replacement for the diagnosis or treatment of a mental health condition, nor can they replace help from a medical or mental health professional. What they can do is give you some insight into the symptoms that you’re experiencing.

Click here to take the male aggression Mind Diagnostics test.

Click here to take the female aggression Mind Diagnostics test.

*For all guidance regarding treatment, please consult a medical or mental health professional.