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13. Dangerous Behaviour - the Drivers of Aggression

We have seen that it is possible to make accurate snap judgments but only if experience and/or knowledge directs us to the correct “thin slices.” So, what are these “thin slices”?


Traditionally aggressive behaviour has been categorised as either “reactive” or “proactive”, but these terms refer to the origins of the aggression while what we need to know are the drivers of the aggression. To understand these, we need to consider how our bodies are hard-wired through the autonomic nervous system which connects up all our major organs – and is in turn sub-divided into the sympathetic nervous system (the body’s accelerator) and the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s brake).


Mostly, in everyday life these are in dynamic equilibrium and keep us in a “balanced” state. When we feel threatened in some way, the sympathetic nervous takes over activating the body and preparing it for action and this may result in “reactive aggression” – the muscles tense, visual field narrows, heart rate accelerates, thinking becomes difficult etc. “Proactive or instrumental aggression”, however, activates the parasympathetic nervous system – think of a cat seeing a bird in the bush. It lies low, hides in the long grass, it’s heart rate drops, it makes slow movements towards it’s prey, and only pounces when everything is optimal.


The “drivers” for reactive aggression are hot – high levels of arousal which over-ride our inhibitions and ability to think because action may need to be very fast in the face of what may be imminent perceived threat. The drivers for proactive aggression, however, are our goals – what the aggression is designed to achieve.


This is the traditional formulation. However, there is another form of aggression that is driven by some form of psychological disturbance. Here the behaviour may be driven by delusions, paranoia, hallucinations and confusion. So, we have to add in “disturbed aggression.”


The drivers:

high levels of unpleasant arousal

significant psychological disturbance

determination to achieve a goal

are processes that don’t exist in isolation but in combination and interact with one another. The clue, however, to findings effective ways of responding to dangerous behaviour is that at any one moment in a crisis, one of these drivers will dominate while the other two sit back. This can change very quickly, but if we can identify how change the dominant driver we might might be able to change the behaviour.  This is the Instant Aggression Model (Bourne, 2013).


In the next three postings we will look at Reactive, Disturbed and Proactive Aggression in turn – which will prepare the groundwork to identify the front-end skills necessary to manage each form.


Stay safe


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