Understanding Impulsive Aggression

Anger is commonly followed by aggressive behavior and it is often a result of an interpersonal provocation. A recent study examined the role of anger-thoughts and loss of self-control capacity in making a person angry. The authors wanted to establish the relationship between provocation, anger-thoughts, loss of self control, and aggressive behavior. They also examined whether self-control capacity can be increased by consumption of glucose. The findings of this study “suggest that rumination following an anger-inducing provocation reduces self-control and increases aggression.” Consumption of glucose may reduce this adverse effect.

Humans developed the emotion of anger during evolution; it is believed that it helped them in their survival. However, in the modern world, anger is often counterproductive. People who get angry frequently are socially stigmatized and are prone to run into legal problems. Hence, most of the cultures in the world motivate individuals to control angry thoughts and restrain aggressive behavior. Interpersonal provocation has been the most common cause for aggressive behavior. Understanding the mechanism of generation of anger upon provocation may help in devising methods to control anger. This study was conducted in four parts. In the first part, it was examined if angry rumination reduces self control. In the second part, the extent to which distraction helps in reducing aggressive behavior was tested. In the third part, direct effect of rumination on aggressive behavior was tested and in the last part, the effect of glucose was examined on the self-control capacity.


  • In the first part, 58 participants were asked to prepare and present a speech. Half were told that their speech was very boring and juvenile, which acted as a provocation. For the other half of the participants, neutral comments were given. Later, to assess their self control, all the participants were asked to consume drinks containing vinegar. The number of cups that the participants drank was a measure of their self control.
  • In the second part with 200 participants, half were provoked by asking them to solve difficult anagrams. Later a research assistant told them that they were very bad in solving them. The other half solved easy anagrams and received neutral comments. After this, half in each group were asked to write for 20 minutes about their experience and their feelings about the person they interacted with. The remaining participants were distracted by making them write about their university campus layout. Later, self control was measured using a standard questionnaire. Aggression was measured by asking the participants to evaluate the research assistant who commented on them.
  • In the third part, the participants were provoked in a way similar to the second part. Later they were asked to evaluate the research assistant.
  • In the fourth part, 139 participants were divided into two groups. The first group received a drink containing glucose, while the second group got a drink with an artificial sweetener. After provocation, self control was measured in both these groups.


  • In the first part, the participants who were provoked drank fewer number of vinegar containing drinks. This shows that provocation reduces self-control capacity.
  • In the second part, compared to distracted participants, the participants who were provoked into angry thoughts had lower self control and also expressed a very bad opinion about the research assistant, which shows aggressive behavior.
  • Third part of the experiment showed a direct relationship between provocation and anger.
  • In the fourth part, it was found that glucose condition created better self control than did the placebo condition.

Shortcomings/Next steps
The participants recruited in the present study were university undergraduate students. These experiments have to be repeated on individuals who are known to have less self control, such as violent offenders. Studies need to be performed on people with glucose disorders (diabetes) to learn whether they show more aggressive behavior. In some portions of the experiment, angry thoughts and self control were measured by using a self-report questionnaire, which is prone to bias. In the last part of the study, the blood glucose levels were not measured.

This study has clearly identified a relationship between provocation, angry thought, loss of self control, and aggressive behavior. It has also found a novel way of improving self control i.e., by administering glucose. This study has shown that getting involved in angry thoughts reduces self control, which makes a person unable to understand the situation properly. Researchers maintain that during an act of angry contemplation, cognitive resources are depleted, which makes the person lose self control. Replenishment of these resources can be done by distracting the mind toward some unrelated activities, which will help in reducing the aggressive behavior. In addition, self-control training may also help in this regard.

For More Information:
Understanding Impulsive Aggression: Angry Rumination and Reduced Self-Control Capacity are Mechanisms Underlying the Provocation-Aggression Relationship
Publication Journal: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, March 2011
By Thomas Denson; William Pederson
From the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; California State University, Long Beach, California

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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