The relation between anger rumination, provocation, and aggressive behavior

Joshua Stephen Bullock

Abstract

Maladaptive, excessive anger rumination, conceptualized as self-focused attention towards thoughts and feelings associated with the emotion of anger, has been linked to actual aggressive behaviors. In general, the emotional experience of anger in response to provocation is a well-known antecedent of aggression. Anger rumination may be associated with increased risk for aggressive behavior by maintaining and lengthening the experience of anger. It is therefore reasonable to posit that individuals high in anger rumination may be more inclined to expend greater effort to aggress in response to provocation compared to low ruminators. That is, high ruminators when angered may be more likely to perseverate at an effortful task required to gain access to an aggressive response compared to low-ruminators. Accordingly, the aim of this study was to test the notion that anger rumination is positively associated with a propensity to expend greater effort to aggress in response to provocation. Men and women ( N = 123) participants interacted with an increasingly provocative fictitious opponent during a competitive reaction time game during which electric shock was administered and received. Aggressive behavior was defined in two ways: The mean level of shock selected and the total number of supposedly harmful shocks selected. Participants were assigned to one of two effort conditions. Specifically, half were be assigned to a low-effort condition in which all shock levels required minimal and equal effort to access. The other half were assigned to a high-effort condition in which access to relatively greater levels of aggressive responding required engaging in an increasingly effortful task (i.e., a series of greater and greater button-presses to access respectively more intense shock levels). Before the task, anger rumination was elicited by having the "opponent" denigrate the participant through the use of false feedback on an ostensible measure of intelligence. After the task, dispositional anger rumination and trait anger were assessed using selfreport measures. It was hypothesized that: requiring effortful responding would decrease aggressive behavior overall; anger rumination (controlling for trait anger) would be uniquely associated with aggressive behavior following provocation in the high-effort condition due to the continued activation of aggression-maintaining affect and cognitions (that is, participants high in trait rumination would be more motivated to respond aggressively when provoked and expend greater effort to aggress); and trait anger would be associated with aggression primarily in the low-effort condition controlling for anger rumination. Only hypothesis 1 was fully supported: requiring significant effort in order to aggress decreased the mean shock selected even at high levels of provocation, trait anger, and anger rumination. Anger rumination was found to be predictive of aggression; however no relationship emerged with effort condition. Trait anger was not significantly predictive of aggressive behavior. The lack of support for hypotheses 2 and 3 suggests that the aggression-dampening effects of the high-effort condition may override the aggression-promoting qualities of anger rumination. Future research could apply this finding to other moderating variables (such as impulsive aggression vs. instrumental aggression) to determine if the effects generalize to those groups. A future study could also explore what aspects of the effort manipulation are responsible for the decreases in aggression noted in this study.