The role of distress tolerance in aggressive behavior

Anne Winston McIntyre, University of Southern Mississippi

Abstract

Berkowitz (1989) proposed that the degree of negative affect experienced following a frustrating event determines whether one will respond aggressively, suggesting that one possesses a certain amount of tolerance for distressing emotions. However, little research has been conducted on the relation between distress tolerance and aggression. Moreover, no published study has examined the relation between distress tolerance and behavioral aggression using a multi-modal assessment approach, nor examined the potential mediating role of negative affect in the relation between distress tolerance and aggression. To address this gap in the literature, college students ( N = 87) aged 18 to 49 years ( M = 20.93, SD = 4.65) completed self-report measures assessing aggressive behavior and tendencies, general negative affect, and ability to tolerate distressing emotions. In Phase II, participants completed two ostensibly frustrating and difficult laboratory tasks assessing distress tolerance. After completing these tasks, participants completed a measure of negative affect as well as a reaction-time task against a fictitious opponent assessing aggressive behavior in the laboratory. It was predicted that (1) self-reported aggression would be positively related to behavioral aggression, (2) distress tolerance would be inversely related to aggressive behavior, (3) general negative affect would mediate the relation between self-reported distress tolerance and aggression, and (4) pre- to post-task change in negative affect as well as overall post-task negative affect would mediate the relation between distress tolerance and aggressive behavior observed in the laboratory. Results indicated that most self-report measures of aggression were positively related to behavioral aggression. Distress tolerance was inversely related to most self-report measures of aggression as well as average aggression in the laboratory. Nevertheless, none of the mediational models were significant. Theoretical and clinical implications, limitations, and suggestions for future research are discussed.