From Fistfights to Firefights: Trait Aggression and Support for State Violence

Abstract

Aggression is a fundamental component of human behavior, yet is mostly absent from scholarship on mass political behavior. This study proposes and tests a theory of state violence attitudes in which citizens develop preferences from aggressive personality traits. In an original nationally-representative survey, trait aggression strongly predicts support for violent state policies, as does its subcomponent trait anger, rivaling the power of partisanship. More provocatively, the well-documented gender gap in state violence attitudes replicated here is not attributable to sex differences in aggressive personality. This work builds on recent advances in political personality research and highlights the important role of aggression in political behavior.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Mondak (2010) writes, “Proponents of five-factor approaches claim neither that only these five traits warrant study, nor that these dimensions fully capture all variance in personality. Instead, the Big Five are seen as broad domains, collectively representing a hierarchy that organizes and summarizes the vast majority of subsidiary traits,” (p. 25).

  2. 2.

    The GAM integrates theories including: Cognitive Neoassociation Theory (Berkowitz 1993), Social Learning Theory (e.g., Bandura 1986; Mischel and Shoda 1995), Script Theory (Huesmann 1988), Excitation Transfer Theory (Zillmann 1988), and Social Interaction Theory (Tedeschi and Felson 1994).

  3. 3.

    Interestingly, these regular gender gaps are not always replicated outside the U.S. and Europe (Tessler et al. 1999), suggesting an explanation not based on sex-based universals.

  4. 4.

    Most of these items tap something like principles or values regarding state violence and not just specific applications of violence. These attitudes may be especially stable, perhaps even approaching trait-like status. However, their stability is unlikely to equal that of trait aggression, furthering the contention of causal direction posited here from personality to attitudes.

  5. 5.

    Accounts of “authoritarian aggression” (e.g., Altemeyer 1996) usually describe the outcome—support for violent policies—not the psychology of aggression that I argue motivates support.

  6. 6.

    In the 2004 ANES data, the Pearson’s correlation between these two items is .38, which is highest among any pair of the four items. In these data, the correlation for these two items is .30.

  7. 7.

    Additionally, the predictive power of the full trait aggression index is not driven by the trait anger subscale. Not surprisingly, the full trait aggression index outperforms the trait anger subscale when both are included simultaneously. Similarly, when adding a single item measuring frequency of political anger, trait aggression remains strong and significant. Political anger itself is a significant but independent predictor of state violence attitudes in this model.

  8. 8.

    The exclusion of trait aggression has little impact on the other independent variables. In no case does a change approach statistical significance.

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Acknowledgments

This project was supported by the Gerald R. Ford Fellowship and the Marsh Research Fellowship at the University of Michigan. The author thanks Don Kinder, Ted Brader, Nancy Burns, Nick Valentino, and the editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.

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Correspondence to Nathan P. Kalmoe.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 3, 4 and 5.

Table 3 Sample demographics
Table 4 Trait aggression question-wording (BPAQ-SF)
Table 5 State violence question-wording

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Kalmoe, N.P. From Fistfights to Firefights: Trait Aggression and Support for State Violence. Polit Behav 35, 311–330 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-012-9195-z

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Keywords

  • Trait aggression
  • Trait anger
  • State violence
  • Gender gap