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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The exclusion of trait aggression has little impact on the other independent variables. In no case does a change approach statistical significance.
Altemeyer, R. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Anderson, C. A., Benjamin, A. J., Wood, P. K., & Bonacci, A. M. (2006). Development and testing of the Velicer attitudes toward violence scale: Evidence for a four-factor model. Aggressive Behavior, 32(2), 122–136.
Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12(5), 353–359.
Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27–51.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social-cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 364–374.
Bartels, L. M. (2002). Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior, 24(2), 117–150.
Berinsky, A. (2009). In time of war. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Berkowitz, L. (1993). On the formation and regulation of anger and aggression: A cognitive-neoassociationistic analysis. American Psychologist, 45(4), 494–503.
Bettencourt, B. A., & Miller, N. (1996). Gender differences in aggression as a function of provocation: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 119(3), 422–447.
Bettencourt, B. A., Talley, A., Benjamin, A. J., & Valentine, J. (2006). Personality and aggressive behavior under provoking and neutral conditions: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 132(5), 751–777.
Bjorkvist, K. (1994). Sex differences in physical, verbal, and indirect aggression: A review of recent research. Sex Roles, 30(3–4), 177–188.
Bryant, F. B., & Smith, B. D. (2001). Refining the architecture of aggression: A measurement model for the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 35(2), 138–167.
Bushman, B. J. (1995). Moderating role of trait aggressiveness in the effects of violent media on aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 950–960.
Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2006). Short-term and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 160(4), 348–352.
Bushman, B. J., & Wells, G. L. (1998). Trait aggression and hockey penalties: Predicting hot tempers on the ice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(6), 969–974.
Buss, A. H., & Perry, M. (1992). The Aggression Questionnaire. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(3), 452–459.
Carnagey, N. L., & Anderson, C. A. (2007). Changes in attitudes toward war and violence after September 11, 2001. Aggressive Behavior, 33(2), 118–129.
Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E., Mill, J., Marin, J., Craig, I. W., et al. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297(5582), 851–854.
Chang, L., & Krosnick, J. A. (2009). National surveys via RDD telephone interviewing versus the Internet: Comparing sample representativeness and response quality. Public Opinion Quarterly, 73(4), 641–678.
Coccaro, E. F., Bergeman, C. S., Kavoussi, R. J., & Seroczynski, A. D. (1997). Heritability of aggression and irritability: A twin study of the Buss–Durkee aggression scales in adult male subjects. Biological Psychiatry, 41(3), 273–284.
Converse, P. E. (1964). The nature of belief systems in mass publics. In D. E. Apter (Ed.), Ideology and discontent. New York: Free Press.
Druckman, J. N., & McDermott, R. (2008). Emotion and the framing of risky choice. Political Behavior, 30(3), 297–321.
Eagly, A. H., & Steffen, V. J. (1986). Gender and aggressive behavior: A meta-analytic review of the social psychological literature. Psychological Bulletin, 100(3), 309–330.
Eichenberg, R. C. (2003). Gender differences in public attitudes toward the use of force by the United States, 1990–2003. International Security, 28(1), 110–141.
Erikson, R. S., & Stoker, L. (2011). Caught in the draft: The effects of Vietnam draft lottery status on political attitudes. American Political Science Review, 105(2), 221–238.
Feldman, S. (2003). Enforcing social conformity: A theory of authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 24(1), 41–74.
Feldman, S., & Stenner, K. (1997). Perceived threat and authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 18(4), 741–770.
Fiorina, M. P. (1981). Retrospective voting in American national elections. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Franklin, C. H., & Jackson, J. E. (1983). The dynamics of party identification. American Political Science Review, 77(4), 957–973.
Galesic, M., Tourangeau, R., & Couper, M. P. (2006). Complementing random-digit-dialing telephone surveys with other approaches to collecting sensitive data. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 31(5), 437–443.
Gamson, W. A., & McEvoy, J. (1970). Police violence and its public support. Annals of the American Academy, 391, 97–110.
Gerber, A. S., Huber, G. A., Doherty, D., Dowling, C. M., & Ha, S. E. (2010). Personality and political attitudes: Relationships across issue domains and political contexts. American Political Science Review, 104(1), 111–133.
Harris, J. A. (1997). A further evaluation of the Aggression Questionnaire: Issues of validity and reliability. Behavioral Research and Therapy, 35(11), 1047–1053.
Huddy, L., Feldman, S., & Cassese, E. (2007). On the distinct effects of anxiety and anger. In W. Russell Neuman, G. E. Marcus, M. MacKuen, & A. N. Crigler (Eds.), The affect effect (pp. 202–230). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Huesmann, L. R. (1988). An information processing model for the development of aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 14(1), 13–24.
Huesmann, L. R., Eron, L. D., Lefkowitz, M. M., & Walder, L. O. (1984). Stability of aggression over time and generations. Developmental Psychology, 20(6), 1120–1134.
Kinder, D. R. (1994). Reason and emotion in American political life. In R. Schank & E. Langer (Eds.), Beliefs, reasoning, and decision-making. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Kinder, D. R., & Kam, C. D. (2009). Us against them. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kuklinski, J. H., Sniderman, P. M., Knight, K., Piazza, T., Tetlock, P. E., Lawrence, G. R., et al. (1997). Racial prejudice and attitudes toward affirmative action. American Journal of Political Science, 41(2), 402–419.
Marcus, G. E., Neuman, W. R., & Mackuen, M. (2000). Affective intelligence and political judgment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McDermott, R., Tingley, D., Cowden, J., Frazzetto, G., & Johnson, D. D. P. (2009). Monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) predicts behavioral aggression following provocation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(7), 2118–2123.
McIntyre, M. H., Barrett, E. S., McDermott, R., Johnson, D. D. P., Cowden, J., & Rosen, S. P. (2007). Finger length ratio (2D:4D) and sex differences in aggression during a simulated war game. Personality and Individual Differences, 42(4), 755–764.
Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review, 102(2), 246–268.
Mondak, J. J. (2010). Personality and the foundations of political behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mondak, J. J., Hibbing, M. V., Canache, D., Seligson, M. A., & Anderson, M. R. (2010). Personality and civic engagement. An integrative framework for the study of trait effects on political behavior. American Political Science Review, 104(1), 85–110.
Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1997). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the south. Oxford: Westview Press.
Oxley, D. R., Smith, K. B., Alford, J. R., Hibbing, M. V., Miller, J. L., Scalora, M., et al. (2008). Political attitudes vary with physiological traits. Science, 321(5896), 1667–1670.
Rushton, J. P., Fulker, D. W., Neale, M. C., Nias, D. K., & Eysenck, H. J. (1986). Altruism and aggression: The heritability of individual differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(6), 1192–1198.
Sapiro, V., & Conover, P. J. (1993). Gender, feminist consciousness, and war. American Journal of Political Science, 37(4), 1079–1099.
Shapiro, R. Y., & Mahajan, H. (1986). Gender differences in policy preferences: A summary of trends from the 1960s to the 1980s. Public Opinion Quarterly, 50(1), 42–61.
Sharpe, J. P., & Desai, S. (2001). The revised Neo Personality Inventory and the MMPI-2 Psychopathology Five in the prediction of aggression. Personality and Individual Differences, 31(4), 505–518.
Siever, L. J. (2008). Neurobiology of aggression and violence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165(4), 429–442.
Smith, K. B., Oxley, D. R., Hibbing, M. V., Alford, J. R., & Hibbing, J. R. (2011). Linking genetics and political attitudes: Re-conceptualizing political ideology. Political Psychology, 32, 369–397.
Tedeschi, J. T., & Felson, R. B. (1994). Violence, aggression, & coercive actions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Tessler, M., Nachtwey, J., & Grant, A. (1999). Further tests of the women and peace hypothesis: Evidence from cross-national survey research in the Middle East. International Studies Quarterly, 43(3), 519–531.
Tremblay, P. F., & Ewart, L. A. (2005). The Buss and Perry Aggression Questionnaire and its relations to values, the Big Five, provoking hypothetical situations, alcohol consumption patterns, and alcohol expectancies. Personality and Individual Differences, 38(2), 337–346.
Valentino, N. A., Brader, T., Groenendyk, E. W., Gregorowicz, K., & Hutchings, V. L. (2011). Election night’s alright for fighting: The role of emotions in political participation. Journal of Politics, 73(1), 156–170.
Valentino, N. A., Gregorowicz, K., & Groenendyk, E. W. (2009). Efficacy, emotions and the habit of participation. Political Behavior, 31(3), 307–330.
Wilson, E. O. (2004). On human nature (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Zaller, J. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Zillmann, D. (1988). Cognition-excitation interdependencies in aggressive behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 14(1), 51–64.
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.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Trait aggression
- Trait anger
- State violence
- Gender gap