Instrumental Aggressiveness: Aggression as a Means to an End

Instrumental aggression, unlike the reactive kind that's dictated by emotion, is colder, premeditated, and seeks a means to an end. It's the kind that's often used by psychopaths.
Instrumental Aggressiveness: Aggression as a Means to an End
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Instrumental aggression is a form of aggression in which the goal isn’t exactly to cause physical pain. In fact, it’s rather more subtle. In this case, the behavior is cold, follows an established plan, and seeks, above all, to achieve a goal. Whoever exercises this type of behavior is motivated by external reinforcements and a series of benefits that they hope to achieve.

For obvious reasons, behavioral science is particularly interested in this type of profile. After all, we know that to eliminate aggression, we must understand the motives that drive it. The kind that’s devoid of any sense of morality and seeks exclusively to obtain benefits from others is the most problematic. It’s also dangerous.

The people who make the most of this kind of instrumentalization are those defined by the dark triad. They score high on narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism and manipulate others for social, sexual, and, of course, economic benefits. Let’s take a look at these types of individuals.

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

-Isaac Asimov-

Serious woman thinking about instrumental aggressiveness
Instrumental aggression is a means to an end. To achieve it, no means and strategies are spared.

Instrumental aggressiveness

Instrumental aggressiveness, unlike the reactive or impulsive kind, controls its emotions and impulses extremely well. It’s not a hot-headed kind of aggressiveness. It’s a means to an end. One example of this is the criminal who seeks to commit embezzlement or divest a person of their savings after maintaining an emotional relationship with them.

A classic example that’s often given in regard to this kind of behavior is the incident that occurred a few months before the 1994 Olympics. Something totally unexpected happened in the figure skating events. Out of the blue, an assailant struck skater Nancy Kerrigan with a police baton at knee height. The athlete was bruised, although her knee wasn’t broken and she went on to win an Olympic medal.

The subsequent investigation revealed the bizarre story behind the event. They discovered that Nancy’s competitor, Tonya Harding, along with her ex-husband had hired someone to carry out the aggressive act in order to get her rival out of the way. Since then, Harding’s personality has been portrayed in numerous films. Furthermore, she’s been the subject of more than one study on the subject of instrumental aggression.

Instrumental aggression is marked by thoughtful and meticulously planned behaviors that seek to obtain a series of very specific benefits.

The most sophisticated form of aggression

Instrumental aggressiveness has its own repertoire of behaviors that differentiate it from any other type of aggression. These people cause social, emotional, and physical damage, which is the consequence of using certain means to achieve their goals. What matters to them is to achieve their ‘prize’ in any way possible.

These are the characteristics that define instrumentally aggressive people:

  • Their behavior is oriented toward long-term goals.
  • They’re capable of devising sophisticated plans to get what they want.
  • They’ll use any means to achieve their end, even if they’re amoral or criminal.
  • They always take on a position of authority over others.

Psychology supports the idea that instrumental aggression is understood through Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning (Holland & Skinner, 1961). This is a learning method that’s consolidated only through the association of reinforcements (rewards) and punishments.

Dehumanizing victims to achieve an end

Carleton University (Canada) conducted research that claims instrumental aggressiveness and psychopathy are related. Indeed, it states such ‘predatory’ behavior is common in this personality type.

The most striking are the mental mechanisms that lead these people to apply the type of violence that’s extremely clever but premeditated at the same time.

  • In many cases, they ‘dehumanize their victims’. In other words, they deprive them of their feelings, rights, and needs. This makes it easy for them to resort to any strategy to achieve what they want. They’ll deceive, betray, abandon, or exercise any kind of damage to achieve what they desire.
  • They demonstrate instrumental empathy. This means that they’re aware of how others feel, but don’t care if they suffer or are frightened. Connecting with the emotions of others is useful to them because it means they can manipulate them.
  • There’s a clear moral disconnect and a complete lack of remorse or guilt.

People who use instrumental aggression tend to substitute emotions like guilt or shame for feelings like pride. Therefore, they process any dishonest act they commit for their own ends as positive.

girl accusing boy of instrumental aggression
Imbalances in certain hormones, such as testosterone and cortisol, could explain this type of violence.

Possible origins of instrumental aggression

How can this type of behavior be explained? What motivates these people? Why does it appear in some people and not in others? As is always the case in behavioral matters, it’s down to a combination of dimensions. In this case, there are three:

  • Environmental factors such as upbringing, education, and the impact of traumatic experiences in childhood.
  • Psychological factors. As we mentioned earlier, the dark triad of personality is related to instrumental aggressiveness. Also, to bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
  • Biological triggers. Mount Sinai Medical School (USA) conducted research that provides one theory. It claims that there are abnormalities in hormones such as testosterone and cortisol, as well as neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. This would encourage behavior in those with a predisposition toward instrumental aggression.

These displays of planned behaviors that seek specific goals and override the basic rights of others occur on a daily basis. Indeed, there are many different types of violence and, sadly, we don’t always see them coming.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Hartmann, D. P. (1969). Influence of symbolically modeled instrumental aggression and pain cues on aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 11(3), 280.
  • Holland, J. G., & Skinner, B. F. (1961). The analysis of behavior: A program for self-instruction.
  • Matthies, S., Rüsch, N., Weber, M., Lieb, K., Philipsen, A., Tuescher, O., … & van Elst, L. T. (2012). Small amygdala–high aggression? The role of the amygdala in modulating aggression in healthy subjects. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, 13(1), 75-81.
  • Walsh, Z., Swogger, M. T., & Kosson, D. S. (2009). Psychopathy and instrumental violence: facet level relationships. Journal of personality disorders23(4), 416–424.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.