Many attempts were made to explain the nature of human aggression, proving that it is a complicated behavioral system that requires extensive research to understand its origin. The recent rise of violence through the acts of terrorism has led to increased interest in the theories of human aggression. Evolutionary psychologists proposed their own theory of aggression in an attempt to explain its underlying psychological mechanisms.
Human aggression is usually defined as a social interaction or behavior with intent to cause harm to others (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 28). Since it is an intended behavior, the harm-doer consciously chooses the action that will inflict damage on others. The extreme degree of aggression is called violence, and human violence is the underlying mechanism of many devastating, large-scale conflicts, as well as smaller acts of homicide (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 29). Several theories of aggression exist, one of which is the product of evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology explains all human behaviors by a set of mechanisms internal to the individual, which are born out of evolution by selection (Buss & Shakelford, 1997, p. 607). According to evolution theory, human aggression is a collection of strategies that emerged as the solution to survival-related problems such as reproduction or securing resources and thus, helped the survival of humanity. The problems that most likely prompted a violent response in our ancestors could include “resource procurement, intersexual competition, hierarchy negotiation, and mate retention” (Buss & Shakelford, 1997, p. 618).
From the perspective of evolutionary theory, human aggression is adaptive and occurs as a natural solution when certain conditions are met. The context-specificity of aggression means that although evolution theory cannot predict the exact expression of aggression, it can predict the context that will result in aggressive behavior. Evolutionary psychologists introduced the model of intrasexual competition and hypothesized that “sexual dimorphism and violent male-male competition are ancient and enduring elements of our human evolutionary history” (Daly & Wilson, 1988, p. 143).
The researchers argue that reproductive challenges of our ancestors led to the development of aggressive strategies exercised by men today. Homicide the extreme form of violence, and some studies show that men are more likely to commit homicide, and their victims are mostly other men (Buss & Shakelford, 1997, p. 612). The evolutional theory suggests that violence emerged as a means to achieve and withhold a certain social status, which was needed for survival.
Evolutionary psychologists see sexual jealousy as another trigger, and a different study found support for the link between aggressive behavior and male retention behaviors and proved that male retention behaviors can be used to predict spousal violence (Shackelford et al., 2005, p. 1). Although women commit aggression, their actions are typically less violent, which is supported by the evolutionary theory of sexual selection.
From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, aggression is a strategy developed by the humanity during the course of human evolution in response to certain survival-related problems. This theory does have some limitations, for example, it cannot explain the cultural differences in the perceptions of violence, or why the same context evokes a violent reaction in one case and does not in other. Nevertheless, it can still explain some findings such as the prevalence of male violence against males, and leads to better understanding of at least some of the factors behind human aggression.
Anderson, C., & Bushman, B. (2002). Human Aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27-51.
Buss, D., & Shakelford, T. (1997). Human Aggression in Evolutionary Psychological Perspective. Clinical Psychology Review, 17(6), 605-619.
Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. New York: Aldine de Cruyter.
Shackelford, T., Goetz, A., Buss, D., Euler, H., & Hoier, S. (2005). When we hurt the ones we love: Predicting violence against women from men’s mate retention. Personal Relationships, 12, 447-463.