Aggression and Adaptation: The Bright Side to Bad Behavior

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The RAGE system is formed by three types of aggressiveness Panksepp, ; Panksepp and Zellner, : the predatory aggression , the defensive rage , and finally the inter-male aggression. Predatory aggression does not imply activation of the autonomic nervous system , and in fact, it is called a quiet-biting attack. This brain system is confluent with another prime emotional system, the mesolimbic dopamine circuit the SEEKING system of Panksepp , which runs from the ventral tegmental area through the lateral hypothalamus to the nucleus accumbens and other forebrain zones.

It is interesting what neurobiology discovered about predatory aggression , namely that the stimulation of the center of the system that triggers the behavior of predation in felines, the dorsolateral hypothalamus , which activates in a noncarnivorous species looking for food or foraging Panksepp, ; Panksepp and Zellner, ; Siegel and Victoroff, Of particular interest is defensive rage, the second type of aggression of RAGE system.

Defensive rage, in contrast to predatory aggression , is characterized by a massive activation of the autonomic nervous system, whose effect is the rapid increase in energy availability to allow a rapid strengthening of muscle energy. The defensive aggressiveness is, in fact, activated by situations in which the individual suffers a strong coercion by external agents, but also powerful frustrations of their own motivational purpose Panksepp, ; Panksepp and Zellner, ; Siegel and Victoroff, The third type o f aggression of RAGE system is inter-male aggression and is aimed at comparing two contenders in order to establish a priority of access to both food and sexual resources Bjorkqvist, ; Rohde, ; Allen and Badcock, The neural pathways involved in this type of aggressio n run from medial amygdala , through the preoptic, anterior hypothalamus area , until the periaqueductal gray PAG ; Panksepp, ; Panksepp and Biven, The arousability of this system is controlled by testosterone receptors, of which this circuit is very rich.

The first is activated when the object is far away and avoidable, and in this situation, the animal shows an escape behavior. The other behavior manifests itself when the frightening stimulus is not avoidable and is characterized by immobility, by freezing. The FEAR system is the expression of a neuronal circuit composed of the lateral and central nuclei of the amygdala and the anterior and medial hypothalamus down to the periaqueductal gray LeDoux, ; Panksepp, ; Weisfeld, The two ancient systems of FEAR and defensive RAGE are closely interconnected at the level of the hypothalamus and the periaqueductal gray, interconnectedness that is maintained at the level of the amygdala Panksepp and Biven, , where they give rise to well-organized distinct circuits see below.

The two circuits thus become functionally interconnected in intra-species aggression , therefore becoming complementary. In this way, the behavioral expressions of a ggression have acquired the social function of determining in the adversary an emotional state of fear, and the behavioral manifestations of fear have acquired the social function of reducing the activation of the emotional system of anger in the adversary that threatens, pacifying the contender Price and Sloman, ; Gilbert, The complementarity of RAGE and FEAR systems is an important stage of phylogeny, made possible by the evolution of the limbic system , of which the amygdala is one of the parts Behrendt, Species that have this extremely rudimentary structure amygdala , like the most ancient reptiles, do not have the ability to have social life; therefore, the regulation of access to food and sexual resources takes place through a rudimentary territorial agonism Behrendt, The characteristic of this competitive system is that the competition between two members of the same species ends with one fleeing from the territory on which the other will dominate Behrendt, The evolution of the limbic system allowed the individualized recognition of conspecifics among mammal groups.

This evolutionary acquisition allowed the two contenders to share the same territory, without one having to flee, but continuing to cooperate for the common defense from predators and to hunt: Territorial agonism has turned into a ritual agonism. The behaviors of fear manifested by the contender have become the signal of recognition of the superiority of the adversary, the submissive behavior , in order to put an end to hostilities. For this purpose, the FEAR system has coopted behavior from other behavioral and emotional systems, for example, the loser shows his willingness to offer himself as a sexual object to the winner as a submissive behavior with which to pacify the adversary Eibl-Eibesfeldt, The fundamental point is that between mammals and birds, in which the ritual agonistic system has evolved, the elimination of the opponent is not foreseen Lorenz, The defeated, therefore, manifests his own recognition of the greater power of the adversary and this gives rise to the structuring of what is called Dominance rank.

The dominance hierarchy implies that high-ranking animals have preferred access to food and mate. The Dominance hierarchy has therefore become the central regulator of the relations between adult individuals in the group of mammals. This structure, to be such and to maintain itself in time, implies that there is a continuous exchange of signs among the members of the group, aimed at maintaining the structural organization of the group.

The submissive behaviors , described above, thus become part of what are called yielding subroutines Gilbert, ; Sloman, through which the lower-ranking individual constantly signals the recognition of the others superiority. Yielding subroutines are based on an active-alert state of high stress characterized by a high concentration of cortisol , low serotonin , and testosterone Sapolsky, , Vice versa in the dominant individuals, the presence of cortisol is lower, and the concentration of serotonin and testosterone is higher; therefore, they appear more relaxed but at the same time making losers aware of their dominance through periodic threatening behaviors.

These types of behaviors are called dominance subroutines Gilbert, ; Allan and Gilbert, The human emotions homologous to submissive behaviors are linked to the impossibility of achieving the goal of domination, that is, Social defeat, which highlights either its own inferiority toward an opponent or the impossibility to achieve a pre-established social purpose Bjorkqvist, ; Rohde, ; Allen and Badcock, The human emotions belonging to the submissive behaviors are fear of judgment, shame, humiliation, sadness from defeat , and envy.

The human emotions homologous to dominance behaviors related to the ability to achieve the goal of domination are anger, triumph, pride, contempt , and superiority Gardner, ; Johnson and Carver, Evolutionary psychologists and psychiatrists emphasize a further development of the Agonistic behavior that is present in primates and especially in the human species. Individuals with greater relational resources or greater intellectual resources are able to attract the attention of other subjects and then they would obtain a more dominant position in the group.

It is to note that progressive corticalization of the human species would have been the effect of pressure to solve the problem of group living and therefore of dominance rank Humphrey, Freud, even before explicitly defining aggression as one of the components of the instinct of self-preservation or Ego instincts Freud, , a , described the instinct of cruelty as intimately connected with the instinct of appropriation.

The fundamental psychological analysis of this instinct has, as we know, not yet been satisfactorily achieved. During the first phase of ontogenetic development, pity has not yet developed, without which, the sufferance of others cannot be perceived, therefore, cruelty prevails and like in territorial agonism , the dominant opponent cannot recognize the submission signals of the defeated contender and so is unable to restrain himself. Another component of the RAGE system is also visible in the instinct of mastery and cruelty , namely predatory aggression.

Predatory aggression is an appetitive behavior for exploring and mastering prey. Predatory aggression springs from the same source of SEEKING behavior dopaminergic system and both are subjectively pleasurable and elicit high levels of self-stimulation Panksepp and Zellner, Freud again in The Three Essays on Sexual Theory puts impulse of cruelty to the instinct of scopophilia side by side.

Freud seems to suggest that instinct of scopophilia pleasure from looking is intimately connected to the impulse of cruelty and then to the instinct of mastery. But in all the mammals looking and gazing are also means of competitive engagement Chance, , Baron-Choen, but also the vehicle to display submissive behavior avoiding direct eye contact with the dominant contender Eibl-Eibesfeldt, The mind of a child or of a psychotic is particularly vulnerable to envy in the presence of those who own and enjoy desirable riches for example, material goods but also intelligence, friendship, etc.

And so envy becomes the source of a devastating rage that wants to annihilate those who hold such resources and in turn causes the individual to become paranoid, expecting to receive similar annihilating attacks. This is the mental state described by Klein as a schizo-paranoid position Klein, The depressive position can be seen as an expression of the second type of social competition aimed at the formation of Dominance hierarchy , in which the drive to mastery , cruelty , and dominance without limits is inhibited from the submissive behaviors of the adversary defeated.

Freud sought to find the roots of aggression almost since the beginning of his construction of psychoanalytic theory, giving rise to observations and theoretical elaborations that have then been resumed and amplified by his successors. Kohut studied the narcissistic ego reaction to external stimuli and reached the conclusion that hate and the aggression are effects of the psychological defense against the narcissistic wound and narcissistic blow and not connected to an instinctual functioning.

As a consequence, the subject who has suffered a narcissistic wound is vulnerable to social competition in which, instead showing an assertive aggression, he will exhibit a Chronic Narcissistic Rage Kohut, The social competition is experienced as fear of deadly oppression with acute sense of inferiority, which actives shame and narcissistic rage Kohut, Hence, the narcissistic and borderline personality disorders, but also the manic mood disorders see below.

We have considered how both Freud and his successors place the roots of aggression in childhood. In the ontogeny of mammals, PLAY system has the function of training the individual to regulate social and competitive interaction with the other conspecifics Panksepp, PLAY system is characterized by role reversals, that is, the winning contender does not remain the dominance figure indefinitely, and allows the weaker defeated antagonist to exchange roles periodically Panksepp and Biven, In adolescence, as we will see below, the tendency toward peer play becomes more of an explicit social competition to gain dominance.

Physical contact is one of the motivations for both animal and human species during the play P-Biven , highlighting the fact that play is closely connected to the attachment system. Bowlby and subsequent researchers have shown that attachment is not a simple response to external stimuli but a well-organized behavioral system see, e. This secure base would be a factor of resilience toward subsequent stressors or traumas Sroufe and Siegel, The research on attachment has thus highlighted the instinctual basis of this behavioral system on which the good functioning of the personality is based, and the investigation on interactions between genes, social environmental factors, and individual history has now shown the overcoming of the old counterpoint between nature vs.

Finally, notwithstanding Bowlby recognized that the attachment system undergoes a modification during development, from parental regulation through dyadic regulation to self-regulation. The attachment system has thus remained an isolated etiopathogenetic factor in the time of development, not considered in the interaction with sexual growth. In every species of mammals, the onset of puberty Sisk and Foster, ; Schneider, causes behavioral changes by the maturation of the sexual organs in individuals.

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Studies in animals have now amply demonstrated the correlation between the levels of androgenic hormones and the levels of aggression in males Beeman, ; Simpson, In the human species, the influence of the puberty development and androgen hormones on aggressive behavior is undoubtedly much more complex to study. An important contribution was given by Mazur and Booth who, revising a vast literature, introduced the distinction between aggression and dominance in men. Testosterone levels correlate positively with the dynamics of dominance, of which aggression is only an expression.

These data give reason for behavioral changes in male adolescence. So, in adolescence, there is an increased sensitivity of the FEAR system toward social stimuli. In animal models, Social defeat generates persistent emotional stress without habituation Tidey and Miczek, ; Moxon, ; Hollis and Kabbaj, The experience of Social defeat causes tachycardia and hyperthermia, elevated blood pressure, increased adrenocorticotropic hormone ACTH , and corticosterone levels Tornatzky and Miczek, Second, the Dominance and Submissive motivational system is expressed through innate emotional models, which in subjects determine the activation of complementary and automatic responses.

Finally, Dominance and Submissive motivational system has its particular activation in the development stage of puberty, functionally connected to the sexual hormones and brain maturation. As mentioned above, the interactions related to social competition are present from the first year of life Sheridan and Williams, , but before puberty, the emotional homeostasis disrupted by Social defeat was continually reestablished by the Attachment motivational system , which allowed the child to find a safe haven again for relational perturbations in the bond with caregiver.

Instead, the adolescent perceives the impossibility to experiment the previous solution to manage the Social defeat to which the sexual maturation of the Dominance and Submissive motivational systems exposes him or her. This could explain one of the main reasons for which the psychopathology appears and stabilizes in the adolescence stage. The adolescent can begin to evolve an increasingly strong conviction to be unable to gain a place within the human group and to form and maintain emotional ties, that now are mediated by his capacity to obtain a position in the rank hierarchies school, peers, sport, etc.

The developmental history of the subject determined by an inseparable mix of genetic endowments and experiences connected to the Dominant and Submissive system since the first year of life will determine how in adolescence and then in adult life the subject will react to the stressors of social competition. If the activation of the emotions connected to the Agonistic behavior exceed the subjective tolerance threshold, giving rise to excessive stress, activate either behaviors connected to the involuntary defeat strategy or involuntary dominant strategy Price, ; Sloman, The first is the backdrop of depression.

A person with borderline personality disorder shows an extreme susceptibility to social competition, feels easily criticized, scared of failure and shame, with the simultaneous activation of both the involuntary defeat strategy and involuntary dominant strategy, switching rapidly from deescalation depressed position to escalation aggressive and manic behavior , and vice versa Williams, Psychoanalysis has, in its theoretical essence, the fundamentals of evolutionary thought, which have been almost completely covered and hidden by the psychological drift that has prevailed in the psychoanalytic field.

The Agonistic behavior has the characteristics, as described above, of covering most of the human phenomenology connected to the concept of aggression.

Aggression and adaptation: The bright side to bad behavior

There are, however, also animal species in which there is no intraspecious aggression. This capacity would have started, however, starting from the territorial aggressiveness, connected functionally to the identification of the adversary as belonging to the same species and to the same genus and therefore the ability to recognize the various aspects related to the evaluation of the competitive resources of the other.

The evolution, then, of the territorial agonism in agonism for the dominance of rank among more individuals copresent in the same territory, has been functionally connected to a more continuous recognition of the other, identified in the dominant or submissive relational position within the group to which they belong.

The recognition of the same species activates in the conspecific agonistic aggression Lorenz, , and this happens because the individual makes himself clearly visible in the eyes of the other. That which has been described by the great ethologist could be more than a suggestive metaphor, usable to understand both the emotional state and the care of the suffering human mind. The evolutionary and developmental processes called individuation or subjectivation De Monticelli, , see the subject engaged in the hard struggle to gain visibility and recognition within the group to which he belongs.

This is often related to a state of deep fear, which makes this personal developmental process extremely painful or impossible and therefore could provoke anxiety, mood, and personality disorders. The conceptualization of aggression as intraspecies aggression could give coherence to mental states, behaviors, and emotions that characterize the various nosographic pictures and can constitute a theoretical-clinical model of great heuristic force.

Even during childhood, hierarchies of peer dominance are formed Havely, , in which children can feel the emotions connected to being dominant or submissive. PLAY system has a central position in the development of Dominance and Submissive motivational system and, in connection with the attachment system, mitigate the emotions of social competition among peers, making it possible to exchange the positions of winner and loser during the competitive interactions.


  • Aggression and Adaptation: The Bright Side to Bad Behavior!
  • Aggression and Adaptation: The Bright Side to Bad Behavior.
  • Evil in Disguise.

As seen in this article, the link between childhood and aggression has been a key factor throughout the history of psychoanalysis. Authors such as Hans Kohut Kohut, , Donald Winnicott, or Wilfred Bion each one having had different opinions stated that the nonempathic relationship Winnicott, ; Kohut, or insufficient Reverie Bion, b with parents was the cause of offspring vulnerability toward self-control of aggression in social competition. Psychoanalyst John Bowlby associated this vulnerability with the failure of the instinctual CARE system thus impeding a secure attachment see, e.

So, psychoanalysts could have been misled by the theory that the roots of pathogenic aggression took hold during childhood. Finally, the model presented here could indicate the need to reconsider some points of the clinical theory in psychoanalysis, for example, that of transference or that of insight, for which some psychoanalysts have already been engaged for some time see, e. TG is the main author—development of hypotheses and concepts.

US is the coauthor—critical discussion of literature and concepts. The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest. Alcaro, A.


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