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aggression, a form of behavior characterized by physical or verbal attack. It may appear either appropriate and self-protective, even constructive, as in healthy self-assertiveness, or inappropriate and destructive. Aggression may be directed outward, against others, or inward, against the self, leading to self-destructive or suicidal actions. It may be driven by emotional arousal, often some form of frustration, or it may be instrumental, when it is used to secure a reward.

Sigmund Freud postulated (1920) that all humans possessed an aggressive drive from birth, which, together with the sexual drive, contributed to personality development, and found expression in behavior. Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz suggested that aggression was innate, an inherited fighting instinct, as significant in humans as it was in other animals. He contended that the suppression of aggressive instincts, common among human societies, allows these instincts the chance to build up, occasionally to the point where they are released during instances of explosive violence. Many psychoanalysts have argued against these theories, which see aggression as a primary drive, offering the possibility that aggression may be a reaction to frustration of primary needs. In the late 1930s, John Dollard argued that any sort of frustration inevitably led to an aggressive response.

More recently, Albert Bandura has performed studies that indicated that aggression is a learned behavior. Using children in his studies, Bandura demonstrated that, by watching another person act aggressively and obtain desirable rewards or by learning through personal experience that such behavior yields rewards, aggression can be learned. Leonard Berkowitz has contended that all animals learn the most effective response to an aversive occurence (one where the expected reward is denied), whether it be attack or flight. A number of psychologists contend that children and adolescents are vulnerable to media portrayals of violence, particularly in film and television. Popular media tends to depict violence as relatively common, and generally effective. Anonymity may facilitate aggression: when an individual is part of a large group, he may be more likely to elicit aggressive behavior, in a process known as deindividuation.

Recent research on the biological basis of aggression has sought to show that genetic factors may be responsible for aggressive behavior. In the 1970s it was suggested that men who were born with an extra Y chromosome were likely to display more episodes of aggressive behavior than men who were not born with this extra chromosome. Still, conclusive proof has yet to be found for a genetic theory of aggression.

Other factors, including learning difficulties, minimal brain damage, brain abnormalities—such as temporal lobe epilepsy—and such social factors as crowding and poverty have been suggested to have contributed in certain cases to exaggeratedly aggressive behavior. Psychological investigation into aggressive behavior continues, with significant corrolary studies being performed in endocrinology—to determine whether hormonal imbalances have an impact on behavior—and in primate research. Each theory may be accurate in part, since aggression is believed to have a number of determining factors.


See J. Archer and K. Brown, ed., Human Aggression (1988); R. A. Baron and D. R. Richardson, Human Aggression (1991).

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Behavior that is intended to threaten or inflict physical injury on another person or organism; a broader definition may include such categories as verbal attack, discriminatory behavior, and economic exploitation. The inclusion of intention in defining aggression makes it difficult to apply the term unequivocally to animals in which there is no clear means of determining the presence or absence of intention. As a result, animal violence is usually equated with aggression. There are four main approaches to understanding the causes or origins of human aggression. First, the basis may be differences among people, due either to physiological difference or to early childhood experiences. Second, there are sociological approaches which seek the causes of aggression in social factors such as economic deprivation and social (including family) conflicts. Third, causes may be found in the power relations of society as whole, where aggression arises as a function of control of one group by another. Fourth, aggression may be viewed as an inevitable (genetic) part of human nature; this approach has a long history and has produced extensive arguments. Given the wide variation in aggressive behavior in different societies and the occasional absence of such behavior in some groups and some individuals, a general human genetic factor is unlikely. However, some genetic disposition to react with force when an individual is blocked from reaching a goal may provide an evolutionary basis for the widespread occurrence of violence and aggression. The existence of different kinds of aggression suggests that different evolutionary scenarios need to be invoked and that aggression is not due to a single evolutionary event; it is likely that aggression is multidetermined and rarely, if ever, due to a single factor. See Behavior genetics

Aggression in humans ranges through fear-induced aggression, parental disciplinary aggression, maternal aggression, and sexual aggression. One clearly biologically adaptive type, defensive aggression, occurs when fight responses are mobilized in defense of an organism's vital interests, such as obtaining food or the protection of its young. The aim of defensive aggression is not destruction but the preservation of life. Thus, aggression can serve both destructive and constructive purposes. Among animals, the varieties of aggression include most of the human types as well as predatory aggression, territorial defense, and sexually related aggression in competition for a mate.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Bioscience. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


a hostile attitude or action. In humans, aggressive behaviour is generally underlain by emotions such as anger or fear.

This is an area in which ETHOLOGY and PSYCHOANALYSIS as well as sociology have shown great interest, with the result that aggressive behaviour can be seen to have three possible situation determinants:

  1. (Ethology) in the animal kingdom certain environmental stimuli (releasing mechanisms) may evoke aggression, for example the presence of another male robin in a robin's territory;
  2. (Psychoanalysis) frustration in obtaining one's goals may lead to aggression, not necessarily directed at the source of the frustration. The frustration-aggression theory of prejudice (Adorno et al., 1950) is related to this theory (see FRUSTRATION-AGGRESSION HYPOTHESIS, AUTHORITARIAN PERSONALITY);
  3. aggression may be a learnt response, i.e. behaviour that has been conditioned because it has led to positive results for the individual when displayed in certain situations in the past (see BEHAVIOURISM).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a concept in contemporary international law covering any illegal use of force (as defined by the Charter of the United Nations) by one state against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state or people (nation).

The most dangerous form of aggression is the use of armed force; an armed attack by one state on another is considered to be the gravest international crime against the peace and security of humanity. The concept of aggression includes the designation of initiative—that is, which given state was the first to use force. Actions taken in the course of self-defense by a state under attack, even if they involve the use of armed force, cannot be considered acts of aggression, nor can collective actions undertaken by states in accordance with the UN Charter for the maintenance or reestablishment of international peace and security. The concept of aggression is applicable only to international conflicts, not to civil wars: only states can be the subjects of aggression, not one part of a nation that is waging war against another part within the boundaries of the same state. Similarly, the object of aggression is usually a state, although in the practice of imperialist states there are numerous examples of the use of force, including armed force, against peoples who are exercising their inalienable right to self-determination and the creation of an independent and free state.

Ban on aggression. Until the Great October Socialist Revolution, the recourse to war, regardless of its goals, was considered to be the inalienable right of every state (jus ad bellum) and the highest expression of its sovereignty in international relations. This right was protected by the entire body of principles and norms of international law.

The Soviet state was the initiator of the ban on aggression and its designation as an international crime. As early as the Decree on Peace (1917), it announced the elimination of international wars to be one of the basic goals of its foreign policy and declared such wars in any form to be “…the gravest crime against humanity . . . .” In the context of the broad antiwar movement that arose after World War I (1914–18), the victor states were forced to take definite measures to condemn aggression. Thus, the preamble to the Covenant of the League of Nations acknowledged the necessity “. . . of accepting certain obligations not to resort to war . . . .” Article 11 of the covenant stated that “. . . any war or threat of war, whether immediately affecting any of the Members of the League or not, is hereby declared a matter of concern to the whole League . . . ,” and “. . . the League shall take any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace of nations.” The problem of outlawing aggressive wars was discussed in the League of Nations and at various international conferences. The criminality of aggression and the necessity of banning it were mentioned in the draft treaty of mutual assistance of Aug. 15, 1923, and in the Geneva Protocol for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes of Oct. 2, 1924 (neither acquired binding force). On Sept. 24, 1927, the Assembly of the League of Nations adopted a special declaration proclaiming that every aggressive war was and would remain forbidden and constituted an international crime. The practical significance of this declaration amounted to nothing, because the League of Nations Covenant not only contained no direct ban on aggression, but even permitted recourse to war as long as certain formal requirements were observed (arts. 12, 13, and 15); that is, it essentially legalized war. By the letter of the covenant, only an attack that violated it was considered to be an aggression.

The first real step on the road to banning aggression and declaring it outside the law was the Pact of Paris of Aug. 27, 1928, which for the first time set up a multilateral obligation of states to renounce the use of armed force. It also declared that its participants “... condemn the recourse to war for the solution of international controversies,” “renounce war as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another,” and obligate themselves henceforth to resolve their differences only by peaceful means. Thus, the Pact of Paris undoubtedly went further than the League of Nations Covenant in this question. However, the practical significance of the pact was weakened by the fact that its resolutions were not backed by an effective system of sanctions in the event of their violation. Furthermore, the pact contained reservations that allowed for the evasion of the assumed obligations. Seeking to universalize the principle of prohibiting aggressive wars, the USSR was the first to ratify the Pact of Paris and to successfully put it into effect ahead of schedule by concluding a special protocol (Feb. 9, 1929) with Poland, Rumania, Estonia, and Latvia. (In that same year, Turkey, Iran, and Lithuania joined the Moscow Protocol.)

Struggling persistently to confirm the principle of prohibiting aggression in international law, the USSR concluded a series of agreements on nonaggression and neutrality with Turkey (1925), Germany (1926), Iran (1927), Finland, Poland, and France (1932), Italy (1933), and China (1937). These agreements provided for the mutual renunciation by the parties of any aggressive actions, of participation in such actions undertaken by other countries, and of support for any aggressive forces. The pacts also established a system of peacefully resolving all disputes that might arise.

In contemporary international law, prohibiting aggression is a universally recognized principle, compulsory for all states. It was included in the UN Charter and also in the statutes of the international war tribunals at Nuremberg (1945–46) and Tokyo (1946–48). Thus, the UN Charter obligates its members to resolve all their disputes, with no exceptions, by peaceful means only (art. 2, para. 3) and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or the political independence of any state or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN (art. 2, para. 4). States are permitted to use force only in extreme cases: either in exercising the right of individual or collective self-defense, in the event of an armed attack against a member of the UN, and only until the Security Council takes the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security (art. 51); or in carrying out, in accordance with a decision of the Security Council, forceful measures to prevent and remove a threat to peace and to suppress acts of aggression (arts. 39, 41, 42, 43, and 48). The statutes of the Nuremberg and Tokyo international war tribunals fixed the juridical classification of aggression as the gravest international offense. The principles of international law expressed in the statute and in the verdict of the Nuremberg tribunal were confirmed by the UN General Assembly resolution of Dec. 11, 1946.

Responsibility for aggression. In contemporary international law, the principle of legal international responsibility for aggression follows from the principle prohibiting the use or threat of force in international relations. States committing crimes against peace bear political and civil responsibility, and the individuals bear personal criminal responsibility.

Under the former system of international law, which recognized the “right to war,” a state committing an attack and the state being attacked were in the same juridical position. The legal consequences of a war were determined by its actual results, since international law recognized the so-called right of the victor. The victor could dictate any conditions of peace to the defeated. The principle of state responsibility essentially did not extend to war and its consequences.

The confirmation of the principle banning aggression and the use of force in international relations introduced fundamental changes in the institution of legal international responsibility of states. Abolishing the “right to war” led to abolishing both the “right of the victor” and the other institutions closely connected with it, such as annexation and reparation. At present, the legal consequences of war are determined not by the fact of victory, but by the state’s responsibility for aggression—for committing a crime against peace.

The principle of a state’s responsibility for war and its consequences was expressed and strengthened in the international treaties and agreements connected with World War II, 1939–45 (the German surrender document—whereby the Allies assumed supreme power with respect to Germany—the Potsdam agreements, and others), and also in the peace treaties of 1947. Thus, the peace treaty with Italy read: “whereas Italy under the Fascist regime became a party to the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Japan, undertook a war of aggression and thereby provoked a state of war with all the Allied and Associated Powers and with other United Nations, and bears her share of responsibility for that war; and. . . .” The peace treaties with Finland, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Hungary contained analogous clauses.

The responsibility of a state for aggression may include all manners and forms of legal international responsibility. If military sanctions are applied against an aggressor in accordance with the decision of the UN Security Council, members of the UN are obliged to place armed forces at the disposal of the Security Council, according to special agreements which are being drawn up between member states and the Security Council. Up to 1969, however, such agreements were not concluded, which in effect hampered the application of military sanctions by the UN Security Council.

Individual states also have the right to respond to violations of international law affecting the maintenance of international peace. The measures they can take against an aggressor outside the scope of the UN are quite numerous but essentially different from the means employed by the UN; as a rule, they are measures that do not involve the use of armed force. The UN Charter does not infringe upon the right of states to individual and collective self-defense. However, the use of armed force in self-defense is allowed only when there is an armed attack, not when there is a threat of such an attack nor in the case of other forms of aggression. According to the UN Charter, all measures of self-defense against aggression are controlled by the Security Council. Its responsibilities include not only forceful measures to end aggression and reestablish international peace, but also various measures to eliminate the consequences of aggression and prevent the possibility of its renewal.

There are two forms of state responsibility for aggression: political and civil. Political responsibility is expressed in various forms of temporary restriction on the sovereignty of an aggressor state: full or partial demilitarization, democratization of the state and social structure, and so forth. For example, in accordance with the Potsdam agreements, the occupation of Germany was to ensure the eradication of German militarism and Nazism so that Germany would never again threaten its neighbors or the preservation of peace. Toward this end, all fascist and militaristic activity and propaganda were to be prevented, and the democratic development of Germany was to be encouraged. Excessive economic concentration in the country was to be eliminated—the cartels, syndicates, and other organizations that paved the way for fascism’s rise to power and provided for the preparation and realization of Hitler’s aggression.

Civil responsibility of aggressor states may be expressed in restitution (the return in kind of various material valuables) or in reparations (indemnification for harm inflicted). International law also provides for the personal criminal responsibility of people guilty of planning, preparing, unleashing, or implementing aggression and also of persons who in the course of aggression have violated the laws and customs of war and committed crimes against humanity. The principle of individual criminal responsibility for aggression was confirmed in a series of resolutions of the UN General Assembly and also in the draft Code of Offenses Against the Peace and Security of Mankind worked out by the International Law Commission of the UN.

Definition of aggression. The USSR was the initiator in working out a definition of aggression. On Feb. 6, 1933, at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva, the Soviet government proposed a draft declaration on the determination of the aggressor party. The USSR proceeded from the fact that “prohibition of aggression” might turn into an empty phrase unless the concept of aggression was clearly defined in advance—that is, unless certain actions of states were forbidden and declared to constitute acts of aggression. The Soviet draft provided that the state which is the first to take one of the following actions would be designated as the aggressor in an international conflict: one who declares war on another state; one whose armed forces, even without a declaration of war, invade the territory of another state; one whose armed forces bomb the territory or deliberately attack the naval and air forces of another state, and so forth; and one who establishes a naval blockade of the shores or ports of another state. The draft emphasized that no political, strategic, or economic considerations could justify taking the actions enumerated, and it provided an extensive list of examples of such considerations. If one state mobilized or concentrated a significant armed force near the border of another, the latter was to resort to diplomatic or other means to solve the conflict peacefully. That state also acquired the right to respond militarily, as long as it did not cross the border.

The Soviet definition of aggression won broad international recognition, although the Disarmament Conference was thwarted by the imperialist states, and the convention on the definition of the aggressor was not adopted. This definition served as the basis for the London conventions on the definition of aggression concluded by the USSR in 1933 with 11 neighboring states. It also influenced a number of international agreements concluded by other states; for example, the inter-American Antiwar Treaty of Nonaggression and Conciliation (1933) and the inter-American convention on nonintervention (1936). The 1934 Balkan Pact directly referred to the definition of aggression contained in the London conventions of 1933. The Soviet definition of aggression played an important role in the struggle for international peace and security and was a major contribution to the progressive development of international law. At the Nuremberg trial of the major war criminals, this definition was recognized as “one of the most authoritative sources of international law.”

When the UN Charter was worked out, no definition of aggression was included, although a number of delegations at the San Francisco conference introduced corresponding proposals. However, on the initiative of the USSR, the question of defining aggression was raised in the UN and discussed at the 5th (1950), 6th (1951–52), 7th (1953), 9th (1954), and 12th (1957) sessions of the General Assembly. The International Law Commission (1951) also studied the question, as did special committees created for this purpose (in 1953 and 1956). The Soviet Union submitted to the UN for consideration the definition of aggression that it had suggested in 1933, supplementing it with a proposition that would also designate as aggression a state’s support of armed bands formed on its territory which invade the territory of another state or the state’s refusal, despite the demand of the state under attack, to take all possible measures on its own territory to deprive these bands of all aid and protection. Despite the resistance of the United States and its allies in the UN to formulating a definition of aggression, in 1952 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution citing the possibility and desirability “with a view to guaranteeing international peace and security ... of defining aggression by means of its components.” At the 9th (1954) and 12th (1957) sessions of the General Assembly, a significant majority of member states of the UN favored formulating such a definition. However, the imperialist powers continued to sabotage this most important political undertaking. They dragged out the work of the special committee on the definition of aggression in every possible way and ultimately they broke up the committee. The committee created by the 12th session of the UN General Assembly to speed up the consideration of a definition of aggression was also unable to fulfill its task because of the obstructionist position of the United States and other Western powers. The Soviet government, concerned by the development of events in the international arena, introduced a proposal at the 22nd session of the General Assembly (1967) to accelerate formulation of a definition of aggression and to create, for this purpose, a new special committee of the UN. This proposal was unanimously endorsed by the member states of the UN.

There were two sessions of the special committee in 1968 and 1969, during which the USSR introduced a new definition of armed aggression for consideration. Maintaining the previous principled approach, by which a state that is the first to commit certain actions is deemed the aggressor, the new Soviet definition added two vital elements: the inadmissibility of the use of instruments of mass destruction for attack and the right of colonized peoples to wage armed struggle for their self-determination.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about aggression?

Aggression in a dream may indicate repressed sexual or ego needs, particularly if the dreamer is the primary aggressor. More generally, aggressive action in a dream often reflects a conflict in one’s life.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


Feelings and behavior of anger and hostility usually manifested by punitive or destructive actions; often associated with frustration.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. an attack or harmful action, esp an unprovoked attack by one country against another
2. Psychol a hostile or destructive mental attitude or behaviour
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005