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Why is COVID-19 making people so aggressive?

man in blue hoodie with his face in his hands

And over toilet paper? There are several theories which seek to explain the current aggression, but in the context of COVID-19, the Frustration Aggression Hypothesis and the Threat Response offer the best insight.

These theories can be interactive or stand alone, however, the underlying process to understanding aggression is known as the attribution of hostile intent. 

The Frustration Aggression Hypothesis (FAH) follows a predictable behavioural pattern:

  1. Blocking a goal leads to frustration
  2. Frustration leads to anger
  3. Anger pre-disposes aggression
  4. Aggressive acts are dependent upon interpretations, values and repertoires of the individual (your thoughts) and stimuli

Based on the FAH theory, frustration acts as the basic drive to aggression which is dependent upon attributes of the individual and their circumstances.  Research tells us that different factors impact the move from frustration to aggression including:

The greater the magnitude of the frustrated response, the greater the facilitation to aggression.

For example, if you wait a long time to get into a supermarket to buy toilet paper, you can expect more aggression than if you walked in, saw no toilet paper and walked out quickly.

The greater the degree of interference, the greater the facilitation.

 So, if you then move onto another store to buy toilet paper and there was none there, it’s likely at the next store you will be more frustrated. The more frustrated people get, the greater the tendency to be aggressive. 

Aggression is likely to occur if what caused the frustration was intentional. 

This explains why people who take excessive amounts of toilet paper at the cost of others are the targets of aggression. They are intentionally taking more than their fair share, which means others get frustrated.

Arbitrary and unexpected frustration increases aggression.

People interpreting the lack of toilet paper in stock as being intentional, arbitrary and unexpected can fuel their path to aggression.

Aggression is more likely to occur if frustration is aversive.

 For example, when some people are required to self-isolate, they feel they are being punished.  Therefore, you can expect people in these circumstances to become aggressive because they find the isolation painful.

The aggression may be directed at the source or may be displaced to other more convenient targets which are somehow related to or represent the obstacle.

For example, getting frustrated at others who were able to purchase toilet paper, albeit within the 1 pack per person guideline, because you personally missed out on the stock.

Aggression occurs only with the appropriate stimulus.

 Most of us don’t become aggressive simply because we are frustrated.  There needs to be a focus to the anger and subsequent aggression. Therefore, we can expect an upsurge in domestic violence as the level of frustration increases. This will lead to an increase in anger, particularly because in some relationships, the partner is a historical focus for aggression.

Aggression is also dependent upon the characteristics of the person, like their ability to inhibit impulsive behaviour. 

We may become frustrated and angry, but some of us are able to inhibit aggression while others have limited impulse control. 

Realising that your actions have consequences goes together with having impulse control. For example, knowing that if you get aggressive over toilet paper, you are more likely to be banned from that supermarket – which is not a good long-term consequence. 

Another attribute is neutralising one’s values and beliefs to justify behaviour they would normally consider wrong.  So, we have values which say it’s bad to hurt someone, BUT if we believe another person behaves badly we might act aggressively because THEY deserve it and blame others for our behaviour. 

How we interpret the world becomes integral to understanding the attribution of hostile intent. Interpreting another’s actions as being deliberately hostile can lead to lesser effort in reaching a resolution. This is because the malintent feels directed, like ‘that person took five rolls of toilet paper to deliberately leave me with none’.

This brings me to another perspective. If we feel threatened, we’re likely to respond with a fight or flight response. While not all threats give such an adrenaline rush, we often respond with aggression to threats of:

  1. physical harm to yourself or loved ones (injury, pain, or the threat of);
  2. material damage (loss of goods or services);
  3. psychological harm (lack of respect, fairness or equality);
  4. political harm (violation of rights and freedoms by the state or organisations).

The point is, we need to understand that this aggression may be based on frustration. Therefore, if we continue to ignore the frustration we will not be able to deal with the anger and the consequential aggression. 

Learning to deal with frustration is critical when handling aggression and heightened frustration in a time as frustrating as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written by Guy Hall, Associate Professor and Academic Chair Criminology at Murdoch University.

Posted on:

20 Apr 2020

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