Aggression is one of the
key components of violent crimes because aggression is always present to
some extent during acts of violence. This article will present two
forms of aggression as presented by Meloy (1988; 2000) and will explore the
relationship between these forms of aggression and deviant crimes.
The first form of aggression is one that is more understandable to most of
us and is termed affective by Meloy. Affective aggression is a
reaction to a real or perceived threat and causes a heightened sense of
arousal in the individual. In nature, animals will become aggressive when
frightened or cornered. They do so as a form of self-preservation, or
to reduce the threat. This is commonly known as a "fight or flight"
response to danger. Even the most docile of creatures can become
aggressive in these situations if they feel threatened, or feel as though
they need to protect their offspring. I have personally seen video
footage of a deer attacking a hunter, and a mouse biting a cat.
Humans also react in this way and I have also witnessed this several times
while working as a bouncer years ago. In these scenarios, a fight may begin
and one of the participants will pull out a knife and stab the other.
This form of aggression is spontaneous and is often described as violence
caused by "the heat of the moment". In affective aggression, there are
often feelings of fear or anger that precipitate the reaction, or attack.
When the threat has been reduced through affective aggression, the
individual may feel the attack was justified and necessary for defending
Affective aggression is usually preceded by public ritual and heightened
physiological arousal. The individual's skin may become flushed and
begin to perspire, the muscles in the body may become tense and ready for
retaliation. Sometimes the individual may begin to yell at the threat,
get into a fighting stance, or pull a weapon. All are designed to reduce the
threat as quickly as possible by frightening the perceived attacker.
If this fails to reduce the threat, many times violence erupts.
There are times when the threat is truly perceived by the individual but
does not hold any basis with reality. This may include instances when
those suffering from delusions or hallucinations feel threatened and react
violently toward those around him or her. Although the threat is not
in fact happening in reality, to the individual, these experiences are very
real and they will feel a need to reduce the threat. When this
violence occurs, the affective aggression is displaced onto an object that
is not causing the threat.
The second form of aggression is one that many of us can understand in
nature, but may not wish to believe occurs in humans. Meloy terms this
form of aggression as predatory. Predatory aggression is obvious in
nature and is used by animals to hunt prey for food and survival. If one
thinks of a cat stalking a bird, or a leopard stalking a gazelle, you can
get a pretty accurate picture of predatory aggression as an occurrence in
However, humans can also be predators and is evidenced in crimes such as
serial murder or serial rape. Unlike nature, humans hunt one another
not for food and survival (although this may be argued with individuals such
as Jeffery Dahmer), but for other motivations that may include pleasure.
When aggression is predatory, it is planned, purposeful and has the goal of
hurting or killing a victim. Predatory aggression as described here is
more often involved in crimes such as serial murder and serial rape.
Predatory aggression is most likely not preceded by a perceived threat or
heightened physiological arousal, although both may be experienced to a
minimal extent. Unlike affective aggression where emotions of fear or anger
are experienced consciously, there is little to no conscious emotion
experienced during predatory aggression. It may be argued however,
that the offender may experience excitement prior to, or during the offense.
However, minimal or no experience of emotion during the commission of
violent acts does seem to serve at least two functions in deviant crimes. 1)
Prior to the act of violence, minimal emotions allow the offender to remain
calm and not draw attention to the situation from witnesses or the victim,
thus creating a scenario where he or she may attack when ready. 2) Lacking
emotion during violence, the offender is able to view the victim as an
object and reduces the chances of feeling empathy, which allows the offender
to reach the goal of hurting or killing the victim.
Because predatory aggression is planned and purposeful, there is a private
ritual that will take place before and/or after the offense. These
private rituals represent the fantasy aspect of the crime, and can be argued
as a key component to the continuation of serial crimes. Because
fantasy (ritual) is cognitive, predatory aggression is not time limited to
the act alone, and is likely to be repeated. Another aspect of the
fantasy component of predatory aggression is the displacement of violence.
Although Meloy states that predatory aggression in not displaced, this may
be argued from a victimology standpoint using examples of serial murderers
who have specific types of victims, but will kill when the opportunity
arises. For more information about the fantasy aspect of serial
Below is a table of the characteristics involved in predatory and affective
aggression adapted from Violence Risk and Threat Assessment: A Practical
Guide for Mental Health and Criminal Justice Professionals by J. Reid
1. Minimal or absent autonomic arousal
1. Intense autonomic arousal
2. Minimal or absent conscious emotion
2. Experience of emotions
3. Planned or purposeful violence
3. Reactive violence
4. No perceived threat
4. Real or perceived threat
5. Variable goals
5. Goal is threat reduction
6. No displacement of aggression
6. Possible displacement of aggression
7. Not time limited event
7. Time limited
8. Preceded or followed by private ritual
8. Preceded by public ritual
9. Primarily cognitive
9. Primarily emotional
10. Heightened and focused awareness
10. Heightened and diffuse awareness
Meloy, J.R. (1988). The psychopathic mind: Origins, dynamics, and
treatment. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Meloy, J.R. (2000). Violence risk and threat assessment: A practical
guide for mental health and criminal justice professionals. San Diego,
CA: Specialized Training Services.