Which is better: Aggression or Collaboration?

It must be obvious surely? Or perhaps a trick question? Well the answer is not as obvious as you may think. Human beings probably have killed in war more members of their own species than any other animal species on this planet. It is undeniable that ours is a pretty aggressive species when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Aggression and war are hard-wired into the brain, but so are acceptance, empathy and collaboration. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out: FIGHT! is a recurring feature within Harry Hill’s TV Burp.

The term aggression comes from the Latin aggressio, meaning attack.Every night on the news there are reports about murders, wars and rapes. You might want to start by stop watching the news. But the news isn’t the only place where people encounter violent or aggressive behaviour. We see it at work, while commuting, on the tube and in the home. You can observe it in queues, shops offices and in sport. It starts in the school yard and grows as we get older.


I am a huge fan of Psychologist Robert Plutchik, whom identified eight primary emotions which he coordinated in pairs of opposites: joy versus sadness; trust versus disgust; fear versus anger and anticipation versus surprise. He created the 2D wheel and a conical 3D version in 1980 as a tool for understanding his psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion. Intensity of emotion and indicator colour increases toward the centre of the wheel and decreases outward. At the centre terror becomes fear and then apprehension; ecstasy becomes joy and then serenity. Secondary emotions are displayed as combinations of the primary ones. The cross over and closeness is revealing when we look at our emotions towards aggressiveness.

Researchers in ethology (which is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour under natural conditions) believe that aggression confers some sort of biological advantages. It all comes down to economics and the notion that aggression, much like anything else, has benefits and costs. Aggression may help an animal secure territory, including resources such as food and water. Aggression between males often occurs to secure mating opportunities, and results in selection of the healthier/more vigorous animal. Aggression may also occur for self-protection or to protect offspring.

Konrad Lorenz stated in his 1963 classic, On Aggression, that human behaviour is shaped by four main, survival-seeking animal drives.Taken together, these drives—hunger, fear, reproduction, and aggression—achieve natural selection. Well maybe. Humans share aspects of aggression with non-human animals, and have specific aspects and complexity related to factors such as genetics, early development, social learning and flexibility, culture and morals. What are these benefits and costs of aggression? Aggression between groups of animals may also confer advantage; for example, hostile behaviour may force a population of animals into a new territory, where the need to adapt to a new environment may lead to an increase in genetic flexibility.

It is interesting to note that during the Cold War, politicians on both sides used their belief that war was highly likely to justify the manufacture and deployment of more and more nuclear weapons. Yet the belief in the near inevitability of war makes war more likely. In 1978 Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson published a ground breaking book On Human Nature. The book tries to explain how different characteristics of humans and society can be explained from the point of view of evolution. Aggression is, typically, a means of gaining control over resources. Aggression is, thus, aggravated during times when high population densities generate resource shortages. According to Richard Leakey and his colleagues, aggression in humans has also increased by becoming more interested in ownership and by defending his or her property

With increased understanding of the relations between genes and environment behavioural scientists have acquired a deeper understanding of the bases of aggression than was previously possible. The brain is awash in chemicals, including hormones and neuro-transmtters that accentuate or dampen its responses and influence its organisation and operations. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay, amplify, or modulate signals that are sent between neurones and other cells.There are many different hormones and neurotransmitters, of which the most important are glutamate and GABA, which excite and modify synapses. From all of the possibilities explored and the theories made, you might think that there has been a conclusion made about exactly where aggression originates as well as what could incite a particular aggressive action, but there has not been. However the following compounds seem to be most active:

  • Adrenalin, which triggers the fight or flight response
  • Testosterone, which stimulates aggression
  • Oxytocin which instills trust, increases loyalty, and promotes the tend and befriend response
  • Oestrogen, which triggers the release of oxytocin
  • Endorphins, which reinforce collaborative experiences with pleasure
  • Dopamine, which generates a reward response and fortifies addiction
  • Serotonin, which regulates moods
  • Phenylethylaline, which induces excitement and anticipation
  • Vasopressin, which encourages bonding in males in a variety of species

Out of the last few years of neurophysiological research has emerged a new hope that solutions may indeed be found to the chemical and biological sources of aggression. But there is a caveat. While War has yet to be reduced to a simple set of deterministic biochemical events taking place exclusively within the brain, research clearly demonstrates that basic neurological processes provide all of us with alternative sets of instructions that lead either toward impasse or resolution, stasis or transformation, isolation or collaboration. While no one really knows the exact causes of aggression or if it can even be said that there is one thing that causes it. So, although, there may not be one conclusive answer to why people are aggressive, it doesn’t mean that a combination of theories can’t be right or that someday, researchers will find the answer.

The Cold War and the resonant fear of nuclear fear is now largely over, but old wars continue and new ones have been initiated in many parts of the world. You may hear that the waging war as an inevitable consequence of human nature. This attitude is not only dangerous in encouraging the view that war is the method of choice for settling disputes, it is also very wrong. To get the right answer requires not only a profound understanding of how the brain works, but a global shift in our attitude toward conflict, an expanding set of scientifically informed techniques, a humanistic and democratic prioritisation of ethics and values.

We don’t need a fight to know, we need to begin with a willingness to start with ourselves.

Be Amazing Every Day.