This cross-sectional self-report study examined reactive
physical aggression and reactive relational aggression as they
relate to psychological distress, social behavior, and relationship quality in college students. A total of 329, primarily
freshman year, college students participated. Results revealed
statistically significant gender differences in the two types of
aggression, as well as significant correlations between
relational and physical aggression and their relation to psychological, social, and relationship quality variables. Exclusivity
was uniquely associated with more reactive relational aggression in females, whereas hostility and depression were
uniquely associated with reactive physical aggression in males.
These results offer support for unique social and psychological factors in females and males, associated with reactive
relational and physical aggression, respectively.
KEY WORDS: distress • reactive aggression • relational aggression
• relationship quality • social behavior
Most of the research attention on aggression has been limited to the study
of overt physical aggression, which uses physical harm to establish or
maintain one’s dominance. Overt aggression may be reactive (i.e., a defensive response to a perceived or actual provocation which is accompanied
Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Copyright © 2007 SAGE Publications
(, Vol. 24(3): 407–421. DOI: 10.1177/0265407507077229
An earlier version of this article was presented to the Western Psychological Association
Conference in Phoenix,Arizona,April 2004. All correspondence concerning this article should
be addressed to Jennifer Lento-Zwolinski, Department of Psychology, University of San
Diego, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110, USA [e-mail: [email protected]]. Ruth
Sharabany was the Action Editor for this article.
by anger) or proactive (i.e., goal-directed, deliberate, does not need a
stimulus to occur, and is accompanied by pleasure or satisfaction; Dodge,
1991). Both subtypes of overt aggression are associated with unique tendencies in social information processing, peer status, biological correlates, and
developmental history (Kempes, Matthys, deVries, & Engeland, 2005).
Unfortunately, less research attention has been given to the study of
proactive and reactive subtypes of covert aggression. Rather, most of the
literature has focused on examining gender and psychosocial differences
between general overt physical aggression and covert relational aggression
(i.e., aggression intended to hurt or harm the target’s social status or interpersonal relationships and which might include ostracism, relationship
manipulation, and character assassination; Crick, 1995, 1996). For instance,
males tend to aggress in overt physical ways to disrupt and damage dominance hierarchies in male peer groups and females tend to aggress in social
ways to damage the social connections the target has in female peer groups
(Xie, Cairns, & Cairns, 2002). However, given the lack of studies differentiating reactive and proactive forms of relational aggression, it is unclear if
females engage in relational aggression as an angry reaction to a perceived
threat to social status (i.e., reactive relational aggression) or if they engage
in relational aggression in order to maintain social status (i.e., proactive
relational aggression). Although reactive physical aggression is associated
with more self-management difficulties than proactive physical aggression
in children, it is unclear how self-management difficulties in young adulthood are related to reactive forms of physical and relational aggression.
This is important to study in young adulthood given the advances in social
skills and cognitive sophistication (e.g., emotional regulation) that would
facilitate adaptive conflict resolution in response to provocation. The current
study sought to investigate the psychosocial factors associated with reactive
forms of relational and physical aggression in young adults.
Social cognitive theory provides one framework for understanding why
relational and physical aggression continue to exist beyond childhood.
Although environmental cues might contribute to aggression, aggressive
social cognitions mediate the impact of these provocations on aggressive
behavior (Egan, Monson, & Perry, 1998). In response to perceived threats,
individuals with deficits in social skills and cognitive sophistication make
more hostile attribution errors (Dodge & Coie, 1987). This difficulty in
interpreting social cues contributes to reactive aggression (Dodge, Lochman,
Harnish, Bates, & Petit, 1997). The specific type of reactive aggression (i.e.,
relational or physical) observed in these individuals might be influenced by
the interpretation and personal significance of the provocation. In females
who tend to use relational aggression, the most significant provocation
contexts are relational threats, whereas the most significant provocation
contexts for males who tend to use physical aggression are instrumental
threats (Crick, 1995).
Individuals with social cognitive deficits in young adulthood are at risk
for a number of social problems. Social difficulties are particularly germane
to relational aggression because the most effective forms of aggression .