When Aggression is Protective: The Health Benefits of Destructive Behavior During Adversity

Behaviors such as bullying or stealing are usually considered destructive. Moreover, these types of behaviors are more likely to be seen in children who grow up with more adversity. Once thought as maladaptive, recent research suggests there may be some important benefits in certain contexts. Evolutionary approaches suggest that these behaviors are important for survival. In addition, there is some evidence that aggression can lower stress levels. For example, in multiple rat studies, researchers have found that biting suppresses the stress-induced chemical and hormonal response in the brain and body. Destructive behavior in general can also increase access to resources in some contexts, such as material goods gained from stealing or social status and sexual opportunity from aggression.

Given this body of work, Dr. Stacey Doan and colleagues wondered whether destructive and disobedient behavior, with its survival value in harsher contexts and effect on stress, might influence the physical health of those facing early adversity. The researchers surveyed 260 children on various risk factors for adversity and measured their chronic stress, also known as allostatic load, through urine samples, body mass index measurements, and blood pressure readings. Their guardians were also surveyed on various behaviors of the children, such as stealing, destruction of property, disobedience, and bullying.

The researchers found that these destructive behaviors can buffer the effect of adversity on physical health. In other words, among those with high levels of adversity, those who are destructive or disobedient show less wear and tear physiologically than those who are less destructive. They also found that these findings are more pronounced for men than for women. This gender difference was thought to be due to the idea that aggression is more encouraged and accepted in males than females.

This research, to be published soon in Nature: Scientific Reports, is an exciting step forward in understanding these behaviors more holistically and how they may contribute to the regulation of stress. Future researchers can build off of this new line of research and pave the way for more informed and effective interventions.