AP Psychology Study Resource: Instrumental Aggression

Are you an aggressive person? One of the greatest tools of psychology exists in the Generalized Aggression Model, or the GAM.

What is the GAM?

Closed hands

The GAM The GAM’s main function is to combine the theories of aggression into one larger theory that explains why people behave aggressively.

According to the model, there are definitely prompts that cause aggressive behavior in people and they can be summarized in two main categories.

Personal Influence Can Affect Aggression

The factors that affect personal aggression are mostly rooted in how that person views the world and their general outlook on life.

Sometimes, they believe that aggression is productive.

They might think that, by being aggressive, they are asserting themselves and making themselves more apt to achieve their goals. They might also be a personality type that becomes very easily irritated.  Some people are “short fused,” so to speak and easily annoyed or angered.

There is another group of people that believe, for whatever reason, that the world holds certain biases or is somehow stacked against them.  They might respond more aggressively to the world because they feel that the world is overly aggressive toward them.

Situational Aggression is Also a Factor

Man pushing rocks

Sometimes, the heat can get to us. We might also be pushed to an aggressive behavior because of the way we really are being treated by someone in our life.

We could also be struggling from particularly high stress levels or a recent hurt that is inciting an out of character response from us.

What are the Different Types of Aggression?

a shadow of two faces

It has been suggested that there are three different types of aggression.

Impulse Aggression

Impulse Aggression is fueled purely by hostility in the spur of the moment. This is the type of aggression that is to blame for things like road rage, bar fights, and crimes of passion. Your short-fused cousin is afflicted with this.

When a person is easily angered to the point of violence or other cruelty, they are struggling to control the aggression that occurs as a result of impulse.

Goal-Oriented Aggression

Goal-oriented aggression refers to aggression that takes place in an attempt to achieve a goal. Often, it takes place outside of a hostile environment. An example of this type of aggression would be someone hiring a hitman to “take out” their spouse in order to achieve life insurance. It could also relate to someone defacing an opposing school’s mascot before a particularly important sporting event.

Instrumental Aggression

Instrumental Aggression is often, but not always, the precursor to goal-oriented aggression. Unlike impulse aggression, instrumental aggression is thoughtfully calculated and planned well in advance of the actual act.

How Does Instrumental Aggression Work?

There are five main ways that Instrumental Aggression is different from the other types of aggression.

Instrumental Aggression is Planned Ahead and Intentional

When we are acting because of instrumental aggression, we are planning out our next move. As children, we are exposed to this type of aggression when we first come into knowledge of cartoon villains and their “Master Plans.” We never act out instrumental aggression by accident. It is always something that we know we are doing in the process of doing it and we do it with malicious intent.

Instrumental Aggression is Often Executed to Shed a Positive Light on the Aggressor

You’ll often hear that people who implement instrumental aggression, regularly in their lives, are driven to put themselves on a pedestal or appear better than those around them, particularly those they are acting against.

While not always related, instrumental aggression is a common symptom of a narcissistic personality.

Instrumental Aggression is Often Goal-Oriented

People often act out instrumental aggression as a means of acquiring or reaching a goal.

Again, this is not always the case.

But more often than not, when someone coldly calculates an act of aggression, they are doing so in an attempt to get something or somewhere.

Instrumental Aggression Seeks to Avoid Consequences

The point of plotting out an act of aggression is usually to plan a way to avoid consequences.

Usually, they will be simultaneously be plotting an alibi or a back up plan. That way, if the act doesn’t work out as it should, they won’t be punished for what they have done.

Instrumental Aggression is Committed With Intent to Harm Someone Else

Nobody plots aggression against a tree. Instrumental aggression is always meant to harm someone.

While harming someone might not be the main goal of the action, there is always an element of the aggression that is hurtful. That person is usually the target of the aggression, although sometimes they are simply seen as “collateral damage.”

What are Some Examples of Instrumental Aggression?

pen and paper with To Do List word

There have been numerous historical occurrences of instrumental aggression. A few of them are outlined below.

World Trade Center Bombings

The World Trade Center Bombing was one of the greatest tragedies to ever occur on American soil. The attackers plotted the event years in advance, gaining pilot licenses and moving to the United States to set up their plan locally before execution.

The morning of the attack, they boarded planes in different parts of the country, all with a similar and heinous goal in mind.

At the end of the day, thousands were dead and the world was forever changed as a result of these actions.


Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were kids that lived on the fringes of society. They were often viewed as strange and they were both known to act out with impulsive aggression at times.

What nobody knew until after tragedy occurred, though, was that they were plotting something very dark.

On April 20th, 2001, the two teenage boys walked into school armed with guns and pre-made pipe bombs and took aim at their classmates and teachers, resulting in the most disastrous school massacre to have hit America so far.

After the event, investigators uncovered diaries and videotapes outlining the plan long before the day actually arrived.

Murder of Laci Peterson

Scott Peterson reported his pregnant wife missing on Christmas. He said she had left to walk the dog, then never come home. Investigators were initially suspicious of him because he acted strangely in the days following the disappearance. They hypothesized that he killed her during an argument and had disposed of the body in haste.

As the investigation unfolded, though, they learned that Scott had actually become engaged to another woman, who knew nothing about his wife or expectant child. He had actually murdered Laci in an effort to do away with his first marriage and child while simultaneously paying for his second wedding using her life insurance.

At this point, they determined that he was actually acting out a form of instrumental aggression. His wife and child’s murder was executed with a purpose after a considerable amount of planning. This included building himself an alibi by going fishing that day (in the very same spot where he disposed of her body).

The Oklahoma City  Bombing

Timothy McVeigh wanted to exact his revenge against the American government, which he felt had been corrupted. To do this, he parked a truck-turned-fertilizer bomb in the parking lot of the Oklahoma City Federal building and allowed it to detonate, killing over 150 people and injuring hundreds more.

Among the victims were small children who were being watched in the Federal Building’s daycare facility. He later referred to those lives lost and harmed as “collateral” that had to suffer in order for him to make his statement.

The Eerie, Pennsylvania Collar Bomb Heist

On a sunny day in Eerie, Pennsylvania, a man robbed a bank with a bomb attached to a collar around his neck. When he was eventually stopped, he explained to the police that he was executing the crime because he was told that if he didn’t he would be blown up.

As they waited for the bomb squad to arrive, the bomb detonated. It killed him before he could make any statements about who had secured the bomb to his neck to begin with.

After years of investigation, it was determined that the plot was executed by a local woman and her boyfriend, who lured the man to a remote place by ordering a pizza from the restaurant where he worked. They attached the collar bomb and sent him to rob the bank. This would then give them the money to afford a hitman to kill the woman’s father so that she could get her hands on a larger inheritance.

They had used a hostage to commit the crime to avoid punishment, although it all eventually traced right back to them. This is a case of multi-layered instrumental aggression.


In Summary

Instrumental aggression is one of three main types of aggression that are scored on the GAD. It is calculated and cold. It is often used as part of a scheme to achieve a larger goal or to appear better than those the aggressor is acting against.

Terrorist attacks are examples of instrumental aggression because they are so often calculated. They’re used to express a larger statement or achieve an otherwise questionable goal.