Indirect aggression is a behavior intended to harm others, particularly others’ social position and self-esteem, through circuitous means. It is a kind of social manipulation, in which the aggressor manipulates other individuals or the social structure to psychologically harm the victim, without the direct confrontation. The related constructs of social and relational aggression also represent the same phenomena in which social community or peer group serves a mediating role between the aggressor and victim. Indirect aggression is exemplified by behaviors such as gossiping behind back, spreading rumors, social exclusion, slandering remarks, etc.
Undoubtedly, aggressive behavior is problematic and a potential formative factor in adjustment problems for both aggressor and victim. Initial research has quite commonly focused on male-oriented models of physical aggression. However, it is clear that the aggressor may sabotage their peers in more subtle ways without being disclosed as an aggressor. By using indirect aggression, the aggressor usually remains unidentified and is at low risk of retaliation and thus avoids counterattack. Although researchers have started considering less direct forms of aggression in the latter half of the twentieth century, they have taken serious interest in indirect aggression since the last decade of the twentieth century (e.g., Crick and Grotpeter 1995). The validity and existence of indirect aggression is also supported by factor analytical studies representing two factors of aggression: first, overt, direct, or physical aggression and, second, covert, indirect, or social aggression (e.g., Crick and Grotpeter 1995).
Regarding socio-environmental correlates, the literature indicates that indirect aggression has been linked with harsh discipline and a lack of positive and supportive parenting during early childhood years (e.g., Park et al. 2005). Moreover, the aggressors using indirect means of aggression show certain cognitive biases such as attributing hostile intentions and a lack of empathy (e.g., Crick et al. 2002). Interestingly, these aggressors as opposed to those who use physical aggression often show superior language skills. They are better at predicting other’s thoughts and actions as well as at persuading and manipulating others by using their advanced cognitive and language skills (e.g., Bonica et al. 2003).
With regard to consequences, the indirectly offending behaviors may elicit the same intensity of pain, psychological harm, or distress at least in the victim as physical aggression may elicit. Evidence shows that indirect and social aggression leaves a range of potentially negative and long-lasting effects on the victim (e.g., Owens et al. 2000). Specifically, the literature describes that indirect aggression is often associated with psychological problems coming under the rubric of internalizing problems. A meta-analysis report shows that indirect aggression is more strongly associated with internalizing problems, but physical aggression is more strongly associated with externalizing problems. Interestingly, these differential associations do not differ across gender (e.g., Card et al. 2008). However, on the part of the aggressor, the use of relational aggression is generally not associated with social adjustment problems. Maybe because of social manipulation, these children become successful in forming very close but maybe short-lived friendships. Also, though some of their peers may not like them, they often hold some dominant position in the group (Johnson and Foster 2005).
Developmental Perspective of Indirect Aggression
The literature describes the validity and psychological consequences of indirect aggression; however, most of the supporting data comes from cross-sectional research with little research focusing on the developmental associations of indirect aggression with environmental correlates and psychological difficulties. From few available longitudinal studies based on children samples, it has been found that expression of physical aggression reduces, but social aggression increases from early childhood onward (Côté et al. 2006). Also, social aggression increases over time in children who are physically aggressive, whereas, the reverse has not been supported. Accordingly, Bjoerkqvist et al. (1992) have presented a developmental model of aggression in children. The model describes that during early childhood years, children express their aggression primarily through physical means because they have not yet developed other expressive tools such as social, verbal, and cognitive skills. As the children develop verbal and communicative skills, they start using verbal aggression, and at around 4–5 years of age, they start using social aggression. In the subsequent stage, relational aggression becomes the primary technique of aggression because it has less risk of being disclosed and ultimately less risk of retaliation (Bjoerkqvist et al. 1992). Genetic studies also support this developmental model by describing that both forms of aggression have common roots and share the same genetic factors (e.g., Brendgen et al. 2005) but show different developmental trends, which may be due to other related factors of cognitive and language skills.
Gender Differences in Indirect Aggression
A diversity of studies in the psychology of aggression has approached the question of gender differences. Two major gender differences in aggression have been observed and reported in the literatures: (i) higher levels of physical aggression in boys and (ii) higher levels of relational aggression in girls. With regard to indirect aggression, it has been reported that these aggressive acts are not commonly reported in boys. Other studies have reported that frequent use of indirect aggressive techniques is found in girls (Crick et al. 1997). Contrarily, a few studies report negligible gender differences in relational aggression. Accordingly, a meta-analysis review based on 148 studies have reported that boys are consistently reported to be more physically aggressive than girls, but gender differences with regard to relational aggression are minimal and trivial though somewhat significant. These patterns of relational aggression are similar across different age and ethnic groups (Card et al. 2008).
Therefore, it appears that during childhood, children may use both forms of aggression but when they grow, they are inclined to use indirect and circuitous means of aggression to attack their victims with minimal gender differences somewhat favoring girls.
In short, validity studies have confirmed two forms of aggression, that are, direct and indirect aggression. Regarding correlates, indirect aggression is related to harsh parenting and cognitive biases on one hand but advanced cognitive and verbal skills on the other hand. Also, it is generally unrelated to social adjustment problems but related to psychological problems of depression, anxiety, and other internalizing problems. The developmental perspective explains that during preschool years, children use physical forms of aggression, but as their language and cognitive skills develop, they start using indirect and social aggression. Finally, it has been discussed that gender differences are clear regarding physical aggression being more common in boys but minimal regarding indirect aggression being slightly more frequent in girls.
- Crick, N. R., Cases, J. F., & Mosher, M. (1997). Relational and overt aggression in Preschool. Developmental Psychology, 33, 579–588.Google Scholar