The imagination of actions which have the goal of causing injury to another organism
Aggressive fantasy refers to the imagination of an act which has the goal of injuring another organism. Functionally, aggressive fantasy may serve to increase the availability of aggressive actions in response to real-world situations and to normalize such aggressive behaviors (Guerra et al. 2003; Huesmann and Eron 1984). Furthermore, in extreme circumstances, aggressive fantasies could also serve as precursors to homicide, through homicidal ideation. If acted upon, homicide has the potential to lead to benefits such as preventing premature death, removing rivals, and gaining resources, among others (Duntley and Buss 2011).
Research on the relationship between aggressive fantasy and real-world aggression dates back more than 60 years. Initially, such research aimed to determine whether aggressive fantasy functioned as a cathartic influence, allowing an individual to displace real-world aggression, and harmlessly release any hostile impulses they may have (Mussen and Rutherford 1961). However, most subsequent research has examined aggressive fantasy as a negative influence, suggesting that fantasizing about aggression stimulates hostile impulses and increases aggressive behaviors. This shift occurred as data increasingly demonstrated that aggressive fantasy had a positive correlation with aggressive behavior. As a result, aggressive fantasy is generally conceptualized as a form of social information processing, where additional factors, such as sex, empathy, psychopathy, violence exposure, and fantasy absorption, may influence the relationship between aggressive fantasy and aggressive behavior (Dean and Malamuth 1997; Smith et al. 2009; Williams et al. 2009).
The Catharsis Hypothesis
The catharsis hypothesis states that engaging in aggressive fantasy allows an individual to harmlessly release their aggressive impulses, and effectively displace their aggression, leading to a reduction of overt aggression (Dollard et al. 1939). Some early research supported this hypothesis; a study by Feshbach (1955) found that participants displayed less aggression toward an experimenter who was rude to them if they were given the opportunity for fantasy than if they were given no opportunity for fantasy. Additionally, research also showed that, in boys who were aged 9–10, aggressive movements decreased aggressive fantasy relative to nonaggressive movements, which suggested that enacting an aggressive goal response results in a cathartic effect, reducing future aggression and aggressive fantasy (Murray and Feshbach 1978).
Evidence Contrary to the Catharsis Hypothesis
In spite of the limited amount of support for the catharsis hypothesis, however, a preponderance of evidence suggests that aggressive fantasy does not have a cathartic effect and even leads to increases in aggression rather than a decrease. For instance, one study showed that lower-class boys were more likely to display overtly aggressive behaviors when they described an aggressive story than when they described a nonaggressive story (Mussen and Naylor 1954). Additionally, children who were assigned to watch an aggressive cartoon subsequently expressed more aggression than those who either observed a nonaggressive cartoon or did not observe a cartoon at all (Mussen and Rutherford 1961). In another experiment, frustration was induced in groups of kindergarten students, and then spontaneous fantasy behavior was either elicited or suppressed. Results showed that children who engaged in fantasy behavior behaved in a significantly more aggressive manner than kindergarteners who did not engage in fantasy play (Lockwood and Roll 1980). Finally, in another study, subjects who hit a punching bag while ruminating about someone who made them angry behaved more aggressively in a subsequent task than subjects who hit a punching bag while thinking about exercise (Bushman 2002). Thus, although the catharsis hypothesis had some limited support among early studies, the majority of research on the subject suggests that such fantasies increase, rather than decrease, real-world aggression.
Aggressive Fantasy as Social Cognition
Current research tends to conceptualize aggressive fantasy as social cognition, which functions to normalize violent and aggressive actions, as well as further aggressive fantasies (Guerra et al. 2003). Simultaneously, aggressive fantasies are cognitively rehearsed, and over time, the availability of aggressive actions is increased in response to real-world situations (Huesmann and Eron 1984). Research supports this hypothesis; a study by Guerra and colleagues examined longitudinal data in children from first to sixth grade and found that increased exposure to violence predicted increased aggressive fantasies, normative beliefs about aggression, and aggressive behaviors. Furthermore, the strength of these relationships increased over time, suggesting that exposure to violence leads to the development of aggressive social cognitions and the imitation of violence as children get older (Guerra et al. 2003). Similarly, a study examining preschool children found that those who tended to engage in higher rates of aggressive fantasies were more likely to display antisocial and aggressive behavior, less likely to help a friend and less likely to display empathic moral sensibilities than children who did not typically engage in aggressive fantasies (Dunn and Hughes 2001). Finally, research on media exposure, including television shows, movies, and video games, shows that exposure to violent media causes increases in aggressive cognitions, aggressive behaviors, and violence (Carnagey and Anderson 2004; Huesmann and Taylor 2006).
Other Factors Affecting Aggressive Fantasy
Research has also examined potential third variables, which may influence the relationship between aggressive fantasy and aggressive behaviors. For instance, research has shown that, among young boys, having a mother who is supportive of aggression leads to a positive correlation between aggressive fantasy and aggressive behavior, while boys whose mothers disapproved of aggressive behavior had a negative correlation between aggressive fantasy and aggressive behavior (Lesser 1957). Additionally, children who are highly prone to fantasy display reduced aggression after they watch a fantasy film, but children who are not fantasy prone display increased aggressive behavior after watching the same fantasy film. While this finding may seem counterintuitive, it is likely due to the fact that children who fantasize more often are more accustomed to fantasy than the others are, resulting in a reduced effect of the fantasy on their subsequent behaviors relative to children who do not fantasize frequently (Biblow 1973). Also, research examining deviant and aggressive sexual fantasies has found that psychopathy moderates this relationship, such that in those with high psychopathy, such fantasies are strongly associated with behaviors enacting these fantasies, but in those with low psychopathy, there is no such correlation between the fantasies and the behaviors enacting them (Williams et al. 2009). Finally, aggressive fantasy and aggressive behavior may be moderated by violence exposure, such that these variables have a strong, positive correlation at high levels of violence exposure, but no relation at low levels of violence exposure (Smith et al. 2009).
Research on aggressive fantasy suggests that such fantasies do not have a cathartic effect on aggression. On the contrary, current research suggests that such fantasies function as social cognitions, which serves to normalize aggressive or violent behavior, and increase aggressive cognitions and behaviors over time. However, research also suggests that several additional variables may be involved in this relationship, including parental approval, proneness to fantasy, psychopathy, media exposure, and violence exposure. Future research should continue to examine the influence of other variables on the relationship between aggressive fantasies and aggressive behaviors.
- Biblow, E. (1973). Imaginative play and the control of aggressive behavior. In J. L. Singer (Ed.), The child’s world of make-believe (pp. 104–128). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
- Carnagey, N. L., & Anderson, C. A. (2004). Violent video game exposure and aggression. Minerva Psichiatrica, 45(1), 1–18.Google Scholar