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Understanding Responses to Aggression: An Experimental Investigation of Personality and Fear of Retaliation on Aggressive and Non-Aggressive Behaviors Today’s workplace is often portrayed as an arduous and harsh reality, particularly given the rise in media coverage of aggressive acts at work (Stone, 1995; Stuart, 1992). Some even argue that incidents of workplace aggression are as commonplace as car accidents (Stussie, 2002). It appears these sentiments are not entirely unfounded. A study by Pinkerton of Fortune 1000 companies suggests workplace aggression is the leading security threat facing corporate America today (Security, 2001). According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM; 2005) a major reason for this security threat is that aggression is never completely preventable and threatens the physical and psychological safety of organizational members. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported more than 1,000 workplace homicides occur annually and 12% of non-fatal violent crimes resulted in the injuries to victims (Warchol, 1998). However, workplace aggression does not only involve violence (or physical assault).

According to the BJS, of the 9 million accounts of workplace aggression reported between the years 1992 and 1996, 6 million were non-violent incidents (e.g., verbal attacks, threats, intimidation) (BJS, 1998).

Although considerable efforts have been made to understand workplace aggression, less attention has been given to identifying specific reactions to aggression. We know much about factors that intensify aggression at work (see Baron, 2004 and Neuman & Baron, 1998 for reviews). We also know much of the different types of aggression individuals engage in at work (see Neuman & Baron, 2005 for a review). However, we know far less about how individuals react to aggression and what influences those reactions. Aggression researchers suggest aggressive reactions are normal and instinctual reaction, and therefore aggression is a likely response to aggression (e.g., Lorenz, 1966; Geen, 1990). Still, we also know that individuals do not always react aggressively; some even react constructively (e.g., Keashly, Trott, & MacLean, 1994; Tepper, Duffy, & Shaw, 2001).

Aggression researchers contend that characteristics of the situation and the individual perceiving the act influence reactions to aggression (e.g., Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Baron, 2004). For example, Baron (2004) argues reactions depend on restraining factors of the situation, like fear of future punishments or retaliation from the harmdoer. Further, aggression research has identified a number of personality traits that influence individuals’ reactions to aggression (e.g., trait anger, locus of control) (see Anderson & Bushman, 2002 for a review).

Therefore, in order to understand reactions to aggression and what causes an individual to react aggressively or non-aggressively, it is important to consider factors that might influence those reactions.

The purpose of this paper is to investigate behavioral reactions to perceived aggression.

In particular, I investigate what makes individuals react aggressively or non-aggressively to perceived aggression. In doing so, I explore factors that aggression researchers suggest influence aggressive and non-aggressive reactions to aggression. Specifically, I investigate the moderating effects of fear of retaliation, trait anger, locus of control, and need for social approval.

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Aggression theorists argue that aggression involves “any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment” (Baron & Richardson, 1994: 7). One defining characteristic of aggression is that it is behavior driven by motives to harm the target. Intention to harm, however, is not something that can be easily observed, but is more or less inferred from the behavior itself (Geen, 1990).

Tedeschi and colleagues (Brown & Tedeschi, 1976; Tedeschi & Bond, 2001) argue that acts are considered aggression when an observer “attributes harmful intentions” about the behavior (Tedeschi & Bond, 2001: 258). Therefore, aggression is defined by the recipient of the behavior.

Thus, in the context of understanding reactions to aggression, taking the recipient or victim’s point of view is particularly important. Simply put, individuals who do not believe they are intentionally harmed will not perceive the act as aggression and, therefore, may not react.

Even if the offender intends to harm the victim, if the victim does not perceive the behavior as intentionally harmful, the behavior may not elicit a response. Consequently, the offender’s intention is irrelevant. Should the victim respond to behavior that is not perceived to be intentionally harmful, whatever reactions that do occur are not in response to aggression. Only behavior that is perceived to be intentionally harmful by the victim are considered aggression, and only behaviors that the victim perceives as aggression can stimulate a response to aggression. Therefore, in this study, I consider only behaviors that the victim believes were carried out with the intention to inflict harm.

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There is considerable research evidence that suggests aggression promotes the instigation of aggression (see Anderson & Bushman, 2002 and Berkowitz, 1998 for reviews). In fact, some argue that interpersonal aggression is the most important single instigator of human aggression (e.g., Berkowitz, 1993; Geen, 1990). Berkowitz (1993, 1998) contends that aggression promotes affective reactions, and when emotions involve anger, fight responses are triggered (i.e., aggression). Tedeschi and Felson (1994) argue that individuals react to aggression with aggression in order to stop further attacks. Essentially, they argue that aggressive reactions attempt to punish the harmdoer, thereby preventing future attacks against the initial victim.

Indeed, research provides support for this notion (e.g., Axelrod, 1984; Bies & Tripp, 1998).

Workplace aggression researchers argue that aggressive reactions to aggression can also seek to “make the wrongdoer pay” for the harm befallen the victim (e.g., Bies, 2001; Bies & Tripp, 1996; Folger & Skarlicki, 1998). For example, Bies and colleagues (Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2001; Bies & Tripp, 1996, 1998) argue that when individuals are mistreated they may engage in revenge, defined as “an action in response to some perceived harm or wrongdoing by another party that is intended to inflict damage, injury, discomfort, or punishment on the party judged responsible” (Aquino et al., 2001: 53). Similarly, Skarlicki and Folger (2005) contend retaliation may occur to “even the score” or “get back at” the harmdoer.

Workplace aggression research provides evidence that aggression instigates retaliatory reactions. For example, research shows perceived mistreatment positively influences retaliation (Skarlicki & Folger, 1997; Skarlicki, Folger, & Tesluk, 1999) and revenge (Bies & Tripp, 1996, 1998). More specifically, Aquino et al. (2001) found that when individuals felt the harmdoer was to blame for their mistreatment, they sought revenge. These results suggest that acts perceived to be intentionally harmful promote retaliatory behavior. From this research, Jones (2003) sought to investigate aggression (reactions that intend to inflict harm) as a response to mistreatment. He found that individuals differentiate the source of the harm with their reactions and specifically and intentionally target aggression toward source of the mistreatment.

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