Research Highlights

Intentions matter: Children with chronic aggression lash back if they suspect malice

Published online 22 July 2015

Pakinam Amer

Some children are more aggressive than others, but when children believe a provocateur is acting with "hostile intent," they're more likely to react more violently, a new study reveals1

A team of international researchers, including Suha M. Al-Hassan, from the department of Special Education of the Hashemite University, Jordan, now blame a psychological process called "hostile attributional bias" — in which prediction of hostile intent increases a child's tendency to react aggressively to a perceived threat.

Over time, and when repeated across interactions, this prediction and reaction cycle — in the paper's words, "the pattern of hypervigilance to threat, hostile attribution of intent, and reactive aggression" — can turn into more chronic problems. 

The study sampled 1,220 children from nine countries worldwide across four years. Each child participant was presented with 10 hypothetical situations depicting provocation towards them. In each situation, they were asked to attribute an intent, from hostile to benign, to the imaginary provocateur and to predict their own reactions, from non-aggressive to aggressive, accordingly. 

The researchers found two patterns that combine to account for aggressive behaviour problems. 

“The first pattern is that children’s tendencies to perceive others as hostile leads to initial growth in their aggressive behaviour, so their attributional bias is an early cause of their aggression,” explains the study’s primary investigator Kenneth Dodge. “Second, once children become aggressive, others around them begin to react negatively toward them; as this behavioural reality develops, it reinforces the tendency by aggressive children to interpret peers’ behaviour as hostile and perpetuates their hostile attributional bias. Thus, the pattern becomes a vicious cycle.”

The findings of the study held across the social cultures and contexts, among boys and girls, represented by participants. They incidentally provide "compelling evidence" that the reported differences in rates of chronic aggressive behaviour problems "can be statistically accounted for," say the authors.


  1. Dodge, K. A. et al. Hostile attributional bias and aggressive behavior in global context. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. (2015).