I recently watch Steven Pinker's video on violence and figured out that I don't understand the difference between violence and aggression.

According to Wikipedia aggression is:

Aggression, in its broadest sense, is behavior, or a disposition, that is forceful, hostile or attacking.

and for Violence they use the WHO's definition:

the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation

At first sight it seemed that the difference could be intentionality, i.e., aggression has intentionality attached to it and violence doesn't.

But the WHO's report linked says:

The definition used by the WHO associates intentionality with the committing of the act itself, irrespective of the outcome it produces

So the difference is not all that clear to me.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Seems more of a English Language & Usage question to me. $\endgroup$ Dec 26, 2013 at 5:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Violence is behavior, aggression is emotion. You can be violent without being aggressive, and vice versa. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Dec 26, 2013 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ I'm looking for references in the scientific literature on the definition of the terms. So far the only definition I've seen is the WHO's definition but I haven't gone through the list of references in that report, in any case they refer another WHO's report for this definition as well. The issue with Wikipedia references is that they are too many, and I though there should be a "textbook definition" for these two terms since it seems scientists have spend quite some time trying to figure out their origins and how they work. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2013 at 7:16
  • $\begingroup$ I have also read Pinker's book: the blank slate, which talks about violence but I cannot remember if he makes a distinction between violence and aggression, I guess I have to give it another read. Any pointers are welcome. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2013 at 7:21

1 Answer 1


The definition of aggression and violence is a thorny issue, and there is considerable disagreement about the terms between disciplines, but also within disciplines. Sometimes authors use the terms interchangeably.

In psychology, the term aggression is often used as the broader term that encompasses all forms of harmful behavior.

For example, according to the widely cited definition by Baron and Richardson (1994), "aggression is any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment". This would include verbal aggression, or indirect forms of aggression such as gossiping.

In contrast, the term violence is often limited to extreme forms of physical aggression.

For example, Anderson (2000) defines violence in the Encyclopedia of Psychology as

a subtype of aggression, generally used to denote extreme forms of aggression such as murder, rape, and assault. All violence is aggression, but many forms of aggression are not violent.


Baron, R. A., & Richardson, D. (1994). Human aggression. New York: Plenum Press.

Anderson (2000). Aggression and violence. In A.E. Kazdin (Ed.) Encyclopedia of psychology, 8, 162-169. New York & Washington D.C.: Oxford University Press and the American Psychological Association.


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