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  • Claire Lawrence

Aggression and ambiguity

One of the main factors that triggers aggression in both men and women is if we believe that someone has intended to harm us in some way. As we move out of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, I've been struck by just how important it is for us to be clear in our intentions. If we think that someone is not sticking to the rules because they don’t care about potentially causing us harm (perhaps they aren’t wearing a mask, or observing an appropriate social distance), then the chances of us acting aggressively in response starts to increase. If we believe that their behaviour is due to some unintentional reason (perhaps they aren’t wearing a mask because they are exempt), then the chances are, we will ‘let it go’.

So, how do we decide whether people are trying to harm us by intent or negligence? As humans, we have a whole range of tools at our disposal. We might consider their facial expressions, or their body language as well as what they actually say or do.

In our latest paper, we looked at whether the speed at which we make these decisions about other people’s intentions makes us more or less likely to think they have been hostile. Are we quick to see hostility in other people’s actions or are we quicker to forgive?


What did we find? In our study, we looked especially at men and women who were typically quick to be provoked. The faster they made decisions about whether or not a person's behaviour was , the more likely men were to make attributions of hostile intent while faster decisions were linked to women making attributions of low intent.


We know ambiguity can lead to attributions of hostility, so we should ask ourselves:


How much do we leave the behaviours and systems in our businesses and everyday lives open to interpretation?



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