Who Started it? Investigating aggression perception in romantic couples

Ishani Khemka
Friday 30 June 2023

Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of domestic abuse.  

The complex study of aggression in psychology gained popularity around the 1960s. Since then, the effects of aggression have been explored through many different dimensions such as violence, disorders, and relationship changes. Much of the psychological literature surrounding aggression in relationships has focussed on the aftereffects of abuse, specifically how it impacts recipients of abuse. This is extremely important as it allows us to identify ways in which we can aid survivors. However, research that is equally important is understanding what provokes aggression. Due to both ethical reasons and methodological problems, studying aggression perception during conflict is complex and hard to replicate. This is something that Annah McCurry, a PhD student in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, is attempting to gauge a deeper understanding of.  

Annah, who studies intimate partner violence, has just finished analysing the data for her first study on how emotional arousal and regulation effect the perception of violence in couples. “For the past twenty or so years, literature on violence manifestation through aggression in adults has focussed on impulsivity. However, for children emotional arousal is considered central to aggressive behaviours. Recently, studying aggressive behaviours in adults through emotional regulation has been gaining popularity”, she says. What Annah is studying is emotional co-regulation, wherein she tries to understand how both parties’ emotional regulation affects their behaviour in a conflict situation. 

Image: Annah McCurry 

The Experiment  

Setting up a Competitive Reaction Time Task (CRTT), Annah asked the participants, who were couples, sit face-to-face in a room and play a video game against each other. Once somebody won, they were requested to press a button which would transmit a sound blast to their partner. This blast would emit at a noise level of the winners choosing, which was considered as an index for aggression. It’s important to note here that whilst all violence is considered aggression, all aggression is not violent. This was a methodologically ethical way to study the aggression that can predispose violence without having the situation become violent.  

Annah then used a Facial Action Coding System (FACS) which can track the movement of every muscle in one’s face and can also determine which sets of movements indicate certain emotions. This would thus, objectively report the emotions experienced by both participants throughout the experiment. Finally, the participants were asked what their own experience was like and what they believed their partners experience was like. The researchers then compared the statements provided by each pair, and the data collected by FACS. 


It was found that individuals rarely agreed on each other’s perception of the event, as people tended to report more anger and aggression in their partner than in themselves.  Participants were also inaccurate when recalling their own emotional states, which falls in line with previous research that suggests that people are often bad at recalling their affective states.  

Fascinatingly, another finding suggested that the higher the blast level, the more disgust was exhibited by the individual receiving it as opposed to anger, which revealed that in a conflict situation people often mislabeled disgust as anger in both themselves and others. This calls upon the difference in the emotions that provoke aggression. While social psychologists use self-reports to determine what causes aggression, novel uses of AI have allowed behavioural scientists to determine, that more often than not, it is disgust that provokes aggression.  

A study such as this one had never been done using a face-to-face approach, and while this aspect improved the CRTT method by provoking more conflict, couples actually experienced happiness more than any other emotion. In her next steps, Annah is aiming to (begrudgingly) make the study less fun. She plans to conduct two more studies, with changes in the methods to validate her findings. While these findings will fill current gaps in aggression research, Annah is also very interested in generating impact.  

A Glimpse into The Future 

Having worked as a Domestic Violence frontline worker at a women’s shelter in Canada, Annah is determined to generate an impact on both policies, and the lives of those who have experienced domestic abuse. She aims to do so by increasing an awareness of the intricacies of domestic abuse and making research surrounding it more readable and accessible. To transform this into a reality, Annah is currently in the final stages of developing a prototype website called “Domestic Violence Research and Impact in Scotland”. This will contain easy to understand infographics and consistently updated statistics to further her cause.  

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