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Medical Biological roots of passive agressive (PA) personality? PA disorder?

  1. Dec 31, 2005 #1


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    Does anyone have insights or a perspective on the possible biological roots of PA behavior (or disorder)? I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or biologist, but when I think of the evolution of the species it kind of seems obvious that the mammals lived a hard life under the dinosaurs' feet. Then other large predators like the birds replaced the dinosaurs. Moreover, it seems justified to think that primate species tend to be among the weaker mammals. Overall, humans have far more frightened ancestors than frightsome ancestors. (In contrast, the domestic chicken's lineage includes the mighty dinosaur! Anyone else see an irony here? In terms of our collective subconscious, can this be an explanation for the chicken's top slot on our menu?)

    My conclusion, based on the above premise, is that humans' evolutionary past must have reinforced the type of behavior patterns (as survival traits) that may be similar to what psychologists call passive agressive behavior.

    Example: since a direct confrontation with a dinosaur was unlikely to end in its favor, the small mammal did not openly challenge a dinosaur's territory. Instead, it fled and hid in a dark corner of the said territory (or just outside of it) and waited for a chance to sneak into the dino nest and devour the dino egg. It thus undermined the dinosaur's very existence in a non-confrontational way. Kind of like partisan resistance or guerilla warfare, which are passive-agressive war methods.

    Has this been thought of before? Researched? Or am I far out?
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 1, 2006 #2
    This is more of a social science question than a Biology one in my view. I do not think that you can tie this behavior *directly* to any inborn biological behavior. A lot of the "symptoms" of this disorder require a society and a job system in order for it to proliferate and most animals living in the wild have neither.

    If we created societies that encouraged directness and honesty and punished indirect actions (for example), then people would actually fear acting this way and we would be writing about "overly direct disorders", because in such a ficticious society if they were "found" out to be lying it would be very bad for them. In reality, the opposite happens to be true only because in general it is people lower on the food chain in our societies (the many) that have to rely on "passive aggressive" behavior because the society dictates that they CAN'T be direct about their wants and needs without repercussions. For example, a person may not want to do a task from their boss, but the boss has "ego" issues and would treat a "no" answer as dissention. In such a case, you are left with no alternatives but to work around the problem or risk losing your job. And so it goes.

    From my observations, you very rarely see people who DO have the power to say "no" without fear of repercussion participate in "passive aggressive" behavior. So such behavior in my view exists as a byproduct of our social constructs. Hence, the idea originated and remains in the social sciences (where it belongs :wink:).
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2006
  4. Jan 1, 2006 #3
    There is a misunderstanding of passive-agressive behavior here. It isn't a successful defense mechanism, but gets the person into increasing trouble and disfavor. Passive agression isn't waiting untill things are safe in order to act, it is when a person channels their hostility into indirect and inexplicable methods of revenge. If a passive-aggresive person is angry at someone, they take it out on them by suddenly creating delays when a quick departure to get to a meeting is necessary, for example, or by negelecting to, say, call the cable repairman when asked but giving some rationalized excuse for why they couldn't, or by "accidently" breaking something the other person needs or likes. This doesn't benefit them in any way, it just irritates people and they become disliked and distrusted. It doesn't add up to a "safe" way of avoiding confrontations.
  5. Jan 1, 2006 #4
    zoobyshoe, that seems to be an extreme example of the behavior. A lot of times people ARE successful employing these kinds of tactics, even the hostile ones. For example, the democratic party here in the USA is behaving this way at the moment almost exclusively (not to say that it always wins, but I can think of a few times in recent memory where it did win). If you do anything in "secret" to the point of being exposed to the person you are doing it too it can be detrimental, but from what I have read at least, the definition of the condition does not necessarily lead a person to be hated or lead to them being exposed. From wikipedia:

    From person experience, I have worked for a company where the ONLY way to succeed was to be passive agressive in this manner (because your bosses were this way). If you tried to be honest and direct (which is what I tried to be at least), and not try to undermine anyone or get out of things by outright lying, you would actually be eliminated because your superiors would see you as a threat (of course, I did work in the entertainment industry when I observed this, but still...).
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2006
  6. Jan 1, 2006 #5
    Adopting such a tactic deliberately as a tactic isn't authentic passive-aggressive behavior. The concept is a psychiatric one and is used to describe people who don't seem to have any control over the impulse to react this way. The whole reason it came to the attention of psychiatry is because the person can't stop it when appropriate, and it ends up being a problem for them. It really isn't accurate to call a potilical tactic like "fillibustering" "passive-aggressive behavior". It only confuses understanding of the psychiatric condition. Whenever this sort of tactic is used in politics, sports, any kind of game or competition, it's deliberate and under control, and while we might debate how "fair" it is, it isn't pathological (i.e. not a symptom of a disorder or disease).
  7. Jan 1, 2006 #6
    I agree that when the behavior manifests itself as a pathological disorder then the effect can be crippling on an individual's success (I have seen examples of this too), the main reason being that it makes the individual's behavior too obvious. The disorder is described in the wikipedia link below the actual description for PA behavior that I quoted above. Like most disorders it is simply a chronic manifestation of a more basic social behavior.

    Not to say that all humans behave this way, but we are deluding ourselves if we believe such "sinister" tactics don't yield results (if it didn't politics as we know it would collapse!). In fact, the reason why the tactic can be so effective I have found is that most people do NOT behave this way and hence are easy victims for the tactic because they cannot detect when it is actually being employed (i.e. they don't know they are being passively attacked because the attack is very subtle and indirect). I sure was clueless about this sort of thing, before I worked in Hollywood (where you'd have to be lobotomized not to figure out what people around you are doing).

    For other honest people who would like to see a vivid example of PA behavior so that they can better defend themselves do read Chordelos De Laclos "Dangerous Liasons." (The book, NOT the movie: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0192838679/002-4055422-0616068?v=glance&n=283155). It gives the most vivid look at the psychology of passive agressive warefare that I have ever seen (behavior that took advantage of the constraints of the moral authority of the time).
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 21, 2017
  8. Jan 1, 2006 #7
    As you probably know, the wikipedia is made up of entries submitted by anyone on the net who wants to submit something. No expertise or qualifications required. If you feel you can explain a term well, you are free to go ahead and do it. You should never rely on wikipedia as an authoritative source.

    The essay you quoted is not badly written but suffers from confusion of the psychiatric term with it's casual misuse in everyday speech.
    By saying this you are restoring the confusion I put some effort into clearing up. Rather than refering to this behavior when used as a deliberate tactic as "passive-agressive" you should for clarity's sake find different terms. Some specific versions already have perfectly good names: "fillibustering" as I mentioned, also "sandbagging" comes to mind. I've also heard the term "malicious obedience", which probably falls into this category.

    In other words, when I say passive agressive behavior is not a successful strategy, I am not deluding myself, I'm simply using the term "passive-aggressive" accurately.

    Alot of psychiatric terms have an inaccurate usage in everyday speech. The word "schizophrenic" is applied to people's behavior frequently in a casual, everyday speech to refer to behaviors that are actually quite distinct from the authentic psychiatric illness. If you want to discuss behaviors that might be casually refered to as "schizophrenic" you really have to find a more appropriate term or terms.
  9. Jan 1, 2006 #8
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2006
  10. Jan 1, 2006 #9
    The conclusion is pretty much what I said:

    "We'll let the specialists work out the details. For now, though, we lay folk should strive to use the term "passive-aggressive" more precisely in everyday life. Say for instance that a coworker cheerfully agrees to refrain from a specified uncool act, then does it anyway. Is this passive-aggressive behavior? No, this is being an a-hole. Comforting as it can be to pigeonhole our tormentors with off-the-shelf psychiatric diagnoses, sometimes it's best just to call a jerk a jerk."


    "Rather than refering to this behavior when used as a deliberate tactic as "passive-agressive" you should for clarity's sake find different terms. Some specific versions already have perfectly good names: "fillibustering" as I mentioned, also "sandbagging" comes to mind. I've also heard the term "malicious obedience", which probably falls into this category."
  11. Jan 1, 2006 #10
    The point of that article was:
    So if we use the narrow clinical definition then the idea is practically useless, hence the debate even within the medical community over what it means :grumpy:
  12. Jan 2, 2006 #11
    That writer is casually exaggerating for effect. The definition that is in the DSM is not so rigorous that "almost no one" has it.

    This is the part that caused the drop in the diagnosis:

    "Reacting to such criticism, the authors of previous versions of the DSM had defined PAPD narrowly: in DSM-III (1980), they'd said PAPD shouldn't be diagnosed in the presence of any other disorder (you can see how depression might contribute to procrastination or sulkiness, for example)."

    In other words, shrinks were instructed to ignore passive-aggression if the patient had any concommitant disorder. This is pretty unusual because there's no such restriction in any other case. Dual diagnoses are common. So, when they were confronted with a patient who was passive-agressive, but also depressed, they had to ingore the passive aggression aspect, even if they might be sure it wasn't pseudo-passive aggression resulting from the depression.

    That author also fails to put the dispute about it in the psychiatric community into perspective. All the diagnoses in the DSM are constantly in question, and there are always many revisions from one edition to the next.

    The OP, in asking about "PA behavior (or disorder)," showed a clear misunderstanding about the disorder, and erroneously assumed it to be an effective thing that might have evolved for good reasons. If someone effectively uses tactics that are superficially similar it still shouldn't rightly be called "passive aggression" for the same reason that situational extreme caution shouldn't rightly be called "paranoia", or situational dieting shouldn't be called "anorexia". A passive-aggressive person is not reacting to an exclusive situation. They always react this way, even when direct confrontation is acceptable, and that's why it is considered a disorder.

    If you understand the psychiatric definition you should be able to see why an authentically passive aggressive person is also going to exhibit clear signs of depression. By preventing shrinks from giving the diagnosis when depresion is present, the makers of the DSM rather stupidly created a catch-22, and they haven't resolved it for some reason. That doesn't mean the disorder doesn't exist or that it's so rare almost no one has it. They just haven't been able to arrive at a clear way to distinguish between passive aggression with concommitant depression, and depression with features that can be mistaken for passive-aggression.
  13. Jan 2, 2006 #12


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    Isn't there a distinction between a behavior pattern and a disorder, though? (I did not make this distinction explicitly in my OP.)

    An otherwise healthy person may become depressed when he or she loses someone loved. That's not a disorder, but in fact a normal reaction. Fear is not a disorder, paranoia is.

    In light of this distinction, it is possible to identify PA type behavior or politics that are not psychological disorders. Mahatma Gandhi has been cited as an example. Guerilla warfare can be seen as another example.

    I agree that this type of behavior can be reinforced by social contracts or constraints, but it can also have biological roots. In fact, a principal's reinforcement of PA behavior in his or her subordinates may itself have biological roots. If a person was the underdog in grade one through college, that may later manifest itself as a personality that is prone to anger when challenged directly, which in turn reinforces PA in other people (people who have to interact with this person). Similarly, if a species was the underdog during 90% of its existence, it may have developed this dual behavior pattern (extreme anger / PA reaction).
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2006
  14. Jan 8, 2006 #13
    I think all disorders would fall into the category of behavior patterns, but not all behavior patterns would be disorders.
    What you're saying is true, but if you are leading up to addressing passive-agressive qualities as mere "behavior patterns" then these examples you cite are taking you in the wrong direction. Depression or fear as a "behavior pattern" would be considered unhealthy.
    Yes, I said so a couple times already. There are lots of strategic manoevers that resemble passive agression. I don't think, for accuracy's sake, you should use the term "passive agressive" for these things, though.
    But I think this is inaccurate. Gandhi wasn't being "aggressive", rather he was being assertive.
    This is definitely not "passive-agression". It's just sneaky active agression.
    I'm not sure what species you would call a "passive-agressive" species. I can't think of any that fit. Hiding when your predator is around isn't passive-agression, nor is scavenging, nor is a sneak attack. Just because something isn't direct confrontation doesn't make it passive-agression. I have to return to the point that authentic passive agression is dysfunctional; it's not a successful tactic, and just makes things worse for the person.
    If you were to spoil a co-worker's cool before an important meeting with an executive by spilling coffee on him, say, because you were both in competition for the same promotion, that's not passive-agression. It's just sneaky and underhanded.

    If the same guy gets the promotion and is now above you on the ladder, and you spill coffee on him to vent your jealousy, that's passive-agression.
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2006
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