Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Temper trap: the genetics of aggression and self-control

By Tom Denson

A new study concludes that people who are genetically predisposed toward aggression have inefficient functioning in brain regions that control emotions.

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Everyone knows someone with a quick temper – it might even be you. And while scientists have known for decades that aggression is hereditary, there is another biological layer to those angry flare-ups: self-control.

In a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, my colleagues and I found that people who are genetically predisposed toward aggression try hard to control their anger, but have inefficient functioning in brain regions that control emotions.

In other words, self-control is, in part, biological.

Genetic explanations for social behaviour tend to be unpopular – and for good reason. The notion that some of our interactions with fellow humans may be partially determined by our ancestry goes against the “all people are created equal” or “fair go” ethos of democratic societies.

Detractors of genetic causes of social behaviour are often on the right track. Many personality characteristics are only moderately influenced by genes. But whether we like it or not, aggressiveness is one social behaviour that has a particularly strong genetic basis.

A violent history

Aggression is with us today because in our ancestral past, it helped our forebears survive and reproduce. It’s hard to imagine now, but before there...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.