The idea that martial arts training will have beneficial psychological effects in the form of better control, discipline, attention, and self-respect is often suggested in local newspaper advertisements as teachers and clubs seek new students. This paper will review the research literature to examine whether any or all of these claims are supported. The first section will examine some aspects of aggression, which is intimately concerned with the fighting arts. The second section presents a review of the literature concerning the psychological effects of martial arts while the final section contains some recommendations concerning martial arts and education.


A benefit of training claimed by the fighting arts, from Tai Chi to boxing, and by many sports, is the reduction of aggression in their participants. Since even those psychologists who study aggression have difficulty defining what it is, this paper offers several conceptual scales which can be used as tools when considering the topic. Many of the other psychological effects claimed for the fighting arts, such as a reduction in fear and increased self-esteem, are also considered in the following scales.

After these scales have been introduced and explained, several possible mechanisms by which the fighting arts may influence them will be discussed. As the papers are reviewed these potential mechanisms will then be examined in light of current research findings.


We will leave the strict definition of aggression for the moment, and first consider the ultimate source of aggressive behavior. The roots of aggression are usually considered in the context of the "nature vs. nurture" discussion which contains two basic, seemingly conflicting assumptions. The "nature" camp believes that aggression is rooted in man's animal past as an innate, perhaps instinctive response to the world. The "nurture" camp rejects this view and instead begins with the assumption that man is a "blank slate" a tabula rasa upon which society and the environment writes the aggressive behavior according to what is learned. These two theoretical assumptions are the opposite ends of our root scale. The gradations within the scale tend to be where most researchers place the causes of aggression. Like the mind-body split, the nature-nurture split is being repaired in the cause of a more complete understanding.

man the animal tabula rasa
body brain

At point A, man has instincts which determine that he will be aggressive. The "drive" to aggress is innate and biological, therefore inevitable. In many cases, this drive is assumed to be something that builds constantly until it is released or explodes.

At point B, man can modify his aggressive behavior but it is still innate and latent. There is a certain feeling that aggression must be released in some way but the method of expression can be selected.

At point C, man is seen as having the biological capacity for aggression, but aggressive behaviours are learned. We have feet, fists, teeth, and perhaps a certain urge for self-preservation, but we learn how to use these tools by observing our fellow humans.

Finally, at point D, the idea of a biological basis for aggression is rejected, and aggressive behaviors are strictly learned. This "societal determinism" is every bit as inevitable and deterministic as is the "biological fate" of point A.

Again, points A and D are derived from theoretical approaches while most experimental discussions tend to fall somewhere along the line between them.

Russel Geen (1990) gives a model for aggressive behavior which depends on background factors and immediate eliciting factors which combine to raise the likelihood of an aggressive act. Inhibiting factors can then come into play to modify or eliminate the aggressive impulse. Some of these background factors include genetic makeup, sex, and personality (presumably the more permanent portions of our learned behavior) while the immediate elicitors include stress levels, general arousal, frustration or attack. Inhibitors and modifiers include such things as fear of punishment or retaliation, and judgments of the other person's intention when that person acted. Geen points out that the strictly biological or the strictly learning-based explanations of aggression are really just excuses. "It was my hormones" or "It was my bad childhood" are both simply excuses which remove the responsibility for the actions from the actor.

Karl (1991) also states that the idea of aggression as instinct is simply an excuse for evil and there is in fact no "beast within".

Groebel and Hinde (1989) present a justification for the Seville Statement on Violence, a declaration by several scientists in 1986. The statement claims that it is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors; that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature; that there has been an evolutionary selection for aggressive behavior more than for any other kind of behavior; that humans have a 'violent brain'; and that war is caused by 'instinct' or any single motivation. This statement might be taken as some type of proof that the biological argument for aggression is wrong, but in fact the authors recognize that it is our biological bodies that determine what types of aggression we can undertake. This statement does not, by any means, belong on the extreme right hand side of our scale above.

Another book, edited by Silverberg and Gray (1991) and reviewed by Pellis (1993), takes exception to the Seville Statement and argues that it does not represent any kind of scientific consensus on the role of biology in human violence, in fact it simply promotes the split between biological and social sciences. Pellis points out that ignoring the biological bias in learning, whereby some things tend to be easier to learn than others, would simply be ignoring reality. The situation in the former Yugoslavia is given by Pellis as an example of the failure of two generations of education in ethnic cooperation within a period of months. Surely the children who grew up learning cooperation could not have 'learned' to perform such barbaric atrocities within such a short time without some sort of biological predisposition toward aggression. This predisposition however, does not mean that there is a biological determinism.

Two theories on aggression which we encounter in the literature are those of "cathartic" and "circular" aggression. The catharsis theory views aggression as something like an instinct or drive which builds, rather like the water behind a dam. In order for the water not to get so high as to burst the dam and cause considerable damage, it must be "bled off" by controlled spillways. Aggression can be "bled off" by violent sport or other situations of controlled violence. This view of aggression would fall somewhere between points A and B on our scale above. The circular theory of aggression is well defined by the axiom "violence begats violence" and simply states that aggressive actions provoke more aggressive actions which in turn cause the original perpetrator to aggress further. This theory would fall more toward the right hand end of the scale, between points C and D as aggression is "learned" and used.


Karl (1991) points out that even something as clear-cut as killing another man can have radically different interpretations. A man is accused of a "cowardly attack" if he kills another during a robbery, but is praised for a "courageous deed" if he kills a guard while escaping from a prisoner of war camp. While it is fairly certain that most people would suggest that aggression has occurred in both cases, the degree of justification and approval differs. It might be suggested that when an act is justified, it is less aggressive than one that is unjustified.

Groebel and Hinde (1989) define aggression as an interaction between two individuals. "Attack on another individual usually involves risk of injury for the attacker. It is therefore rarely single-minded, but is associated with self-protective and withdrawal responses." (p.4) Other authors have suggested that aggression may be directed toward inanimate objects as well. Aggression may be of several types. Instrumental aggression is goal oriented and occurs during theft or war. This may also be called felonious aggression. Hostile or teasing aggression, or emotional aggression is directed toward another and harm is intended. Defensive aggression occurs when one is attacked or provoked. Games aggression occurs when one deliberately tries to injure someone during a sporting venture. Dyssocial aggression is associated with gang behavior, and bizarre aggression is due to psychopathic behavior. Violence is defined by these authors as physical but not psychological damage to a person or object.

These various attempts to classify aggression point out the variety of opinions that can be expressed on the subject. Almost every author and researcher will have an idea as to what aggression and violence is, and we now present several scales which may help locate a particular definition. No one of these scales will suffice of itself, to define an aggressive action. Each scale may also be affected by other scales and these compound effects may make precise definitions of aggression or violence most difficult.


Three major aspects of aggressive behavior are generally used to define it. The action itself is a more or less objective factor, while the intent of the actor, and the perception of the recipient or observer are more subjective.

The recipient/observer can see both the action and the actor but must suppose the actor's intent. The actor knows the intent, and acts on the recipient through the action. To a much smaller degree the actor may be able to influence the recipient/observer directly, perhaps by facial expression or other communication apart from the action, and thus consciously influence the recipient/observer's determination of intent.

In addition to these three factors, several other influences can be identified which may affect the judgement of how aggressive is any particular action. In all the scales below, a judgement of greater aggressiveness is presumed for the left side of the scale, while a probable judgement of less aggressiveness is represented to the right.


shooting hitting boxing basketball cards sitting sleeping
Actions can range from sleeping in bed to shooting and killing someone with a gun. A broad range of actions are possible between these and at some point on the scale, most people will begin to identify the actions as aggressive. It is possible that killing someone with a gun could be considered less aggressive than killing with a knife, (a much more personal act) and it is also possible that in some situations, sleeping in bed (while, for instance, someone else is working hard) might also be considered an aggressive act.

The speed of an action may represent its potential damaging effect, with a fast swing of a stick at a friend being defined as more aggressive than a slow one.

When responding to an attack, an action may be considered more aggressive when it is delayed in time. It is not usually considered overly aggressive for someone to hit back immediately on being hit, this is simple retaliation or self defence and is done "in the heat of the moment". Hitting someone a week later, however, is likely to be called vengeance or revenge and is likely seen as overly aggressive. This is especially true when considered from a legal viewpoint. This self defence aspect of the scale will be affected by other factors, for instance, by judgements of the aggressiveness of the original attack, the attributes of the retaliator and the effects of the retaliatory action.

The effect of any particular action can often define its aggressive nature. Hitting someone is likely considered a more aggressive act when death or permanent damage results than when no bruises at all occur. Physical actions with visible effects such as bruises are likely to be considered more aggressive than the psychological damage caused by, for instance, taking away a possession. An action with no effect at all, is unlikely to be labeled as highly aggressive.


death permanent injury broken bones bruises pain
The object of the action also influences the judgement of aggressiveness. It is usually not considered aggressive to kick a rock, to kill bacteria or to pull weeds in the garden, but some may consider it aggressive to fell trees, or to kill fish. It is almost possible to draw a graph between the size of the eyes, relative to the face of any mammal and the outrage caused by killing it. Killing a beady eyed mammal like a rat is likely to be considered less aggressive than killing a seal which has big soft eyes. This particular effect is further explored in the psychological distance scale.

Attacking humans is not a single point on the scale, it is likely considered less aggressive for a man to hit a stranger than it is for him to hit his wife or children.


wife strange man large eyed mammals fish, frogs trees, weeds bacteria, virus rocks
While we suggested it was not an aggressive act to kick a rock, it might well be interpreted as aggression to punch a wall when in the middle of an argument with someone. In this case, a judgement of the intent of the actor is made and the action may be interpreted as a threat of physical violence to come. On the other hand, if the actor is judged to be frustrated rather than angry, the action of punching a wall might instead be interpreted as non-aggressive, and even, as a plea for help. This points out the importance of looking at more than the action in isolation.


Apart from a consideration of "what was done", some idea of "what was intended" is usually needed in order to establish whether an act of aggression occurred. This is especially important in matters of the law, but it also operates at the common sense level of judgement. Perhaps the most basic consideration is whether or not the act was an accident or done "on purpose". A whole range of actions can be imagined which might be interpreted in light of the actor's intent. Purposely jumping on someone is aggressive while tripping and falling on someone is probably not. Dancing wildly and jumping on someone is slightly more aggressive than tripping and falling into them, although falling into someone when drunk is somewhat more so. Hurting someone during a theft is aggressive but hurting someone in self defence is less so. Playing sports is likely to be seen as more aggressive than dancing, especially if an injury occurs.


jumping on someone theft self defence drunk driving playing football jumping around fall on someone
The intent of the actor will perhaps be the major factor in how the actor judges the aggressiveness of his own act. It is also a large, but by no means the only, factor in how the recipient or a third party judges the aggressiveness of any act. It is always more aggressive when the actor "meant it" than when it was an accident, no matter who is looking at the situation. Anyone except the actor however, must look at situational clues to decide what was in the actor's mind at the time of the action. This is the major question at almost any legal trial dealing with assault or other form of aggression. The perception of the recipient is now being considered in "victim impact" statements while third party perceptions are also being allowed in "expert witness" testimony but the question of intent remains paramount. A somewhat special legal case involving the perception of the recipient occurs in cases of self defence where a person is allowed to aggress against another person if attacked, or if the defender believes that an attack is imminent and the defence necessary. In this case, a hypothetical "reasonable person" is introduced to make sure that the defensive acts is actually justified. A "reasonable person" should have felt, in that situation, that the defensive actions were necessary. This principle is to prevent over-reactions from being excused.

The fact that in many places the words used in the law are actually "reasonable man" has led some to argue that there should be a difference between what is permitted for a "reasonable man" and for a "reasonable woman" and that women should, due to their more vulnerable situation, be allowed more latitude in their justifiable defensive responses.

One of the ways to establish the intent of the actor is to consider the following.


intended damage theft/war football hooligans fighting back fouls "madmen"

Using the classification provided by Groebel and Hinde (1989), we can construct an intent scale such as this one. Deliberately seeking to hurt someone "for no reason" while in one's right mind is likely seen as extremely hostile. If the actor hurts someone during a robbery, the damage may be the same or greater but there was likely no intent to do the damage. The aggression may be seen as less serious in this case. Similarly, running with a youth gang may be seen as giving one less responsibility for the aggression. This reasoning is more easily seen if one considers mob aggression in the crowd at a sporting action. Hurting someone during a crowd melee is likely to be thought less aggressive than hurting someone in the relative calm of a living room. Causing injury while defending oneself from attack is certainly not an act which is as aggressive as an unprovoked attack, even if the effect of the action is the same. While hockey or football players who seek to damage their opponents are said to be aggressive, they are not usually deemed as aggressive as a wife-beater or a thief and they are not usually brought before the law. Finally, one who is mentally ill is usually not thought to be aggressive in the same way as is one who is sane. A deranged person is often more to be pitied than condemned as aggressive. This last case may be subject to modification by certain other factors. The various political and social forces at work in our society may affect the judgement of how "crazy" a killer is, and of how aggressive his or her acts. This judgement may be made independently of any medical pronouncements on the mental state of the actors.


There is often a fine line between whether one is being aggressive or simply assertive. Speaking up, speaking up and poking a finger into someone's chest, and simply poking a finger into someone's chest are likely points along the assertion-aggression scale. A wide range of judgements can be made about the same action (poking a finger) depending on what the actor is saying or otherwise communicating at the time of the action.

hitting with fist poking with finger poking and complaining poking and explaining explaining

Along with the intent of the actor we must consider the various physical characteristics of the actor since these will almost always influence judgements of aggressiveness. A large, poorly dressed, unshaven male is often seen as inherently more aggressive than a small female child regardless of intent or the actual effects of an action. Questions of race and religion also enter into this scale. There will always be some groups that feel other groups are aggressive, simply by being other groups. This aspect may be treated more thoroughly in the power balance scale as it involves both the actor and the recipient or observer.

"the other" "those like us" "us"
Those who are most like "us" are often given "the benefit of the doubt" while those outside the group are judged a lot more quickly.

We have not attempted to provide scales for the "reasons why" an actor acts. These have been discussed in the previous section, and in several of the scales given here, one can perceive potential reasons for acting, as for instance, in cases of self defence.


The final third of the triad to be considered in the judgement of aggressiveness is the perception of the recipient of the action. Also to be considered in this section is the perception of an observer or third party. One or the other of these parties are the ones likely to call an act "aggression" since the actor is not likely to define any personal acts as being unjustified or unreasonable (ie. "aggressive"). Most people would never call their physical attacks on another unprovoked, there will always be some form of perceived attack to which the actor is responding in self defence.

There is an important distinction to be made between the recipient of the action and the third party. It is a common finding in studies on sexual assault that those women who meet the experimenter's definitions of having been "raped", will deny it. While there seems to be no difference of opinion as to what action occurred, there is a difference in the interpretation of the meaning of that action. As a result, it is now common practice for experimenters to ask questions such as "have you ever experienced forced or attempted forced sexual intercourse against your will?" and to define this as rape or attempted rape when reporting the results of the study (see Lori Haskell and Melanie Randall, Toronto Globe and Mail Sept 9/ 1993 for an example of this type of study). One reason for this difference of opinion could simply be that experimenters are looking only at the action itself while the recipients are looking at both the intent of the actor and at their own perceptions of the action.



Perhaps one of our best clues as to whether we are being aggressed against is the "fight or flight" response. This is the familiar churning sensation that we feel in the stomach and is a biological reaction to many environmental cues, most of which would indicate some danger to the organism. As a learning animal, man can modify this "gut reaction" and even eliminate it in situations where danger is known to exist. This is a very important concept in most systems of fighting and is called variously, a cool head, grace under fire, and in Japanese, fudoshin or immovable mind. The opposite of this would be panic or a frozen mind (fushin in Japanese). If one is exposed to a certain action and one does not experience this gut reaction, one might be less likely to label it an aggressive act. On the other hand, if one is stressed and anxious, a rather innocent action might trigger the physiological reaction and one may call the action aggressive.


panic anxiety physical anticipation calm stress

The degree to which the recipient is involved in the action or in the events leading up to the action can influence the definition of aggression. If one is struck when taking a massage, or playing a contact sport it is not likely to be called aggression. If one is struck while standing on the sidelines of a football game it is also not likely to be called aggression but if one is struck from behind when walking down the street, even if accidentally, it is likely to be thought of as an aggressive act. The closer or more linked one is to the action, the less likely one is to define that action as aggression. There is a large component of anticipation and preparation in this scale, what we expect, doesn't alarm or shock us as much as what we do not expect.



unprepared somewhat prepared prepared
no responsibility some responsibility fully responsible
The more involved one is with an activity, the more responsibility one takes for the possible outcomes. This is likely why a spectator at a hockey match who is hit with a puck will usually not attempt to sue. When they do attempt such a thing, there is often a legal scale of responsibility which includes taking certain risks upon oneself at a sporting match. The same mechanism is likely occurring to some extent when women who have sex against their will, are more likely to call it rape and report it when the actor is a total stranger, and will not do so when it occurs during a dating situation.


The way in which one views one's place in the world can affect one's judgement of acts. A person with an external locus of control, someone who believes themselves to be largely powerless in the face of external events, will likely see many actions as being aggressive. After all the world is acting on the individual and the individual has little control over those actions. At the other end of the scale is the internal locus of control. A person who believes that they have the power to influence the environment around themselves is also less likely to judge actions as being aggressive, believing that they can influence them, and even, perhaps, have some responsibility for them.


no control of environment master of own fate
acted on acts upon

Closely associated with locus of control, is the concept of perceived self efficacy, the belief that one has the skills to influence the external environment and that one can do it. This is often loosely termed self confidence and this aspect of personality tends to be highly situation specific, as opposed to the locus of control which is more of a method of looking at the world. If one believes one has the skills to deal with a certain action, then the fear and anxiety provoked by that action are reduced which could lead to the action being judged less aggressive. To look at this another way, if one has low perceived self-efficacy than even an innocent act may be interpreted as aggressive out of fear caused by the lack of coping skills.


can't cope have coping skills
It is likely that learning fighting skills would have a large effect on perceived self efficacy.


Certain physical factors such as noise and light may act as general irritants and increase judgements of aggressiveness. In the same way, conditions of mental stress such as anxiety, sexual or emotional arousal or excitation might act as amplifiers of any judgements made. Depression or other conditions which would reduce the mental or physical responsiveness would also tend to reduce judgements of aggression.

stimulating environment quiet environment
physical excitation sickness
mental excitation depression

The pre-existing beliefs of a person can affect the judgement of an aggressive act. If a person believes "all men are rapists" or that "all feminists are castrating lesbians" or that "gang members are violent" than one can become either fearful of, or outraged at these groups (depending perhaps, on whether one has an external or internal locus of control). These prejudicial views may cause one to make an immediate judgement of aggression which might not be made by someone with a more open mind who might look at several other factors before judging.

opinionated open minded
fearful trusting
outraged understanding


Third party judgements of aggression are becoming more important in a society that is considering such things as third party reporting of harassment in the workplace. It may be extremely difficult for a third party to come to the same conclusion in any situation as either the actor or the recipient. We have already mentioned the difficulty interviewers have getting women to define themselves as having been "raped". Police also experience difficulty in assessing aggressive situations as they often must consider the action in isolation from intent and perception. Misreading the situation from limited information is quite likely why police are sometimes attacked by both parties when trying to intervene in a domestic dispute.

These scales are included with the recipient scales simply because both observer and recipient must use many of the same cues regarding the action and the actor's intent when forming an opinion of whether an act is aggressive or not. A third party observer will also be influenced by the factors mentioned above for the recipient but only as they apply to the observer, since a third party can know nothing of the thought processes of the others. A third party may, however, use his own mental processing as a reference more or less in relationship to how similar he believes the recipient to be to himself. This closeness will be affected by personal distance, the source of information about the action, and the psychological distance from the recipient.



me my family my friends strangers
in town somewhere else
If the action happens to "me", the observer is of course, the recipient. The observer will be affected in judgements of aggressiveness depending on how close the recipient is in the kinship or social group. Harsher judgements will be made as the recipient gets closer in relationship to the observer.


personal information personal communication television radio newspapers
The way in which information about a situation is received may influence the observer's judgement. Seeing an action will likely lead to the harshest judgement of aggressiveness, while being told about it personally should also result in judgements of high aggression. Television is a medium which involves both sight and sound cues, while radio uses only sound. Both of these media are more "personal" and perhaps visceral than the rather intellectual exercise of reading about an action in the newspaper.


We have mentioned the aspects of similarity in previous scales. An observer is likely to be more harsh in the judgement of aggression when watching an action against a recipient judged as similar, than against one who is dissimilar to that third person. When considering a stranger, such aspects as sex and race will likely give strong cues as to similarity, while social aspects such as education and class should give less information and simply being in a situation similar to one the observer has been in should give even fewer cues as to similarity.

Third parties will also receive similarity cues in diminishing strength as the recipient characteristics get further from being human. Large eyed mammals look more like human children than do beady eyed rats, while plants, bacteria and rocks are not likely to remind anyone of anybody they know and are thus not likely to arouse much sympathy.


sex race nationality education economic class situation
humans cute animals ugly animals bugs plants rocks



When looking at a situation which is potentially aggressive, one thing that will likely be assessed is the relative power of the two parties. If the actor is judged more powerful than the recipient, any specific action is likely to be seen as more aggressive than if the power balance is tipped the other way. These power imbalances are not as clearly defined as they might at first appear. A case in point is the balance between black and white people. If the recipient or observer is afraid of blacks, then the greater power may be seen to be in their hands rather than in the hands of the whites, in which case the scale below would be reversed. Similar arguments can be made in the case of male and female, depending on the situation and on what is being defined as "power" in that situation. In the case of a child and an adult, the perceived power balance is likely to be as shown, as is the case of several actors and one recipient.

male vs female female vs male
white vs black same qualities black vs white
adult vs child child vs adult
many attackers same numbers one vs several

There will always be an effect of the social sanction of violence or aggression on an individual's judgement. The most obvious source of information on how a society defines aggression is though the legal system. The particular situation in which a society exists at the time of the action will also affect the judgement of aggression. Acts that are tolerated and even seen as necessary during wartime, such as the internment of groups of people, may be labeled aggression during peacetime. State sponsored acts in some dictatorships may not be seen as aggression by the advantaged classes, while being labeled as such in more democratic societies. Some acts are also more likely to be labeled aggressive in relatively classless societies than in ones that are highly structured, especially when the acts are performed across classes. Finally, it is usually not considered aggressive for the state to execute an individual while it is always aggressive if an individual performs the same act.

peacetime terrorist threat wartime
free society pseudo-freedom dictatorship
egalitarian pseudo-classes class system
individuals vigilantes state


Finally, an act performed in the imagination with a war toy is not likely to be considered as aggressive as when the exact same act is performed with the real thing during wartime.


warfare war toys movies/theatre storybooks daydreams
The "reasonable person" used during self defence considerations at law could be seen as another form of "reality quotient" when dealing with aggression. Shooting the letter carrier because of a fear of uniforms is not likely to be seen as a "reasonable" action and will not be judged as self defence.


Some of the possible ways in which fighting arts could influence the various aggression factors noted above should be mentioned before we consider what has been reported so far in the literature.


If aggression is an innate, unchangeable, biological fate, than learning a fighting art will have no affect on aggressive behavior at all. The more one accepts that aggression can be learned, the more one must also accept that aggression can be modified by learning. The relevant question then becomes 'what affect does learning to fight have on aggression'. The acquisition of a set of behaviors that have the potential to damage another person may or may not increase the likelihood that those behaviors will be used. If the catharsis theory of aggression is correct, than controlled aggressive behaviors such as boxing or wrestling should reduce aggression outside the ring. If the circular theory is correct, than learning a fighting art should create more aggressive behavior.

If the fighting system studied also teaches things such as cooperation with a partner or the rest of the class, control of emotions, control of actions, and personal responsibility for actions, then it is possible that aggression may be reduced in the student. Another consideration which must be answered by research is the speed with which aggressive behavior can be modified by education. Will a short course in boxing or Aikido change one's behavior one way or another, or does this type of education require years to modify the habits of a lifetime? Many authors suggest that the fighting arts, and other arts such as yoga, promote an integration of the brain and the body, to develop a "bodymind". Does this integration of the rational mind, (which may represent nurture or learning), with the body, (representing nature or biology), have an effect on aggressive or other behaviors?

If we use Geen's (1990) model of aggression we can consider what effect learning the fighting arts has on the background factors, the immediate elicitors and the modifying, external factors. It is unlikely that fighting arts will have an effect on race or sex but they may have an effect on gender orientation, on how "masculine or feminine" one is as judged by various psychological measures of these things. Do the fighting arts have an effect on "machismo"? It is also possible that the fighting arts may affect the long term or stable "personality" of students. A more likely place to examine the effects of learning to fight, would be on the immediate elicitors to aggression. It is quite possible that effects might be seen on such items as stress levels, general arousal, frustration, fear and the perception of being attacked. It is also possible that learning fighting skills may affect the inhibiting factors to aggressive acts, possibly by removing fears of retaliation. For instance, the aggressor may gain increased confidence that the person attacked cannot match the fighting skills learned, and so be more likely to attack. The various substituant factors involved in aggressive acts may also show changes through training in fighting arts.


The particular aggressive acts performed, will not of course be changed by learning a fighting art. A punch will remain a punch, but it is possible that persons trained in the fighting arts may be able to very rapidly change from one action to another. This fine motor skill could convert a punch to a push even when only a few inches from contact. The actor may also be able to modify the speed of the action, the effect of the action and thus, even the perceived intent of the action. These near-immediate changes will depend of course on the actor changing his mind and wanting to change from one act to another.

Training in fighting arts, with their emphasis on fast reaction time, is likely to make any retaliatory act immediate rather than delayed, thus reducing the chance of judgements that the action was "revenge" rather than self defence. The influence of the timing of retaliatory acts has become more important in recent years as lawyers have begun to use ideas such as "battered wife syndrome" to argue self defence in cases where a woman kills or maims her partner when she is under no apparent immediate physical danger or threat. As mentioned before, the fine muscle control which is presumably gained when learning a fighting art would allow an actor to control the amount of damage inflicted by any particular act. This control would reduce the likelihood that any act would have an effect that is not intended by the actor, presumably reducing doubt about the aggression of the actor. On the other hand, if the fighting art was taught in such a way that the student had no idea of what type of damage he or she was capable of inflicting, the possibility exists that the effect of an action would be out of proportion to the intended damage. Such a situation might occur with throwing arts such as wrestling, judo or aikido. Partners thrown in class know how to fall without damage while an untrained person thrown in exactly the same way could be injured severely. In all cases, however, it is quite probable that the effect of an act intended to cause harm, would be more damaging from a trained person than from one not trained in a fighting art.

The object of the action is not likely to be changed during the enactment of a potentially aggressive act, but the choice of object might be influenced, as, perhaps when a wall or door is struck instead of a person. It is hard to see, however, how fighting arts might influence this choice except through the practice (habit) of striking inanimate objects in arts like karate. Perhaps by knowing how to strike inanimate objects without injury, the likelihood of striking them rather than the desired (or eliciting) target might increase.


It is possible that learning a fighting art could modify the intent or at least the apparent intent of the actor. Most fighting systems would train students to be quite careful in their movements, and the more "self-defence oriented" arts would presumably teach vigilance. This could very well mean that the likelihood of an accident is reduced with the extra care taken when moving around. This reduction in accidents would mean that any particular action would more likely be interpreted as intentional. If the actor is not "accident-prone" but is seen as being under good self control, then it is less likely that any particular act would be judged an accident.

When considering the several "classes" of aggression, it is likely that learning self defence oriented arts would change the likelihood of "defensive aggression", probably by increasing it. Hostile, instrumental and dyssocial aggression might be affected if the art included ethical training in its curriculum but it is hard to see how the likelihood of performing these aggressive acts would be affected directly by simply learning how to fight. Similarly, aggression which occurs during a game might be affected by ethical training (in, for instance, agonistic type fighting arts) but might not be affected by learning the physical techniques themselves. The likelihood of psychopathic aggression is not likely to be affected by learning a fighting art unless these arts can be shown to have therapeutic value for this type of mental aberration. On the question of aggression vs assertion, it is likely that a fighting art that teaches self-control would make it unlikely that an assertive act would be misinterpreted as aggressive. Training in fighting could give a good appreciation for "personal space" and threat behaviors and so might reduce the likelihood of an erroneous retaliatory act such as punching the bank clerk who insists on getting another signature for something or other.

While it is not possible for any training to change the characteristics of race, sex or other physical trait in an actor, it is possible that the actor might be trained to a wider appreciation of who is "like us" and who is "different". Many fighting systems are products of foreign cultures that retain much of their original flavour. Training in these arts might widen one's "family" to include those of other cultures and/or races.


When looking at the scales involved with the perception of the recipient, we must examine the effects of training in fighting arts on how the trained person views actions received, with regard to both the judgement of aggression and on the likelihood of retaliation to a perceived attack. Training in fighting arts may also affect the judgement of a third party observer.

If a fighting art promotes the control of the alarm response, giving a "cool head", then the physiological cues which might indicate an aggressive attack will be absent from many situations. On the other hand, a fighting art that emphasizes getting "psyched" for a competitive, sporting match, could well provide trained cues to trigger the physiological response which then might be tripped by the actor, leading to a more severe judgement of aggression.

It is unlikely that training in a fighting art will affect a judgement of the degree of participation in any particular act, but it may affect the assumption of personal responsibility for that particular degree of participation. Training that emphasizes the personal responsibility of each student for their own safety and their own avoidance of conflict, could very well lead to a student assuming that an act was in part "my own fault for being there" and lead to a judgement of reduced responsibility and aggression from the actor.

It is uncertain whether the locus of control can be changed with education, or how easily that could be done, but it is highly likely that the perceived self efficacy of a student of the fighting arts will be changed by that training. It is, after all, the skills to handle physical conflict that are presumably being taught to students. Having the skills to handle a conflict, and having the belief that one can use the skills could perhaps lead to a change in the judgement of aggressiveness through, for example, a lowering of fear levels.

If the training acquired includes such features as breath control and other commonly recognized methods of stress control, then the overall stress of the recipient may be lowered, also lowering the "threshold of aggression judgement".

Any educational experience is likely to open a "closed mind" and training in combat arts is probably no exception. A reduction in prejudgement about the actor's intent or actions will likely lower the chances of an incorrect judgement of aggression.

As was mentioned above, training that includes acculturation to other countries or other ethical systems may reduce the personal distance from the observer to the receiver. This could lead to increased judgements of aggression than might otherwise be the case as, perhaps, a stranger is now regarded as one of the newly widened group or family. When training in a combat art, it may also be easier for an observer to put himself in the place of a receiver of a physical attack. This empathy may overcome the distancing effect of some information sources and reduce the psychological distance between the observer and the receiver, making for harsher judgements of aggression than before the combat training.

On the other hand, combat training may affect the perception of power balances. Those trained in self defence may well become less sympathetic to recipients of physical actions, thinking "why didn't he defend himself". It is possible that those who have experienced the power of a trained woman might be less likely to accept automatically that women are less powerful than men. It is also possible that the concentration on physical conflict when learning a fighting art may influence judgements on such things as the imbalance of power between persons of different colour. A white and a black man may be judged solely on their physical attributes during a physical altercation, and considerations of historical domination ignored.

Social sanction may be influenced by fighting arts through legal restrictions on exotic weaponry, leading to a public perception that those who use "martial arts weapons" are unusually aggressive. There is also the possibility that a person's training may be taken into account during trials on assault but on the whole, there is little indication that those trained in fighting arts are treated any differently than untrained citizens.

A final, and very important matter which must be considered when examining fighting arts training is their "reality quotient". Is training in boxing "play fighting" or "aggression". There is plenty of evidence that these two things are not the same and should be treated as separate subjects when considering interpersonal relationships.

Michael Boulton (1991) states that not all behaviors that look aggressive are aggressively motivated and separates "rough and tumble" fighting from aggressive fighting. One interesting finding from his research is that 8 and 11 year old children could easily and reliably determine whether or not an act was intended as an aggressive challenge, or an invitation to rough and tumble play. An invitation to rough and tumble was usually met by a response in kind, while acts of aggression were likely to be responded to by an act of aggression or by no reaction at all. The judgement of aggressive behavior in the children was made by the researchers on the basis of the same three major factors proposed above, the characteristics of the action performed (action/outcome), the presence/absence of signs of distress/annoyance of the recipient (perception of recipient), and the presence/absence of signs of regret by the perpetrators of injury/distress (intent of actor). Of special interest in this research was the finding that less than 1% of bouts of rough and tumble play changed directly into aggression.

This last point is important to remember when examining the psychological effects of training in the fighting arts since it could easily be assumed that what is being practiced in the classroom is the same as what occurs in the back alleyway. If this were indeed the case, and if it is accepted that aggression breeds aggression or violence breeds violence, than learning the fighting arts should produce aggressive students. If, however, what is happening in combat training is "rough and tumble play", than it may have little to do with aggressive behavior at all.

In the next section we will examine the scholarly literature for evidence of any psychological effects of the fighting arts on the students.