What is passive-aggressive behavior?

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Passive aggression is a covert expression of anger, hostility, or displeasure, often directed against a figure of authority. Sustained use of passive aggression across social situations may be classified as passive-aggressive (negativistic) personality disorder. Characteristics of passive aggression make it difficult to detect and study.
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Passive aggression is the hidden expression of anger and is found in all types of social settings. A common example is an employee who silently rebels against a controlling boss by completing work late or even going so far as to undermine the boss. Another example is a student who shows resistance to the demands of a teacher by not performing to expectation. Specific behaviors attributed to passive aggression include procrastination, feigned deafness or lack of comprehension, forgetfulness, defiance, poor performance, stubbornness, and moodiness. The passive expression of anger may be conscious or unconscious and is often meant to frustrate and irritate the intended victim. In extreme cases, the passive behavior may lead to failed achievement or loss of employment.


The term originated after World War II, when it was first used to describe insubordination among soldiers. The behavior is often linked to passive-aggressive (negativistic) personality disorder, which is defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as “a pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations that begins by early adulthood and that occurs in a variety of contexts.” The categorization and inclusion of the term in the association’s manual began in 1952 and has remained a subject of debate among researchers.

The debate on the classification of passive aggression as a personality disorder exists, in part, because the small amount of existing research indicates that it is a difficult behavior to detect, and instruments that have been developed to aid in detection or diagnosis have not been found to be reliable or valid, including the criterion established in the American Psychiatric Association’s manual. Martin Kantor notes in his book on passive aggression that some researchers argue that it is not a disorder in need of treatment but simply a type of normal behavior. The existing literature on passive aggression documents a need for more research and study to better understand this behavior and its inclusion as a personality disorder.


The exact cause of passive aggression is not known; however, some theories have been put forward. There is some agreement in the literature that the behavior is often elicited as a defense mechanism. Other theories speculate that passive aggression is a learned response to stressful situations; that it may be due to the genetic makeup of an individual; that it is the result of inconsistent parenting; that it is a normal part of adolescent development; or that it is exhibited by individuals with an extreme fear of expressing their anger, as documented by Joseph T. McCann. In some cases, passive aggression may even be viewed as a socially acceptable form of self-expression and self-protection. In his research, Norman Epstein found that passive aggression may be a socially acceptable tool for expressing anger without causing strife in interpersonal relationships. Mark A. Fine, James C. Overholser, and Karen Berkoff, in reviewing research data on passive-aggressive personality disorder, suggest that passive aggression can vary from mild to extreme, appears to be common in all populations, and may depend on specific social situations.


Epstein, Norman. “Social Consequences of Assertion, Aggression, Passive Aggression, and Submission: Situational and Dispositional Determinants.” Behavior Therapy 11.5 (1980): 662–69. Print.

Fine, Mark A., James C. Overholser, and Karen Berkoff. “Diagnostic Validity of the Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder: Suggestions for Reform.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 46.3 (1992): 470–83. Print.

Hopwood, Christopher J. "A Comparison of Passive-Aggressive and Negativistic Personality Disorders." Journal of Personality Assessment 94.3 (2012): 296–303. Print.

Kantor, Martin. Passive-Aggression: A Guide for the Therapist, the Patient, and the Victim. Westport: Praeger, 2002. Print.

Long Jody E., Nicholas J. Long, and Signe Whitson. The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces. 2nd ed. Austin: Pro-Ed, 2009. Print.

McCann, Joseph T. “Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder: A Review.” Journal of Personality Disorders 2.2 (1988): 170–79. Print.

Perry, J. Christopher, and Raymond B. Flannery. “Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder: Treatment Implications of a Clinical Typology.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 170.3 (1982): 164–73. Print.

Wetzler, Scott. “Sugarcoated Hostility.” Newsweek 120.15 (1992): 14. Print.

Whitson, Signe. "The Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle." Reclaiming Children and Youth 22.3 (2013): 24–27. Print.

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