Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, sarcasm, hostile jokes, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.
For research purposes, the DSM-IV describes passive-aggressive personality disorder as a "pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations".
Concept in different areas
In psychology, passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a habitual pattern of passive resistance to expected work requirements, opposition, stubbornness, and negativistic attitudes in response to requirements for normal performance levels expected of others. Most frequently it occurs in the workplace where resistance is exhibited by such indirect behaviors as procrastination, forgetfulness, and purposeful inefficiency, especially in reaction to demands by authority figures, but it can also occur in interpersonal contexts.
Another source characterizes passive-aggressive behavior as: "A personality trait marked by a pervasive pattern of negative attitudes and characterised by passive, sometimes obstructionist resistance to complying with expectations in interpersonal or occupational situations. Behaviors: Learned helplessness, procrastination, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate/repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible".
Passive-aggressive may also refer to a person who refuses to acknowledge their own aggression (in the sense of "agency"), and who manages that denial by projecting it. This type of person insists on seeing themselves as the blameless victims in all situations.
According to Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man, a self-help book, a passive man does little to get what he wants as it is too much effort to do so, and ranges from the inept "loser" type to the conformist who does anything to be liked, avoids making waves and rarely says what he feels.
Passive-aggressive behavior is not the same as nonviolent resistance exhibited in groups by social protesters. The nonviolent campaigner is working to defeat demands for social behavior required by others as a method of defiance of authority figures. The person characterized by passive-aggressive behavior is not working with others toward a defined social goal.
In conflict theory
In conflict theory, passive resistance is a rational response to demands that may simply be disagreed with. Passive-aggressive behavior can resemble a behavior better described as catty, as it consists of deliberate, active, but carefully veiled hostile acts which are distinctively different in character from the non-assertive style of passive aggression.
In the workplace
Passive-aggressive behavior from workers and managers is damaging to team unity and productivity. Warner in the ad for his online ebook says: "The worst case of passive-aggressive behavior involves destructive attitudes such as negativity, sullenness, resentment, procrastination, 'forgetting' to do something, chronic lateness, and intentional inefficiency." He advises that though the temptation for a worker may be to quit the job: "Stay and fight back: Engage in guerrilla tactics to counteract passive aggression and defend your own work". If this behavior is ignored it could result in decreased office efficiency and frustration among workers. If managers are passive-aggressive in their behavior, it can end up stifling team creativity. De Angelis says "It would actually make perfect sense that those promoted to leadership positions might often be those who on the surface appear to be agreeable, diplomatic and supportive, yet who are actually dishonest, backstabbing saboteurs behind the scenes."
Passive-aggressive personality disorder
|Passive-aggressive personality disorder|
|Classification and external resources|
DSM-IV Appendix B
|Cluster A (odd)|
|Cluster B (dramatic)|
|Cluster C (anxious)|
Passive-aggressive personality disorder was listed as an Axis II personality disorder in the DSM-III-R, but was moved in the DSM-IV to Appendix B ("Criteria Sets and Axes Provided for Further Study") because of controversy and the need for further research on how to also categorize the behaviors in a future edition. According to DSM-IV, passive-aggressive personality disorder is "often overtly ambivalent, wavering indecisively from one course of action to its opposite. They may follow an erratic path that causes endless wrangles with others and disappointment for themselves." Characteristic of these persons is an "intense conflict dependence on other and the desire for self-assertion." Although exhibiting superficial bravado, their self-confidence is often very poor, and others react to them with hostility and negativity. This diagnosis is not made if the behavior is exhibited during a major depressive episode or can be attributed to dysthymic disorder.
|Vacillating||Including Borderline personality disorder features||Emotions fluctuate in bewildering, perplexing, and enigmatic ways; difficult to fathom or comprehend own capricious and mystifying moods; wavers, in flux, and irresolute both subjectively and intrapsychically.|
|Discontented||Including Depressive personality disorder features||Grumbling, petty, testy, cranky, embittered, complaining, fretful, vexed, and moody; gripes behind pretense; avoids confrontation; uses legitimate but trivial complaints.|
|Circuitous||Including Dependent personality disorder features||Opposition displayed in a roundabout, labyrinthine, and ambiguous manner, e.g., procrastination, dawdling, forgetfulness, inefficiency, neglect, stubbornness, indirect and devious in venting resentment and resistant behaviors.|
|Abrasive||Including Sadistic personality disorder features||Contentious, intransigent, fractious, and quarrelsome; irritable, caustic, debasing, corrosive, and acrimonious, contradicts and derogates; few qualms and little conscience or remorse. (no longer a valid diagnosis in DSM)|
Passive-aggressive disorder may stem from a specific childhood stimulus (e.g., alcohol/drug addicted parents) in an environment where it was not safe to express frustration or anger. Families in which the honest expression of feelings is forbidden tend to teach children to repress and deny their feelings and to use other channels to express their frustration.
Children who sugarcoat hostility may have difficulties being assertive, never developing better coping strategies or skills for self-expression. They can become adults who, beneath a "seductive veneer," harbor "vindictive intent," in the words of US congressman/psychologist Timothy F. Murphy, and writer/practicing therapist Loriann Oberlin. Alternatively individuals may simply have difficulty being as directly aggressive or assertive as others. Martin Kantor suggests three areas that contribute to passive-aggressive anger in individuals: conflicts about dependency, control, and competition, and that a person may be termed passive-aggressive if they behave so to most persons on most occasions. 
Murphy and Oberlin also see passive aggression as part of a larger umbrella of hidden anger stemming from ten traits of the angry child or adult. These traits include making one's own misery, the inability to analyze problems, blaming others, turning bad feelings into angry ones, attacking people, lacking empathy, using anger to gain power, confusing anger with self-esteem, and indulging in negative self-talk. Lastly, the authors point out that those who hide their anger can be nice when they wish to be.
Psychiatrist Kantor suggests a treatment approach using psychodynamic, supportive, cognitive, behavioral and interpersonal therapeutic methods. These methods apply to both the passive-aggressive person and their target victim.
Passive-aggressive behavior was first defined clinically by Colonel William Menninger during World War II in the context of men's reaction to military compliance. Menninger described soldiers who were not openly defiant but expressed their aggressiveness “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstructionism” due to what Menninger saw as an "immaturity" and a reaction to "routine military stress".
According to some psychoanalytic views, noncompliance is not indicative of true passive-aggressive behavior, which may instead be defined as the manifestation of emotions that have been repressed based on a self-imposed need for acceptance.
In the first version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-I, in 1952, the passive-aggressive was defined in a narrow way, grouped together with the passive-dependent.
The DSM-III-R stated in 1987 that passive-aggressive disorder is typified by, among other things, "fail[ing] to do the laundry or to stock the kitchen with food because of procrastination and dawdling."
Increased public exposure to the term has led to websites like Passive-Aggressive Notes, which uploads purportedly passive-aggressive emails, notes and signs, although many of the examples are not correctly passive-aggressive in nature.
- American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatic Association. p. 733-734. ISBN 0890420629.
- Diagnostic criteria at The Free Dictionary
- Wetzler 1992, pp. 35–37.
- Simon, George (2010), In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, Parkhurst
- Warner, Neil, Manage Passive Aggression In The Workplace, passiveaggressive.com.
- Harms, Kimberly A (May–June 2012,), Passive Aggressive Behaviour in the Dental Office (3 ed.) .
- De Angelis, Paula (2009), Blindsided: Recognizing and Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Leadership in the Workplace, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, p. 3, ISBN 1442159200.
- Millon, Theodore (2004), Personality Disorders in Modern Life.
- Johnson, JG; Cohen, P; Brown, J; Smailes, EM; Bernstein, DP (July 1999), "Childhood maltreatment increases risk for personality disorders during early adulthood", Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 56 (7): 600–6, doi:10.1001/archpsyc.56.7.600, PMID 10401504
- Tim, Murphy; Hoff Oberlin, Loriann (2005), Overcoming passive aggression: how to stop hidden anger from spoiling your relationships, career and happiness, New York: Marlowe & Company, p. 48, ISBN 1-56924-361-1, retrieved April 27, 2010
- Kantor 2002, pp. xvi–xvii, 5.
- Tim, Murphy; Hoff Oberlin, Loriann (2005).
- Kantor 2002, p. 115.
- Lane, C (1 February 2009), "The Surprising History of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder" (PDF), Theory & Psychology 19 (1): 55–70, doi:10.1177/0959354308101419
- Kantor, Martin (2002), Passive-aggression: a guide for the therapist, the patient and the victim, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, ISBN 0-275-97422-7, retrieved April 27, 2010.
- Wetzler, Scott (1992), Living with the Passive-aggressive Man, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 9781451640175, retrieved April 27, 2010.
- Oberlin, Loriann Hoff (2005), Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger From Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness, Perseus, p. 45
- Femenia, N. & Warner, N. (2012),The Silent Marriage: How Passive Aggression Steals Your Happiness (The Complete Guide to Passive Aggression) [Kindle Edition]|