Instrumental violence is goal-oriented aggression or violence that occurs as a by-product of an individual’s attempting to achieve a superordinate goal. Early 20th-century theorist Edward Thorndike’s law of effect is useful in understanding the nature of instrumental abuse, as it is based on the observation that many behaviors appear to be efforts to obtain some desired results or avoid the occurrence of other unwelcome outcomes. Such goal-oriented behaviors are labeled “instrumental” because they appear to be deliberate attempts to achieve specific results.
Instrumental behaviors are common in interactions between two people, occurring whenever one person attempts to influence the other to act or refrain from acting in specific ways. In this sense, these behaviors lie at the core of reciprocal exchanges. However, when the tactics of influence are covert, overly harsh, and entirely one-way, behaviors that might have shaped and sustained relationships can become abusive and destroy intimacy.
The primary motivation for instrumental abuse appears to be manipulating another person to comply with a demand for access to some asset (e.g., money, power). As with all coercive behavior, the force behind instrumental aggression is threatened or actual delivery of some feared consequence. This could be threatened or actual violence toward the other or objects valued by the other, refusal to engage in interactions desired by the other, or forms of withdrawal including ending the relationship. Physical harm may be a product of instrumental abuse.
In theory, instrumental abuse may fall on a continuum between maliciously destructive predatory abuse, in which the primary aim is to injure the other person, and affective abuse, in which the goal is essentially self-protection or the expression of emotion, albeit through aggression. It should be noted that some have conceptualized this continuum as simply ranging from expressive to instrumental abuse. In certain cases, it may be difficult to determine whether a specific act of violence is instrumental or expressive, as some behaviors may share the characteristics of both.
It has been argued that instrumental abusers are inherently narcissistic; have a weak, albeit not absent, sense of empathy; and have at least mild psychopathic tendencies. This description stems from the willingness of instrumental abusers to exploit others in pursuit of some personal gain. Intervention outcomes are likely to be inversely proportional to the presence of these antisocial tendencies. For treatment to succeed, abusers must be helped to develop a sense of morality and an appreciation of the centrality of reciprocity to well-functioning social relationships. These are among the more difficult challenges faced by therapists.