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You might have a roommate who rolls their eyes a lot and leaves sassy sticky notes all over the place, but no matter how frustrating it is, it’s probably not a personality disorder.

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You're having a perfectly good morning, and then you walk into the kitchen and see it: the dreaded Post-It note.

It's stuck above the dishes you were totally going to do or the trash you're definitely planning to take out. It has a smiley-face, but the real message is clear.

That thing you didn't think was a problem? Yeah, apparently it's a problem. We've all been on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior… and maybe even been guilty of it ourselves.

Honestly, it kind of feels like an unfortunate but normal part of social interaction. But in psychology, the idea is a lot more controversial. [INTRO ♪]. Psychologists define passive-aggressive behavior as a deliberate but covert way of expressing feelings of anger.

And it's not just Post-Its—this behavior can take a lot of forms, from the silent treatment to sarcasm and pointed jokes. It can also include indirect violence—like slamming around pots and pans— and unhelpful one-word responses... you know, like: Sure. Whatever.

Fine. But one of the weird things about passive-aggressive behavior is how complicated its history is. The term “passive-aggressive” originated in the American military during World War II.

It was used to describe soldiers who refused to comply with orders in a particular way. Rather than refusing outright, these soldiers sulked, procrastinated, and were deliberately inefficient. And yes, it annoyed the heck out of the officers.

So, when the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, or DSM, was published in 1952, psychologists basically just copied-and-pasted this stuff in and called it passive-aggressive personality disorder. And, at the time, it seemed to be a pretty good working definition of a real condition. In 1966, passive-aggressive personality disorder was diagnosed in 3% of patients in public psychiatric hospitals and 9% of those who visited outpatient clinics, where people don't stay overnight.

But by the time the fourth edition of the DSM was published, it had become more controversial. It ended up getting pulled from the main text, put into the appendix, tweaked, and renamed negativistic personality disorder. And in the DSM-5, it no longer appears at all.

But psychologists still argue about it. Some papers even have dramatic titles, like “The Demise of a Syndrome.” Those who criticize the idea of passive-aggressive personality disorder think one of the big problems is that there's a difference between being frustrated by an annoying behavior and pathologizing it. They argue that it's a response to certain situations, not an ingrained personality trait.

Plus, they think the disorder overlaps too much with other personality disorders and focuses on too narrow of a set of behaviors. And then there's the fact that there aren't a whole lot of direct studies observing and measuring it, though, to be fair, that's true of most personality disorders. Still, there are some arguments for passive-aggressive personality disorder as a thing.

Studies published in 2009 and 2012 found that the definition of passive-aggressive personality disorder more accurately described the symptoms and experiences of the subjects than that of negativistic personality disorder. And even if this behavior only appears situationally, it's possible that it's based in a stable personality trait. A paper published in 1970 followed up with 100 patients who were diagnosed with passive-aggressive personality disorder after 15 years.

And the researchers found that these patients' symptoms were fairly stable over the long term. But whether or not it's a personality disorder, psychologists seem to agree that there are fairly strong theoretical underpinnings of passive-aggressive behavior. At least one study has suggested that there might be a genetic component to it.

But more research seems to support the idea that it can be the result of things like ineffective parenting, neglect, and abuse. Essentially, the idea is that if a child grows up with situations where it's not appropriate to express anger or disagreement, they find ways to be defiant that are socially acceptable and won't result in bad consequences. Along these lines, a 2003 study had 62 heterosexual couples keep daily diaries for three weeks.

And the researchers found that people who were more sensitive to rejection were more likely to use passive strategies in a disagreement. Specifically, those people were more likely to stay silent to avoid arguments, to withdraw rather than expressing hostility, and to be less loving to their partners after they argued. So it seems like there are some consistent reasons why people might act passive-aggressively.

That said, all this isn't great. Although passive-aggressive behavior may help in certain situations, in most cases, it's a frustrating and unproductive way to deal with conflict. So what can you do about it?

In terms of therapy and treatment… there isn't enough research right now to say whether counseling can really help people whose lives are seriously impacted by their passive-aggressive behavior. But for passive-aggressiveness in your day-to-day life, psychologists do have a few pointers. You can pay attention to whether you might be triggering this kind of response by getting extremely upset or being passive-aggressive yourself.

And you can also try actively encouraging open, honest conversations. But mostly, more research needs to be done to better understand passive-aggressive behavior and to settle the debates once and for all. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

If you want to learn more about behaviors that can be not so great in relationships, check out our episode on codependency. [OUTRO ♪].