Passive-Aggressiveness: The Stereotypical Mother-In-Law

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Passive-Aggressiveness: The Stereotypical Mother-In-Law

The tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man. (Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents, 1902)

The greatest remedy for anger is delay. (Seneca, De Ira, 4 BC—65 AD)

A soft answer turneth away wrath. (Bible: Proverbs)

One of the most controversial of the personality disorders is Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD). The concept originated in the American military soon after the Second World War to describe difficult, childlike soldiers who were, in effect, social dissidents. The originally described behaviours regarding shirking duty by ’wilful incompetence’ were then applied by psychiatrists to those in civilian life.

One of the dozen or so PDs listed in the early American Psychiatric Manual (DSM-I) published in 1952 was PAPD. Within this framework three related types were identified: passive dependent who were described as clingy, helpless and constantly indecisive; passive-aggressive who were inefficient, pouty, stubborn, prone to procrastination and very obstructive; and aggressive who were destructive, irritable and resentful. Sixteen years later the latter two types were merged into PAPD.

It was suggested that people with PAPD ’snipe rather than confront’, and mask their opposition to, and rebellion against, authority. They are noted to shirk responsibility and sabotage others. The list of symptoms grew as the DSM manuals were updated to include behaviours such as apparent forgetfulness, dawdling and intentional inefficiency. However, by the third edition of the manual, PAPD was dropped because it was thought of not as a syndrome or disorder, but a specific behavioural response to particular (work) situations. That is, it was situation specific, not a trait, a response pattern possibly with its origins in childhood socialization.

By the fourth edition of the manual (DSM-IV) the syndrome was renamed negativistic, but was appendicized rather than put in the main text. Many of the behavioural descriptions remained the same, such as resistance to routine tasks, consistent complaints about being misunderstood, sullen argumentativeness, scorn of all those in authority, envy and resentment of the relatively fortunate, perpetual and exaggerated complaints of personal misfortune.


This personality type is very concerned about ’doing their own thing’. They demand the ’right to be me’. They have a right to do their thing in their way and no one has the right to deprive them of it. They believe at work and in private relationships nobody has the right to own them. They like the companionship of others but need strong defences against being ill-used. They are particularly sensitive to fairness.

Passive-aggressive types are not usually stressed. They sulk, procrastinate and forget when asked to do things they think are not fair. They are called passive-aggressive because they are rarely openly defiant; yet they are often angry. They snipe rather than confront and they are often furious — and then can be needy but resentful about those moods. They are in essence oppositional: not assertive. They often have downward job mobility.

The DSM-III-R describes passive-aggressive personality disorder as:

’A pervasive pattern of passive resistance to demands for adequate social and occupational performance, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by at least five of the following:

1 Procrastinates, i.e., puts off things that need to be done so that deadlines are not met.

2 Becomes sulky, irritable or argumentative when asked to do something he or she does not want to do.

3 Seems to work deliberately slowly or to do a bad job on tasks that he or she really does not want to do.

4 Protests, without justification, that others make unreasonable demands on him or her.

5 Avoids obligations by claiming to have ’forgotten’.

6 Believes that he or she is doing a much better job than others think he or she is doing.

7 Resents useful suggestions from others concerning how he or she could be more productive.

8 Obstructs the efforts of others by failing to do his or her share of the work.

9 Unreasonably criticizes or scorns people in positions of authority’ (pp. 212—13).

Sometimes these people are called leisurely. These types march to the sound of their own drum, they are confident about their skills and abilities, cynical about the talents and intentions of others — especially superiors, and they insist on working at their own pace. They tend to get angry and slow down even more when asked to speed up. They tend to feel mistreated, unappreciated and put upon — and when they sense that they have been cheated, they retaliate, but always under conditions of high deniability. They are curiously quite skilled at hiding their annoyance and pretending to be co-operative, and their peevishness and foot dragging are often very hard to detect.

Passive-aggressives handle stress and heavy workloads by slowing down, by simply ignoring requests for greater output, and by finding ways to get out of work. Because they seem overtly co-operative and agreeable, it takes a long time to realize how unproductive and refractory they actually can be.

One needs to be aware that they are not nearly as co-operative as they seem, and that they are only pretending to agree with you about work and performance issues. Also one needs to get them to commit to performance goals in public, in front of witnesses, so that a community of people can hold them accountable. Social pressure won’t change their views of the world, but it will serve to make their performance deficits less easily deniable.

Oldham and Morris (1991) claim the following five traits and behaviours are clues to the presence of what they too call the leisurely style. A person who reveals a strong leisurely tendency will demonstrate more of these behaviours more intensely than someone with less of this style in his or her personality profile.

1 Inalienable rights. They believe in their right to enjoy themselves on their own terms in their own time.

2 Enough is enough. They sort-of play by the rules. They deliver what is expected of them and no more.

3 The right to resist. They can easily resist acceding to demands that they deem unreasonable or above and beyond the call of duty.

4 Mañana. They are relaxed about time and never obsessed by time urgency or the demands of the clock. Surprisingly, they are easy-going and optimistic that whatever needs to get done will get done, eventually.

5 I’m okay. They are never impressed by authority. They accept themselves and their approach to life.


Furnham, A. (2014). Bullies and Backstabbers. London: Bloomsbury.

Furnham, A., & Crump, J. (2017). Personality Correlates of Passive-Aggressiveness: A NEO-PI-R domain and facet analysis of the HDS Leisurely Scale. Journal of Mental Health, 57, 117—22.

Oldham, J., & Morris, L. (1991). Personality self-portrait. New York: Bantam References.