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The act of provoking or inciting someone to do something. Generally, provocation does not act as a complete defense, but it can mitigate damages or culpability.


“Provocation” is that which causes, at the time of the act, reason be disturbed or obscured by passion to an extent which might render ordinary persons, of average disposition, liable to act rashly or without due deliberation or reflection, and from passion, rather than judgment. In other words, provocation is something which causes a reasonable person to lose control.

In criminal law, the crime of murder may be reduced to manslaughter if the defendant acted in response to provocation.

Situations that typically constitute adequate provocation:

  • Adultery. A spouse who discovers their partner having sex with another is reasonably provoked, so that if, in the heat of passion, the spouse intentionally kills their partner or the partner’s lover, the homicide will be held to be voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

  • Mutual Combat. Where two parties willingly enter a fight, and during the fight one of the parties kills the other, if the intention to kill was formed during the struggle, the homicide will be held to be voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

  • Assault and Battery. A deadly or severe assault, or a strike with the fist that causes substantial pain or injury, may be sufficient to establish reasonable provocation. A minor blow is not sufficient to constitute a reasonable provocation.


Almost universally, the courts have rejected words alone as providing adequate provocation for a homicide unless accompanied by conduct indicating a present intention and ability to cause bodily harm.

Mistake as to Provocation

If a defendant kills another with the mistaken, but reasonable, belief that the victim injured or attempted to injury them, then provocation may be adequate to reduce a murder to manslaughter. This is illustrated in the case Howell v. State.

Additional Examples of Provocation in Law

In a fault divorce, provocation may act as a defense to the divorce, preventing the fault divorce from being granted. For example, where a husband sues for divorce claiming that his wife abandoned him, the wife could defend the suit on the grounds that the husband’s cruel and inhuman treatment toward her provoked her departure.

Actions against an owner of an animal for injuries inflicted by the animal may be defeated where the owner can show that the animal was provoked. For example, in Minnesota, a plaintiff-victim is not entitled to recover for a dog attack that is the result of provocation. 

[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]