Social aggression is one of the most conspicuous features of animal societies, yet little is known about the causes of individual variation in aggression within social hierarchies. Recent theory suggests that when individuals form queues for breeding, variation in social aggression by non-breeding group members is related to their probability of inheriting breeding status. However, levels of aggression could also vary as a temporary response to changes in the hierarchy, with individuals becoming more aggressive as they ascend in rank, in order to re-establish dominance relationships. Using the group-living fish, Neolamprologus pulcher, we show that subordinates became more aggressive after they ascended in rank. Female ascenders exhibited more rapid increases in aggression than males, and the increased aggression was primarily directed towards group members of adjacent rather than non-adjacent rank, suggesting that social aggression was related to conflict over rank. Elevated aggression by ascenders was not sustained over time, there was no relationship between rank and aggression in stable groups, and aggression given by ascenders was not sex-biased. Together, these results suggest that the need to re-establish dominance relationships following rank ascension is an important determinant of variation in aggression in animal societies.