The big debate in the study of aggression is whether we should be looking for situational or dispositional (individual) explanations for aggression? Is aggression something we pick up from our environment, or is it something we create ourselves? Social Psychologists prefer to focus on how aggressive behaviour is learned or how it is cued from features in the environment - things that act as a trigger or stimulus.
One of the first psychologists to study learned behaviour was Ivan Pavlov (1927) who experimented on dogs using CLASSICAL CONDITIONING. When the dogs came to associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of dinner, Pavlov could make them start salivating on demand just by ringing the bell. Classical Conditioning works by drumming a powerful habit into the subject, using the power of association. This explains some aggression, such as the person who strongly associates aggression with football matches, sex or drinking gin. However, humans are far more reflective than dogs and have more control over their habits and instincts.
The American psychologist B F Skinner (1953) took this idea of conditioning a step further. Skinner found he could condition a rat to press a lever, either by introducing a pleasurable consequence (food rolling down the chute - this is positive reinforcement) or removing an unpleasant stimulus (turning off the electric shocks in the cage - negative reinforcement). Skinner called these techniques OPERANT CONDITIONING and found positive reinforcement to be the most effective. Again, this explains some aggressive behaviour quite well. Aggression is often positively reinforced because it can earn you rewards (when you bully some kid out of his lunch money) or get you respect and admiration. It's also negatively reinforced, because if you're aggressive people will leave you alone and not pick on you. However, most of the time parents, teachers and coaches try to reinforce non-aggressive behaviour, but people still have temper tantrums, so there must be more going on.
These ideas are part of the Behaviourist school of psychology, which was very influential in the middle decades of the 20th century. Behaviourism deliberately focus on observable behaviour and environmental triggers and ignores cognitions, which are vague and hard to measure. This means Behaviourism is deliberately REDUCTIONIST. Another Behaviourist psychologist was John Dollard who proposed a slightly different theory of aggression: the FRUSTRATION-AGGRESSION HYPOTHESIS (1939). Dollard argues that we all get conditioned to expect certain consequences from our actions by long-running associations; this is Classical Conditioning. However, sometimes our behaviour doesn't get the outcome we've been conditioned to expect and this is what Dollard means by "frustration". Dollard believes that aggression is the inevitable result of frustration. In sport, this would explain the tantrums of a tennis player whose ace serve goes into the net or outside the line.
Dollard's colleague Neal Miller (1941) was dissatisfied with this explanation because it's clear that frustration doesn't always produce aggression. Miller argues that certain COGNITIONS have to be present before the frustration will turn into aggression:
Frustration seems arbitrary or unfair (eg a bad line-call).
Miller suggests that, if these cognitions aren't present, the person will either release their aggression later, at a different target (similar to Freud's idea of displacement) or else become helpless, listless and demotivated.
Once Miller introduced cognitions, the research into aggression was no longer exclusively Behaviourist. Another researcher who took a less reductionist approach was Leonard Berkowitz (1969) who proposed CUE-AROUSAL THEORY. Berkowitz took Dollard's basic theory and added a biological element: frustration produces a sort of biological arousal, rather like the passengers in the Piliavin et al. study you read for AS. Frustrated people experience raised heart rate and the release of hormones like testosterone or adrenalin into the body. This makes aggressive behaviour much more likely, but it doesn't guarantee it. To trigger aggressive behaviour there must be an aggressive cue in the environment.
For example, Berkowitz used a sample of 100 of his Wisconsin University students divided into a control group and an 'anger' group. First the students had to attempt a difficult task and were given a painful electric shock by a confederate who was judging their performance. In the 'angry' condition, the students were shocked randomly, regardless of how well they did: this produced anger and resentment. Next the roles were swapped; the confederate delivering the shocks got to attempt the task and the students got to deliver the shocks. Payback! Obviously, the 'angry' students gave more shocks but Berkowitz added an extra condition. For some of the students, there was a shotgun (unloaded) on a desk in the room; for others, a badminton racquet and some shuttlecocks. This didn't affect the 'calm' students, but the 'angry' students with the weapon in view delivered even more shocks.
Berkowitz called this the WEAPONS EFFECT. For it to work, it is important that the cue should signify aggressive behaviour in the subject's own culture. Berkowitz described the effect as: "guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well; the finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger" (1967). Berkowitz is less reductionist than Dollard, because he takes into account biological and cognitive processes. For another study that combines Behaviourism with other approaches for the study of aggression, see Bandura et al. (1961).
A completely different approach is to focus on dispositions. Maybe some people are naturally vicious! Some psychologists take the view that aggression is in fact an instinct present in all humans. Sigmund Freud took this view in Civilisation & Its Discontents (1930), arguing that human beings are ruled by a death-instinct (he calls it "thanatos") which drives us to do self-destructive things. Obviously, people don't go out and commit mass suicide and this is because our death-instinct is opposed by another psychological force, the life-instinct (or "eros"). These two instincts battle it out in our unconscious mind and affect our behaviour in all sorts of strange ways. Since the life-instinct stops us from aggressing at ourselves, we project our aggression outwards onto other people. The first targets of our aggression are our parents, but that too causes us anxiety so we end up shifting this aggression onto other targets. The important point Freud is making is that aggressive behaviour has its origins in the unconscious and begins with feelings of self-hatred and conflict with parents.
Freud claims we all have this death-instinct and repressing it is psychologically harmful. What we need to do is express it in safe and socially acceptable ways. Acting out these bottled-up urges is supposed to have a cleansing effect on the mind; Freud calls this catharsis and it would explain why people enjoy sports. Some sports just displace the death-instinct, meaning that we still get to behave aggressively, just in a safe way; an example would be boxing. Other sports sublimate the death-instinct, turning aggressive urges into graceful, controlled and beautiful behaviour, like a gymnast or figure skater. For example Richards (1994) notices how often we use "kicking" as an aggressive expression - "a kick in the teeth" or "putting the boot in" - and suggests that football in particular might be a "civilising influence" because of its power to sublimate our aggressive instincts.
Ordinary language is on Freud's side: we talk about "letting off steam" or "venting" our problems. Unfortunately for Freud, there's not much evidence that aggressive behaviour relieves aggressive feelings. For example Robert Arms et al. (1979) showed participants TV footage of either aggressive sports (wrestling, ice hockey) or non-aggressive sports (swimming) then carried out a self-report to measure levels of hostility. The viewers watching aggressive sports self-reported more hostility, not less. Other studies show that couples who argue the most are the most likely to suffer violence and the biggest predictor of a person being involved in crime is whether they were involved in crime in the previous year.
A different approach to aggressive instincts was taken by Konrad Lorenz (1966). Lorenz comes from the ETHOLOGICAL perspective in psychology, which studies the behaviour of animals and draws some conclusions about humans. Lorenz defines aggression as: "the fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against members of the SAME SPECIES". According to Lorenz, all animals, but especially males, are biologically programmed to fight over resources. In the animal kingdom, aggression is usually over food and breeding mates but the "fighting instinct" rarely creates serious problems because animals have various ways of submitting to a more dominant opponent (usually showing their vulnerable body parts). In human society, aggression has more complicated psychological and cultural forms and technology means our ability to aggress has massively outstripped our self-control - guns can kill instantly, at a distance, before an opponent has a chance to submit. Lorenz proposes a HYDRAULIC MODEL OF AGGRESSION, where aggressive urges build up in a creature like water pressure in a tank and need to be released; if they are not released safely, they will 'explode' out in dangerous aggression. Lorenz agrees with Freud that sport can be a constructive outlet for the fighting-instinct.
There is some support for the idea of an aggressive instinct. Ethologists have noticed that all vertebrate animals display aggression, so it must have some survival value in evolutionary terms. On the other hand, CROSS-CULTURAL STUDIES (eg Baron & Richardson, 1992) have found huge variations in human aggression. For example, among the Arapesh people of New Guinea there is hardly any aggression, by European/American standards. This suggests that there must be social factors at work in aggression, rather than just instinct alone.
BEHAVIOURAL THERAPIES are based on the ideas of Behaviourism and try to modify a person's antisocial behaviour by controlling their environment in various ways. Some common techniques include:
COGNITIVE THERAPIES were invented by Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s. Beck felt that behavioural therapies were demeaning to people and that the most effective change comes "from within". Cognitive Therapy uses counseling to identify faulty or destructive thoughts or attitudes; the client is encouraged to see how damaging these ideas are and develop new attitudes and a new self-image. The basic idea is that when people think differently and view themselves differently, then they will start to behave differently.
These days, it is common for therapists to combine these two techniques into COGNITIVE-BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY (CBT). A good example of CBT applied to aggression is the work of Raymond Novaco (1975) who developed ANGER MANAGEMENT. Novaco shares some ideas with Freud and Lorenz, namely that anger is a useful thing because it alerts us to conflict when it's about to occur. He argues that aggressive individuals suffer problems at home, school and work and that adolescent males in particular tend to overcompensate for these problems with aggressive posturing. The goal of therapy is not to remove aggression but to help the client re-direct it in more useful and acceptable ways. First, Novaco diagnoses the client's particular problems using the NOVACO ANGER SCALE/PROVOCATION INVENTORY (NAS/PI). This is a psychometric test that measures how appropriate or inappropriate your aggressive reactions are. It includes statements like:
Rspondents answer on a Likert Scale, which gives them a choice about how much anger the situation would make them feel: "Very Much", "Much" "Moderate", "Little" or "Very Little". 60 questions assess how the respondent experiences anger (cognitions, behaviour, arousal, etc) and 25 assess the sort of situations that provoke anger (disrespect, unfairness, frustration, etc). The test takes 25 minutes to complete.
Click here to download a short version of the Novaco Anger Inventory (PDF format)
Try this online version of the Novaco Anger Inventory (results emailed to you)
Anger Management Therapy itself involves two main techniques:
Does anger management work and which techniques are most effective? John Brunelle et al. (1999) studied 57 male footballers (aged 18-28); anger trait scores were measured before carrying out the study and found to be similar. The participants were randomly assigned to three conditions: role-playing, anger awareness and a control group. The first two groups both had the same short educational lecture during their weekly hour session. The role-play group was given a live demonstration of alternative responses to provocation and they acted them out. The anger awareness group discussed their anger and they kept journals of their feelings. The control group spent the same amount of time together but anger control was not mentioned: they focused on techniques like relaxation. Finally, the participants’ anger was measured over 15 matches, using observation, a checklist and self-report measures. The role-play group demonstrated least aggression, followed by the anger awareness group. This suggests that anger management does work, and that behavioural techniques are more effective than cognitive ones, at least in the short term.