Now we turn to the darker side of social behavior—aggression and rejection. What is aggression? In everyday language, someone may describe a woman who actively pursues a career as “aggressive”, but in social psychology our definition is much more narrow. Aggression is any intentional action aimed at doing harm or causing pain. Thus, accidentally hitting someone wouldn’t be considered aggression, nor would throwing a pillow at someone. Spanking a child, even if done out of love, is considered aggression under this definition. Aggression can be subdivided into hostile aggression, whose goal is to inflict pain, and instrumental aggression, where the pain is just a means to another goal. A football player who sacks the quarterback or a loan shark who breaks a client’s leg to encourage him to pay is performing instrumental aggression. Aggression may also be direct—to someone’s face—or indirect.
Perspectives on the causes of aggression can be divided into evolutionary-based, motivationally-based, learning-based, and thought-based (cognitive). You should already be familiar with one of the biological perspectives, the evolutionary approach. This theory predicts that we will be more likely to hurt dissimilar others (because they are less likely to share our genes) than similar ones. Though aggression does seem to have some evolutionary value, it is certainly influenced by the social situation as well, particularly for humans. The cultural examples in the text illustrate that even among humans, the reasons and frequency of aggression differ among groups.
The text also discusses several situational causes of aggression. Testosterone has sometimes been linked to aggression, though the research has been mixed. One reason for this may be that, while testosterone sometimes increases aggressiveness, feeling competitive or aggressive also increases testosterone levels. Thus there is a bidirectional effect. Alcohol, temperature, noise, crowding, weapons, automatic effects and direct provocation have also been linked to increased aggression.
Aggressive cues in the environment (like a gun or knife on the table) can also increase aggression. Note Len Berkowitz’s clever study on the effects of aggressive cues. What does this research suggest about gun control?
Another external cause of aggression is frustration. Try to think of some situations in which you became frustrated and behaved aggressively. Note the goal and the object blocking fulfillment of that goal. In the next three columns, evaluate the strength of the goal, the degree to which it was blocked, and the number of times it was blocked. Last, describe your aggressive action. Who or what became the object of your aggression? Was it direct or displaced?
Describe the goal and the source of frustration
How strong was the initial drive? (How important was the goal?)
To what degree was the goal blocked? (partially, completely)
How many times was the goal blocked? (once, repeatedly)
Describe the resulting level of aggression
Motivational theories, such as frustration-aggression theory, suggest that aggression comes from a noninstinctual (not biological) motivational force related to our deprivation of some need. When we are frustrated from reaching a goal, we will be driven to aggress against others. Our frustration level (and thus our level of aggression) will be higher 1) the greater the importance of the goal; 2) the extent to which the goal was impeded (partially vs. fully); and 3) the number of times the goal is frustrated. How do these determinants of frustration level fit with your examples above? Drive theories take a more positive stance on decreasing violent behavior. Frustration will always be with us, as it is impossible to stop all sources for all people. But since the urge is not inborn, we can try to teach people ways to decrease their feelings of frustration.
Social learning theory predicts that we aggress because we have learned to do so from others. Bandura’s classic Bobo doll study illustrates the negative effect of aggressive models on children, but adults can learn through observation as well. This theory is fairly optimistic—if we decrease the number of aggressive models, we should be able to decrease aggression. We also discussed how mirror neurons and social norms may play parts in learning.
I mentioned that some theories address aggression from a cognitive, or thought, perspective—one is the general aggression model. Cognitive models explain aggression in terms of thought patterns. It’s the way we think about and interpret behaviors that leads to aggression. This is the most optimistic perspective so far—if we can change the way people interpret behaviors, we can decrease aggression. Training programs that encourage empathy for victims and perspective taking have had success in decreasing aggressive actions. We also discussed trying to change hostile attributional biases.
We also talked about how violent tv, movies, and videogames can affect aggression.
So aggression is partly biological and affected, among other things, by frustration and the violence-soaked media. What can we do to try to reduce aggressive tendencies? To the extent that aggression is situationally based, there is hope for reducing it. Most of the research on preventing aggression has been on punishment and catharsis. Punishment is commonly believed to be effective in preventing aggression, as the increased emphasis on prison sentences for crimes in recent years illustrates. Research has shown, however, that punishment is not always very effective.
Several factors determine whether threatened punishment will have a deterrent effect. First, punishment will be more effective when the level of anger experienced by the potential aggressor is low. If the person is very angry and emotional, he or she may not consider the consequences of his or her actions. The instrumentality of the aggression also plays a role; if there are large extrinsic rewards for the aggressive act (such as a large life insurance payoff), punishment will be less likely to deter. Ideally there should be a short interval between the time of the crime and the time of the punishment, and punishment should be consistent and certain. For punishment to be maximally effective, everyone who aggresses should have the same certain chance of being punished. Think about the United States criminal justice system in terms of these factors. Is punishment for a crime certain, quick, and consistent? How could we make the system more effective?
Many people also believe that catharsis is effective in reducing aggression. Catharsis is the idea that getting aggressive feelings out in nonharmful ways, reduces the urge to aggress. There is very little support for this notion. In fact, in most cases, playing violent sports, watching violent sports, kicking inanimate objects, and yelling at people lead to increased aggression.
So what is an effective way to reduce aggression? One suggestion is to vent—tell the person that you are angry with them. This can help you to understand your own feelings better and may reduce your aggressive feelings. Apologies are also useful ways to difuse situations, particularly if you appear to be sincere, your reasons are convincing, and you make reference to some event outside of your control. “I’m really sorry I’m late, but my car wouldn’t start this morning” is going to be more effective than “Oops, sorry. You’ll live.”
As social learning theory suggests, nonaggressive models can reduce aggression. If children (and adults) see others modeling nonviolent responses to frustration or provocation, they can learn to respond similarily. As I mentioned when talking about cognitive perspectives, building empathy and perspective taking and teaching people to make more external attributions about others behaviors is also effective. Finally, making someone laugh can decrease their hostile feelings.
Finally we discussed ostracism and how rejection causes us pain, even if it’s done by someone we don’t really care about. Our first reaction to rejection is to feel bad, then we decide whether to be nice, be mean, or just avoid the situation based on how important the person is to us and whether we feel we deserved the rejection (among other factors).
1. Distinguish between hostile and instrumental aggression and direct and indirect aggression. Explain how scientific use of the word “aggression” differs from lay use.
2. Describe the evidence for aggression as in-born.
3. Explain cultural and gender differences in aggression.
4. Explain frustration-aggression theory and factors that increase the likelihood of frustration (and thus aggression).
5. Describe how aggressive objects (weapons) can affect aggression and the implications of this finding.
6. Identify how social learning theory applies to aggression. Describe the famous Bobo doll experiment. Identify what mirror neurons are.
7. Describe the cognitive approach to explaining aggression and what it suggests we should do to decrease it.
8. Describe several situational effects on aggression.
9. Describe the effects of media violence on viewers. How is this research done, and what does it show?
10. Describe several ways that aggression can be reduced.
11. Explain the effects of ostracism and rejection on people.