In Module 10 we tackle the sensitive issue of aggression. We will start by defining aggression and then its types to include instrumental, hostile, relational, and cyberbullying. We then will tackle specific forms of aggression such as crime, workplace violence, bullying, school violence, domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment. From this we tackle dispositional and situational factors that affect aggression. For dispositional we will discuss whether aggression is instinctual, the influence of genes or the environment, nervous and endocrine system explanations, personality, negative affect and mood, the hostile attribution bias and aggression schemas, rumination, and arousal. For situational factors, we will discuss the culture of honor, observational learning and operant conditioning, the frustration-aggression hypothesis, social rejection, alcohol use, the media, temperature, and crowding. With an understanding of what aggression is, the forms it can take, and potential causes, we conclude by discussing ways to reduce aggression.
- 10.1. Defining Aggression
- 10.2. Forms Aggression Can Take
- 10.3. Why We Aggress – Dispositional Factors
- 10.4. Why We Aggress – Situational Factors
- 10.5. Reducing Aggression
Module Learning Outcomes
- Define aggression and its types.
- Identify and describe forms aggression can take.
- Outline dispositional reasons why we aggress.
- Outline situational reasons why we aggress.
- Propose measures to reduce aggression.
Section Learning Objectives
- Define aggression.
- Identify and define the three forms aggression can take.
- Explain why the addition of cyberbullying is needed.
10.1.1. Aggression and Its Types
Aggression can be defined as any behavior, whether physical or verbal, that is carried out with the intent to harm another person. The key here is determining the intention or motive for the aggressive behavior. Aggression should also be distinguished from being angry, which is an emotional reaction to an event but can just stay that – an emotion. Just because someone is angry does not mean they will necessarily act on it and engage in aggressive behavior. If they do aggress, how intense is the behavior? To understand that, consider that aggressive acts occur along a continuum of least harmful to most harmful. On the extreme side are violent acts or violence. The World Health Organization (WHO) defined violence in their 2002 World Report on Violence and Health, as “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation” (pg. 5). They state that violence can be self-directed in the form of suicidal behavior or self-abuse, interpersonal and between family members or individuals who are unrelated, or collective in terms of social, political, and economic and suggest motives for violence. They add that violence acts can be physical, sexual, psychological, or involve deprivation or neglect. For more on the report, and to view the 2014 report on violence prevention, please visit:
Aggression has three types. First, instrumental aggression occurs when a person attempts to obtain something but does not intend to harm others. The behavior serves as a means to another end. An example would be if a toddler tries to take a toy from another toddler. Second, hostile or physical aggression occurs when a person intends to harm another person by hitting, shooting, kicking, punching, or stabbing them, or by simply threatening such action. The behavior is an end in itself. Third, relational aggression occurs when efforts are made to damage another person’s relationships and could include spreading rumors, name calling, ignoring a person, or social exclusion.
Should a fourth type of aggression be listed – cyberbullying? Cyberbullying involves the use of technology such as social media, e-mail, chatrooms, texting, video games, Youtube, or photographs to humiliate, embarrass, intimidate, or even threaten someone to gain power and control over them. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, cyberbullying involves an electronic form of contact, an aggressive act, intent, repetition, and harm to the target (Hutson, 2016) and in 2015 the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported that 15.5% of high school students and 24% of middle school students were cyberbullied. Unlike bullying done outside of the online environment, the target may not know who is actually bullying them or why, the cyberbullying could go viral and to a large audience, parents and adults may have difficulty managing it, and the harmful effects of cyberbullying on the target may not be easily seen by the bully, thereby perpetuating it.
For more on cyberbullying, please visit: https://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/cyberbullying/
Section Learning Objectives
- Describe crime and its types.
- Clarify what workplace violence is and its prevalence.
- Clarify what bullying is and its prevalence.
- Clarify what school violence is and its prevalence.
- Clarify what domestic violence is and its prevalence.
- Clarify what rape is and its prevalence.
- Clarify what sexual harassment is and its prevalence.
Aggression towards others can take the form of crimes, or acts understood to be unacceptable within a society and which can result in punishment. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), these include:
- Cybercrimes – Includes network and computer intrusions, ransomware, identity theft, and online predators.
- Public Corruption – Includes prison and border corruption; election crimes such as campaign finance crimes, voter/ballot fraud, and civil rights violations; and international corruption such as attempts to rig a bid, to fix prices, bribing foreign officials, or money laundering or the embezzlement of state funds
- Civil Rights violations – Includes the use of excessive force during arrests, sexual assault, false arrest, obstruction of justice, hate crimes, depriving medical care, or if a law enforcement official fails to keep an individual from harm.
- Organized Crime – This involves the elimination of transnational organized crime groups (TOC) defined as, “…self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate, wholly or in part, by illegal means and irrespective of geography. They constantly seek to obtain power, influence, and monetary gains. There is no single structure under which TOC groups function—they vary from hierarchies to clans, networks, and cells, and may evolve into other structures. These groups are typically insular and protect their activities through corruption, violence, international commerce, complex communication mechanisms, and an organizational structure exploiting national boundaries” (Source: https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/organized-crime).
- White-collar Crime – Includes corporate fraud, money laundering, investment fraud, broker embezzlement, market manipulation, and pyramid schemes.
- Violent Crime – Includes gang related violence, crimes against children, active shooter incidents, bank robbery, homicide, assaults, stalking/intimidation, and jewelry and gem theft.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) federal law enforcement agencies made a total of 151,460 arrests in 2016. Assaults increased from 14.8 to 16.9 while rape or sexual assaults declined from 1.6 to 1.1 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older, and from 2015 to 2016. The overall rate of violent crime did not show any statistically significant change during the same period, though the trend was upward (18.6 to 19.7 per 1,000). For more statistics, please visit: https://www.bjs.gov/.
10.2.2. Workplace Violence
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workplace violence is defined as, “…any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.” The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says workplace violence falls into one of four categories: criminal intent or when the criminal has no connection with the business and is robbing, shoplifting, or trespassing; customer/client; worker-on-worker; and personal relationship, which typically targets women (See https://wwwn.cdc.gov/wpvhc/Course.aspx/Slide/Unit1_5 for more).
In 2014 there were 403 workplace homicides and annually, nearly 23 million American workers report being victims of workplace violence. So, who is at risk? OSHA says, “Among those with higher-risk are workers who exchange money with the public, delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents, law enforcement personnel, and those who work alone or in small groups.”
For more on workplace violence, please visit: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/workplaceviolence/.
You can also visit: https://www.nsc.org/work-safety/safety-topics/workplace-violence.
10.2.3. Bullying and Cyberbullying
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), defines bullying as “…any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, involving an observed or perceived power imbalance. These behaviors are repeated multiple times or are highly likely to be repeated.Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youthincluding physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.” Stopbullying.gov adds that this behavior can include verbal (teasing, name-calling, taunting, threats of harm, or inappropriate sexual comments), social (spreading rumors or excluding someone intentionally), or physical (spitting on, hitting, kicking, breaking someone’s things, or making rude hand gestures) bullying. The BJS reports that during the 2015-2016 school year, 22% of middle schools reported at least one incident of student bullying each week while 15% of high schools, 11% of combined schools, and 8% of primary schools reported incidents.
For more on bullying, please visit:
10.2.4. School Violence
The CDC defines school violence as, “a fatal injury (e.g., homicide, suicide, or legal intervention) that occurs on school property, on the way to/from school, or during or on the way to/from a school-sponsored event” (See https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/schoolviolence/savd.html). They report most school violence occurs during transition times to include during lunch and before or after school and at the start of each semester. About half of all perpetrators gave some type of warning signal before the event. When firearms were used in school related homicides or suicides, most came from the person’s home or from a friend or relative. They write, “Homicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 5-18. Data from this study indicate that between 1% and 2% of these deaths happen on school grounds or on the way to or from school. These findings underscore the importance of preventing violence at school as well as in communities.”
From 1992 to 2015 the number of deaths involving students, staff, or other individuals not directly affiliated with the school, went from 57 (1992) to 47 (2015) with a peak of 63 during the 2006-2007 school year (Source: CDC link above). According to the BJS, in 2016 there were 749,000 victimizations (theft and nonfatal violence) at school and 601,300 away from school, or 29 and 24 per 1,000 students, at school and away from school, respectively. The victimization rate was higher for males and most schools during the 2015-2016 school year reported developing a procedure for an active shooter incident. (To view the report for yourself, please visit: https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=6206).
10.2.5. Domestic Violence
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), domestic violence is “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or otherabusive behavioras part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.” It can include telling the victim they never do right; complete control of finances; embarrassing or shaming the victim with put-downs; telling the victim how to dress; threatening to kill or injure the victim’s friends, loved ones, or pets; forcing sex with others; preventing the victim from working or going to school; and destroying the victim’s property. They estimate that on average, “nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States” and “1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, and contraction of sexually transmitted diseases.” Finally, intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crime.
For more on domestic violence, please visit: https://ncadv.org
According to womenshealth.gov, rape occurs when there has been sexual penetration, without consent. The U.S. Department of Justice adds that consent involves clearly stating ‘yes’ to any type of sexual activity. Rape also occurs if you are drunk, high, drugged, passed out, or asleep as in these situations you cannot give consent. It is a type of sexual assault and during their life, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped. NCADV adds that “Almost half of female (46.7%) and male (44.9%) victims of rape in the United States were raped by an acquaintance. Of these, 45.4% of female rape victims and 29% of male rape victims were raped by an intimate partner.” Violence of a sexual nature culminating in rape starts early with as many as 8.5 million women reporting an incident before the age of 18.
For more information, please visit: https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/sexual-assault-and-rape/rape
10.2.7. Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or sexually charged words or gestures have been made. In the workplace, the sexual harassment comes with the expectation of submission, whether stated implicitly or explicitly, and as a term of one’s employment. It includes unwanted pressure for sexual favors, pressure for dates, sexual comments, cat calls, sexual innuendos or stories, questions about sexual fantasies or fetishes, kissing sounds, howling, hugging, kissing, stroking, sexually suggestive signals, staring at someone, winking, etc. A February 21, 2018 article by NPR (National Public Radio) reported that 81% of women and 43% of men had experienced sexual harassment of some sort during their life.
“The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) is an ongoing survey that collects the most current and comprehensive national- and state-level data on intimate partner violence, sexual violence and stalking victimization in the United States.” To view the report and other resources yourself, please visit: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/datasources/nisvs/index.html.
To read the full NPR article, please visit:
Section Learning Objectives
- Clarify whether we are prewired to aggress.
- Identify any brain areas, influence of genetics, hormones, or other mechanisms that lead to aggressive behavior.
- Clarify whether personality can explain aggression.
- Describe the role of mood and negative affect on aggression.
- Define the hostile attribution bias and its role in aggression.
- Define dehumanization and victim-blaming.
- Describe the function of rumination on aggression.
- Describe the function of arousal on aggression.
Beginning with Section 10.3 we will now explore reasons why we engage in aggressive behavior. In Section 4.2.1 we stated that according to attribution theory (Heider, 1958), people are motivated to explain their own and other people’s behavior by attributing causes of that behavior to either something in themselves or a trait they have, called a dispositional attribution, or to something outside the person called a situational attribution. In this section we will address dispositional reasons why people aggress and in Section 10.4 we will cover situational factors.
10.3.1. Instinct Theory – Prewired to Aggress?
At times, a person or animal will respond in predictable ways to certain stimuli or as ethologists call it an instinct. Instincts are inborn and inherited such as with the phenomena of imprinting observed by Konrad Lorenz. He noted that young geese will follow the first moving object they sense after birth. Though this is usually their mother, it may not be in all cases. Human beings do not possess this specific instinct. The instinct theory of motivation states that all of our activities, thoughts, and desires are biologically determined or evolutionarily programmed through our genes and this serve as our source of motivation. William McDougall (1871-1938) stated that humans are wired to attend to stimuli that are important to our goals, move toward the goal such as walking to the refrigerator, and finally we have the drive and energy between our perception of a goal and then movement towards it.
On the other hand, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) believed motivation centered on instinctual impulses reaching consciousness and exerting pressure which, much like strain, is uncomfortable and leads to motivated behavior. Freud identified two types of instincts – 1) life instincts or Eros including hunger, thirst, sex, self-preservation and the survival of the species, and all the creative forces that sustain life; and 2) death instincts or Thanatos which are destructive forces that can be directed inward as masochism or suicide or outward as hatred and aggression. When these instincts create pressure, it is interpreted as pain and its satisfaction or reduction results in pleasure. Our ultimate goal, or pleasure, is to minimize the excitation/pressure.
Sexual and aggressive instincts tend to be repressed in the unconscious due to societal norms against their expression which could result in some type of punishment or anxiety. Still, they need to be satisfied to reduce the pressure they exert and some ways Freud said this could be done was through humor containing aggressive or sexual themes or dreams. In the case of dreaming, the censorship relaxes during sleep but is not removed and so impulses do enter the content of dreams but are disguised. Despite the disguise, we can still satisfy many of our urges (i.e. dreams with sexual content). Freud proposed that another way we can release aggression is through what he called displacement, or when we channel a feeling or thought to a substitute target because we cannot aggress against the primary target either due to social norms, laws, or it is not accessible to us. For instance, we all have been upset at our boss before. Instead of lashing out on them, we instead go home and engage in aggressive behavior to our significant other and possibly our children. It could be that we are upset at not receiving our financial aid and so do not have the textbooks we need for the first week of class. We cannot lash out at our university or wherever the funds are supposed to come from, so we take out our frustration on our roommate. Or maybe we are upset about social injustices perpetrated by our government. There is really no one specifically we can aggress against in this situation (lack of access) and so we aggress against those around us who are easy targets and available.
Another perspective on instincts comes from American psychologist, William James (1842-1910) who was influential on the Functionalist school of thought in Psychology. Essentially, functionalism said that any structure or function that existed today, did so because it served an adaptive advantage to the organism, demonstrating the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution on our field. James agreed with this and suggested the existence of 37 instincts. These include parental love, jealousy, sociability, play, curiosity, fear, sympathy, vocalization, and imitation. James begins Chapter 24 of his book, The Principles of Psychology, by saying, “INSTINCT is usually defined as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance.” Instincts aid in self-preservation, defense, or care for eggs and young, according to James.
Interestingly, the founder of the school of thought called Behaviorism, John B. Watson (1878-1958), initially accepted the idea of instincts and proposed 11 of them associated with behavior. That said, in 1929 he came to reject this notion and instead argued that instincts are socially conditioned responses and in fact, the environment is the cause of all behavior.
Finally, we are sometimes motivated by forces outside conscious awareness or what is called unconscious motivation. For Freud (1920), awareness occurs when motives enter consciousness, the focus of awareness, from either the preconscious, defined as the part of a person’s psyche that contains all thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations; or the unconscious, defined as the part of a person’s psyche not readily available to them. It is here that repressed thoughts and instinctual impulses are kept. For information to pass from the unconscious to the preconscious it must pass a censor or gate keeper of sorts. Any mental excitations that make it to the gate/door and are turned away are said to be repressed. Even when mental events are allowed through the gate, they may not be brought into awareness. For that to occur, the eye of the conscious must become aware of them. Could it be then that we are frustrated with some situation or person and are not aware of it?
10.3.2. Genetic and Endocrine/Nervous Systems Explanations
10.3.2.1. Brain areas. One area of the brain that has been implicated in aggression is the amygdala which is responsible for emotion. For instance, Matthies et al. (2012) found that participants with higher aggression scores as measured through the Life History of Aggression Assessment (LHA) had a 16-18% reduction of amygdala volumes, indicating a significant negative correlation of trait aggression and amygdala volume. A similar study found that men with lower amygdala volume displayed higher levels of aggressive behavior and psychopathic features from childhood to adulthood (Pardini, Raine, Erickson, & Loeber, 2014). Finally, exaggerated amygdala reactivity was reported to faces expressing anger in subjects diagnosed with intermittent explosive disorder (IED), which is characterized by reactive aggressive behavior (Coccaro, McCloskey, Fitzgerald, & Phan, 2007).
The hypothalamus has also been indicated in aggressive behavior in mice (Lin et al., 2011), rats (Spiteri et al., 2010; Panksepp, 1971), hamsters (Ferris et al., 1997), cats (Romaniuk, 1965), sparrows (Mukai et al., 2009), and humans (Haller, 2013).
10.3.2.2. The role of testosterone. The hormone, testosterone, when present in high levels, as well as a large body mass, were shown to lead to greater levels of social dominance and physical aggression in adolescents, especially in situations where physical aggression leads to social dominance (Tremblay, 1998). In another study, 30 male college students provided a saliva sample so that testosterone level could be assessed and then either interacted with a gun or a child’s toy for 15 minutes. After this another saliva sample was provided. They then added as much hot sauce to a cup of water that they wanted to, believing that another subject would have to drink it. The researchers found that males who interacted with the gun had greater increases in testosterone level and added more hot sauce to the water than did participants who interacted with the toy (Klinesmith, Kasser, & McAndrew, 2006).
10.3.2.3. Heritability of childhood aggression. Porch et al. (2016) utilized two large twin cohorts and found that heritability of aggressive behavioral problems was high, between 50 and 80% in the two samples. For both samples, the shared environment accounts for about 20% of the variation in aggression across all ages. Of course, parent report bias could be what is driving such high genetics effects, though a more recent review states that studies utilizing non-parent raters are coming to similar conclusions (DiLalla, 2017). The exact relationship between genes and environment really depends on the type of aggression studied too.
10.3.2.4. Other mechanisms of aggression. Nelson and Trainor (2007) published a review that identified several mechanisms for aggression as follows. First, they point out that hypothalamic and limbic brain regions facilitate aggressive behavior but that neural activity in the frontal cortex can inhibit it. Second, the neurotransmitter, serotonin, regulates aggressive behavior, and its release, reuptake, and sensitivity can be modified to affect such behavior. Third, dopamine is necessary for aggressive behavior through arousal, learning, and/or memory. Fourth, aggressive behavior can be increased in humans through mutations in the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) enzyme (Meyer-Lindenberg et al., 2006). Fifth, genetic mutations or hormones that increase aggression in one environment do not necessarily increase it in another, indicating a gene-environment interaction.
10.3.3. Personality and Aggression – A Dark Triad?
There are some people who are willing to use others for their own gain. How do we explain such behavior? Psychologists use personality as one such explanation for aggressive behavior, and three traits in particular, called the Dark Triad, are important – Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). First, narcissism involves our tendency to seek admiration and special treatment. Those high in the trait are self-focused and not other-focused, show a great deal of self-love, and have low empathy for others. Second, Machiavellianism is a trait reflecting a person’s willingness to manipulate others. Third, psychopathy refers to a person’s tendency to be callous and insensitive, impulsive, and to exert poor self-control. Paulhus and Williams (2002) write, “To varying degrees, all three entail a socially malevolent character with behavior tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness” (pg. 557).
The Dark Triad has been measured through a brief measure called the “Dirty Dozen” (DD) scale which has four items per trait or 12 total (Jonason & Webster, 2010). Recent research suggests this scale is too short and some essential content may have been removed to obtain the brief version, such as being too narrow in assessing interpersonal antagonism by leaving out dishonesty, immodesty, and noncompliance; and there being no attempt to capture disinhibition (Miller et al., 2012). Another brief measure has been introduced by Jones and Paulhus (2013) called the Short Dark Triad (SD3) to assess dark personality traits. Building off the limitations of the DD, it assesses each trait through 9 items for 27 total and uses a 5-point Likert scale where 1 indicates the person disagrees strongly to 5 or agrees strongly. Across four studies the authors found that the SD3 “achieves an optimal compromise between instrument brevity and respectable reliability and validity” (pg. 10). To measure Machiavellianism, questions such as ‘It’s not wise to tell your secrets,’ ‘It’s wise to keep track of information that you can use against people later,’ and ‘Most people can be manipulated’ are used. To measure Narcissism, ‘People see me as a natural leader,’ ‘I like to get acquainted with important people,’ and ‘I insist on getting the respect I deserve’ are used. Finally, Psychopathy is measured through ‘Payback needs to be quick and nasty,’ ‘People who mess with me always regret it,’ and ‘I’ll say anything to get what I want’ to name a few. Maples, Lamkin, and Miller (2014) pitted the DD against the SD3 in a community sample of 287 participants and found that the SD3 proved to be the stronger scale and better measured the dark triad personality traits.
10.3.4. Negative Affect and Mood
Another possible dispositional factor on aggression is negative affect and mood. In a study of 49 participants in a treatment program for child physical abuse, researchers found that negative affect contributed to parent-to-child aggression (PTCA) in the form of minor physical violence but not severe physical violence and that PTCA has qualities of impulsive aggression which is believed to be driven by negative affect, is not planned, and often occurs in response to aversive events. As such, the authors suggest that physically abusive parents may benefit from interventions that promote positive emotion-focused coping strategies (Mammen, Kolko, & Pilkonis, 2002). In another study, participants who placed their nondominant hand in cold water as they administered either a reward or punishment to a fellow student and were told that they might experience pain reported greater discomfort; were more annoyed, angered, and irritated; and were more punitive to the available target (the other student) even though this person was not the cause of their discomfort (Berkowitz & Thome, 1987).
10.3.5. Hostile Attribution Bias and Aggression Schemas
The hostile attribution bias leads people to project blame onto others and is an extra-punitive mentality (Adams & John, 1997), while negative reciprocity beliefs are an individual’s proclivity to reciprocate negative treatment for negative treatment or to take an eye for an eye (Eisenberger et al., 2004). In a study of workplace incivility and interpersonal deviance, Wu et al. (2014) found that when employees high in the hostile attribution bias categorize incivility as hostile, they will return interpersonal deviance. Those low in the bias do not respond to incivility in a negative manner. Also, those holding strong negative reciprocity beliefs will reciprocate mistreatment with mistreatment if they perceive hostile intent, while those low in the belief do not respond this way even if they believe ‘eye for an eye’ is an appropriate social norm. The presence of a three-way interaction (between workplace incivility, hostile attribution bias, and negative reciprocity beliefs) suggests that both constructs are necessary to predict an employee’s interpersonal deviance. The authors write, “Individuals with strong hostile attribution bias and negative reciprocity beliefs are most influenced by workplace incivility because they are inclined to categorize uncivil behaviors as hostile and make a decision to reciprocate interpersonal deviance” (pg. 196).
Recall from Section 3.1.2. that as we gather information from our world, we organize it in a way that we can obtain it again when needed. One way we do this is through the creation of schemas, or organized ways of making sense of our experience. As we can have schemas for the self, roles, events, groups, or persons, it should not be surprising to learn that we can develop schemas about aggression. Our aggression schemas provide us information about when aggression may be appropriate and the form it should take. This information comes from the society we live in through social norms, is learned in ways to be described in Section 10.4.2, and can be affected by arousal, the media, domestic violence, etc. We will cover all of these topics in due time.
Dehumanization is when we view an individual as not having human qualities or being less human. We might call these people ‘animals,’ ‘cockroaches,’ or ‘vermin.’ Defining a person through a single characteristic such as diabetic, alcoholic, or addict dehumanizes them also. We could also engage in what is called victim-blaming, or when shift focus from the perpetuator and taint the target of violence. We might say, ‘You made me do it.’ Rudman and Mescher (2012) found that when men associated women with primitive constructs such as animals or instinct, they were more willing to rape or sexually harass them. Greitmeyer and McLatchie (2011) found that playing violent video games increased dehumanization which led to higher levels of aggressive behavior. They state that video-game-induced aggressive behavior occurs when victimizers view the victim as less than human.
Rumination is when we constantly think about something. In terms of aggression, we may dwell on some afront made against us, such as an insult or physical attack. Research shows that rumination increases the chances of engaging in aggressive behavior. For instance, participants who were made to ruminate for 25 minutes over a provocation were more aggressive toward a fumbling confederate than distracted participants. The participants showed displaced aggression to a minor annoyance (Bushman et al., 2005). Another study found that ruminating on an anger-inducing provocation reduces self-control and can lead to increased aggression (Denson et al., 2011).
Have you ever been driving to work and nearly had an accident? This likely upset you and caused heightened arousal. But you also likely remained aroused for a period of time after this event, and then once you made it to work, may have snapped at a colleague due to some frustration such as them not submitting a report to you or failing to reply to an email. This idea is called the excitation-transfer theory and states that physiological arousal dissipates slowly, such that we may still be slightly aroused as we move from an initial situation that caused an increase in arousal to subsequent situations. We detect a stimulus in our environment, experience arousal due to it, and subsequently experience a more intense emotional reaction than we may normally to another stimulus. Have you ever tried to beat the end boss in a video game and just could not do it for whatever reason? If a friend makes a snide comment about your inability, you will likely snap at them in anger and storm out of the room. Zillman, Katcher, and Milavsky (1972) used a 2×2 factorial design (factor one – low vs. high aggressive instigation; factor two – low vs. high sympathetic arousal due to physical exercise) and measured subsequent aggressive behavior (DV) through the intensity of a shock delivered to the earlier instigator. Results showed that the shock was greater if the instigation was high initially and if there was residual sympathetic nervous system activation. Residual excitation led to greater levels of subsequent aggressiveness if the instigation was high.
Section Learning Objectives
- Define culture of honor and describe research related to it.
- Describe socialization of aggression from a learning theory perspective.
- Describe the frustration-aggression hypothesis and whether it has received empirical support.
- Clarify the role of social rejection in aggression.
- Describe research showing the effects of alcohol on aggression,
- Describe research showing the effects of media on aggression.
- Describe research showing the effects of temperature on aggression.
- Describe research showing the effects of crowding on aggression.
10.4.1. Culture and Aggression – A Culture of Honor?
In some cultures, individuals are expected to safeguard their reputation, family, or property by answering threats, insults, and affronts with violence. This is called a culture of honor. So, what if someone bumps into you as they walk by but calls you an “asshole” (not our word)? Across three experiments, Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, and Schwarz (1996) found that for male University of Michigan students raised in the North, the affront did not affect them. But for students raised in the South, they were more likely to think their masculine reputation or status was at stake in front of others, to be more upset as shown by a rise in the stress hormone cortisol, to show a rise in testosterone indicating they were physiologically ready to aggress, more cognitively primed for aggression, and were more likely to engage in behavior classified as aggressive and dominant on subsequent tasks. The authors state that their results show that a Southern culture of honor exists, but also that their aggressive behavior might be due to the fact that southerners are more polite than northerners and do not experience such rudeness. It may be that culture of honor norms are “socially enforced and perpetuated because they have become embedded in social roles, expectations, and shared definitions of manhood” (pg. 958).
The existence of this southern culture of honor persists today even though the norm is no longer functional. Why is that? One possibility that has received empirical support is that southern males believe their peers endorse and enforce the norms (Vandello, Cohen, & Ransom, 2008). What about school violence? Could there be differences in states with a culture of honor norm compared to those that do not have the norm? In a study of high school students in which demographic characteristics were controlled for, Brown et al. (2009) found that students from culture of honor states were more likely to have taken a weapon to school in the past month and that these states had more than twice as many school shootings per capita over the past 20 years.
Another study found that in a cross-cultural sample of Turkish and Dutch participants, the former reacted more aggressively to insults than the latter. But the difference was not just linked to gender norms. Instead, the Turk’s aggressive behavior was associated with concern for family honor and they stated that they would respond more aggressively to insults. Masculine honor was a factor for both groups when aggression did occur, but could not explain cultural differences in aggression. In their second study, Turks, Dutch, and Turkish-Dutch participants were included and it was found that the Turkish-Dutch scored in between the Turks and Dutch suggesting the individuals endorsed both sets of norms. The authors write, “Turkish culture is more interdependent than Dutch culture, which could imply that any type of insult in Turkey is an insult to one’s interdependent self, encompassing both the self and relations whereas in the Netherlands, it is an insult to the self only” (pg. 341; van Osch et al., 2013).
10.4.2. Learning Theory
In Module 9, Section 9.2.2, we discussed the socialization of negative group stereotypes and prejudice. Please review this section as it pertains to how aggression is learned too. Plomin, Foch, and Rowe (1981) conducted a replication and extension of Bandura’s classic Bobo doll study (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963) using three key behaviors as dependent measures: number of hits, intensity of hits, and the number of quadrants into which the Bobo doll was struck. The study included 216 twin children but found no evidence of hereditary influence. The environment was determined to be the primary source of individual differences. Recall that in the Bobo doll study, children who watched the aggressive model behaved aggressively with the Bobo doll while those who saw the nice model, played nice, when deprived of the coveted toy. Hence, they displayed the same behavior as the model they observed. As Nathan Heflick writes in a 2011 article for Psychology Today entitled, ‘Children Learn Aggression from Parents,’ “Children learn their behaviors from adults. If we are to have a more peaceful world, it starts with the way adults act around children.” To read the article, please visit: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-big-questions/201111/children-learn-aggression-parents.
In terms of operant conditioning, positive and negative reinforcement play into the learning of aggressive behavior. Similar to the examples given in Module 9, people might learn that aggressive behavior is good if it helps them obtain what they want (PR). A child uses force to take the toy they want from another child and is happy afterwards, because the toy is fun to play with. In the future, the child will engage in the same behavior to obtain what they want (i.e. instrumental aggression). In terms of negative reinforcement, if someone is harassing or bullying us, we may finally have enough and aggress against them. If the bullying stops, we will be more likely to engage in aggressive behavior in the future when we are bullied (i.e. hostile aggression).
10.4.3. Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis
Have you ever been unable to complete a task, had to wait for some needed resource, was upset because things didn’t go the way you wanted them too, or was interrupted in your pursuit of a goal in some way? Of course, we all have and this is the essence of what is called frustration, or when a person is prevented from reaching a goal because something or someone stands in the way. If your favorite team has a stellar season but gets to the championship game and loses, this can be very frustrating. What if as you are leaving the stadium the opposing team’s fans are gloating and maybe even heckling you and your fellow fans. What might you do? Of course you can just walk away and ignore them. But according to Dollard and colleagues (1939) you are likely to aggress. This is the essence of what has come to be called the frustration-aggression hypothesis or the idea that the occurrence of frustration always leads to aggression and this aggression is caused by our being frustrated. In fact, the more salient a goal is for us, the more frustrated we will become when attempts to acquire it are thwarted. The frustration causes a drive to aggress and acting out reduces the drive and restores equilibrium. Here’s the issue. We cannot always aggress against the source of our frustration. Recall our earlier conversation of displacement in Section 10.3.1, or when we channel a feeling or thought to a substitute target because we cannot aggress against the primary target either due to social norms, laws, or it is not accessible to us. As noted above, we cannot punch our boss for reprimanding us in front of coworkers for something that was his mistake, so we go home and holler at our spouse and children.
The hypothesis stood for about 50 years despite mixed results in laboratory investigations. In fact, in 1941, just two years after its publication, Neal Miller, one of the authors of the original study, proposed that frustration always causing aggression is misleading and instead, it should be said that “frustration produces instigations to a number of different types of response, one of which is an instigation to some form of aggression” (Miller, 1941).
In a review of the Dollard et al. (1939) theory, Berkowitz (1989) offered two “friendly amendments” to the original conception of frustration-aggression before moving into criticisms. First, he says that their supposition “seems to neglect the possibility that aggression can be learned instrumental behavior” (pg. 62) and second that they assume that “aggression was always primarily aimed at doing harm” (pg. 62). Berkowitz says these issues fail to distinguish between instrumental and hostile aggression, and only focus on hostile, “forgetting that instrumental aggression can be learned much as other instrumental behaviors are learned” (pg. 62). He instead proposes that aversive events often cause high levels of aggressive behavior and that any kind of negative affect can produce aggression and anger. This might include physical pain, psychological discomfort, hot weather, crowding, social rejection, or our team losing the championship game. He states:
- “Frustrations are aversive events and generate aggressive inclinations only to the extent that they produce negative affect. An unanticipated failure to obtain an attractive goal is more unpleasant than an expected failure, and it is the greater displeasure in the former case that gives rise to the stronger instigation to aggression. Similarly, the thwarted persons’ appraisals and attributions presumably determine how bad they feel at not getting what they had wanted so that they are most aggressively inclined when they experience strong negative affect” (Berkowtiz, 1989, pg. 71).
Interestingly, a 2015 article assessing the impact of video game play on player aggression focused on the social context of gaming and not just the game content as most studies have done. The effects of game outcome and trash-talking were examined in a sample of 75 participants. Results showed that the unfavorable outcome, not trash-talking by an opponent, can increase postgame aggression and that this is mediated by negative affect (Breuer, Scharkow, & Quandt, 2015).
10.4.4. Social Rejection
Human beings have a fundamental need to belong and when it cannot be fulfilled or is thwarted, this is painful and could be detrimental to health (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). We might expect that if a person is socially rejected, they could display greater levels of aggression. Twenge and Campbell (2003) found this to be true, but when social rejection was coupled with having high levels of narcissism. Across four studies, narcissists were angrier at, and aggressed more, against someone who rejected them, but also innocent third parties. Interestingly, we might wonder if self-esteem predicts aggression after being socially rejected but the researchers found that it did not. Peer rejection and aggression in early childhood is also a predictor of later conduct disorder (Miller-Johnson et al., 2002).
The perception of groupness, or as Campbell (1958) called it “entitativity,” states that aggregates of people vary in terms of how much they are perceived as a cohesive whole. For example, people in line for the bathroom at a baseball game are not as cohesive as a football team is. Across two experiments, Gaertner, Iuzzini, and O’Mara (2008) investigated the hypothesis that both social rejection and perceived groupness are involved in multiple-victim incidents of aggression such as the Columbine High School massacre and the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Their results showed that participants who experienced groupness in a three-person aggregate and rejection by one member subsequently behaved more aggressively against the whole aggregate as well as showed less favorable affective associations toward the group, than those who did not experience both groupness and rejection. They speculate, “Perceived groupness activates processes of transference and depersonalization by which the rejectee integrates the rejection experience into his/her prototype of the group and subsequently generalizes the rejection to all group members.” Of course, the implications of this are dire.
Check out the article for yourself by visiting: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103108000267#bib4
10.4.5. Alcohol Use and Aggression
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1997 to 2008 alcohol was a factor in between 19% and 37% of violent crimes (https://www.bjs.gov/content/acf/ac_conclusion.cfm). The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reports that each year in the United States, there are 7,756 homicides attributable to alcohol and 1,269 of these occur in persons under the age of 21. Data also shows that 48% of homicide offenders drank right before the murder and 37% were intoxicated during the murder. They note, “Research supports that alcohol advertising plays a role in causing sexual violence, independent of the racial/ethnic composition, social and economic characteristics, population, residential stability, poverty, and alcohol availability of the neighborhood where the advertisements are displayed.” For more on the report, please visit: http://www.camy.org/resources/fact-sheets/alcohol-violence/index.html.
So, does alcohol cause aggression? Bushman (2002) proposed three possible reasons why it might. One theory is that people experience a disinhibition or reduction of our control such that the part of the brain that under normal conditions inhibits aggressive tendencies is anesthetized by alcohol. As Muehlberger (1956) points out, alcohol leads to aggression not by “stepping on the gas” but by “paralyzing the brakes” (pg. 40). Also, we expect that those who are intoxicated will behave aggressively and so they can “blame the bottle” for any aggressive behaviors they make. Finally, aggression under the influence of alcohol occurs because our intellectual functioning is impaired, we make inaccurate assessment of risks, and we experience a reduction in self-awareness (Bushman, 2002). The results from his study show that intoxicated participants were more aggressive compared to sober individuals but that pharmacological (i.e. disinhibition) and expectancy effects of alcohol are not solely to blame. Instead, alcohol was shown to indirectly cause aggression through changes within the person. Provocations, frustrations, and aggressive cues had a stronger effect on intoxicated than sober participants and may explain why “barroom brawls” occur so frequently (Bushman, 2002).
10.4.6. The Media
According to the Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, formed in 1969, and a follow-up report by the National Institute of Mental Health in 1982, viewing violence on television may cause children to become less sensitive to the pain of others, fearful of the world around them, and behave in aggressive ways toward others. Exposure to media violence can desensitize people to violence in the real world (Krahe et al., 2011) and for some, it can become an enjoyable experience and not cause the anxiety that would be expected from viewing such material. Empathy and emotional reactivity are also shown to be diminished (Mrug, Madan, Cook, & Wright, 2015).
A meta-analysis was conducted to test the effects of violent video games on aggression and found that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive cognition, affect, and behavior, and decreases empathy and prosocial behavior (Anderson et al., 2010). The authors propose that since the effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior is clear, the public policy debate should focus on how to best deal with this risk factor and public education could be useful. They conclude, “It is true that as a player you are “not just moving your hand on a joystick” but are indeed interacting “with the game psychologically and emotionally.” It is not surprising that when the game involves rehearsing aggressive and violent thoughts and actions, such deep game involvement results in antisocial effects on the player. Of course, the same basic social–cognitive processes should also yield prosocial effects when game content is primarily prosocial” (pg. 171). Currently, there are few games on the market with main characters modeling helpful behavior and having zero violent content though research has shown that prosocial games can increase cooperation and helping behavior (Greitemeyer & Mugge, 2014). When participants played Halo II cooperatively and not competitively, they engaged in more tit-for-tat behaviors which is a pattern of behavior that precedes cooperative behavior, leading researchers to state that the social context of the game is more important than the content (Ewoldsen et al., 2012).
An analysis of 304 scenes from popular pornographic videos found that 88.2% contained physical aggression in the form of spanking, gagging, and slapping and 48.7% had verbal aggression mainly in the form of name calling. Most perpetrators were male and the victims were principally female and displayed pleasure or responded neutrally to the aggression (Bridges et al., 2010). So, what are the effects of such depictions? Recent research has shown that pornography use leads to attitudes supporting violence against women but is higher when viewing sexually violent pornography than the nonviolent variant (Hald, Malamuth, & Yuen, 2010) and with more frequent use (Malamuth, Hald, & Koss, 2011). In a survey of 489 college males who were members of fraternities at a large public university in the Midwest, it was found that those who viewed pornography (83% of the sample while 27% used sadomasochistic pornography during the past 12 months) were less likely to intervene in potential rape situations, were more likely to rape, and were more likely to believe rape myths (Foubert, Brosi, & Bannon, 2011).
For more on media violence and aggressive behavior, please visit the following: https://www.apa.org/action/resources/research-in-action/protect
The weather represents a situational factor that can affect one’s likelihood to engage in aggressive behavior. Anderson, Deuser, & DeNeve (1995) found that hot temperatures produced increases in hostile cognitions, hostile affect, and physiological arousal while reducing general positive affect and our perception of arousal. Thus, hot temperatures can increase aggression due to biased appraisals of ambiguous social events.
Crowding occurs when we do not feel we have sufficient space and can lead to stress. This in turn can lead to aggression as has been shown in studies of nightclubs (Macintyre & Homel, 1997), inpatient psychiatric wards (Nijman et al., 1999), prisons (Lawrence & Andrews, 2004), and neighborhoods (Regoeczi, 2003).
Section Learning Objectives
- Outline ways to reduce bullying and cyberbullying.
- Clarify if punishment is an effective way to deter aggression.
- Explain how self-distancing can be used to reduce aggression.
- Clarify the effectiveness of catharsis on reducing aggression.
10.5.1. Bullying Prevention
According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), Dan Olweus (1993) has developed the most comprehensive body of research to date on how to prevent bullying in schools and emphasizes changing the school climate to reduce bullying. Four principles are important. First, the home and school environments should be characterized by warmth, positive regard, and involvement with adults. Second, firm limits against unacceptable behavior should be established. Third, negative sanctions should be applied if a student breaks a rule and these sanctions should be nonphysical and not hostile. Fourth, all adults in the school need to understand they have a responsibility for creating and maintaining a safe and supportive school climate.
As for specific strategies, they recommend dispelling myths about bullying such as boys will be boys, have clear and enforceable rules and sanctions, determining how serious the problem is at the school through an anonymous questionnaire, have students sign an anti-bullying pledge, allow for the reporting of bullying in different ways, increase adult supervision in areas determined to be problematic from the survey, foster nurturing relationships and friendship patterns within the school and classroom, and be patient as it could take up to three years for the strategies to have their intended effect. They conclude in their document, Bullying Prevention and Intervention: Information for Educators, “Embolden the witnesses, who are neither bullies nor victims, to make sure that bullying is not permitted on campus. Once a sense of community and caring is established, students …. will feel empowered and have the support and skills needed to keep it that way.”
As far as cyberbullying goes, NASP says that victims and parents can ask the cyberbully to stop, ignore or block the communications, keep hardcopies of the material and send it to the parents of the bully, file a complaint with the internet company, and contact an attorney and/or the police. To prevent such instances from ever occurring, parents can keep computer(s) within view, talk to kids about their online activities, review online communications from time-to-time and let children know you will do this, develop a parent-child internet use contract, install parental control filtering software, and look for warning signs that a child is being cyberbullied. Educators can implement a threat assessment for any report of cyberbullying, use the same survey approach as above to determine how pervasive and serious the issue is, and educate the larger school community about preventing and responding to cyberbullying.
For more on bullying prevention from NASP, please visit: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources/school-safety-and-crisis/bullying-prevention.
You can also examine ways to prevent bullying at school at https://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/at-school/index.html.
One way to deal with aggression and acts of violence is to punish it. So, does punishment work? As with all things in life, the answer is yes…and no. In other words, there are pros and cons. Let’s explore them.
In terms of the pros of punishment, consistency is key. 1) If you punish each and every time the person engages in undesirable or problem behavior, they will stop making the behavior (i.e. speeding). 2) Punishment can also be unquestionably effective and deter some criminals from repeating their crimes. 3) Sometimes, after punishment has been administered a few times, it is not needed any more for the mere threat of it is enough to induce the desired behavior. 4) Severity also does not matter. The mere fact of being punished is enough most times, not all. 5) Finally, you do not have to necessarily experience punishment firsthand. Seeing others punished for engaging in behavior you have considered making can be enough.
As for cons of punishment, 1) it is often administered inappropriately. In a blind rage, people often apply punishment broadly such that it covers all sorts of irrelevant behaviors. Parents take out their frustrations at work on their kids and what would not have upset them much one day, angers them immensely another (i.e. displacement). 2) The recipient of the punishment often responds with anxiety, fear, or rage and these emotional side effects generalize to the entire situation. You can see this in animals when they have been punished for soiling the carpet and are disciplined. 3) The effectiveness of punishment is often temporary, depending on the presence of the punishing person or circumstances. When the punisher is not there, the punished misbehaves again. This is captured in the cliché, “When the chiefs away the cat will play.” 4) Most behavior is hard to punish immediately and during the delay behavior may be reinforced several times – i.e. not getting a speeding ticket every time you speed. 5) Punishment conveys little information; it does not tell the person how to act. If you want them to display desirable behavior, they have to know what it is. 6) Finally, an action meant to punish may instead be reinforcing as when a child acts out for attention. For them it is a positive reinforcer. What about the case of the child acting out to get out of math work? In this case the behavior leads to a consequence and specifically negative reinforcement.
So, what is the final verdict on punishment? The list of cons are much more extensive than the list of pros, and the first pro, consistency, is not practical most times leading to the fourth con. This might make us think that punishment is not useful. It can be if the following is practiced:
- Do not use physical abuse (takes care of Cons 1 and 2).
- Tell the person how to behave (takes care of Con 5).
- Reinforce the desired behavior when it occurs.
As shown earlier, rumination after a provocation feeds our anger and can lead to aggressive behavior. One solution is to self-distance and or take a “fly on the wall” perspective. Self-distancing occurs when our egocentric experience of a stimulus is reduced (Trope & Liberman, 2003). Mischkowski, Kross, and Bushman (2012) wanted to know if people could do this “in the heat of the moment” and found that when a person self-distanced they had fewer aggressive thoughts and feelings of anger and less aggressive behavior compared to a group who self-immersed or was in the control. Thus, they say that people can self-distance after a provocation and it can reduce aggression. Other research has also shown that self-distancing, not self-immersion, can lead children of all backgrounds to adaptive self-reflection over anger experiences such that they focus less on what happened to them and more on reconstruing their experience (Kross et al., 2012).
What if to reduce crime and to stabilize the economy, our government chose to allow citizens to have a 12-hour period wherein all crime was legal, including murder? Sirens would blare to announce the start and stop of what could be an annual holiday, emergency services would be suspended during the time, only the most senior government officials would be granted immunity, and all weapons could be used except the most destructive ones (i.e. grenades, weapons of mass destruction, and biological or chemical agents). Failure to follow these simple rules would result in public hanging. We could even have the emergency broadcast system announce the beginning of this ‘event.’ This event could be used as an act of catharsis for citizens in our great country. Blessed be our New Founding Fathers and America, a nation reborn……………….WAIT…………………… That’s not real, but it is the premise of four movies and a television series under the name, The Purge.
So, can catharsis work to reduce aggressive thoughts and behaviors? In a first study, participants were asked to read a procatharsis message which stated that aggressive behavior can reduce anger and aid with relaxation. Results showed that these participants desired to hit a punching bag more than participants who read an anticatharsis message. In the second study, participants were given the same messages and then actually could hit a punching bag. What would they do if given the chance to engage in laboratory aggression after this? Results showed that the procatharsis group was subsequently more aggressive which contradicts the catharsis hypothesis (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999). Additional research provided similar results (Bushman, 2002)
For more about The Purge, please visit: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2184339/.
In Module 10 we defined aggression as any behavior, whether physical or verbal, that is carried out with the intent to harm another person. Aggression can be instrumental and focused on obtaining a resource, hostile and intending to harm another, relational and attacking another’s relationships, or involve cyberbullying through the use of social media, e-mail, and other online tools. When we think of aggressive acts, crimes like homicide come to mind and the ever-increasing workplace or school violence. But also important are domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, and bullying. So why do people engage in aggressive behavior? When trying to attribute a cause to such behavior we can point a finger at something inside the person that makes them act aggressive, called a dispositional attribution, or something outside them, or a situational attribution. We explored several reasons under each. For example, rumination, instincts, mood, personality, and arousal are considered dispositional reasons while one’s culture, alcohol, the media, socialization, crowding, and temperature are situational factors on aggression. With these issues addressed we proposed ways to reduce bullying, offer punishment and the threat of it as a deterrence to violence, focused on self-distancing, and proposed experiencing catharsis could reduce aggression.
Module 10 is the first of three modules discussing ways we relate to others. It followed on the heels of the prejudice module and for logical reasons. We close out this book on a more positive note – our decision to help others in Module 11 and interpersonal attraction in Module 12. We hope you enjoy these final topics.