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Aggression

Updated on March 23, 2012
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Aggression are feelings and actions that express anger, hatred, murderousness, with an intention to destroy whatever or whoever these feelings, actions or thoughts are focused on. Ordinarily one might say that a person is behaving aggressively, or has an aggressive personality. Sometimes the aggressive characteristic may be masked by an over-compensation in the opposite direction, for example by excessive kindness, charm, disproportionate tolerance, or inappropriate mildness and passivity in behavior. Such characteristics come into being because the person is afraid to acknowledge his anger and fury for fear of what it might do to the person towards whom it is directed. Further, this breeds a fear of retaliation by the attacked person, the fear being in proportion to the intensity of the attacker's own hostility. This situation rapidly becomes circular.

As one might expect, such states of suppressed rage and resentment can lead to physical illness, e.g. asthma, hypertension and peptic ulcers. In one way or another the aggression seeks expression, either in relation to some external person or situation, or in relation to one's self.

Normally, as studies in ethology show, aggression in animals does operate in the interests of the survival of the individual or of the species, and to that extent it has a positive aspect. In human beings states of anger, resentment and destructiveness are offset by those characteristics which enable love and care to be expressed, and so mitigate the effects of the aggressive features in the personality and behavior. It can be seen that when there is a joining together of love and hate it becomes possible for the aggression to be given expression in a more constructive way. For example, an adult may feel anger towards the demands and needs of his aging parents; yet because of his appreciation of their earlier care for him, he is able to direct his angry energy into organizing or arranging for their care, instead of focusing only his anger on them because they need something from him.

Those people trained to carry out psychotherapy with young children and adults report that the way in which aggression is dealt with in early infancy and childhood has a critical effect on the way that person develops, affecting particularly his capacity for trust and accessibility in his relationships. This means that it is healthier to come to terms with states of aggression in ourselves and in others, instead of trying to ignore or deny these feelings and attitudes.

Focus on Aggression

As we have seen, emotions can activate, direct and accompany behavior. They can also be goals in themselves, for example, sexual activity for the sake of pleasure. Aggression fits in with these concepts and it is reasonable to look upon it not only as behavior, but as a powerful emotion. It underlines the link between feeling an emotion and expressing it as a behavior.

Almost daily, news bulletins report murders, muggings and mass killings. What lies behind this aggressive behavior? It is too simple just to put aggression down to single emotions such as anger and frustration.

What about personal responsibility, intent, the situation that causes it? Is it a matter of social labeling rather than behavior in and of itself?

The core of an aggressive act is that it is an attempt to harm someone, either physically or verbally. Unpleasant emotions like pain, fear, anger and especially frustration often lead to aggressive feelings, but do not always instigate aggressive behavior.

Can aggression be controlled? In search of the answer, psychologists have turned to the animal kingdom for some illumination. They have found, for example, that the more territory an animal commands, the less aggressive its behavior is likely to be. Yet other studies show that animals are more aggressive when guarding their territory from within than when they are outside it. So psychologists looked more closely at the question of territory for further explanations.

Territorial Ambitions

It is almost a 'human right' to defend ourselves against uninvited intrusion of our private world. Wars have resulted from hostile invasions of a country by foreigners. Street gangs guard their territory. We react with a certain amount of hostility to the stranger who moves 'uncomfortably' close on public transport, in shops, even in church. This is the basis of a popular theory on aggression supported by comparative psychologists and ethologists (who study animal behavior in the wild for the lessons it has in human society).

Social learning and culture play an important part in how we define 'personal space'. When a North American talks to a stranger of the same sex, the distance between them is unlikely to be less than 20 inches. But Arab strangers of the same sex happily converse in closer proximity. For Americans, posture, eye-contact, touch, breath and sound level within the 20-inch limit is disconcerting, unless in intimate conversation with someone of the opposite sex.

While the parallels between human and animal 'sense of territory' are undeniably strong, we humans are known to make certain allowances. For instance, more than four million foreigners are tolerated each year by the British during the summer. As tourists, rather than invaders, they are accepted, despite the fact that they have 'foreign ways', litter the streets and fill theaters and restaurants almost to the exclusion of their hosts.

'The territorial imperative', as it has been called, is an important factor in the roots of human aggression. But it does not account for it all.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first psychologists to develop the theory that humans are instinctively aggressive. When theorising about motivation and personality, he described two opposing basic human instincts. He called the instinct for growth and life by its Greek name eras, while thanatos was the death instinct. Since Freud assumed that thanatos required perpetual expression, he was pessimistic about removing aggression from human nature.

Freud saw the energy for the death instinct as being like water accumulating in a reservoir: the level would rise until it finally spilled over in some aggressive act. A 'safe' way in which aggression could be expressed was by means of catharsis (another Greek word, meaning purification or cleansing). In catharsis, the emotions are expressed in their full intensity through words, crying or other symbolic means.

Freud's theory, despite its poetic appeal, has gained little scientific support. In his later writings, Freud himself played down the importance of a death instinct. But 'innate aggression' is stressed in an ethological theory based on animal studies: Konrad Lorenz argued that aggression is a spontaneous, innate readiness to fight - a critical factor for survival. Yet animals rarely kill or injure others of the same species; only humans have lost the means of inhibiting aggression. We kill each other, and kill animals for pleasure. Alone in the animal world, human beings are threatened by their own aggression.

Biological Bases of Aggression

The relationships between biochemistry and physiology and aggression are complex and unclear. The brain, hormonal factors and genetics have often emerged as contributory factors, and much research has been done on animals to shed light on physiologically-based aggression. In one notable experiment, the Spanish psychologist Jose Delgado stopped a charging bull in its tracks by radioing a message to electrodes implanted in its brain. More significantly, repeated experiences of this 'switching off' caused the animal to become permanently less aggressive.3

Likewise, certain drugs injected into a specific area of the brain in rats turned those which were aggressive into placid ones. A different drug injected into exactly the same brain site of normally placid rats induced them to turn on and kill mice. It is clear that to a great extent aggressive behavior is linked to a specific function of the brain.

But there are different physiological patterns in different kinds of aggression. Researchers have found, for example, that particular aggressive behaviors in humans are often linked to brain disorders. Diseases of the limbic system and temporal lobe have been discovered in people with a history of senseless brutality and serious sexual assaults. It has also been conjectured that overly aggressive behavior is caused by an extra 'y' chromosome in men, although as yet there is no firm evidence to support this idea. One thing is certain though: whether in animals or humans, males are characteristically more aggressive than females, which suggests some plausibility for the chromo­some idea. Normal males have only one 'y'; and females have none. Hormonal differences might equally play a part however.

Learning to be Aggressive

Another possible answer to the 'why' of aggression is that it is learned—the result of rewards, punishments, norms and models.

In an experiment carried out by Albert Bandura and colleagues,4 groups of pre-school children were exposed to various aggressive models: an aggressive adult, a model of aggression on film, and cartoon aggressors. Other groups of children were shown non-aggressive models. The children were subsequently 'frustrated' by the experimenters and it was found that those who had observed aggressive models imitated many of the aggressive acts they had seen. The children who had not been exposed to aggressive models were less likely to be aggressive.

In later experiments, Bandura exposed pre-schoolers to models of aggressors being punished.5 This resulted in the children who had seen the models punished displaying significantly less imitative aggression. He also showed that aggression was not simply a temporary performance. The children remembered specific patterns of aggression-provoking sequences used in previous testing. Aggression once learnt is not easily unlearnt.

Bandura presented his work as a social learning theory which states that aggression may be caused by either aversive experiences or the promise of rewards. While most psychoanalysts regard frustration as the only kind of aversive experience strong enough to provoke aggression, behaviorists like Bandura believe that we learn to react aggressively to all kinds of anxiety-provoking situations. We can also, learn to use aggression for our own ends. The child who lashes out in order to procure a toy is an obvious example.

Social learning theory rejects the idea of our having aggressive drives or instincts; and catharsis is also dismissed. Expressing aggression: good or bad? Bandura's ideas are well supported experimentally. Studies show that giving either adults or children the opportunity to aggress encourages more aggression. In one study, children were allowed to aggress against one of their number who had frustrated them. Their aggressive feelings remained unchanged afterwards. The catharsis theory would predict that their feelings of aggression would be reduced. It appears to make sense. We 'let off steam' or 'let ourselves go' by crying, laughing, shouting, and we feel better. Yet research shows that this process does not apply to aggressive behavior.

On the other hand, Bandura's social learning theory does not cover all possibilities. The theory begins to strain at the seams when we ask why people from similar environments, with similar life experience, can vary so greatly in their expression of aggression. In short, the theory fits experimental findings rather well, but much more work is needed to match it up to the complexities of actual behavior in our city streets.

The Mass Media and Violence

For much longer than the term 'mass media' has been in use, there has been a commonly-held opinion that what is sold to us as entertainment can give rise to anti-social behavior. Horror comics, films, radio, pop music, early 'penny dreadfuls' and chap-books, bearpits, even the minstrels and troubadours, have all been blamed for social evils. In this century, the prime target for criticism is television.

No one can deny that television is a violent medium. Factual programmes such as newscasts and documentaries highlight death and violence. Entertainment programmes are laden with killings and fist fights. Growing opinion suggests that apparently increasing rates of violence, particularly amongst young people, are related to this bloody medium.

The facts are clear enough. American children spend more time watching television than they spend in school. In each hour of viewing they will witness somewhere between one and eight killings, not to mention numerous fights and examples of cruelty or torture. Research evidence, although not yet conclusive, suggests that this level of exposure affects young people.

In the early 1970s, special studies were conducted at the instigation of the Surgeon General of America. The final (five-volume) report argued that a 'preliminary and tentative' link between television-watching and violent behavior had been revealed. Most social scientists involved in these studies are convinced that the governments of Western nations should take action to reduce the amount of televised aggression.

But the more intensively these questions are studied, the more confusing are the answers. Experimental studies show that televised violence can produce aggression in the laboratory. But this is a demonstration of a process, not proof that the process is operating in our cities. And although survey research repeatedly shows that aggressive children (particularly boys) tend to seek out and enjoy violent television, correlations do not necessarily equate with causality. It is possible that some other factor causes these boys to be aggressive and to seek out violent television programmes.

The problem is that while surveys tell us about life as it is, they cannot provide evidence of causality; and while laboratory experiments tell us about causality, they cannot be generalized to life as it is. A small number of 'field experiments' have been conducted that combine the strengths of both approaches. Such studies are extremely costly and difficult to mount. And the results have only added to the confusion.

One study, by the American psychologists Feshbach and Singer, supports the catharsis hypothesis- watching televised violence has no effect or reduces actual aggression. Another, by Milgram, indicates that adults imitate anti-social acts seen on television. And yet another study, involving kindergarten children, suggests that watching televised violence not only increases aggression among some children but also increases pro-social play among others.

Most British psychologists who have studied mass media argue that the results of all studies, taken together, are equivocal. And, they point out, the question, 'Does television cause violence?' is naive. In order to understand the roots of violence and aggression, we must understand society and the place of violence within it. To emphasise the role of one facet of society - television - is to risk missing some other more important factors. Can violence in society be prevented? In order to prevent violence, it would be necessary to change our societies almost beyond recognition. Violence is a cultural form, acceptable in some situations, prohibited in others. Fight in the boxing ring and you may be honored by society, fight in the street outside and you may be arrested. Many of our leading statesmen were trained killers during their younger days. A man will be given national honors for killing several hundred adults and children on a bombing raid, but be imprisoned for attacking his wife or child.

Clearly there are no simple solutions to the problems raised by our violent and aggressive natures. But we do know that some solutions work for some kinds of violence. Improving social conditions reduces violence within the family. Among the near-starving working classes of Victorian Britain, wife-beating was commonplace. It is also clear that violent crime statistics vary from city to city according to the density and quality of housing.

But what of the quiet, spacious suburbs where the murder of a spouse is not unknown? And why is there so much vandalism in new, carefully planned towns? Since the Thirties, some psychologists have argued that violence is a natural consequence of frustration. Others accept the social learning theory of aggression, while yet others point to the possibility of an aggressive instinct and the importance of catharsis.

No single explanation can yet be applied to all aspects of felt aggression or aggressive behavior. Perhaps what we see as one kind of behavioral manifestation actually masks several different human characteristics. If this is the case (and it now seems rather likely) then all the theories are probably right some of the time. Unfortunately, this also means that they are all wrong some of the time. Only time and diligent scientific research will clarify these critically important questions. And in a nuclear age some people argue that time is running out.

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      steve 6 years ago

      Dr. Freud was an M.D., a psychiatrist, not a PhD,"psychologist"--a critical distinction.

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