Social Psychological Explanation of Aggression

Think back to a time when you felt angry. Maybe you just felt that anger internally, or maybe you acted it out somehow. What was the cause of your anger? Was it a person or situation? Maybe it is hard to pinpoint exactly why you were angry. There could have been multiple factors in play influencing your anger. 

Social Psychological Explanation of Aggression Social Psychological Explanation of Aggression

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Table of contents
    • First, we will get into the social-psychological definition of aggression.
    • Then we will look at social-psychological types of aggression, including the frustration-aggression hypothesis.
    • After, we will explore social psychological causes of aggression, such as social learning theory and deindividuation.
    • Finally, we will evaluate these social psychological theories of aggression.

    Social Psychological Explanation of Aggression, fist pressed against a reflective table, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Various theories explore the origin of aggression.

    The Social Psychological Definition of Aggression

    The social-psychological definition of aggression is that aggression is a physical or psychological behaviour that intends to harm others who don't wish to be harmed (Baron & Richardson, 1994). The social-psychological definition of aggression does not differ inherently from the definition of aggression. Instead, it explores where aggressive behaviours originate from.

    Multiple explanations for aggression exist, and one primarily focuses on how we interact socially with our environment and how this ultimately affects our aggressive tendencies.

    Each theory explores the social situations and contexts necessary for aggression to occur and uses the ideas to explain a possible root cause for aggression.

    Social Psychological Types of Aggression

    There are suggested to be three types of aggression: Reactive-expressive (verbal and physical aggression), reactive-inexpressive (hostility and antipathy) and finally, proactive-relational aggression (harming others so much it affects your relationships).

    One explanation for these different types of aggression is the frustration-aggression hypothesis, which identifies different levels of anger people go through when being aggressive.

    The Frustration-Aggression hypothesis

    The frustration-aggression hypothesis argues that anger, violence, and hostility result from being prevented from reaching a goal, creating frustration.

    Dolland et al. (1939) developed the frustration-aggression hypothesis and suggested that frustration always leads to aggression, and aggression is always a result of frustration. How aggressive you become because of this frustration depends on how close you were to reaching the goal and what set you back.

    The hypothesis consists of the following steps:

    1. Being blocked from completing a goal.
    2. Starting to feel frustrated.
    3. An aggressive drive is created.
    4. Displaying aggressive behaviour.

    Someone wants to enter a store but is stopped because the doors are closed and locked; they then start shouting loudly out of frustration, displaying aggressive behaviour.

    This theory relies on catharsis Catharsis is when a repressed, pent-up, or strong emotion is released.

    The aggressive behaviour displayed in step four is cathartic because, through aggression, the frustration is satisfied, which reduces the aggressive drive and makes further aggressive behaviour unnecessary.

    However, while frustration comes from a source, it may not be possible to direct the aggressive behaviour to the source, which is known as displacement. In such cases, aggression may be deflected to other innocent sources.

    Displacement could occur for several reasons:

    1. The source of frustration may be abstract, e.g. the government, economic situation, institution, etc.

    2. The source may be too powerful, and acting aggressively towards it could result in severe punishment, inducing fear of punishment.

    3. The source may be unavailable or absent at the time.

    Social Psychological Explanation of Aggression, man yelling and pointing finger at woman, StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - How might the social-psychological explanations for aggression explain yelling?

    Social Psychological Causes of Aggression

    Bandura (1965) investigated the social learning theory. Bandura theorised human behaviour could be 'learned' through observation. He proposed that observed behaviour can inform people's ideas of what to do or how to react when put in a given situation through imitation.

    In 1965, Bandura put his theory to the test.

    Bandura studied groups of young boys and girls to determine whether he could demonstrate imitation. Bandura hypothesised that children, who see most adults as role models, would imitate their behaviour in a situation if they observed it first.

    Bandura prepared a room with a Bobo doll to test this hypothesis, had two sets of adults who would be either aggressive or kind to the doll, and had the children observe this behaviour.

    The children who had watched an adult act aggressively towards the doll were more likely to be aggressive when they entered the room, both verbally and physically. The children who watched an adult act more kindly towards the doll were less aggressive.

    Bandura's finding suggested imitation was taking place due to the observation of role models. This was further supported by the observation of greater behavioural changes when the role models were of the same sex as the child observers, as young boys may see a man as more like them and thus more of an example of how they should act.

    Bandura concluded that behaviour imitation is an explanation for aggressive behaviour.

    Deindividuation Explanation of Aggression

    Deindividuation is when someone's behaviour is heavily influenced by the behaviour and norms of a larger group that they are a part of. As a result, people's perceptions of responsibility change. They stop seeing themselves as individual moral agents but rather as part of a collective, with the norms of that group dictating their behaviour. Festinger et al. (1952) introduced the term deindividuation.

    Deindividuation is when one loses their sense of self-awareness and individuality, reduces their inhibitions and self-restraint, and participates in unsociable and antisocial behaviour due to this anonymity.

    LeBon (1895) used deindividuation to explain crown behaviour, stating that when we are in a crowd, the restraint placed on us by social norms is lifted because we are no longer identifiable. Then, the responsibility we feel for our actions also decreases and gets shared among the crowd, so there is also less personal guilt when one acts aggressively towards others whilst being part of a crowd.

    Zimbardo (1969) supported the theory of individuation and put forward two types of behaviour:

    Individuated behaviour - When a person self-monitors and regulates their behaviour rationally and is constrained and conforms to social norms.

    Deindividuated behaviour - When a person stops self-monitoring and regulating their behaviour, loses self-awareness, and acts impulsive, emotionally and irrationally.

    Several things encourage deindividuated behaviour, and Zimbardo stressed the main factor being anonymity, e.g., uniforms, masks, drugs, darkness, disguises, etc. Because of the consequences of anonymity, there is less self-awareness, which leads to a higher chance of aggressive acts being committed.

    There are two types of self-awareness:

    • Private self-awareness: Focus on the self and how we think and behave. The way we focus on our own behaviour reduces when part of a crowd since we start to focus on the events around us instead. We become less thoughtful, evaluative and self-critical.
    • Public self-awareness: Focus on how we present ourselves to others. The way we focus on others' opinions and judgements of our actions also reduce when we're part of a crowd since anonymity is present. If we can't be identified, we can't be judged for our actions.

    Social Psychological Explanation of Aggression, a large crowd of people, StudySmarter.Fig. 3 - People behave differently in crowds where there is a sense of anonymity.

    Evaluation of Social Psychological Theories of Aggression

    Although the social psychological theories of aggression have merit, we need to evaluate them to understand their claims' reliability and validity fully. Each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses.

    Evaluation of the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

    Let's consider some of the strengths and weaknesses of the frustration-aggression hypothesis.

    Strengths

    Research supports the frustration-aggression hypothesis. Green (1986) conducted a study with male university students and gave them a jigsaw to complete, but three different types of conditions created frustration:

    1. Solving the jigsaw was impossible.

    2. A confederate made them run out of time.

    3. A confederate insulted them whilst they did the jigsaw.

    In the second part of the study, they were taken to another room where they had to give electric shocks to a confederate when they made mistakes on a task. The participants who gave the most shocks were the ones who confederates insulted, the ones who ran out of time, and the ones with the impossible jigsaw.

    All three frustrated groups overall gave greater shocks than the control group.

    Weaknesses

    There are methodological issues with some of the research that the frustration-aggression hypothesis relies on, e.g., Green (1968) used all male participants. Hence, it is hard to generalise findings to females or older people, which reduces the study's validity. There is also research that provides evidence against the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis.

    Bushman's (2002) research suggested that aggression isn't always cathartic:

    Participants were angered and then split into groups. These groups were asked to hit a punching bag – the rumination group were asked to think of the person who angered them when doing so, whilst the distraction group were asked to think about becoming fitter physically from hitting the bag. They were also compared to controls.

    Afterwards, they were asked how angry they felt and tasked with administering loud music to the person who angered them. They found that the group who ruminated felt angrier than the other two groups and were the most aggressive. This finding suggests catharsis is not clear-cut in its attempts to release feelings of anger, contradicting the catharsis theory in the frustration-aggression hypothesis.

    Regarding aggressive behaviour, individual differences exist between people in how they act when they get angry or frustrated. Some people may cry, while others might leave the scene/situation, and some may try to meditate rather than lash out with aggressive behaviour. This shows that the frustration-aggression hypothesis isn't a full explanation of aggression and that its proposition that frustration always causes aggression is incorrect.

    Berkowitz (1965) argues the frustration-aggression hypothesis is not enough to trigger aggressive behaviours, and social cues (such as environmental triggers) are needed for someone to be aggressive.

    Evaluation of the Social Learning Theory Explanation of Aggression

    Let's consider some of the strengths and weaknesses of the social learning theory explanation of aggression.

    Strengths

    Bandura's study was repeated multiple times, which makes its results reliable. Bandura's study used a large sample size, which makes results easier to generalise to the population.

    Phillips (1986)'s study supported Bandura's study. Rates of homicide increased up to a week after a boxing match was shown on TV. This finding shows us the violence people witnessed influenced their behaviour.

    Weaknesses

    Most of Bandura's research was done on especially suggestible children. As a result, we might be unable to extrapolate his results to the adult population. It may be unethical to put children in a situation that deliberately primes them to act aggressively. Their imitation of the adult participants is still genuine, along with any reinforcement they receive, which could suggest to them that aggression is desirable.

    Some children (and people in general) may be more aggressive than others by nature or careless about following role models, which could mean that Bandura's findings lack validity. Social learning theory relies on the person learning and observing the behaviours in question. Still, some aggressive behaviours are instantaneous reactions to a trigger, suggesting there is some inherent trait of aggression that is not learned, contradicting the social learning theory.

    Evaluation of Deindividuation Explanation of Aggression

    Let's consider some of the strengths and weaknesses of deindividuation.

    Strengths

    Research support provides evidence for deindividuation as an explanation of aggression. Deiner et al. (1976) observed American children trick or treating on Halloween.

    When children wore masks to people's houses in large groups, they were likelier to engage in anti-social behaviour (stealing sweets and money). This study has high ecological validity since it was an observation that looked at natural behaviour in a natural environment, proving deindividuation can lead to aggressive behaviour in the real world.

    Weaknesses

    Gergen, Gergen and Barton's (1973) research questions deindividuation as an explanation of aggression. They put six men and six women who were strangers to each other in dark or lit rooms. They found that in the last 15 minutes, people in the darkroom started to get physical, in terms of half of them hugging, some becoming intimate, and 80% admitting feeling arousal since the usual norms of intimacy didn't apply in the darkroom.

    Therefore, deindividuation doesn't always lead to aggression but can lead to prosocial behaviour too. So, is it an adequate explanation?

    Also, the deindividuation theory doesn't account for biological factors that have been proven to play a role in aggression, e.g., the hormone testosterone, the MAOA gene variant, neurotransmitters, etc. So this theory isn't inclusive of all types of aggressive behaviour.


    Social Psychological Explanation of Aggression - Key takeaways

    • Aggression is a physical or psychological behaviour that intends to harm others who don't wish to be harmed (Baron & Richardson, 1994).
    • There are suggested to be three types of aggression: Reactive-expressive (verbal and physical aggression), reactive-inexpressive (hostility and antipathy) and finally proactive-relational aggression (harming others so much it affects your relationships).
    • The frustration-aggression hypothesis states that anger, violence, and hostility result from being prevented from reaching a goal, which creates feelings of frustration.
    • Social learning theory: Bandura (1965) theorised that human behaviour could be 'learned' through observation, and imitation is when a role model's behaviour is observed.
    • Deindividuation is when one loses their sense of individuality and participates in unsociable and antisocial behaviour, e.g. when part of a crowd and self-awareness reduces.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Psychological Explanation of Aggression

    What are social-psychological explanations of aggression?

    The three main social psychological theories of aggression are the frustration-aggression hypothesis, social learning theory, and deindividuation.

    What is aggression theory in psychology?

    Aggression is a physical or psychological behaviour that intends to harm others who don't wish to be harmed (Baron & Richardson, 1994).


    There are different theories of aggression in psychology. They come from 4 main types of explanations:

    1. Biological explanation
    2. Ethological explanation
    3. Evolutionary explanation
    4. Social-psychological explanation


    The social psychological theories are:

    1. Frustration-aggression hypothesis
    2. Social learning theory
    3. Deindividuation

    What are the psychological factors of aggression?

    The psychological factors (or social-psychological factors) of aggression include frustration (frustration-aggression hypothesis), observation and imitation of a role model (social learning theory) and being part of a group and being anonymous (deindividuation).

    Why is it important to study aggression in psychology?

    It's essential to study aggression in psychology since it is anti-social behaviour. Learning it helps us understand what the causes of aggression are so that we can try to prevent it or at least expect it in the cases where it could get out of control or seriously harm others. 

    What is social aggression?

    Social aggression is a type of anti social behaviour when social status and relationships are used to inflict emotional harm on others and damage people's reputation. It involves behaviours such as gossiping, threatening to end friendships and excluding others from society.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: Berkowitz suggested that frustration predisposes a person to behave aggressively.  

    True or False: Dollard et al. (1939) proposed the frustration-aggression hypothesis as a social-psychological approach to explaining the origins of aggression. 

    True or False: According to Dollard et al. (1939), the less a person is hindered by interference in reaching their goal, the more aggressive they may be. If the interference pushes them back huge amounts, they will be more aggressive.

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