Biological And Social Learning Perspectives

Aggression has been a factor of human behaviour that has puzzled philosophers and psychologists throughout the existence of our species. Aggression has always been prevalent in human civilisation, with around 15000 wars in 5600 years, averaging out at 2.7 wars a year (Eysenck, 2002). Early thinkers, such as Hobbes (1651) stated that people have a natural instinct to be competitive and hostile, and will only work towards increasing their own power and to gain a possible advantage over another. Aggression is defined by Fiske (2004) as being behaviour with proximate intention to hurt another. It is this intention of hurt and injury, when backed up with behaviour, which is considered aggressive. Bushman and Anderson (2001) state that there are two different types of intention and that aggressors will often operate with many motives. There are typically considered two types of aggression, hostile and instrumental. Hostile aggression is aggression with the core goal to cause pain and harm, whereas instrumental aggression is the use of aggression to achieve a specific outcome. (Eysenck, 2002) However these two types of aggression can be interchanged at times, with actions like plotting revenge over a length of time showing a less impulsive and more planned hostile aggression (Gross, 2010)

This essay will be approaching the topic of human aggression with an attempt to discuss how the three approaches; Psychoanalytic, Biological and Social learning can explain the causes of aggression.

The psychoanalytic approach, perhaps the most famous psychological theory outside of psychological areas of expertise, was widely acknowledged to have been a product of Sigmund Freud. Focusing chiefly upon the idea of the sub- and unconscious mind, it states that behaviour is caused by our own unconscious thoughts and wishes. The theory Freud invented suggested that all humans are driven by two main instincts, libido and aggression, which later on were subsumed into the life and the death instinct. This death instinct, Freud suggested, was in direct competition with Eros, or the life and love instinct, and that we, as humans, had three states of the psyche, the Id, ego and superego. The Id is the instinctual drive, the ego acting as the organised and realistic drive and the superego mediating between the two. Freud believed that our aggressive instincts were a result of the innate death drive refusing the peace and pleasure craved for by the life drive, resulting in a need to cause anger and aggression to break the chances of this peace and pleasure taking place and that any threat to the ego would be met with instinctual response by the Id. He believed that both of the drives create impulses that over time build up and require release to maintain a healthy being (Passer et al 2009) This process is known as Catharsism and describes why it is important to be able to carry out sports and other competitive subjects as a channel of release for aggression.

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The frustration-aggression hypothesis (FAH) was created to criticise and explain Freud’s psychoanalytical theories. Created by Dollard et al (1939) it agreed with Freud about aggression being an innate instinct, however it argues that these instincts will only manifest themselves if presented with a frustrating event or situation (Gross, 2009) This is demonstrated when aggression is taken out on a third party when the original provocateur or provocation situation is unavailable. This was however countered by Miller (1941) and Bandura (1973) who both said that frustration may actually be an instigator of aggression or a source of arousal respectively.

The general consensus in psychoanalytic approaches to explaining the causes of aggression in human behaviour revolves around the ego and its strength in the individual. If the ego is strong and healthy then it will use self-serving and healthy aggression to maintain a balance. This healthy ego will be a result of many successes in the individual’s life, be it success in work and creative environments, a healthy and popular social life and adequate involvement with the individual’s surroundings (van den Dennen) If the individual has a weak ego strength then they are more likely to become aggressive towards others and in general. This weak ego strength can be bought about by identity problems, poor control of impulses by the superego and poor ability to recognise and evaluate situations appropriately. This lack of control and recognition are also large contributing factors to why borderline psychotic and narcissistic personalities are more likely to display aggression in more circumstances.

The biological approach towards aggression takes a different route from the psychoanalytic approach, having a minimalistic view of the behaviours of the human species, essentially describing us as nothing more than the results of the chemical balances within our bodies and our genetic make-up. The approach looks at two levels, the micro level and the macro level. The micro level describes the neural and hormonal causes for aggression, whilst the macro looks at the evolutionary and large scale reasons for aggression.

One theory provided by those who take a macro biological approach is that aggression is a drive, instinctive to us, and all species, to enable the continued evolution of the species. This is the Ethology theory. Konrad Lorenz proposed that aggression is an evolutionary response, in line with Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. He defines it as the instinct shared between beast and man directed towards members of the same species. His argument consisted of the belief that aggression was used to display authority when fighting over a potential mate, ensuring that conflict would occur and the victor, the stronger male, would have the breeding opportunities, the best available territory and resources. (Brysbaert & Rastle, 2009)

The sociobiological approach also views aggression as a natural element of the mind of all species. Wilson (1975) mentions that aggression is the instinctive way of resolving conflict, especially about resources and mating partners. He also suggests that the level of aggression is controlled and kept in check by the natural gestures and behaviours of submission, which are programmed into a species instinctual behaviour, including within our own species. Both of these macro theories state that aggressiveness is also considered to be partially herediatry, with a study carried out by Miles and Carey (1997) showing that aggression can owe between 40% – 53% of its variance to the contribution of hereditary genetics.

The other side of the biological approach towards aggression looks at the body’s individual workings and mechanisms. These are known as the physiological aspects of aggression (Bordens & Horowitz, 2002). Research into these workings has focused intensely in two different areas, hormonal influence and brain mechanisms.

The brain itself is, in a completely minimalistic biological approach, the cause of aggression, as it controls all of our actions as an organism. One specific part of the brain has been found, through research, to create aggressive behaviours when stimulated. This is the Hypthalamus, a part of the limbic system, a collection of brain structures that focuses upon emotions and motivations. When stimulated in controlled experiments, such as the one carried out by Edwards and Flynn (1972) it was discovered that the different parts of brain, under stimulation, provide different traits of aggression. When performed on cats, it was able to display non-discrimination in the object of its aggression, as well as predatory aggression when a different area is stimulated. This has similar implications in human studies, with the different areas of the brain showing differing types of aggression. However, the social situation has different effects upon the level of aggression shown in some research. Delgado (1969) showed that the social status of a monkey in its group resulted in different expressions of aggression when the same area of the brain was stimulated. If a more dominant monkey was present then there would be no displays of aggression, whereas if that monkey was not present then it would be displayed.

The final micro level looked at commonly through research is the influence that hormones has upon aggressive behaviour in humans. The male hormone testosterone is commonly associated with aggressive behaviour, and there has been research into the aggression levels of female to male transsexuals and the development of aggressive tendencies relating to the increased testosterone present during the changing process. The opposite has been reported when testosterone reducing methods have been used for the opposite procedure. (Van Goozen et al, 1995). Testosterone influences the genetic development of unborn children and is found in significantly larger quantities in boys and men than girls and women. This significant difference, and testosterone’s link to masculine qualities may offer a credible reason as to the normal increased levels of males compared to females. This is shown partly in research into the effect of testosterone when carefully regulated throughout the life cycle. Historically, this level of testosterone and the inherent aggression caused was partly controlled by the castration of a male’s testicles, creating eunuchs. Commonly used as servants and confidants in many societies, the lack of testosterone enabled the eunuchs to display more feminine behaviour and less aggression.

The final approach, that of social learning, focuses upon the socialisation of aggression and how it can influence the levels of aggression in an individual. Socialisation can take many forms, including friends, family, media and influences in a person’s life, such as school and religion (Bordens & Horowitz, 2002) It is through these influences that social learning theory considers aggression to stem from. Huesman et al (1984) found in a long term study that children who, at eight years old, were rated at being aggressive would maintain that characteristic throughout their lives, still being considered aggressive at later ages.

One of the most influential and important social learning theorists was Albert Bandura. His social learning theory in 1973 went against the other two approaches, both of which stated that aggression was in some form a natural instinct, and stated that it was in fact a learnt process. He believed, and tested, that often violence was committed by those who had grown up around violence. It was observed by the children as a method of getting ones own way, and was repeated in their own lives. This is known as observational learning.

Observational learning or modelling, is the main process in social learning theory, with direct reinforcement and punishment being the other process featured. Bandura’s famous experiment using a ‘bobo’ doll provided evidence towards observational learning. Children watched a model hitting a large inflatable doll whilst shouting at it. The child was then taken into a room with some toys and told that they were not allowed to play with certain toys, as they were being left for another child this was done to cause the child to become frustrated, one of the factors considered to trigger aggression. They were then taken to a second room with more toys and the ‘bobo’ doll. The child’s response to the bobo doll was recorded. The response was different depending on the model shown, if the model had been punished for hitting the bobo doll then the aggressive response of the child was decreased. However, those children that saw the model rewarded for its aggressive nature towards the bobo doll imitated the actions themselves, showing aggression towards the doll. It was also shown that the child would use other means of aggressive behaviour other than those that they had witnessed personally. From the experiment Bandura concluded that humans, as children, can learn new behaviours through observation, that they will learn whether or not to act a certain way depending on whether they see that action rewarded or punished.

This observational learning theory has become more supported with the growing popularity of violent television and video games with children. Television and film has always created controversy in regards to influencing aggression amongst children and also adults. The graphic detail shown in film has received generally acceptance of causing violence and aggression to increase when observed. (Anderson et al, 2003) The findings according to Anderson et al (2003) study also conclude that video games also cause increased aggression in humans, due to the content, the attention required to actively play the games, and the nature of many games to reward actions of violence and aggression. However other researchers have also drawn conclusions that there is no tenable and credible link between aggression and and video games (Sherry, 2001) This aspect of social learning through observation is however the most empirically researched approach into aggression.

Aggression in humans cannot be conclusively described by just one of the approaches. They all have credible research behind them and have links to each other throughout. This is shown in the fact that both the psychoanalytic and biological theories believe that aggression is an instinct inherent within our minds, whether programmed into our DNA or in our unconscious minds. To truly describe the causes of human aggression would require an amalgamation of all three approaches, taking the viable factors from each and creating a conjoined theory.

Anderson, C.A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L.R., Johnson, J.D., Linz, D., Malamuth, N.M. & Wartella, E. (2003) The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 4(3), 81-110

Bandura, A. (1973) Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. London: Prentice-Hall

Bushman, B.J. & Anderson, C.A. (2001) Is it time to pull the plug on the hostile versus instrumental aggression dichotomy? Psychological Review, 108

Delgado, J.M.R. (1969). Offensive – defensive behaviour in free monkeys and chimpanzees induced by radio stimulation of the brain. Aggressive Behaviour. New York: Wiley.

Dollard, J., Doob, L.W., Mowrer, O.H. & Sears, R.R. (1939) Frustration and Aggression. New Haven, CT: Harvard University Press

Edwards, S.B., & Flynn, J.P. (1972) Corticospinal control of striking in centrally elicited attack behaviour. Brain Research, 41, 51-65.

Eysenck, M.W. (2002) Simply Psychology. East Sussex: Psychology press ltd

Fiske, S.T. (2004) Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Gross, R,D. (2010) Psychology: The science of mind and behaviour. London: Hodder Education.

Hobbes, T (1651) Leviathon. London: Dent

Huesman, L.R., & Eron, L.D. (1984). Cognitive processes and the persistence of aggressive behaviour. Aggressive Behaviour, 10

Lorenz, K. (1966) On aggression. London: Routledge

Miller, N.E. (1941) The frustration-aggression hypothesis. Psychological Review, 48, 337-342

Sherry, J.L. (2001) The effects of violent video games on aggression: a meta-analysis. Human Communication Research. 27 (3), 409-431

Passer, M. Smith, R. Holt, N. Bremner, A. Sutherland, E & Vliek, M.L.W (2009) Psychology: The science of mind and behaviour. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill

Van Goozen, S.H.M, Cohen-Kettenis, P.T., Gooren, L.J.G, Frijda, N.H. & Van de Poll, N.E. (1995) Gender differences in behaviour: Activating effects of cross-sex hormones, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 20, 343-363

Wilson, O.E. (1975) Sociobiology: The new synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press


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