Psychology Essays – Human Aggression Violence

Human Aggression Violence

“There is not one single Psychological theory that can adequately account for human aggression and violence.”

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To what extent do you agree with this claim?

Aggression and violence are common occurrences in everyday society and something we are exposed to every day. Barlow and Hill (1985) suggest that television in Britain shows a scene of violence every 16 minutes, whilst the Home office research study 276 (2004) found 45% of women and 26% of men aged 16-59 have experienced some form of interpersonal violence.

There have been many attempts to explain why aggression and violence occur, ranging from biological theories – such as evolutionary (Buss, 1990), ethological (Lorenz, 1966) and psychodynamic (Freud, 1920) approaches, to the social/biosocial explanations offered by the frustration/aggression (Dollard et al, 1939), social learning (Bandura, 1961) and excitement transfer theories (Zillmann, 1979). This essay will focus on the psychodynamic explanation of aggression as an instinct and the social learning theory that suggests aggression is a learnt behaviour. The aim is to critically evaluate these theories and to discuss to what extent they are able to explain aggression and violence.

Social learning theory focuses on the individual’s interaction with his or her environment. The suggestion is that all behaviour, in this case aggression and violence, is learnt socially. Bandura (1983) puts forward the idea that aggression and violent behaviour “entail intricate skills that require extensive learning”, in other words we are unable to act in an aggressive or violent way until we learn (from our environment) how to do it. To look at the role of imitation in aggression Bandura (1961) conducted the famous bobo doll experiment.

Children were exposed to adults behaving in either aggressive or non-aggressive manners towards a “bobo” doll. They were then allowed to play in an identical playroom to that previously observed – children were shown to imitate aggressive behaviour. Many different trials of this experiment were conducted; the most famous of these was allowing the children to watch a videotape. In other trials live models and cartoon videos were used. Although this is seen as important evidence to suggest imitation, the theory cannot fully account for aggression and violence.

Cumberbatch (1997) describes how the novelty of the Bobo doll may have had some influence over Bandura’s results. A follow up study showed the children who had previously been exposed to the toy were five times less violent than those who were new to it. It could also be argued that the doll was “designed” to be abused. This also addresses the analogous nature of social learning theory – can behaviour shown towards a doll be used to predict or explain behaviour towards a living being. Baron (1977) defines aggression as “Behaviour directed towards the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such behaviour”. The acts of violence and aggression observed by Bandura fail to meet this definition. The doll is of course not a living being and there is no way it could try and avoid any acts towards it.

The social learning theory also relies heavily on correlation studies. Lefkowitz et al (1978), Maccoby (1992) and McCord et al (1961) have all found that children who have experienced physical discipline from their parents are generally more aggressive than those who have not. However is the parental discipline the only factor that can account for this violent and aggressive behaviour?

Social learning theory fails to explain why not everyone who watches a violent film or plays and aggressive video game will imitate what they have seen. One hundred children may watch a violent film but only one may go out and copy the behaviour they have seen. This suggests that there is something more than imitation. The theory also fails to account to for continuous aggressive or violent behaviour. Why does someone continue to behave in a violent or aggressive way without continuous exposure to such material?

Although many psychologists believe that social learning theory can provide a very complete account of aggression and violence (Hill, 1989), there is still the fundamental question, if all violence is imitated then how did the first act of violence occur? (Hewitt, 1989)

In contrast to the social learning theory, Freud puts forward the suggestion that aggression and violence are innate drives. This means it is something we are born with and is therefore unavoidable. Freud also puts the emphasis on the person involved and not the place where violence occurs. Throughout our lives we face the conflict between the life instinct and the death instinct. The death instinct is seen as the drive that pushes us towards extinction or non-existence, whilst simultaneously the life instinct strives to preserve life.

The death instinct is ultimately self-destructive and if satisfied internally will result in destruction of the individual; it must therefore be channelled outside the self. This may be through displacement – taking out anger on a neutral object or through sublimation – channelling anger into a more socially acceptable activity – for example music or art. Another suggestion, made by Freud’s daughter, is that a person may transform themselves into their victim in order to become the agent of aggression (Freud, 1946).

This allows the death instinct to be satisfied – transformation into and identification with the victim allows the perpetrator to attack himself. Freud also believed that divulging in some kind of fantasy violence (for example watching a violent film or playing a violent video game) would satisfy the death instinct and therefore actual violence will be reduced. This is known as catharsis.

There is actually very little evidence to support catharsis, however Fleshbach (1955) conducted a study in which he aggravated and insulted his participants. Half were then allowed to indulge in fantasy activities. The group’s aggressive feelings were then measured using projective techniques. The group who engaged in fantasy play were deemed less aggressive. Also a study from the Bureau of justice (2006) in America found a negative correlation between the growth in violent video games and the rate of juvenile violent crime. It should, however, be noted that the first study relied heavily of symbolism whilst the second fails to show a cause and effect relationship between the two.

The majority of evidence seems to go against the notion of catharsis. Green et al (1975) found that opportunities for dispersing aggression actually increased aggressive behaviour. During a learning task participants were electrocuted in order to increase aggressive tendencies. Half of the participants were allowed to retaliate in someway against their “experimenters”, Freud would suggest this would reduce aggressiveness. However, when the participants became the experimenter rather than the subject those who had retaliated previously gave more intense shocks than those who had not retaliated. This is actually more supportive of the social learning theory discussed above.

As well as little support evidence there are many other areas upon which Freud is criticised. Hewitt (1989) says that whilst instinctive behaviour is often seen in animals, humans are far more advanced creatures and so are much more aware and able to control their actions. The theory also fails to account for the different types of human aggression and violence. There is no typical form in which the behaviour takes – what determines how the death instinct must be satisfied? We must also account for calculated murders or other violent crimes. Surely, if catharsis occurred the planning of the act would be enough to satisfy the death instinct and therefore prevent the event from taking place.

Although Freud’s theory of human aggression and violence puts forward an intelligent argument it fails to recognise and account for many things. Like many psychoanalytic theories it relies on the study of immeasurable and often unknown causes, relying heavily on symbolism and projection. There is also a habit of placing aggressive motives onto non-violent actions. It seems difficult to know precisely where the psychoanalytic definition of aggression lies. This also gives a very bleak outlook on life – violence and aggression are unavoidable and therefore non preventable. One could even suggest Freud justifies violence and aggression – it is after all a human instinct.

Both theories can both account for certain aspects of human aggression and violence but they cannot fully explain the phenomena. Biological theories such as Freud’s instinct theory fail to recognise the complex environment we live in, whilst the social learning theory neglects the role of biology. Both also fail to account for the differences that we see between humans. There is a feeling that each perspective seems to explain something that cannot be definitely defined. Whilst one school tries to explain it’s own defined version of aggression and violence it neglects another’s own definition. It can therefore be accepted that not one single theory can explain human aggression and violence, agreeing with the given statement.


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Feshbach, S. (1955) “The drive reducing function of fantasy behaviour” Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 50, 3-11. In Glassman, Hadad (2006), Approaches to psychology. 4th edition.Norfolk: Open University Press.

Freud, A. (1946) The ego and the mechanisms of defense.New York: International Univer. Press, 1946. In “Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models” Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 63, 575-582. [online]. Available from: Accessed: 17/01/2007

Freud, S. (1920) Beyond the pleasure principle, in Glassman, Hadad (2006), Approaches to psychology. 4th edition.Norfolk: Open University Press.

Hewitt, D et al (1989), Social psychology: conflict and continuities, Buckingham: Open University Press

Hill, G (2001), Psychology for AS & A level. 2nd edition. Glasgow: Oxford university press.

Home office research study 276 (2004), Domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: Findings from the British Crime Survey [online]. London: Home office, Research, development and statistics directorate.

Lefkowitz, M, M et al. (1978) “Parental punishment: A longitudal analysis of effects” Archives of general psychiatry, 35, 186-191. In Glassman, Hadad (2006), Approaches to psychology. 4th edition.Norfolk: Open University Press.

Lorenz, K. (1966) On aggression. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, in Hogg, M, A. and Vaughan, G, M. (2005) 4th edition. Social psychology. UK: Pearson Prentice Hall.

McCord, W et al (1961) “Familial correlates of aggression in non delinquent male children”, Journal of abnormal and social psychology. 62, 79-93. In Glassman, Hadad (2006), Approaches to psychology. 4th edition.Norfolk: Open University Press.

Mccoby, E,E. (1992) “The role of parents in the socialisation of children: An historical overview”, Developmental psychology, 28, 1006-1017. In

Zillmann, D. (1979). Hostility and aggression. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, in Hogg, M, A. and Vaughan, G, M. (2005) 4th edition. Social psychology. UK: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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