The biological and learning perspectives

Aggression remains a substantial problem today. According to Berkowitz (1975) aggression can be defined as any behaviour which is intended to cause harm to another person whether physically or verbally. This investigation is an evaluation of the biological and learning perspectives of psychology accounting for the development of aggression in children.

Aggression from the biological perspective is seen as an innate behaviour which is genetically transferred from the parents to their offspring. Supplementary biological factors which cause aggression are low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, as well as certain brain structures such as the hypothalamus and amygdala, that when manipulated, may result in aggressive behaviour.

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When considering the learning perspective and environmental determinants of aggression in children there are key factors which play an essential role. The observations of other’s behaviour as demonstrated by Albert Bandura (1961) as well as the frustration aggression hypothesis suggested by Dollard (1939) have been found to be considerable factors in the development of aggression. Video games have also been identified as a contributing cause of aggression in children.

This examination investigates the origins of childhood aggression and evaluates two differing perspectives, these being the biological and learning perspective, and collectively concludes that there are various factors which contribute to a child acting aggressively.

However, a collective understanding and strong evaluation of both the biological and learning perspective has led to a stronger foundation of understanding childhood aggression. Therefore, to fully understand the origins of aggressive behaviour, both biological and environmental factors must be considered within their limited scope. This leads to the conclusion that there are multiple forces which lead a child to acting aggressively; hence biological and environmental factors which trigger aggression cannot be isolated.

Word Count: 282

Biological perspective v

Evaluation of the biological perspective ix

Learning perspective xi

Evaluation of the learning perspective xv

Conclusion xvii

References xix

Bibliography xxi


There are many ways in which aggression can be defined. According to Berkowitz (1975) aggression is any behaviour which causes intentional harm to another person. There are many different forms of aggression which include verbal, physical and emotional behaviours that are apparent in some children. Studies conducted on children (ranging in age from approximately 3 to 15 years old) suggest that aggression develops in children based on their biological background or their environmental context. This essay is an evaluation of the biological perspective and learning perspective of psychology accounting for the development of aggression in children.

This issue is worthy of investigation since aggression has become a substantial social problem amongst upcoming generations. Alarming news articles and reports focus on aggressive acts. Children and youth growing up all around the world are resorting to violence on a daily basis. It has always appealed to me to understand the basis of aggressive behaviour as I have seen this behaviour amongst most children and teenagers, as well as adults. It is my curiosity and eagerness to discover more about the development of aggression from two opposing views, these being the biological and learning, which have motivated me to undertake this research topic for my extended essay. This essay is aimed specifically to evaluate the importance of innate drives and the environmental determinants of aggressive behaviour.

Biological perspective

The biological perspective of psychology is based on the assumption that behaviour is biologically determined. In Weiten (2007) text, the biological perspective belief that is referred to is that all psychological issues stem from a physiological background. Therefore, aggression in children, according to the biological perspective, is considered to be an innate behaviour. Biological factors which trigger aggressive behaviour in children are inheritance, where aggression may be passed from the parents to their offspring, as well as low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and the activity of certain structures in the brain, that when manipulated may trigger aggressive behaviour. Many of the theories and case studies that have been put forward to support the hypothesis that aggression in children is biologically determined will be discussed in further detail.

The biological perspective suggests that aggression in children is inherited through the traits of parents. Many theories have been driven by findings from research on animals, which highlight that there is some genetic aspect to aggression. Selective breeding has been one of the longest existing methods to find the existence of a phenotypic characteristic. In 1979 a Finnish psychologist, Kristi Lagerspetz, took the most aggressive mice from an assembly and mated them with other aggressive mice, and similarly the same applied for those non-aggressive mice. Lagerspetz’s procedure was repeated over 26 generations of mice giving birth to their offspring (cited in Grivas.J, Carter.L 2005). The significant outcome of this experiment was that the mice that had been bred for aggressive tendencies demonstrated immense levels of aggression; where they instantly attacked other mice sharing the same cage. Mice that were not bred with aggressive mice did not act aggressively; when other mice attacked them, they did not illustrate the tendency to retaliate.

Lagerspetz’s experiment can be criticised on the grounds that it cannot be conducted with humans because it is clearly unethical. A significant contribution of this selective breeding experiment is its illustration of a genetic basis of aggression and how it can be passed onto the offspring. These mice had a practical advantage over humans because these species have a short gestation period, which is essential as aggressive behaviour can be monitored over successive generations in a short period of time. The mice can have their behaviours observed in a lab, unlike humans. This is also a practical advantage as the mice were all kept in the same environmental conditions; hence their behaviour would not differ from one mouse to another because they shared the same environment.

Arising from this experiment is the criticism of extrapolating results from animals to humans. Despite some similarity between humans and animals; there is still a large difference between them, therefore a direct link cannot be made between mice and children. Mice species have differing logic and reasoning capacities as compared to humans, hence mice do not facilitate the opportunity to choose to be aggressive or not, whereas children have the capability of logically choosing to act aggressively.

On the other hand, more efficient methods of demonstrating that aggression in children is an inherited behaviour is emphasised by other research methodologies such as twin studies. Twin studies suggest that aggression in children is an inherited trait passed on from parents to their offspring. Twin studies are very useful for the reason that identical twins are monozygotic, and their genetic makeup is identical. Hence, all additional differences in their behaviour are accounted by their environment and experiences as an individual. In one study, conducted by Caspi (1998), data was collected from identical and non-identical twins following a questionnaire asking various personal and non-personal questions. The results indicated that aggressive behaviour was only partly inherited, and that environmental factors played an equally contributing role. However, according to Baron and Richardson (1994), the tendency to be aggressive is not passed on from the parents to the offspring; rather the temperament which is capable of making someone more or less aggressive can be inherited. This twin study is clearly indicative of the inheritance of aggressive behaviour, yet it cannot be claimed that inheritance is the only key factor which causes aggressive behaviour or the tendency to be aggressive in children.

Over time research has also consistently indicated that low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin plays a central role in increased levels of aggression in children. In a study conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health (Bethasda MD), a positive correlation was found between low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the levels of aggression in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Mitsis.E et al, 2000). In another study conducted by Russian researchers, silver foxes were studied. It was found that those foxes which had been bred for over 30 years for domestic behaviour, showed no defensive reactions to humans because they had high levels of serotonin in various structures of the brain, compared to the foxes which had been bred without freedom (Popova et al, 1991). These studies clearly highlight the role which serotonin plays in causing aggressive behaviour amongst children; the lower the levels of serotonin the higher the level of aggression.

Once again, this research could be criticised on the grounds that it is difficult to associate these findings to children as they are different beings. The above experiments are of considerable value as the foxes could be trained and kept over an extended period of time where their behaviour is closely observed, unlike humans who cannot be kept in such environments.

Certain parts of the brain have been found to be responsible for the development of aggression in children. The structure of the hypothalamus and the amygdala located within the brain are a leading biological cause of aggressive behaviour. Both structures communicate with each other via electric signals. The hypothalamus and amygdala can be manipulated using electrical currents, and they may be switched on or off disabling their normal operation using an electrode. Bard (1934) investigated the effect of lesions on the levels of aggression in cats. Bard found that when parts of the cortex were removed from the cats, they displayed ‘sham rage’ where the cats acted aggressively. He also found that when parts of the hypothalamus were removed the sham rage disappeared, clearly demonstrating that the manipulation of the hypothalamus and cortex plays a role in the development of aggression.

Evaluation of the biological perspective

The biological approach of explaining aggressive behaviour in children is very scientific and is consequently regarded as reliable. It is based on many experimental studies which are conducted in laboratory conditions in order to eliminate any environmental influences on the findings. However, the location of the experiments is not only a strength but also a potential weakness. The biological perspective involves low ecological validity where most studies are conducted within laboratory conditions. Experiments conducted in the laboratory will most certainly produce different results then in real-life situations as participants will not demonstrate the exact same behaviour in real-life situations as they will under examination. Thus, this weakness does not implicate that such laboratory experiments are invaluable; rather they are limited to generalisabilty. However, positive correlations between real life situations can be drawn, highlighting that laboratory studies are considerably useful.

The biological perspective can be criticised on the basis that aggression in children cannot be related to studies that have been conducted on animals. An argument stemming from this point is that it is not possible to apply animal findings to humans regardless of the similarities because they are different beings. Parallels between humans and animals may be oversimplified, and therefore social, as well as learning processes, must also be taken into consideration. The analysis of animal results from the biological perspective requires cautious interpretation. However, using animals to demonstrate the link between childhood aggression and biological factors is also beneficial. Studies such as the breeding of generations as conducted by Lagzerspetz and lesions on certain parts of the brain, conducted by Bard, are contributing factors in the development of aggression which cannot be conducted on humans because it will cause psychological and physical harm to the participants and most likely result in death. Similarly, there is always some sort of connection that can be drawn between animals and humans, therefore using animals can be a starting point to understanding the biological bases of aggression in children.

Another weakness of explaining the development of aggression in children from the biological perspective is the reductionist nature of the biological approach. This is one of the main weaknesses which the biological perspective incorporates. The biological perspective does not regard or take into the account the interaction of the mind and body with the environment, rather it only takes into consideration neurological processes. Environmental factors are also not placed into perspective. This is a downfall as complex human behaviours cannot always be explained on a genetic basis; the surrounding environment also plays a central role in influencing and triggering aggressive behaviours. One certain structure of the brain cannot be the only factor which is responsible for the development of aggression in children, because most structures of the brain are connected and their influence or triggering of behaviour cannot therefore be based in one specific area.

Correspondingly, the findings of all studies conducted cannot be generalised to all children. These findings are applicable to a small sample and findings cannot be predicted to be the same for a different sample of children as all children are different. Yet, this can be a starting point to understanding the basis of aggressive behaviour.

Learning perspective

The learning perspective is established on the basis that although everyone is born with a genetic endowment which is the root of instinctual behaviours, the majority of behaviour is learnt from the environment. The underlying principle of this assumption suggests that aggression in children does not purely develop as a result of biological factors, rather it accounts for a very minor part. According to Bandura (1961) aggression can be learnt from the observation of other people and their aggressive behaviour. Aggression in children can also be learnt through the observation of frustrated people who surround them and frustration also triggers aggressive behaviour (Dollard 1939). Alarming articles and studies have revealed that violent video games are linked to aggressive behaviour amongst children.

Firstly, a theory proposed to support the theory of aggression from the learning perspective is the ‘frustration-aggression hypothesis’ which was proposed by John Dollard (1939). The frustration aggression theory suggests that frustration is the main factor which contributes to aggression. For example, when an individual is frustrated, in a certain situation, they will immediately display aggressive behaviour. According to this hypothesis, aggression will only occur due to frustration and no other particular factor. Also, according to Glassman (2000) the level of aggression demonstrated is purely dependant on how frustrated one may be. For instance when a child is prevented from taking a course of action or possessing something it is most likely believed that the child will become aggressive; occurring as a result of being frustrated.

Barker et al (1941) further investigated frustration as a cause of aggression in young children. In their study, children were shown a roomful of attractive toys which were kept out of their reach. The children were kept away from the toys for a while before they were allowed to play with them. The controlled conditioned group of the children were allowed to immediately play with the toys. Similar to Dollard’s findings (1939), it was observed from this conducted study that the children who were frustrated because they had to wait before being exposed to the toys, played aggressively with the toys by smashing and stomping on them. On the other hand, the children who were allowed to play immediately with the toys handled them carefully and played happily.

One social determinant of aggressive behaviour is Albert Bandura’s social learning theory (1961) which highlights the role of observation and its consequences on the aggressive behaviour in children from the learning perspective. Albert Bandura views most human behaviour as learned by observing a model or simply another person, which affects a child’s view of how this new behaviour can be developed and how this new attained behaviour is a guide for their actions. This provides the basis of explaining aggressive behaviour in children from the learning perspective. Bandura’s (1961) most well known experiment was the Bobo doll experiment; the Bobo doll being a plastic clown doll. In this experiment Bandura examined the consequential actions of children observing an adult behaving aggressively with a Bobo doll. During the experiment he had children watching models acting aggressively towards a Bobo doll. They watched the video of the model constantly acting aggressively by sitting on the doll, punching it and kicking it repeatedly. Bandura had other children watch a non aggressive model playing calmly with the Bobo doll. Once the children were exposed to such models, they were taken into another room where there were many toys amongst them the Bobo doll. The results from this experiment indicated that children, who were exposed to the aggressive model and observed their acts, imitated aggressive behaviour towards the Bobo doll. In contrast, the children who were exposed to the non-aggressive model showed no or very little aggressive behaviour.

Albert Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment highlights the role of observation in children’s learning. Children were the subject as they are less socially conditioned unlike adults. However, this experiment raises the possibility that children may have thought that this experiment was a game as a consequence of the Bobo doll having a spring which causes it to spring back immediately after being knocked down. A criticism of this research is that it is not ecological – the children may have not acted aggressively towards any human in real life. Another potential weakness is the fact that the children may have not been exposed to the Bobo doll previously, hence they did not know how to play with it.

A criticism of the social learning theory is also that it does not take into account the physical and mental changes which a child undergoes as they mature. Children at different ages may respond to laboratory experiments in different ways.

Much like observation of other’s behaviours, violent video games and television shows have also been proven to trigger aggression in children. The learning perspective suggests that children who play violent video games such as Doom, Wolfenstein 3D or Mortal Combat and others often experience aggressive behaviour, either physically or verbally. Violent video games have a supplementary impact on young children and trigger aggressive behaviour more than violent television shows because they are more interactive, engaging the child in aggressive acts and ultimately rewarding them for acting aggressively within the game. Dr. Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D. (2000) states, ‘This medium is potentially more dangerous than exposure to violent television and movies’. Dr. Anderson of Iowa State University in Ames and his colleagues found that in the U.S and Japan, Japanese and American children who played violent video games demonstrated more aggressive behaviour months later compared to their peers who didn’t. In Anderson’s study, 181 Japanese students aged between 12 and 15 years old and 364 U.S. children aged between 9 and12 years old were tested. The U.S and Japanese children named their favourite video games and how often they played. The children from both groups were later on asked to rate their level of aggression and reports from their teachers and peers were also taken into consideration. From the results it was found that the children from each group who were exposed to more violent video games were much more aggressive than those who were less exposed. Comparisons were made between their prior levels of aggression and how there was a dramatic rise in this level (Cited in BBC News, Video games ‘Increase Aggression’, Health Section, 2000). Violent video games can impact on children’s aggression levels, as children begin to believe that the world is a hostile place, and aggressive acts are an acceptable part of normal daily life. Presumably, constant and excessive exposure to violent video games causes children to become desensitized to violence. Once they have been engaged in aggressive acts it impacts on the children emotionally, and as a consequence these children find it much easier and acceptable to engage in violence and aggressive acts.

A criticism of this study is that the cultural context of the children was not taken into account. Japan and the U.S are two differing cultures; hence what is deemed as aggressive in Japan may not be aggressive in the U.S and vice versa. Hence, it is difficult to compare the behaviour of these children whilst ignoring cultural factors.

Leonard Berkowitz (1989) investigated the effect of pain and discomfort on individuals to demonstrate their likelihood of acting aggressively. He induced pain by placing the participant’s hands in cold or warm water while they distributed rewards and punishments to a partner. Berkowitz identified that those who had their hands placed in the cold water caused greater harm to their partner than those who had their hands immersed in warm water. This is sufficient to draw the conclusion that pain is a contributing factor to aggression.

Evaluation of the learning perspective

The learning perspective also incorporates strengths and weaknesses. Similar to the biological perspective of explaining aggressive behaviour in children, it is reductionist. It explains aggressive behaviour in terms of a characteristic which is being learnt although it does not deny the genetic endowment of aggressive behaviour. The learning perspective argues that aggressive behaviour is learnt through observation, and triggered by the surrounding environment and conditions. It simplifies the occurrence of certain behaviours, especially aggression, into a few steps. For instance, the problem of reduction is evident in Albert Bandura’s study of the Bobo doll whereby aggressive behaviour is reduced to the process of imitation. Thus, it has overlooked other leading causes of the development of aggression including the children’s upbringing and home environment. Children were varied therefore some children may have been brought up in a violent home and exposed to many aggressive situations. This may have affected the way they acted in the laboratory and the ultimate results of the experiment. It was also assumed that all biological influences such as levels of serotonin are identical for each participant.

The frustration aggression hypothesis supported by Dollard (1939) is an inefficient method of demonstrating how childhood aggression develops as in some cases, such as learned helplessness, frustration may not lead to aggression; rather it may lead to depression. Therefore, frustration is not the only key factor which contributes to aggressive behaviour: there are other sources which may lead to this same outcome.

The learning perspective also denies some very important mental processes which also result in the development of aggression in children. This perspective does not take into account how certain brain structures may trigger aggressive behaviour, in other words it does not take into account neurological processes, and rather it simply accounts for the influences of daily life and the environmental context which a person is brought up in. The learning perspective does not incorporate any biological or cognitive processes which are also responsible for the development of aggression.

Nevertheless, the learning perspective focuses on the environment and the condition in which a child is situated to produce an aggressive response. It has many practical applications which have been effective in explaining the development of aggressive behaviour. It clearly highlights how certain behaviours, particularly aggression, can be learned by the observation of others.

The learning perspective also has a low ecological validity, whereby the children who were engaging in the experiment may have acted differently in the laboratory than what they would have in a real life situation. To be specific, Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment can be criticised on the grounds that the children’s aggression was measured away from their natural environment. However, if such experiments are conducted in a more realistic manner, then the results would be more beneficial in terms of understanding how aggressive behaviour in children develops.


This essay was specifically an evaluation of the biological and learning perspectives of psychology accounting for the development of aggression in children. Having considered the interpretations of the development of aggression in children from both the biological and learning perspective, and the criticisms which arise from the research conducted, it can be concluded that both the biological and learning perspectives contribute to the development of aggression in children. In terms of the biological perspective, aggression is viewed as purely being based on biological basis. It is regarded as highly reliable since it is based on science. However, the learning perspective views aggression as being unrelated to genes, rather aggression is learnt. The learning perspective’s social learning theory is a useful explanation for the aggressive behaviour of children. It not only applies to direct experiences such as being disciplined by parents, but rather at all times such as when watching television. The frustration-aggression hypothesis has a weaker stance, because frustration does not always induce aggression, rather it may encourage retaliation. This hypothesis suggests that frustration accounts for all aggressive acts. For this reason it is not completely justified, because there are more determinants of aggressive behaviour.

Both the biological perspective and learning perspective are based on evidence and practical studies which have been conducted. However, the learning perspective views aggression in children as having some sort of biological basis, yet through experience and reinforcement aggression becomes learned and evident amongst children. For instance, the role of the parent is paramount in using the biological factors of the child to mould the child and guide them through their development. If a child’s genes are inclined to be aggressive, the parent within the environment will attempt to nurture and accommodate for their child’s genes by attempting to provide a calm lifestyle. Parents may also choose to put their child in a hobby that is sports oriented to cater for the aggressive levels in order to use their energy in a positive way, where they stimulate thinking and reasoning skills preventing the child from resorting to aggressive acts. From this it is clearly evident that both the biological perspective and learning perspective account for and contribute to the development of aggression in children as it is difficult to isolate the contributing factors. It is clear that innate biological factors may be present in a child; however the environment sets the limits on how to behave and deal with social influences that influence a child to act aggressively.

Understanding the underlying factors which contribute to aggressive behaviour will form the basis of combating the levels of violence all around the world where children, youth and adolescents often resort to violence. Through further investigation, the effect of cognitive and mental processes may now be evaluated to determine their influence on childhood aggression which will lead to educational programs being implemented in schools and for the general society.


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