Theories Pertaining To Aggression

Aggression has been defined variously by different schools of thought. Behaviourists define it as any action that delivers noxious stimuli to another organism (Buss, 1961 cited in Shaffer, 1999). This definition considers accidental harmdoing as aggressive (Shaffer, 1999), and does not cater for aggressive acts that fail to deliver the intended effects to the victim. Yet an act perceived as aggression, such as slapping a person on the back, could actually be an act of affection in some cultures (Woods, 1992). Hence the definition was modified to include the intent of the act. Therefore, aggression is any action intended to harm or injure another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment (Baron & Richardson, 1994; cited in Shaffer, 1999).

Categories of Aggression

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Aggressive acts are often divided into two categories, namely hostile aggression and instrumental aggression (Shaffer, 1999).

Hostile aggression.

This refers to aggressive acts for which the perpetrator’s major goal is to harm or injure a victim (Shaffer, 1999).

Instrumental aggression.

This refers to aggressive acts for which the perpetrator’s major goal is to gain access to objects, space or privileges (Shaffer, 1999).

Types/forms of aggression

According to Smith (1999), aggression occurs in four major forms. These are (a) physical aggression (e.g. punching/hitting the victim with a blow, (b) verbal aggression (e.g. calling the victim names), (c) active aggression (e.g. refusing to shake hands with the victim), and (d) passive aggression (e.g. avoiding to talk with the victim). These are broadly classified as overt aggression and covert aggression (Shaffer, 1999). Overt aggression is used to mean open and observable; not secret or hidden, acts of aggression expressed physical, verbal or active form (Lewis, 2007). Covert aggression is secret or hidden; not openly practised as shown by passive acts (Lewis, 2007), for example, a learner dodges lessons to hurt the teacher.

Other forms of aggression according to Taylor, Peplau and Sears (2006) are:

Antisocial aggression.

This refers to aggressive acts that violate commonly accepted social norms. For instance it is not socially acceptable to attack the parents of a thief for larceny committed by their child.

Prosocial aggression.

These are aggressive acts that support commonly accepted social norms. For example, it is acceptable in many countries to excute a serial murderer by firing squad.

Sanctioned aggression.

This is aggression that is permissible according to the norms of the individual’s social group. For example certain cliques of adolescents consider fighting back as an acceptable act against offence by others.

Chronic aggression

This term is used to mean habitual acts of aggression by a given offender, or habitual suffering of aggressive acts by the same victim.

Kinds of aggressive children

Proactive aggressors.

These are highly aggressive children who find aggressive acts easy to perform and who rely heavily on aggression as a means of solving social problems or achieving other personal objectives (Shaffer, 1999).

Reactive aggressors.

These are children who display high levels of hostile, retaliatory aggression because they overattribute hostile intents to others and can’t control their anger long enough to seek nonaggressive solutions to social problems (Shaffer, 1999).

Theories of aggression

The various acts of aggression and their causes have been ventured into by different psychologists. These have formulated their explanations into theories which include the innate/biological theories, drive theories and the learning theories.

Innate/Biological/Instinct theories

These view aggression as a result of instinctive drives within the organism; the organism under the influence of these drives acts in order to fulfill a survival demand. These theories include the psychoanalytic theory, the evolutionary theory, and the genetic theory (Shaffer, 1999; and Smith, 1999).

The Psychoanalytic theory.

This was postulated by Sigmund Freud. He asserted that human behaviors are motivated by sexual and instinctive drives known as libido. He defined “Libido” as the energy derived from the Eros, or life instinct. The repression of libidinal urges is displayed as aggression.

His work on childhood aggression, and the Oedipus Complex considered that a boy around age five begins to develop an intense sexual desire for his mother. He comes to regard her as the provider of food and love and thus wants to pursue an intimate, close relationship (Shaffer, 1999; and Smith, 1999). The desire for his mother causes the boy to reject and display aggression toward his father. The father is viewed as a competitive rival and the goal they both try to attain is the mother’s affection.

Thus, an internal conflict arises in the young boy. On one hand, he loves his father, but on the other, he wants him to essentially “disappear”, so that he can form an intimate relationship with his mother. The boy will develop an immense feeling of guilt over this tumultuous conflict and come to recognize the superiority of his father because of his size. This evokes fear in the boy and he will believe that by pursuing his mother’s affection his father will want to hurt him, essentially by castrating him. To resolve the conflict, the boy learns to reject his mother as a love object and will eventually identify with his father. Thus, he comes to understand that an intimate relationship with his mother is essentially inappropriate (Shaffer, 1999; and Smith, 1999).

Freud also developed the Electra Complex for the childhood aggression of girls. A girl around the age of five develops penis envy in attempts to relate to her father and rejects her mother. An internal conflict arises in the young girl, which is resolved after regarding her father as an inappropriate love object and ultimately identifying with her mother (Shaffer, 1999; and Smith, 1999).

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory demonstrates the idea that aggression is an innate personality characteristic common to all humans, and that behavior is motivated by sexual drives. Aggression in children is instinctual and should be resolved by adulthood. Therefore, over the course of development, after the child has rejected the opposite sex parent, he or she will enter a period of latency in which they commonly reject all boys or all girls. Once puberty is reached, attention shifts to the genital region as an area of pleasure. Men and women search for an appropriate member of the opposite sex to fulfill sexual urges. In individuals where the childhood conflicts have been successfully resolved, all aggression has been removed by adulthood in the pattern of development (Shaffer, 1999; and Smith, 1999).

Later, Freud added the concept of Thanatos, or death instinct. Thanatos energy encourages destruction and death. In the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, some of the negative energy of the Thanatos is directed toward others, to prevent the self-destruction of the individual. Thus, Freud claimed that the displacement of negative energy of the Thanatos onto others is the basis of aggression (Smith, 1999).

Strengths of the psychoanalytic theory.

It is a profound theory in the history of social psychology.

It generated more debate on the subject, and on aggression in particular, thus other parallel theories were aptly developed.

It holds some truth, for instance, it is true that adolescents are characterized by seeking mates of the opposite sex.

Weaknesses of the psychoanalytic theory.

it incessantly dwells on motivation of sexual desires.

It is based on hypotheses. There is no existing empirical evidence to support the theory.

Evolutionary/Ethological theory

Postulated by Konrad Lorenz, he looked at instinctual aggressiveness as a product of evolution. He essentially combined Freud’s theory of aggression with Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory. In his interpretation, aggressiveness is beneficial and allows for the survival and success of populations of aggressive species since the strongest animals would eliminate weaker ones, and over the course of evolution, the result would be an ultimate stronger, healthier population (Smith, 1999).

Strengths of the evolutionary theory.

It offers offer a lot of information about the physical and neurobiological causes of aggressive acts.

It pinpoints the anatomical and neurochemical roots of behavior.

It has accumulated empirical evidence for biological causes of aggression.

Weakness of the evolutionary theory.

There is limited scientific evidence as yet in this area.

Genetic theory.

Common to some of the other biological theories is the proposition that aggression is the manifestation of a genetic or chemical influence. Empirical evidence shows that cerebral electrical stimulation of certain locations can induce or inhibit aggression. Observational studies on certain animals show that some breeds are more aggressive while others are naturally passive. Proponents of the genetic theory explain the presence or absence of aggression in particular breeds in terms of a single gene or interaction of genes (Smith, 1999).

Studies that are more complete have shown that the presence or absence of particular chemicals and hormones affects aggression. For example, high levels of the hormone testosterone and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin produce higher levels of aggression in animals. In addition, serotonin has been used pharmacologically as an effective treatment in combating erratic aggression.

Strengths of the genetic theory.

It is a vastly developing field being supported by a lot of scientific evidence such as the human genome.

It pinpoints genetic sources of aggression, which is consistent with observed trends in aggression.

Weakness of the genetic theory.

There is limited evidence as yet in this area.

Drive theories

These attribute aggression to an impulse created by an innate need. In other words the organism is driven to act aggressively by some imminent lack. The drive theories are the Frustration-aggression hypothesis, and the Aggressive Cues Hypothesis or Negative affect theory (Smith, 1999).

Frustration-aggression hypothesis

This was proposed by a group of researchers at Yale University, led by John Dollard.

In this theory, frustration and aggression are linked in a cause and effect relationship.

Frustration is the cause of aggression and aggression is the result of frustration. The early empirical evidence for this theory involved the examination of prison populations. A variety of studies were conducted to determine age, economic status and intelligence of inmates and to relate these variables to the amount of frustration of each individual prisoner. The results showed that the higher the frustration level, the more prone the person was to act aggressively or commit crime.

Strength of the frustration-aggression hypothesis.

It is supported by empirical evidence which involved the examination of prison populations.


Frustration is only one source of aggression, other contributing factors such as tension do exist.

Aggressive Cues Hypothesis/ Negative Affect Theory.

Leonard Berkowitz refuted that all acts of aggression are instigated by some kind of frustration. He thus modified the Frustration-Aggression hypothesis:- The presence of stimuli previously associated with aggression can evoke aggressive responses from an angry individual, or negative feelings and experiences are the main cause of anger and angry aggression (Smith, 1999).

Aggressive interactions in this context include:

1. Thematic aggression which refers to action that was appropriate in the context of earlier event/play e.g. challenging an enemy. In this case themes refer to cues that may evoke certain actions. Aggressive themes such as soldiers instigate aggression, while neutral themes such as farms do not).

2. Inappropriate aggression, which is action that was clearly outside the context of the previous session (Shaffer, 1999).

Sources of anger that may elicit aggressive behaviour include pain, frustration, loud noise, foul odors, crowding, sadness, and depression. The likelihood that an angry person will act aggressively depends on his or her interpretation of the motives of the people involved (Smith, 1999).

Strength of the aggressive cues hypothesis.

It refutes frustration as the sole cause of aggression

Weakness of the aggressive cues hypothesis.

It does not explicitly explain the maintenance of aggressive tendencies.

Learning theories

These theories propose that individual’s aggressive tendencies are acquired through learning. This may be through purely behavioural or cognitive means or a combination of the two. The learning theories of aggression include Operant Conditioning, Social-learning theory, and Social Information Processing Theory.

Operant Conditioning.

This theory was developed through the experimental work of B. F. Skinner. According to the theory, if an aggressive act is positively or negatively reiforced, the aggressor is likely to repeat the behaviour in order to gain more rewards. In this way, the aggressive act becomes positively associated with the reward, which encourages the further display of aggression (Shaffer, 1999; and Matlin, 1992).

Strength of the operant conditioning theory.

It has empirical proof since it was developed through experiments.

Weakness of the operant conditioning theory.

It is too simplistic and ignores the acquisition of aggressive behaviour through internal processes.

Social-learning theory.

This was developed by Albert Bandura. It depicts human beings as rational creatures who aggress in order to satisfy important personal objectives, rather than as reactive creatures who are driven to aggress by internal factors such as instincts, frustrations or anger.

It proposes that aggressive responses are acquired through two ways: 1. social modeling or social referencing and 2. direct experience.

In social modeling, small children look to a familiar face or model to see how to react to a particular person or situation. This could be in real life or on television (TV). TV violence contributes to increased aggression in viewers. This exemplifies the idea that people are easily influenced by others’ behavior. By modeling the behaviors of TV, movie or video game characters, acts of aggression become increasingly more frequent and violent (Shaffer, 1999; Matlin, 1992; and Taylor, Peplau, & Sears, 2006).

Direct experience entails that a child who is reinforced for aggression will resort to aggression in the future. For instance, a child who overpowers others to grab their things will always do so to satisfy his or her demands (Shaffer, 1999).

The theory asserts that aggressive behaviours are maintained through (a) self-reinforcement, in which the aggressive individual is proud of his or her harmful action because it is valuable to him or her, (b) ease in terminating others’ noxious behaviour, (c) tangible and intangible rewards, such as money or a medal for injuring or harming another, and (d) cliques that encourage aggressive solutions to conflicts (Shaffer, 1999).

Strengths of the social learning theory.

It is well supported by experimental evidence.

It has been well documented.

It is widely applicable in explaining human learning.

Its theorists have developed it over time, adding more and more evidence in support.

It appreciates the contribution of Cognitive factors in the acquisition and maintenance of learning in general, and aggression in particular.


It overstated instrumental strategy to overcome aggression.

Social information processing theory.

The theory was postulated by Kenneth Dodge. Accordingly, a child’s response to harm done to him or her will depend on the outcome of six cognitive steps or processes:

Encoding social cues. Here the child may ask himself or herself, “How exactly was the damage done?”

Interpreting social cues. Here the child interprets the harmdoer’s reaction during the action to determine whether he or she meant it.

Formulating social goals. In this step the child formulates a goal to resolve the incident.

Generating problem-solving strategies. In order to achieve his or her goal, the child generates certain problem-solving strategies.

Evaluating the likely effectiveness of strategies and selecting a response. The child weighs the pros and cons of each strategy and zeros on the best.

Enacting a response. Here the child puts in action the selected response.

These steps are influenced by the child’s mental state, that is, his or her past social experiences, social expectancies, and knowledge of social rules. It is noteworthy that they occur in a rapid concession (Shaffer, 1999).

In following these processes, reactive aggressors will have many negative experiences with teachers and peers; they become disliked, thereby reinforcing their expectancy that others are hostile to them (Juvonen, 2006; Mathews, Zeidner, & Roberts, 2006; Hoy and Davis, 2006, and Matlin, 1992). They develop hostile attributional bias, which is the tendency to view harm done under ambiguous circumstances as having stemmed from a hostile intent on the part of the harmdoer (Shaffer, 1999). For proactive aggressors, aggressive solutions to problems yield positive outcomes and they feel capable of dominating their targets (Shaffer, 1999).

Strength of the social information processing theory.

It gives appropriate explanation of aggression cycle.

Weaknesses of the social information processing theory.

it does not appropriately give the causes of aggression.

It does not give reasons for the different information processing biases of proactive and reactive aggressors.

Developmental Trends in Aggression

Aggression varies over time as the child grows. This variation is exhibited in the category of aggressive act, form of aggression, and frequency of aggression. The age groups considered in this paper are preprimary school age, primary school age and adolescents.

Preprimary School Years

Instrumental aggression emerges by the end of the first year as infants begin to quarrel with siblings and peers over toys and other possessions. Over the course of childhood, aggression becomes less physical and increasingly verbal. It becomes less instrumental and increasingly hostile or retaliatory in nature (Shaffer, 1999).

Primary School Years

The primary school child expresses a lot more overt than covert aggression. As the years advance, physical aggression and other forms of antisocial conduct such as disobedience continue to decline. This is because the child becomes more proficient at settling disputes more amicably verbally, since his or her language ability has increased. However, hostile aggression tends to increase, especially among boys. This is because 1. the intent of harmdoing is detected and the offended boy retaliates in a hostile manner, and 2. fighting back is sanctioned as normal reaction to harmdoing (Shaffer, 1999).


Many research findings (e.g. Furnham & Heaven, 1999; James, 1998; Coie & Dodge, 1998; Vitaro, Gendreau, Tremblay, & Oligny, 1998; all cited in Mathews, Zeidner, & Roberts, 2006) posit that overt aggression continues to decline in adolescence. Highly aggressive individuals can become truly violent with increased tendency of juvenile delinquency (Hoy, Davis, & Pape, 2006). Most of these are undercontrolled children who are growing larger and stronger, and gaining greater access to weapons (Shaffer, 1999; and Hoy, Davis, & Pape, 2006).

Many adolescents turn to covert or indirect methods of aggression with age. Girls tend to exhibit social ostracism while boys express aggression through theft, truancy, substance abuse, malicious destruction of property, sexual misconduct. Hence adolescents become less overtly aggressive and turn to other forms of antisocial conduct to express their discontents (Shaffer, 1999; Matlin, 1992; and Hoy, Davis, & Pape, 2006).

Presently, there are some cases of aggression which seem to be on the rise amng adolescents and even adults (Taylor, Peplau & Sears, 2006). These include group conflict, rape, date rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and chronic aggression.

Victims of chronic aggression often have peculiar characteristics. The passive victims are generally disliked by peers, have low self-esteem, are physically weak, highly anxious, have low social self-regard, are nonassertive in communication, socially withdrawn, do not resist aggressive approaches against them, have demanding, aloof and unresponsive parents who allow little autonomy, foster passive, and nonassertive social behaviour. The boys are likely to have had very close, overprotective relationship with their mother, who encouraged them to voice fears, anxieties, and self-doubts as a means of attracting attention (Shaffer, 1999).

The provocative victims are often oppositional, restless, hot-tempered, and irritate their peers, fight back (though unsuccessfully), display hostile attributional bias, have been physically abused or otherwise victimised at home, blame themselves for their victimization, have no friends or regular associates, and are vulnerable to adjustment problems, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, drop out of school (Shaffer, 1999).

Stability of Aggression

Aggression is a reasonably stable trait. Hostile youngsters are likely to make hostile adults (Shaffer, 1999). Howerver, related findings reflect group trends and do not imply that all highly aggressive children will remain highly aggressive over time (Shaffer, 1999; Taylor, Peplau & Sears, 2006; and Juvonen, 2006). There’s a great deal of variability at individual level. Limited duration type of individuals are highly aggressive early in life and eventually outgrow it, while Late-onset types become more aggressive and even violent during adolescence after a relatively tranquil childhood (Shaffer, 1999; and Mathews, Zeidner, & Roberts, 2006). The stability of aggression can be attributed to some home settings, and biological predispositions (Shaffer, 1999).

Sex differences in aggression

Boys and men are more overtly (i.e. physically and verbally) aggressive than girls and women are (Harris, 1992; Maccoby and Jacklin, 1974 both cited in Shaffer, 1999). Girls exhibit more relational or expressive aggression. Relational aggression refers to acts such as snubbing, exclusion, withdrawing acceptance, or spreading rumours that are aimed at damaging an adversary’s self-esteem, friendships or social status (Shaffer, 1999).

Reasons for Sex Difference in Aggression

Three complementary viewpoints have been advanced to explain the differences in aggression between the sexes. These are 1. the biological viewpoint, 2. the social-learning viewpoint, and 3. the interactive viewpoint.

The biological viewpoint.

It has been observed that males are more aggressive than females in almost every society, and even among our near related species, such as the apses, the males are more aggressive than the females (Shaffer, 1999). Sex difference in aggression appears early (2-2.5 yrs). Male aggression is linked to male hormones e.g. testosterone. For example, Geen (1998) cited in Shaffer (1999) observed that participants who beat their opponents in a competition showed an increase in testosterone, while losers showed a decline. Hence higher concentrations of male sex hormones might be either a cause or an effect of oppositional (aggressive) behaviour.

The social-learning viewpoint.

Very young boys are not always more aggressive than girls (Shaffer, 1999). Groups dominated by boys are more likely than those dominated by girls to negotiate and share. This implies that there must be certain social influences that make boys more aggressive than girls. These include:

The way parents play with their children. Parents tend to play rougher with boys than with girls.

Differential parental reaction to children’s aggressive tendencies. Parents react more negatively to the aggressive behaviours of daughters than to those of boys.

Nature of presents. Boys receive toys such as guns, tanks, soldiers, snakes, which are all cues of destruction as gifts. While girls are given babies, models and harmless implements as gifts.

Preschool treatment of boys and girls. Aggression is considered a male trait, and an intolerable attribute among girls.

Middle childhood treatment of boys and girls. Aggression provides boys with more tangible benefits and elicit less disapproval than among girls.

Hence differences in aggression accrue from gender typing and gender differences in social learning (Juvonen, 2006; and Shaffer, 1999).

The interactive viewpoint.

Here, proponents believe that biological constitution of the individual interacts with social-environmental influences to promote sex differences in aggression (Shaffer, 1999). Female infants are observed to mature faster, talk sooner, be more sensitive to pain than male infants. On the other hand, male infants are larger, more muscular, sleep less, cry more, are more active, more irritable and harder to comfort. Hence a parent may readily play more vigorously with an active, muscular son than with a docile, less muscular daughter. Or the parents are impatient with irritable sons (Shaffer, 1999).

This implies that a child’s biological predispositions are likely to affect the behaviour of caregivers, which, in turn, will elicit certain reactions from the child and influence the activities and interests that the child is likely to display. Thus biological factors (genes) and social influences (societal norms and values, and family settings) are intertwined in complex ways and are both important contributors.

Cultural and Subcultural Influences on Aggression

Some societies and subcultures are more violent than others. Passive social orders that actively preach collectivist values, discourage fighting and other forms of interpersonal conflict, flee rather fight when invaded, are usually nonaggressive, for example, the Batwa of Uganda, Arapesh of New Guinea, Lepchas of Sikkim. Conversely those that emphasise individual survival, such as the Mundugumor (one time cannibals) of New Guinea, socialise both boys and girls to be aggressive (Shaffer, 1999).

Children and adolescents from rural areas and lower socioeconomic strata exhibit more aggression and higher levels of delinquency than age-mates from higher socio economic strata. This can be explained thus: Parents of low socio economic status mainly rely on physical punishment, thus modelling aggression. They also resolve conflicts aggressively and encourage their children to do so. Their children may wish to satisfy certain needs which the parents cannot afford. Hence antisocial conduct becomes the only way of achieving their ends (Matlin, 1992; and Shaffer, 1999).

Family Influences on Aggression

One’s family and family setting might contribute to violent and aggressive behaviour through parental child-rearing practices, the child’s behaviour, composition of the family, and the family climate.

Parenting Style

Authoritarian parents employ power assertion (especially physical punishment) to discipline children. This most likely raises aggressive children who will bully their playmates (Shaffer, 1999). Their common characteristics are being out-of-control children, having hostile attributional bias, defiance, lack of self-restraint, rejection by peers, criticism by teachers, founder academically, parents feel less invested, parents less inclined to monitor children, sexual misconduct, substance abuse, dropping out of school, running away from home (especially girls), engaging in prostitution (girls), pairing with antisocial partners, early marriage, and chronic aggression (Shaffer, 1999).

Authoritative parents establish checks and balances, and yet give freedom for child’s autonomy. Hence they raise well adjusted children (Shaffer, 1999).

Permissive parents provide no control for aggressive urges. Undercontrolled children tend to score as aggressive and unconscientious in personality, and are more likely to be antisocial, delinquent and have antisocial personality disorder (Hoy, Davis, & Pape, 2006). They are commonly characterized by fighting, sassing teachers, vandalism, drug and substance use, and general rule breaking.

The Child’s Behaviour

The parenting style is somewhat influenced by the behaviour of the child. An aggressive child often elicits aggressive reactions from the parent, which in turn reinforces the child’s aggressive tendencies (Shaffer, 1999).

Composition of the Family

In a single parent family, there is likelihood of disorganized gender roles. For example, a family headed by a mother alone is likely to raise children who are more aggressive than those raised in a family headed by both parents (Shaffer, 1999, Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, and Bem, 1993). On the other hand, parents have differential treatment of children under their care. Their biological children are often favoured, while other children may be scolded. Hence the biological children may become proactive aggressors, while the others may become reactive aggressors.

Family Climate

Parental conflict causes distress in children. They may thus develop hostile, aggressive interactions with peers. The un-abused children in a rioting family climate learn that aggression pays off for the victor. Hence they learn to become proactive aggressors. The victimised children become distrustful and suspicious of other people, hence making reactive aggressors (Shaffer, 1999; and Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, and Bem, 1993).

Coercive home environments (a home in which family members often annoy one another and use aggressive or antisocial tactics as a method of coping with aversive experiences) raise children who are resistant to punishments. They fight coercion with countercoercion to command the attention of an adult who rarely offers praise or shows any signs of affection (Shaffer, 1999). These aggressive acts need to be controlled for effective functioning of society.

Methods of Controlling Aggression and Other Antisocial Conducts

The following methods advanced by Shaffer (1999), and Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, and Bem (1993) can be helpful when used in combination to control aggression in society.

Family therapy

Teaching parents effective child-management techniques

Life skills training to children

Academic remediation for deviant cliques of poor performers.

Cathartic technique. Encourage children to vent their anger or frustrations on inanimate objects. (c/o backfire)

Create nonaggressive environments. Provide:

No aggress

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