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Topic #3: Aggression

Aggression: Theories of Internal Factors Lecture #1 of 3 Kevin M. Williams August, 2005

Types of aggression • • • • • • • • •

Latin (aggredi – to attack) Physical aggression Verbal aggression Passive aggression Sexual aggression Workplace aggression Bullying Child/spouse abuse Etc…

What causes aggression? • Various theories • One of the most common debates involves internal vs. external factors • i.e., nature vs. nurture • Internal factors: We are naturally aggressive; we are born with aggressive tendencies • External factors: Our environment and experiences lead us to become aggressive

Evolutionary theories of aggression • Also called ‘instinct’ theories: – suggest aggression is a part of human nature – Aggression is an instinct, perhaps an inevitable part of human behavior – We are ‘programmed’ for violence by our biological nature

Early instinct theories • Early instinct theories (e.g., Freud) suggested that aggression stems from universal, innate tendencies • Aggression = our innate death wish/instinct (thanatos) directed outwards – (as opposed to eros – love instinct)

• Hostile impulses, which increase over time, must be released periodically (in small acts) to prevent dangerous acts of violence – catharsis hypothesis

Early evolutionary theories • Early evolutionary theories (e.g., Lorenz): – aggression stems from an inherited ‘fighting instinct’ than humans share with other species

• Fighting serves to disperse populations over wide areas (e.g., conquering new territories) – thus ensuring maximum use of resources

• Humans (and other species) physically fought over potential mates – the best fighters were able to win the mate and have their genes passed on

Modern evolutionary approaches • Behaviours that help individuals procreate will become increasingly prevalent in the species’ population • Used to explain ‘young male syndrome’: – young males are more likely to be involved in violence and risk-taking than older males or females of any age – Why? Competition for reproductive success

• Males fight with each other over resources in order to attract a female and have their genes passed on

Modern evolutionary approaches: Research • Mesquida & Wiener, 1996 • Across 88 countries from the years 1980 to 1993, the more young males in a population the more severe the group violence • Why? There are fewer resources to go around, thus hindering the young males’ ability to mate • Thus, the young males are better served to band together and fight for resources – collective aggression • Manifested in uprisings, revolutions, even war • These results are correlational, not causational – alternative explanations include poverty and political instability

Critiques of modern evolutionary approaches • Even evolutionary theorists point out that instinctive tendencies likely interact with other factors (environmental, internal) to produce aggression • Most social psychologists have rejected early instinct theories because: – The causes of human aggression are multi-faceted (not just instincts) – The fighting described by evolutionary psychologists is fairly tame, whereas typical human aggression is much more severe (e.g., leading to death) – The innate tendency to kill makes less sense than the innate tendency to do temporary harm

Critiques of modern evolutionary approaches • There are many more forms of human aggression than physical: e.g., passiveaggressive, spreading rumors, destroying property, and direct verbal aggression • Wide cultural variations in aggression: innate tendencies would predict crosscultural consistency • No support for catharsis hypothesis

Other biological theories • Genetic factors may be important – twin/adoption studies support the role of genetics in aggressive behaviour

• Neurotransmitter research: low serotonin levels may cause aggression – Serotonin is responsible for several aspects of human functioning, including mood and behaviour – Experimental studies: – lowering serotonin level in animals increases aggression – increasing serotonin levels in humans decreases aggression

• Sex hormones (e.g., testosterone: Harris et al., 1996, Van Goosen et al., 1994) – Testosterone is a male sex hormone whose functions include muscle development – Has been linked to aggressive behaviour

Aggressive personality traits • Dispositional influences on aggression • Personality traits tend to possess a strong genetic basis • Informal observation/anecdotal evidence: • some people rarely lose their temper • other people seem to have 'short fuses'

Type A Personality • Glass (1977) • One of the first attempts to identify aggressive personality traits • Type A behavioural pattern includes: – (1) extremely competitive – (2) always in a hurry – (3) especially irritable

Type A Personality: Research • Research evidence: Type A = more aggressive (e.g., hostile aggression, spousal/child abuse) • When provoked, Type A’s more likely to retaliate with a (fake) electric shock – Especially true for Type A's w/ high testosterone

• Type A not related to instrumental aggression – aggression aimed at attaining goals such as resources or praise

• Type A also believed to be related to coronary heart disease

Current state of Type A personality research • Recently, Type A personality has been replaced by trait hostility • Trait hostility explains the relationship between Type A personality and many outcomes (e.g., coronary heart disease) • Other aspects of Type A (e.g., always in a hurry, competitiveness) do not predict these outcomes

Personality traits: Researching Prisoners • Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD) – A clinical diagnosis, based strictly on behaviours – Includes criminal behaviour, recklessness, irritability

• Psychopathy – Studied predominantly in prison populations – Lack of empathy and guilt; manipulative; impusive; antisocial tendencies – Strong predictor of criminal behaviour and reoffending – Includes more emphasis on personality traits than APD (APD emphasizes behaviours)

The Dark Triad of Personality • Aversive traits found outside of prison samples • Narcissism: grandiosity, self-enhancement, self-centered • Machiavellianism: manipulative, cynical • Psychopathy: less extreme than the version found in prison samples • Although all three predict antisocial behaviour, psychopathy produces the strongest and most consistent links

Benefit of personality theories • Personality traits tend to be stable across time and situations • Thus, personality may allow for generalized predictions • E.g., people who are aggressive in the workplace will likely also be aggressive at home (spousal abuse), etc. • Would child bullies grow up to become aggressive adults?

Aggression: The role of arousal • We have already seen that many internal and external factors have been linked to aggression • Other theories involve arousal: – Any physiological excitement – e.g., rapid heartbeat, ‘adrenaline rush’, ‘butterflies in the stomach’

• But how does arousal influence aggressive behaviour?

Excitation transfer theory • Heightened arousal from an experience can lead to subsequent aggression in an unrelated situation • Various experiences may cause heightened arousal: – e.g., competitive games, vigorous exercise, amusement park rides, listening to music, scary movies – Any activity that might ‘get your heart racing’

• We may then be more likely to react to subsequent situations with aggression – e.g., if you are highly aroused, a situation that may normally only make you mildly annoyed would instead cause you to be extremely angry

Excitation transfer theory • Aggression is most likely to occur when: • persons are unaware of the presence of residual arousal (research has demonstrated that small levels of arousal tend to go unnoticed) • you notice the arousal but mistakenly attribute it to the new situation

• The nature of the post-arousal situation is highly important: • Recall we may also interpret arousal as sexual attraction (Capilano bridge study)

Sexual arousal and aggression • Sexual arousal may be used to decrease existing levels of aggression • Why? Zillmann's (1984) two-component model: • Exposure to erotic stimuli produces two effects: – (1) increases arousal – (2) influences current affective states (i.e., negative/positive moods)

• Mild erotic stimuli = weak arousal, high positive affect – reduces aggression

• Explicit stimuli = strong arousal, high negative affect (i.e., unpleasant, repulsive)

Sexual arousal and aggression • Relationship between sexual arousal and aggression is curvilinear : High

Aggression Levels

Low None


Sexual Arousal


Sexual arousal and aggression: Crimes of passion? • Does intense sexual arousal play a role in crimes of passion? – No direct evidence

• However, sexual jealousy, which evokes powerful feelings of anger and aggression, does appear to be related to crimes of passion • Possible that sexual jealousy may combine with high arousal to predict crimes of passion (but again, no direct evidence)

Developmental theories • E.g., moral development – Defines our understanding of right and wrong – Low moral development = think in terms of personal interest, fair exchange – High moral development = think in terms of majority interest, abstract ideals

• Research findings: Delinquency is associated with low moral development – Why? At higher levels of moral development, criminal behaviour is considered unacceptable

Summary: Internal factors and aggression • Evolutionary drives – Freud, the fighting instinct

• Biological factors – Serotonin, testosterone

• Personality traits – Type A/hostility, psychopathy, disagreeableness

• Arousal – Excitation transfer theory, sexual arousal

• Developmental theories – Moral development

• Next lecture: External factors and aggression

Topic #3: Aggression

Aggression: Theories of External Factors Lecture #2 of 3 Kevin M. Williams August, 2005

External influences on aggression • So far, we have examined internal influences on aggression: – Genetics, hormones, evolutionary drives, personality, arousal, moral development – i.e., nature

• Alternatively, researchers have been interested in external influences on aggression – i.e., nurture

• e.g., what roles do the environment and our social experiences play in predicting aggressive behaviour?

Drive theories: The role of frustration • Humans have an internal motive or drive to harm others, which normally lays dormant • When exposed to certain external conditions, this drive is aroused and the result is aggression • External conditions may include loss of face or frustration External Aggressive Aggressive condition Drive Behaviour

• Summarized by the frustration-aggression hypothesis: – (1) frustration always leads to some form of aggression, and – (2) aggression always stems from frustration (i.e., there

Frustration-aggression hypothesis: Research • However, researchers subsequently determined that the frustration-aggression hypothesis is only partially correct • Frustration leads to aggression because frustration is an aversive, unpleasant feeling • However, frustration is not the only aversive emotion: – others include anger, nervousness, impatience, irritability, etc.

• Other research evidence: frustration is more likely to produce aggression when it is either unexpected or illegitimate • Why? Likely because these types of frustration are more aversive than when it is expected or legitimate

Social learning theory • Bandura (1973) • Aggression is learned either through direct experience or by observing others • Evidenced in how different cultures express aggression (e.g., martial arts vs. firearms) • Through these channels, individuals also learn: – (1) appropriate targets for aggression – (2) what actions by others require or justify aggression, and – (3) the situations or contexts in which aggression is appropriate

• This model has been particularly helpful in describing spousal abuse – i.e., some husbands abuse their wives because they have seen their fathers abuse their mothers

Media violence

Media violence • Most of us observe much more violence through media than we are ever to encounter first-hand in real life • This point is true even if you remove real violence we observe through the media (e.g., on the news, etc.) • What affect (if any) does this exposure have on our own aggressive behaviour?

Media Violence: Research

• Exposure to media violence may indeed increase levels of aggression • E.g., short-term laboratory experiments: – individuals exposed to aggressive media, then given an opportunity to aggress against another individual (usually a confederate) – Compared to individuals who are exposed to non-violent media, these individuals subsequently aggress more (however, the differences are often quite small)

• Similar results for longitudinal studies, and the results are consistent across countries • It is important to note that the majority of these studies are correlational in nature – i.e., does media influence aggression, or do existing aggressive tendencies influence media preferences?

Media violence: Other evidence • Individuals may learn new ways of aggressing from watching TV and movies; ways they would not have imagined before (e.g., "copycat crimes") • The Dallas Morning News , July 1, 1999: – “7 year old kid kills his 3 year old brother with a wrestling move.”

• Los Angeles Times , January 8, 1999: – “Alleged Rapists Blame ‘Springer’.”

• Los Angeles Times , January 15, 1998: – “Son, Nephew Inspired by 'Scream' Movies kill woman, Police Say.”

Media violence: The role of individual differences • Reciprocal determinism theory: (Bandura, 1977) • Certain individuals are attracted to certain types of media (e.g., violent) • These individuals are also affected by this media differently than people who are not attracted to it

Research evidence • Antisocial personalities (e.g., psychopathy) are more attracted to violent media of various kinds (e.g., music, movies, video games sports) • Engaging in violent sports predicts aggressive behaviour only for psychopaths • No aggression among non-psychopaths who engage in violent sports, or psychopaths who do not engage in violent sports

Hierarchical-Mediational Confluence (HMC) Model • Malamuth (1986) • Only specific combinations of risk factors predict sexual aggression • Risk factors include pornography use, psychopathy, pro-rape attitudes • e.g., pornography use associated with sexual aggression only for psychopaths • Note: Likely because only psychopaths are using violent pornography

Cultural differences in media effects • The effects of media violence differ as a function of personality (e.g., psychopathy), but also consider culture: • Canadians and Americans are exposed to virtually the same amount of media violence, yet there is much more violence in the U.S.

Explaining the media violenceaggression link • Desensitization: – With repeated exposure over time, individuals become hardened to the suffering of others; emotional reactions become lower

• Priming of hostile thoughts: – violent media causes violence to become 'hardwired' as a reflex reaction to provocations, for example

Workplace aggression

• Presumably another example of social forces causing aggression (e.g., being fired) • Acts of workplace aggression tend to steal the headlines, but: • 1) most workplace aggression is conducted by individuals from outside the workplace (e.g., thieves) • 2) it is very rare to be a victim of workplace violence

– odds roughly 1 in 450,000 – more likely in high-risk jobs (e.g., police)

• Nonetheless, a problem worthy of scientific study

Types of workplace aggression • Most workplace aggression falls into one of three categories (Baron et al., 1999): • 1) Expressions of hostility – behaviors that are primarily verbal or symbolic in nature – e.g., gossiping, belittling others' opinions, talking behind their backs

• 2) Obstructionism – behaviors designed to obstruct or impede others' performance – e.g., failure to return phone calls or respond to memos, failure to transmit needed information, interference with others' important activities

• 3) Overt aggression – behaviors that have typically been included under the heading "workplace violence" – e.g., physical assault, theft or destruction of property, threats of physical violence

Workplace aggression: Frequency and causes • Expressions of hostility and obstructionism (i.e., covert aggression) occur much more frequently than overt aggression • Common causes of workplace aggression: – Job loss (e.g., downsizing, layoffs, increased use of part-time and temporary employees) – Perceived unfairness (e.g., unjustly fired, passed over for promotion, etc.) • more serious than just feeling unappreciated

• Importance of individual differences: – Not everyone who experiences job loss or unfairness reacts with aggression

The role of cognitions in aggression • Aggression is often the result of provocation (a social factor) – E.g., Chermack et al. (1997): as the level of provocation increased, participants gave stronger retaliation (electric shocks) – In other words, individuals want to 'pay back' any aggression they are exposed to with an equal level of aggression, or in some cases, even more aggression

• However, other peoples’ intentions are not always clear: – there is a subjective element to provocation

Cognition and provocation • Hostile attribution bias (HAB) • Tendency to perceive aggression in others' intentions even when there is none present (i.e., ambiguous or neutral situations) • For example, accidentally bumping into someone in a crowded area, or even simple eye contact – An HAB individual will be more likely to perceive these acts as hostile

• In male juvenile offenders, HAB is related to number of interpersonally violent crimes (Dodge et al., 1990)

Personality and provocation • Narcissists react to insults with extreme aggression (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998) • Why? 'Unstable high self-esteem‘ – In theory, narcissists have 'nagging doubts' about their superiority, therefore react with intense anger to anyone who threatens their ego

• Psychopaths are easily provoked, and react with vengeance and violence • Psychopaths hold hostile biases, which partially explains their delinquency (Nathanson et al., 2004)

Culture and provocation: Cultures of honor

• E.g., Southern U.S. • Overly protective of property and reputation • In these cultures, individuals are:

– More likely to respond to threats with anger and violence – More accepting of violence (and even murder) as a problem-solving strategy – More accepting of violent people/murderers – Also show increases in testosterone when provoked (recall biological theories of aggression)

An integrative theory: General Affective Aggression Model • Anderson, 1996 (GAAM) • Integrates the influence of internal and external forces in predicting aggression • Aggression is triggered/elicited by various input variables – either aspects of the situation or pre-existing individual differences • Once triggered, there are various routes to aggression

GAAM input variables • Situational factors can include – – – – –

Frustration Provocation Aggressive models (i.e., other people acting aggressively) Cues associate with aggression (e.g., guns, weapons) Virtually anything that causes discomfort (an annoying sound, hot and humid weather)

• Individual differences include: – Personality (irritability, hostility, Dark Triad, disagreeableness) – Attitudes/beliefs about violence (i.e., that it is acceptable/appropriate) – Values about violence (i.e., that it is a ‘good’ thing – that there are benefits) – ‘Aggression skills’ (knowing how to fight, use weapons, etc.)

GAAM routes to aggression • These two types of input variables can then lead to aggression through three routes: – 1) arousal (increase in physiological arousal/excitement) – 2) affect (hostile feelings – e.g., anger; or outward manifestations of feelings such as angry facial expressions) – 3) cognitions (having hostile thoughts or remembering hostile memories)

GAAM model of aggression Individual differences


Situational factors




GAAM: Exacerbating and restricting factors

• In the GAAM model, aggression is a more likely end result if the individual has hostile appraisals of the situation – (i.e., hostile cognitive biases)

• Aggression is less likely if restraining factors are present – e.g., police, strong social norms, an aggressive target, etc.

GAAM research • Research has generally supported the GAAM model of aggression: • Playing violent video games (situational input) increases hostile cognitive biases (i.e., attributing hostility to an ambiguous situation)

Summary: External factors and aggression • External factors: – Frustration, social learning, media violence, provocation, extreme occupational hardships

• Currently, many researchers agree that internal and external factors are important in predicting aggression • Many internal and external factors interact: – – – – –

Media violence and personality Provocation and personality Provocation and cognitive biases Provocation and culture General affective aggression model (GAAM)

• Next lecture: sex/cultural differences, studying aggression, and preventing aggression

Topic #3: Aggression

Aggression: Culture and sex differences, studying aggression, and prevention Lecture #3 of 3 Kevin M. Williams August, 2005

Sex differences in aggression • Widespread belief that males are more aggressive than females • Some research support for this belief: – Males report higher rates of aggressive behaviors than females

• But: males are also more likely to be the victims of aggression – Likely due to males aggressing against other males

• This difference persists throughout the lifespan – e.g., in people as high in age as 70 or 80

• Overall, gender differences tend to be minor, though there are some complexities: – Depends on situation and type of aggression

Sex and situation interactions • Sex differences become more apparent when examining provocations • Compared to females, males much more likely to aggress in situations when they are not provoked • There is virtually no gender difference when provocation is involved

Sex differences: Type of aggression • Males higher in direct aggression – actions aimed directly at the target and which clearly stem from the aggressor – e.g., shouting, hitting, shoving, throwing something, insulting, etc.

• Females higher in indirect aggression – actions that allow the aggressor to conceal their identity from the target – e.g., spreading rumors, talking behind the person's back, etc.

• These differences exist across the lifespan and across countries

Cultural differences • Most differences occur in subcultures within larger cultures • Examples: cultures of honor, gang subcultures, prisons • Why? Differences in: – cultural values (e.g., violence is valued/accepted more in certain cultures than others) – child-rearing habits (e.g., children taught from an early age that violence is acceptable/unacceptable) – socio-economic status (violence is justified as a means of survival)

Cultural differences: Comparisons across countries 2.6 2.1 2 2 1.4 1.2 1.2 1.1 0.2

la N S nd et w he itz & C rla er W Fra an al n nd lan ad e c d s a s e

Scotland Canada

Northern Ireland England & Wales

En g

Switzerland Sweden

Note: Columbia = 70.9





1996 Homicide Rates per 100,000



Studying aggression • How do we measure aggression? • Ethical concerns: – Making the research participant angry enough to aggress – Exposing participants to graphically violent media – Aggressing against other participants or innocent bystanders? – Long-term effects?

• Objectivity: – What are the ‘units’ of aggression? – Number of punches? Volume of voice?

Aggression: Research methods • There are various methods, each with advantages and disadvantages • Experimental methods: – e.g., participant is allowed to aggress against a confederate after false negative feedback – Participant administers electroshock or noise blast

• Pros: can be measured objectively • Cons: not very realistic; ethics

Aggression: Research methods • Pencil-and-paper methods: – Self-reports: Participants write down the number of times they have committed various aggressive acts – Peer-reports: Someone who knows the research participant reports their aggression

• Pros: Quick, easy, exhaustive • Cons: Reporting biases (memory, impression management, fear of punishment)

Aggression: Research methods • Implicit measures: – Hostile cognitive biases – read a story with the potential for aggression, write what might happen next – Ambiguous pictures – rate the amount of aggression in a ‘neutral’ face – Implicit association task (IAT) – do certain images match up with aggression words?

• Pros: Non-intrusive • Cons: Projective, unverifiable

Aggression: Research methods • Naturalistic observation: – Observe participants in their natural surroundings (e.g., schoolyard) – Researchers may or may not provoke participants

• Pros: Highly realistic • Cons: Time consuming, ethics, interrater agreement

Aggression: Research methods • Forensic and clinical methods: – Criminal records – Interviews by experts

• Pros: Highly objective • Cons: Time consuming; unrealistic for non-forensic or non-clinical research

Preventing and controlling aggression Capital Punishment

Preventing and controlling aggression • Is punishment an effective deterrent? • Yes – under certain conditions • i.e., punishment must be: – prompt – must follow aggressive actions as quickly as possible – certain – the probability that it will follow aggression must be very high – strong – strong enough to be highly unpleasant to potential recipients – appropriate – perceived by recipients as justified or deserved

Learning to reduce aggression • Interventions based on social learning theory • Exposure to non-aggressive models – e.g., showing examples of: – people who do not retaliate when provoked – people who are forgiving – non-violent role models (Gandhi)

• Social skills training: – i.e., teaching people to make/refuse requests without making others angry

Reducing aggression through catharsis • An early idea (1939) • Venting anger and hostility in a relatively safe way will reduce later aggression • Two important benefits: – 1) helps to reduce emotional tension – 2) since they help to eliminate anger, venting reduces the likelihood of more dangerous forms of aggression

Catharsis research: Mixed results

• Participation in various activities that are not harmful to others (e.g., working out) can reduce emotional arousal stemming from frustration or provocation • However, these effects are temporary: – arousal reappears quickly, simply by remembering the incident that made you angry in the first place

• Using overt physical aggression also does not work, and may actually increase subsequent aggression – Examples: watching media violence, hitting a punching bag, or yelling at someone – Recall effects of violent sports and pornography for psychopaths (though direction of causality remains an issue)

Cognitive interventions • Why are interventions important? Without intervention, one consequence is displaced aggression: – the tendency to lash out against unrelated/innocent others

• Apologizing to someone who is aggressive (expressing regret and asking for forgiveness) is effective in reducing their aggression

Cognitive interventions • The idea behind cognitive interventions is that when we are very angry, our ability to think clearly is reduced – e.g., ability to consider the consequences of our actions

• When we are angry we 'lose (cognitive) control' – these activities help us to recover control

Examples of cognitive interventions • Pre-attribution: – reminding yourself that a person's annoying behavior is due to external or uncontrollable forces (i.e., 'they don't mean it')

• Preventing yourself from dwelling on real or imagined wrongs – can be accomplished via distraction (watching a movie, working on a complex puzzle or other task)

Effectiveness of interventions • Most interventions are effective • e.g., anger management through cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): – Involves relaxation, cognitive restructuring, problem-solving, stress inoculation – Useful in reducing aggression in college students, abusive parents, adolescents (Beck & Fernandez, 1998)

Exceptions: Treatment of psychopaths • Correctional programs tend to be aimed at developing empathy, conscience, interpersonal skills • Criminal psychopaths typically do not show behavioural improvements from treatment • Why? Psychopaths do not experience personal distress, see nothing wrong with their behaviour, and do not seek treatment unless forced • In some cases, psychopaths become more adept at criminal behaviour and manipulation following treatment

Summary • Overall, gender differences in aggression tend to be minor, though there are some complexities • Most cultural differences in aggression occur in subcultures within larger cultures • There are several methods of studying aggression, each with advantages and disadvantages • Various strategies for deterring and reducing aggression exist, each with varying degrees of success

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