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9. Psychology Unit 2: Aggression > Aggression > Flashcards

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What you need to know


  • Explanations of aggression:
    • biological, including the role of hormones, brain disease and chromosomal abnormality. 
    • psychodynamic, including the frustration-aggression hypothesis. 
    • social learning, including modelling, punishment and monitoring.
  • Description and evaluation of studies of the development of aggressive behaviour. 
  • Ways of reducing aggression, based on these explanations.
  •  Evaluation of these ways of reducing aggression. 


What is Aggression?

The definition of aggression is:

Behaviour aimed at harming others

Aggression is antisocial behaviour:  behaviour that harms, or intends to harm. Aggression can be verbal as well as physical and can stem for several different causes.


What are the 3 theories of aggression?


  • Social learning theory
  • The biological explanation
  • The psychodynamic explanation



What is the Biological Explanation:


This can mean that Aggression is innate /we are born aggressive or we have a significant biological change such as brain disease

Researchers have looked at the role of [BCH]

  • The Brain
  • Chromosomes
  • Hormones

on aggression and behaviour.


Definitions brain

LIMBIC SYSTEM - The part of the brain that causes aggressive behaviour

PREFRONTAL CORTEX - The very front of the brain. It's involved in social and moral behaviours and controls aggression

BRAIN DISEASE - Damage to the brain caused by illness or trauma



Biological Explanation

The Brain

Aggression is caused by an interaction of different parts of the brain.

Aggression (like other instinctive behaviours) seems to be associated with the LIMBIC SYSTEM. This is the part of the brain that influences things like eating, sexual behaviour and aggression.

The part of the brain that controls these behaviours and STOPS us from being aggressive is the PREFRONTAL CORTEX. This is highly involved in learning. It knows when instinctive behaviour is appropriate or not.

BRAIN DISEASE affecting either the PREFRONTAL CORTEX or the LIMBIC SYSTEM may lead to abnormally high levels of aggression.

So in summary -

LIMBIC SYSTEM - Aggression, eating, sex behaviour. PREFRONTAL COTREX: Involved in learning. Stops inappropriate behaviour. Damage to the

LIMBIC SYSTEM or PREFRONTAL CORTEX = high levels of aggression






Label the amygdala on a picture of the brain



Case study Charles Whitman

  • In 1966 Charles Whitman shot his mother and wife and then climbed a clock tower at the university of Texas and shot 12 more people with a high powered rifle.
  • He was killed by Texas Rangers Police.
  • Prior to this he asked for help dealing with overwhelming violent impulses and asked for an autopsy to be carried out after he died to see what was wrong.
  • The autopsy revealed a tumour pressing against his ‘amygdala’ which is part of the limbic system. This is the part of the brain that causes aggressive behaviour.

[more info on his history:]



Biological explanation of aggression:

Chromosomal abnormality

CHROMOSOMES - The parts of each cell that carry the genetic info from our biological parents

  • Chromosomes are made of DNA and code for why we are the way we are.
  • If there is damage on the chromosomes we may suffer physical or psychological problems.
  • XYY syndrome is an extra Y chromosome on the 23rd pair as it fails to divide.
  • When the 23rd chromosome (the sex chromosome) fails to divide, some men end up with an XYY arrangement. This is called Chromosomal abnormality. It has certain effects including making men more aggressive than normal.
  • Backed up by findings
  • VIOLENT CRIMINALS = higher than normal proportion of men with XYY chromosomes than in wider population
  • However more recent research has shown that it's not quite this simple. Men with XYY chromosomes have a difficult time in adolescence due to increase likelihood of acne, learning difficulties and delayed language development (could lead to bullying).



Biological explanation of aggression:


HORMONES are chemicals revealed by our endocrine system that affect how our bodies function and how we behave

  • Men are widely accepted to be more aggressive than females.
  • There are large differences in the hormones of men and women
  • Men have more TESTOSTERONE than women therefore this is thought to be the cause of more aggression in men.
  • This is supported by FINDINGS – violent criminals have more testosterone than non-violent criminals


Men = more aggressive than women

Men = more testosterone than women

CORRELATION: Testosterone -- aggression

Backed up by Findings: VIOLENT CRIMINALS = More TESTOSTERONE than non- violent criminals

(Serotonin is another hormone that has been linked to aggression. Researchers have found that lower serotonin levels leads to higher levels of aggression.)


Psychodynamic Explanation


  • The main focus of this is that aggression is innate, we are born with it.
  • This was proposed by Freud who suggested that we have an unconscious drive that causes aggression.
  • Our aggressive behaviour is caused by an internal force or instinct which he called THANATOS
  • THANATOS - the part of our unconscious that causes our aggressive drive
  • It is this that drives us to self-destruction.
  • This instinct is building all the time creating pressure [remember the saucepan] until sooner or later we cannot control it and it makes us do something aggressive.
  • We protect ourselves from our instinct towards self-destruction by using - EGO DEFENCE MECHANISMS (displacement and sublimation)




Ego defense mechanisms - Freud

Ego defence mechanisms definition:

Behaviour strategies used by the individual to protect ourselves.

Freud proposed a number of ego-defence mechanisms to cope with the anxiety:

  • Displacement  - Transferring negative feelings toward something that will not harm us (i.e. shouting at someone who hasn’t done anything to us when we're angry about something else)
  • Sublimation  - Channelling negative energies into an acceptable activity (i.e. sport – an aggression outlet)



Dollard frustration-aggression hypothesis

  • Dollard agreed with Freud that we have an aggressive drive building up inside us (Thanatos)
  • but disagreed that it would suddenly spill over into aggressive behaviour for no reason.
  • He said it needs a trigger.
  • He proposed the ‘Frustration-aggression Hypothesis’. This basically means that aggression is caused by frustration. So anyone frustrated will behave aggressively.
  • Can be everyday things that frustrate us - an argument, being late etc.
  • This explanation argues that aggression may be directed onto a target other than the cause of frustration.



Social Learning Explanation

Explain Imitation

and Vicarious Learning + Reinforcement

The main focus of this is that aggression is learned behaviour.

As we encounter new situations we look to others for guidance of how to behave and we copy it. This is called

IMITATION - copying the behaviour of a model

VICARIOUS LEARNING - learning to imitate by observation (e.g. a young child imitating a role model by swearing)

For children there are lots of new situations so they look to adults for how to behave. We can learn just by watching what others are doing.

VICARIOUS REINFORCEMENT- learning from role models being rewarded or punished.

If children see a role model being reinforced for doing something e.g. being aggressive it creates the expectation that they will be reinforced in the same way. E.g. watching a film in which the hero defeats the villain by hitting him. A child might learn from this that hitting people is a successful way of getting what you want. As a result aggressive behaviour has been learned.



Social Learning Explanation

* Modelling


a role model provides an example for a child.

Children are more likely to imitate models if they are:

  • similar
  • attractive
  • powerful
  • caring
  • and crucially if they are REINFORCED for doing something (even with negative reinforcement)


* Explain Punishment

Social Learning Theory

PUNISHMENT  - a stimulus that weakens behaviour because it's unpleasant and we try to avoid it

The implication of children copying what they see is that the punishment can actually have the opposite effect. Parents are role models and children copy them.

If a child is hit by their parent they are more likely to hit others. This means that the parent - the role model - is unintentionally teaching the child aggressive behaviour.



* Explain Monitoring

Social Learning Theory

MONITORING  - judging whether our own behaviour is appropriate or not

People monitor their own behaviour all the time

Bandura (1963) also found reinforcement can be internal i.e. Pride or self-praise. We judge our own behaviour. So for example if we feel good about acting aggressively we will do it again



Social Learning theory of aggression

IMITATION - copying the behaviour of a model

VICARIOUS LEARNING - learning to imitate by observation

MODELLING a role model provides an example for a child.

VICARIOUS REINFORCEMENT- learning from role models being rewarded or punished.

MONITORING  - judging whether our own behaviour is appropriate or not

PUNISHMENT  - a stimulus that weakens behaviour because it's unpleasant and we try to avoid it



Biological investigations into the causes of aggression

Initially research into the development of aggression was carried out on animals because of the fact it was impossible to manipulate hormones and explore the brains of Humans.

e.g. Young et al who studied monkeys

However, science has progressed and developed techniques that allow us to study the human brain directly.

e.g. Raine who studies differences between the brains of murderers and non-murderers. He wanted to know if murderers' brains functioned differently and if this might be why they're aggressive.



Young study

Biological investigation

Aim: To see what effect hormones have on aggressive behaviour.

Method: Young injected pregnant rhesus monkeys with testosterone and observed the levels of aggression in their offspring as they matured.

Results: The high levels of testosterone during pregnancy made the females grow up to behave like male monkeys

  • engaged in rough-and-tumble play
  • challenged the males for dominance in their troop.

Conclusion: Testosterone DOES seem to play a vital part in aggressive behaviour.


Young Evaluation


Although an early study, Young's research does lend support to the theory that hormones play a large part in the development of aggression


It is problematic though to generalise these studies of non-human animals to humans as there are physiological and psychological differences



Raine study

Biological investigations

Aim: To investigate the brains of murderers

Method: Researchers gave 41 murderers in California a PET Scan and compared them with a similar group of non-murderers.

Result: There were some differences, for example activity in the pre frontal cortex of the murderers was lower than in non-murderers.

Conclusion: When the prefrontal cortex (and other parts of the brain) is not working normally, it can lead to people committing violent crimes.

* PET SCAN -a technique to show how the brain is working by imaging it while the patient is carrying out a mental task



Evaluation Raine


This study is highly scientific (for example it is replicable, objective, value-free and standardised).


When the participants of a study are all violent offenders we have to be careful about applying the conclusions to the rest of the population


Psychodynamic / other investigations

The frustration-aggression theory was investigated by Barker. Results indicated that frustration does increase frustration

Freud's theory of aggression has been much harder to support. However there is some supporting evidence for the aggressive drive theory of aggression from people who had been unable to stop themselves from becoming aggressive

eg Megargee and Mendelsohn



Barker study

Aim: To see the effect of frustration on aggressive behaviour.

Method: Children were kept waiting a long time before being allowed to play in a room full of attractive toys.

Their behaviour was then observed.

Results: The children were more aggressive and destructive than other children who had not been frustrated by being kept waiting.

Conclusion: Being frustrated does lead to an increase in aggression.



Barker Evaluation

  • It's hard to standardise frustration – What's frustrating to one person may not be for another.
  • There are ethical issues to consider when researching children. Initially denying the children access to the toys might have caused some distress (albeit probably minimal). This needs to be balanced out with the benefits of the research. Debriefing the children well after the research could have been an important lesson for them.



Mergargee and Mendelsohn study

Aim: To see if there is a link between aggression and personality type.

Method: People who had committed brutally aggressive crimes were interviewed and given personality tests.

Results: These criminals seemed to have been ‘over controlled’ and repressed their anger until it built up to such an extent that it just exploded following something really trivial.

Conclusion: If people do not let their aggressive instinct out in small amounts from time to time, the build-up will be so great that they will not be able to control it.

*REPRESS - keep our emotions under very tight control and not express how we're feeling



Evaluation Megargee and Mendelsohn


  • This study supports Freud's theory of aggression.
  • The results to M and Ms study have intuitive appeal. We can apply it to our own experiences of holding in anger and then getting triggered by something seemingly trivial


  • We must remember thought that people can lie in interviews and personality tests
  • If the participants are violent offenders we have to be careful about applying a conclusion to the rest of the population.
  • It's hard to standardise frustration – What's frustrating to one person may not be for another.


Social Learning investigations - intro

  • An important piece of research was carried out in 1963 by Bandura to see if children would IMITATE what they see. He constructed an experiment in a laboratory using an adult ROLE MODEL and a 'bobo doll'

(BOBO DOLL - an inflatable doll of about 1.5 metres tall that is weighted at the bottom. It is designed to jump back up when it is knocked over.)

  • Further research on social learning explanations for aggression was conducted by Liebert and Baron who wanted to know if watching violent TV affected the aggression of children. He found that the group who watched the violent programme were more aggressive and that therefore watching violent TV does increase levels of aggression.
  • there is contradictory evidence from Charlton et al though. They found that there was no effect


Bandura study

Aim: To see if young children would imitate aggressive behaviour they see role models performing towards an inflatable 'bobo' doll

Method: Researchers divided 96 children between the ages of 3 and 6 into 4 groups, three of which were shown an adult behave aggressively towards (kicking, throwing and punching) a large inflatable doll

Results: the children who had witnessed the aggressive behaviour showed more aggressive behaviour than the children in the group that had seen none

Conclusion: children will copy how they see others behave - the aggressive bevaviour of role models