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AQA A-level Psychology Aggression

This section provides revision resources for AQA A-level psychology and the Aggression chapter. The revision notes cover the AQA exam board and the new specification. As part of your A-level psychology course, you need to know the following topics below within this chapter:

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Neural and Hormonal Mechanisms in Aggression

The A-level psychology specification states you need to know the following for aggression:

  • Neural and hormonal mechanisms in aggression, including the roles of the limbic system, serotonin and testosterone.
  • Genetic factors in aggression, including the MAOA gene.

Neural Mechanisms in Aggression

Neural influences include a part of the brain known as the limbic system that coordinates behaviours which satisfy motivational and emotional urges including fear and aggression. Two key structures that form part of the limbic system and believed to be linked to aggression are the amygdala and the hippocampus.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system and evaluates the emotional importance of sensory information and prompts an appropriate response. Neural explanations suggest if certain areas of the amygdala are stimulated electrically, aggression may be displayed through various behaviours. This explanation also suggests that if the amygdala was removed, an animal or person would no longer react with aggression from the same stimuli. The amygdala is also thought to be responsible for moderating testosterone levels which has been linked to aggression. If the amygdala malfunctioned either through a tumour, damage or atypical development then this could raise testosterone levels making aggression more likely.

The hippocampus is involved in the formation of long-term memories. These memories allow animals to compare current threats with similar past experiences to assess whether they should respond with either aggression or fear. A damaged or impaired hippocampus would prevent the nervous system from putting things into the right context and thus cause the amygdala to respond to sensory stimuli inappropriately possibly through aggression.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which has also been linked to aggression also. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that allow impulses in the brain to be transmitted from one part of the brain to another. Normal levels of serotonin are believed to exert a calming inhibitory effect on neuronal firing within the brain. Serotonin inhibits the amygdala which controls various emotional responses including fear and anger making their expression less likely. However low levels of this neurotransmitter remove this inhibitory effect resulting in individuals having less control over their impulsive aggressive behaviour; this theory is known as the serotonin deficiency hypothesis. Without serotonin, the amygdala becomes more active when stimulated by external triggers which makes aggression more likely as the person becomes more impulsive due to lowered inhibition. Serotonin is also believed to reduce aggression by inhibiting responses to emotional stimuli that may normally have led to an aggressive reaction. Low levels within the brain have therefore been linked to an increased susceptibility for impulsive, aggressive behaviour and even suicide.

Evaluating Neural Mechanisms in Aggression

  • One weakness in the theory of how the limbic system affects aggression is it’s role is not clear cut. This is because the limbic system is made up of multiple components and it is difficult to isolate which ones play a role on aggression specifically or how they interact between themselves to influence the display of aggressive behaviour. Another weakness is research which links brain abnormalities in the limbic system to violence is purely correlational. With such findings we cannot infer cause and effect for certain as this may merely highlight a vulnerability to aggression. Other research has also found people with similar brain abnormalities do not necessarily demonstrate aggressive behaviour so causation cannot be conclusively ascertained due to the limbic system.
  • However Siegel & Victoroff (2009) reviewed research on neurobiological and behavioural explanations of aggression (defensive and predatory) and found both forms of aggressive behaviour appeared to be controlled by the limbic system suggesting it does have a role in the display of aggression lending credibility to the theory. Their findings also found the cerebral cortex played a role in moderating the extent to which aggressive behaviour was expressed suggesting attributing aggression solely to simple neural explanations was reductionist. This is because the cerebral cortex may be interacting with the limbic system in more complex ways than we understand to cause the display of aggression and attributing it simply to the limbic system alone would be over-simplifying a complex biological process which involves multiple components, some of which may be unaccounted for (e.g. cognitive influences).
  • Sumer et al (2007) conducted a case study on a 14 year old girl who had a tumour in the limbic system. She suffered from epileptic seizures and had a history of behaving aggressively. When the tumour was treated through the use of drugs she was found to return to normal levels of aggression supporting the limbic’s systems influence in the display of aggression. However a consideration is this study was a single case study and may lack external validity and wider generalisation. This may be because of individual differences or various other factors that may have affected her aggressive behaviours which are unaccounted for (social factors and learning or the medication she received). Therefore we may not necessarily be able to generalise her findings to the wider population to conclusively prove the limbic system controls aggression.
  • Pardini et al (2014) provided research support for the role of the amygdala influencing aggression. A longitudinal study followed 56 male participants with varying histories of violence from childhood to adulthood. Brain MRI scans were conducted at the age of 26 and the results found participants with lower amygdala volumes exhibited higher levels of aggressive behaviours. A major issue with this study is it suffers from gender bias as it monitored only men and we cannot say for certain the findings can be generalised to women. Also we cannot rule out testosterone as a confounding variable on the limbic system as men tend to have higher levels than women and statistics show men are more prone to violence too. Due to this, the study may lack external validity to the wider population as its findings may only explain aggression on one gender. Also with longitudinal studies confounding variables such as social learning may influence aggression which undermines biological theories. For example media influences on what a mans role should be in society (dominant, aggressive) may be the actual reason men tend to be more aggressive and this learning may be what influences amygdala volumes.
  • There is some research support for the serotonin deficiency hypothesis explaining aggression. Duke et al (2013) conducted a meta-analysis of 175 studies which involved 6500 participants. Researchers found a small inverse relationship between serotonin levels and aggression, anger and hostility. However their research found the relationship between aggression and serotonin was far more complex than this theory presents which makes it reductionist as it attempts to over-simplify a complex biological process and serotonin may be one of many components involved in aggression.
  • Raleigh et al (1991) found supporting evidence for the role of serotonin on aggression when studying vervet monkeys. Monkeys fed on a diet which was high in tryptophan (which increased serotonin levels) exhibited less aggression than those fed a diet which had less tryptophan. This difference in aggression could be attributed to the serotonin levels themselves however as this finding is correlational we cannot be certain of cause and effect for certain as there may be unknown variables laying in between which are also involved but unaccounted. Also with animal studies we cannot generalise the findings to humans due to differences in biology which may mean the way serotonin influences vervet monkeys may be different in humans. This is particularly true as cognitive processes, learning, moral reasoning and free will play a role that may override urges for aggression in humans.

Hormonal Mechanisms in Aggression

Hormones such as testosterone have also been linked to aggression as men are generally more aggressive then women and have higher levels (Dabbs 1990). Testosterone is an androgen (male hormone) and produces male characteristics one of which is believed to be status seeking domineering behaviour such as aggression. Increased levels are believed to raise levels of aggression and aggressive responses to perceived provocation. The link is not clear cut but when testosterone levels peak around the start of puberty, there is a peak in aggression levels in boys suggesting a correlational link. Research by Dabbs (1987) measured salivary testosterone in violent and non-violent criminals. The highest testosterone levels found in those with a history of mostly violent crimes supporting this link. However with this we still cannot be sure of cause and effect as some theories propose aggressive individuals produce more testosterone and not vice versa (not testosterone increases aggression).

Other theories propose testosterone acts to sensitise neural circuits in the brain in the early days after birth causing changes which affect aggression levels in adulthood. Such theories propose this allows for the effects of testosterone to manifest in adulthood. Evidence for this comes from castration studies on animals that have been castrated early after birth (Connor & Levine 1969). Their research showed that this lack of testosterone (and thus inability to sensitise neural circuits) results in less aggression than those animals castrated later in their lives. Other animal studies involving mice have linked aromatase and testosterone. Aromatase metabolises testosterone within the brain and is also found in the limbic region such as the amygdala. Reduced levels of aromatase within this region would mean there is not enough enzyme for it to activate testosterone. This is then believed to result in the amygdala not causing a reaction to testosterone levels within the system and a lowered response to emotional situations. This results in lower chances of exhibiting aggression.

Another explanation suggests testosterone affects the activity in the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain which is involved in inhibition and decision making. High levels of testosterone in an individual is believed to reduce activity in the orbito-frontal cortex making them more prone to reacting aggressively in emotionally charged situations. Other explanations have suggested that high levels of testosterone lower serotonin activity which inhibits aggression and this then increases the likelihood of aggression too.

Evaluating Hormonal Mechanisms in Aggression

  • The relationship between testosterone and aggression isn’t clear cut or conclusive. Albert et al (1993) claimed that although many studies have shown a positive correlation (from which we cannot infer cause and effect for certain anyway), other studies have found no such link. This is particularly evident when comparing testosterone levels of aggressive and less aggressive individuals. Furthermore most studies which have showed this positive correlation were based on small samples of men in prison who were using self-report measures for aggression which makes generalisation difficult to the wider population. It is also difficult to generalise such findings outside the prison population due to a lack of ecological validity and the prison environment being very different. The self-report measure in itself may also lack internal validity as participants may quantify aggressive behaviour differently and thus report it differently meaning no conclusions can be firmly drawn on testosterones role.
  • Such studies into how hormones such as testosterone affect aggression also suffer from gender bias as they have focused mostly on men and not how women may be affected. Research into this has produced mixed results with some suggesting the association between testosterone and aggression is higher for female than male samples (Archer et al 2005). Further studies have shown higher testosterone in women is displayed through higher occupational status possibly due to them being more assertive (Baucom et al 1985). Eisenegger et al (2011) found testosterone made women act nicer rather than aggressively which contradicts these findings.
  • Mazur suggested one possible explanation for such mixed findings is because we need to distinguish between aggression and dominance. Individuals may behave aggressively when their intent is to inflict injury however dominance may serve the role of achieving an aim or dominance over another. Mazur proposed aggression was just one form of dominance and higher testosterone in animals may be displayed through aggression where as in humans it may be through status seeking behaviour. Therefore testosterone may lead to dominance and status seeking behaviour and aggression may be just one of the ways in which this could be expressed.
  • Research by Higley et al (1996) suggested testosterone was not the only factor in aggression. This study found testosterone could affect how aggressive an individual felt but not necessarily how they will behave and act upon. Testosterone may therefore underpin an emotional response to a situation but other factors such as social learning may affect whether aggression is then displayed through behaviour.
  • In addition, as most research into how testosterone affects aggression is correlational, it needs to be considered that high testosterone levels may simply be a byproduct of aggression itself as we cannot be sure of cause and affect, merely the two are linked somehow. To assume neurotransmitters or hormones alone cause aggression is deterministic as this ignores the role of free will people have and their cognitive processes which allow them to override biological urges should they wish to do so (i.e. to act aggressively). Additionally such biological theories are reductionist as they are trying to oversimplify complex workings to single simple processes (neurotransmitters or hormones). For example it may be that fluctuating levels of neurotransmitters or hormones are actually genetically determined and these varying levels are a symptom rather than the cause of a deeper explanation.

Genetic Factors in Aggression

When looking at how genes affect aggression; this is effectively asking the question of nature vs nurture. The main way the role of genes in aggression has been examined is through the use of twin Studies, adoption studies and looking at Individual genes that may play a role.

In twin studies; identical twins are compared between non-identical twins for levels of aggression between them. This is because identical twins share the exact genetic makeup as each other while non-identical share only up to 50%. If identical twins have more similar levels of aggression then it is thought to be due to genetics.

McGuffin et al found that when studying sets of identical and non-identical twins; Identical twins aggression levels correlated more highly at 87% compared to non-identical twins that correlated at 72%. On first glance this appears to support the basis of genetics being behind such similarities as aggression is shared more closely with twins with identical genetics suggesting shared genes may be responsible.
However what is important to note here is that non-identical twins also had high levels of similarity in aggression levels and this could be argued to be due to the environment and learning similar aggressive behaviour. Therefore the family environment and learning may also play a huge factor.

Adoption Studies have looked at examining levels of aggression between adopted children and that of their biological parents. If a positive correlation is found between adopted children and their biological parents then a genetic effect is implied. If a positive correlation is found between the adopted children and their rearing family; an environmental effect is implied suggesting aggression may be due to learning and not biologically caused.

Hutchings et al (1975) conducted a huge study reviewing 14’000 danish children who had been adopted. They found a significant positive correlation between the number of convictions for criminal violence among the biological parents and that of their children who had been adopted. This appears to add weight to the argument that genetics is behind aggression and that genes predisposing such may have been passed onto their children.

However it must also be noted that the environment could be a factor here with adopted children having a more difficult time adjusting to their environment, as well as learnt behaviour from biological parents previously (before adoption) or even the stigma that is attached with being adopted affecting how they are treated by friends, family and even how they view themselves all contributing to aggression and not necessarily genetics.

Another major problem with such twin studies is that finding large numbers of identical twins who are reared apart is extremely rare to compare differences and most studies rely on comparing identical and non-identical twins. The problem here is that non-identical twins are likely seen by family, friends and those around them as actual individuals and thus treated as such. Identical twins may however be treated in exactly the same way as they are both perceived to be the same by those around them; making their behaviour in turn similar due to exposure of the same things in the environment. Therefore the argument here is that such similar behaviour can actually be due to learnt behaviour and not genetics. For this reason twin studies could lack internal validity as you are not necessarily measuring the effects of genetics but rather the environment and learning and erroneously assuming observed behaviour is due to genetics. Also Hutchings study could be argued to be culturally bias as the sample of children and parents were based only on Danish people and therefore the findings may not generalise to other cultures further limiting the theory’s validity.

Specific genes have also been identified which may be the cause for aggression. For example, the MAOA gene is responsible for producing an enzyme called monoamine oxidase and has been linked to aggressive behaviour. MAOA regulates serotonin in the brain and low levels of serotonin have been linked to aggressive and impulsive behaviour. A study of a Dutch family by Brunner (1993) found that many of its male members had a faulty variation of this gene resulting in low levels of MAOA. They were also found to have a history of violent and aggressive behaviours suggesting this gene may in part be responsible.

Caspi et al (2002) investigated variants of the MAOA gene, one associated with high levels of MAOA (MAOA-H) and one associated with low levels (MAOA-L). Examining 500 children for these variants, researchers found that those with MAOA-L (and low levels of MAOA and thus less serotonin) were significantly more likely to grow up to display anti-social behaviour but only if they were “maltreated” as children. Children with the MAOA-H who were maltreated did not display such traits (possibly due to higher serotonin levels inhibiting such a response) and nor did children with MAOA-L provided they were not maltreated (and thus not exposed to environmental triggers). This seems to suggest that people may have genetics that pre-dispose them to aggression but this is then only displayed if the right environmental stressors trigger this response early in childhood. One issue with this research however is it is not exactly clear what constitutes as “maltreatment”. In addition it could be argued that learning and environmental factors are what play an overriding role in aggression rather than genetics especially if “maltreatment” (which would be environmental and psychological) is considered the trigger.

McDermott et al (2009) found this MAOA-L gene was much more common in populations where there was a history of warfare with up to two thirds of these populations carrying this gene. Contrasting this against western cultures where only one third carry this gene this presents a strong case for genetics influencing aggression.

Evaluating Genetic Factors in Aggression

  • Research into how genetics affect aggression faces problems particularly in regards to sampling. For example studies have almost exclusively focused on people convicted of violent crimes but these are relatively few compared to the amount of violent attacks that never result in actual convictions. Therefore the sample itself consists of only a small minority of people who engage in aggressive behaviour and lack population validity as we then draw skewed conclusions on the role genetics play. Secondly offenders classed as “violent” based on a court conviction may only have one such offence but otherwise have led a life free from violence or crime. Being unable to make this distinction means such studies lack internal validity as they are not necessarily measuring the right group of people that may be inherently aggressive which leads to inaccurate conclusions on the role genetics play in aggression.
  • Other problems arise through researchers not being able to be certain exactly when aggression is due to genetics or learning. For example it is difficult to attribute genetics when it is likely multiple genes rather than a single one contribute to behaviour. It is also quite possible that the environment and learning (non-genetic influences) also play a role in aggression being displayed and being able to disentangle the two to find the cause is impossible. Other explanations have proposed a diathesis-stress model which may better explain how genetics and the environment (nature and nurture) interact. For example it may be that genetics predispose people to a certain aggressive response but then the right environmental triggers are needed for them to express this. This may then explain how the environment and learning can mitigate for the expression of violence particularly for people who may carry the “warrior gene” such as MAOA-L but never have a history of aggression.
  • Studies into genetic causes for aggression may also lack internal validity due to how aggression is potentially incorrectly assessed. For example many studies have relied on either parental or self-reports for aggression while others have used observational studies. Miles and Carey (1997) conducted a meta-analysis of 24 twin and adoption studies which provided support for a genetic basis for aggression with up to 50% accounted for due to genetics. However subsequent research has found studies such as this were greatly influenced by the mode of assessment which was heavily based on parental or self-reports. When observational ratings were used which would arguably be more objective, they found significantly less genetic contributions and a greater environmental influence. These inconsistencies in findings make it difficult to draw any conclusions on whether it is genetics or the environment influencing aggression.
  • Evidence supporting the MAOA-L gene causing aggression comes from Tiihonen et al (2015). Studying Finnish prisoners they found the MAOA-L gene alongside another gene CDH13, was associated with extremely violent behaviour. These genes were not evident in non-violent offenders suggesting it could be attributed to violence only supporting the role of genetics influence aggression. However critics argue that although this may make it difficult for people to control violent urges, it does not necessarily mean they will definitively show violent behaviour. Also these findings are merely correlational and due to this we cannot be sure of cause and effect for certain but merely a relationship exists between aggression and these genes being present. This may mean there is a third unknown variable that lays in between or that the environment and learning activates these particular genes in people over time. Furthermore the sample itself was only comparing Finnish people and this comparison and its findings may not generalise to other cultures making the findings culturally biased.
  • The role genetics has on aggression also raises serious ethical questions particularly in regards to how culpable someone is for their violent behaviour. If we are to seriously implicate genes as a cause for aggression this could absolve violent criminals of any personal responsibility and present a defence for such behaviour which they can claim to have no control over. This is deterministic as we assume people have no control over their biological makeup which in this case would always determine a violent response. We know this is not true as humans have free will and the ability to make conscious decisions rather than give in to impulse. Because of this such genetic theories for aggression are reductionist as they are trying to oversimplify behaviour down to biology when this is clearly over-simplifying complex human behaviour. We also know learning plays a massive role in mitigating aggression and genetics are shaped by the environment however biological theories ignore this which further undermines their validity as an explanation for aggression.
  • In contrast if a gene for aggression was conclusively identified this could also lead to other ethical issues such as the stigmatisation of gene carriers or even pressure from the public to ensure chemical castration for such individuals occurs which may push us into genetic engineering.

The Ethological Explanation For Aggression

The A-level psychology specification states you need to know the following for this section:

  • The ethological explanation of aggression, including reference to innate releasing mechanisms and fixed action patterns.
  • Evolutionary explanations of human aggression.

Ethologists study behaviours shown by animals in their natural environment with them stressing the adaptive value of behaviours that are observed. Ethological explanations therefore suggest the main function of aggression is adaptive.

The ethological explanation of aggression proposes that all members of one species have a repertoire of stereotyped behaviours which are innate and do not require learning and occur within specific conditions when triggered by a sign stimulus. Niko Tinbergen named these behaviours “fixed action patterns” (FAPs) and they are produced by a neural mechanisms known as an innate releasing mechanism (IRM).

Innate Releasing Mechanisms

An innate releasing mechanism is a built-in biological process or structure within the brain that is triggered by an external stimulus that triggers a fixed action pattern. For example, an environmental stimulus, such as a certain expression, activates the innate releasing mechanism that subsequently does a specific sequence of behaviour. Konrad Lorenz (1966) suggested that animals had an innate mechanism for aggression and aggressive behaviour acted as a release for this. Lorenz suggested this drive was built up until the next act of aggression was performed, at which point it was expended again. Similar to drives we have for food, drink and sleep, Lorenz argued this innate releasing mechanism also needed to be satisfied and would build up until this occurred. The innate releasing mechanism related to the specific neural circuits that are hardwired into the brain which monitor this drive for aggression.

Fixed Action Pattern

The IRM receives input from sensory recognition circuits which are stimulated by the sign stimulus. The IRM then communicates with motor control circuits to activate the FAP associated with that sign stimulus. Tinbergan studied stickleback fishes and demonstrated how they produced a fixed sequence of aggressive behaviours when another male stickleback fish entered its territory. The sign stimulus in this case was the red underbelly of the male stickleback and if this was covered, they were not attacked. The fact that all male stickleback engaged in this behaviour suggests it is invariant and a strong argument for the behaviour being biologically determined (nature). This behaviour is also believed to be adaptive as it increases evolutionary fitness by warding off other males from their nest while remaining inviting for female stickleback fish who do not have a red underbelly. Applying this to humans it is argued that aggression may also be an adaptive response to increase fitness if it is a fixed action pattern of behaviour.

Other explanations of aggression have looked at ritualistic aggression seen in animals in the form of threat displays. These displays of aggression help the animals involved determine their own strength as well as their opponents to help them decide whether to escalate into physical combat. This helps animals make costly and dangerous physical violence less likely to occur as they can better assess the outcome and motivation of the other animal. Gorillas for example use a variety of threat displays such as hooting and chest pounding to intimidate opponents in an attempt to make them back down.

Applying this to humans Gardner and Heider (1968) found evidence to suggest ritualised patterns of intergroup aggression occurred within the Dani tribe in New Guinea. Fox (1978) found similar evidence of ritualised fighting and threat displays among men of the Gaelic-speaking Tory island off the coast of Ireland.

Lorenz (1952) also believed some species developed instinctive inhibitions that prevent them using their evolved weapons against members of their own species. For example wolves have powerful jaws and strong teeth and if a wolf that is losing submissively exposes its neck to its adversary these inhibitions kick in preventing the dominant animal from continuing the fight and potentially killing the weaker animal. Non-hunting species have no powerful weapons and Lorenz proposed they would not have developed these mechanisms to control inhibition and prevent hurting their own species. For example humans do not have natural weapons and have not developed any strong instinctive inhibitions from killing other humans.

Key Study: Niko Tinbergen (1951)

Research into innate releasing mechanisms and fixed action patterns.

Procedure: Male stickleback fish are very territorial during mating season in the spring, which is also when they develop a red spot on their underbelly. When another male enters their territory, they engaged in a sequence of highly stereotyped aggressive displays of behaviour which are consistent with fixed action patterns. The sign stimulus that triggers the innate releasing mechanism is seeing the red spot. In Niko Tinbergen's study, he introduced stickleback fish to a series of wooden models of different shapes to monitor how they reacted.

Findings: Irrespective of the shape of the wooden models, the stickleback fish would behave aggressively and even attack them if they had a red spot. If there was no red spot on the wood model, they displayed no aggression even when the model looked like another stickleback fish. Tinbergen found these aggressive displays were unchanging from one encounter to another and once triggered, the fixed action pattern always ran its course to completion without any additional stimulus.

Evaluating The Ethological Explanation of Aggression

  • A criticism of fixed action patterns (FAPs) as an explanation, is over time ethologists have accepted that such behaviours are largely a result of learning and the environment and not necessarily completely innate in nature. The term fixed pattern has also been replaced with “behaviour patterns” as ethologists accept behaviour can be modified through experiences as they interact with innate factors in complex ways we do not fully understand. Such explanations are also reductionist as they attempt to explain behaviour down to innate biological mechanisms while ignoring the fact the environment and past learning also plays a role. This is deterministic as it assumes animals and even humans have no free-will of their own and are only driven by biological processes which is not true.
  • Research into the ethological theory of aggression also lacks internal validity as behaviour is defined as aggressive based on its outcome (killing or injuring). It could be argued however that this is merely predatory behaviour and there is no aggressive intent, merely survival behaviour for food. It is also not possible to measure whether behaviour observed in animals is aggressive or predatory as they cannot communicate their feelings. Therefore we are merely speculating and imposing our own etic based on a human understanding which may be invalid.
  • Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1972) suggested humans do have some universal fixed action patterns (smiling for example) suggesting this explanation has some validity. However as the human environment has changed so rapidly it is believed that aggression is no longer an adaptive response in the modern world. The flexibility of human behaviour and our ability to respond to an ever changing world has proven more productive than the production of stereotypical responses (FAP’s). This suggests although animals may respond aggressively with fixed action patterns, human behaviour is far more varied and less predictable due to our free will and ability for conscious thought allowing us to respond in a variety of ways. Therefore studies into animals lack external validity and generalisation to humans as the environment between animals (the natural world) and humans (the modern world) are very different. In addition, a key point of the ethological theory is the universal nature of behaviour within species which is clearly not true within humans. This is because in the same situation not all humans are necessarily going to respond with aggression which makes the presence of fixed action patterns unlikely and the explanation itself invalid.
  • Ritualised aggression also has research support when applying this to humans. In animals it plays the role of preventing the escalation of conflict into potentially life-threatening violence and Chagnon (1992) also found evidence to suggest it is evident in tribal human cultures. The Yanomamo people of South America engage in chest pounding and club fighting contests to settle disputes without it leading to extreme violence. Hoebel (1967) found similar evidence among Inuit Eskimos who engaged in song duels to settle disputes. This highlights that even violent cultures have ritualised displays of aggression which act to prevent injury or death supporting ethological explanations.
  • A weakness however is such cultures are isolated from the rest of the modern world and behaviour like this is in the minority. If it were universal you would expect it to be evident across all cultures of humans in some form and this is not the case. Humans now look to settle disputes through litigation or negotiations and this has become the established norm within society.
  • Another weakness with ethological explanations of aggression is like most evolutionary explanations they are difficult to prove or disprove for certain. Popper argued that if a theory can not be scientifically proven or disproven or allow predictions on future behaviour then it is unscientific and invalid. Although FAP’s are evident in animals, they do not allow us to fully predict human behaviour particularly in regards to aggression and situational factors, cognitive and past learning are all believed to play a stronger role which undermine ethological explanations in human aggression.
  • Furthermore, another weakness for the ethological explanations of aggression is that the assumption that predator species have instinctive inhibitions designed to prevent them using their natural weapons on other members of their own species is flawed. Within some predator species, the killing of conspecifics is more systematic than accidental as Lorenz may argue. For example male lions will kill the cubs of other males and male chimpanzee’s may kill members of another group too. These findings undermine ethological explanations of aggression as they suggest killings are not based on ritualistic behaviour.
  • Another issue with explaining human aggression this way is you would expect it to result in some evolutionary advantage however this is not always necessarily true. In some situations there may be an advantage to aggression however in others, a female may become scared and she may not necessarily want the aggressive male as her partner out of fear. The display of aggression would therefore reduce the chances of reproductive success meaning aggression is not adaptive. Also the fact that unlike many other animals, we have the intelligence and ability to manage our emotions through greater self- awareness suggests this development has occurred as it is more adaptive than aggression itself. This has ultimately led to us becoming the dominant species as we are able to clearly demonstrate greater free- will than all other animals.

Evolutionary Explanations of Human Aggression

Evolutionary explanations of human aggression propose that aggression serves an important function in terms of both the individual's survival as well as their reproductive success. Evolutionary theories propose the human brain is the product of evolutionary pressures and a number of adaptations have occurred to cope with the challenges of survival. Aggression is therefore seen as an adaptive response to help solve a number of problems an individual may face such as the need for resources through intimidation or elimination of rivals to secure access to females and reproduce. When such resources are in scarce supply aggression is seen as more likely as it helps deal with such a situation and compete.

One way aggression is seen as an adaptive response is when it is used in sexual competition with other males to get access to females. Physical aggression allows the elimination of rival males and such individuals are then more likely to attract females (who see it as a sign of genetic fitness) and be successful in reproducing and passing on their aggressive genes. Females tend to have stricter methods for choosing a mate and need to consider the needs of any potential children over the long-term. A potential partner is then judged based on their ability to supply resources and aggression is seen as one method by men to achieve this. Over time this would have led to the development of future generations more genetically prone to being aggressive to other males through these evolutionary pressures to compete. This is supported by the fact that men have 75% more muscle mass than women (Lassek et al 2009), are more aggressive than females and more likely to die violently (Buss 2005). Anthropological evidence also supports this men have universally thicker jawbones and more robust skulls than women which Puts (2010) argues is evidence of male traits that imply competition with other males did occur throughout our ancestry.

Another evolutionary explanation of human aggression concerns sexual jealousy which arises due to paternal uncertainty (Archer 2013). Unlike women, men can never be sure that they are the fathers of their children however women are always certain of maternity as they give birth to them. Due to this men are always at the risk of cuckoldry and raising a child that is not their own due to their partners infidelity. This results in a man unknowingly investing his time and resources on children that are not his own preventing him from successfully passing on his genes. Sexual jealousy is therefore an adaptive response to deter partners from sexual infidelity to minimise the risk of cuckoldry and may be exhibited through aggression. A number of aggressive strategies have evolved by men to keep a mate which involve violence, the use of threats or violence towards partners to prevent them leaving as well as towards potential new partners (Buss 1988).

Other explanations look at aggression in warfare. War is costly and places individuals at extreme personal risk however evolutionary explanations propose it also adaptive. For example Livingstone Smith (2007) proposes that warfare originated not only to obtain valuable resources but also to attract mates and forge intragroup bonds. Aggressive displays and bravery are thought to be attractive to females and increases the chances of obtaining a mate. Chagnon (1988) found that male warriors in traditional societies tended to have more sexual partners and children suggesting it did have a reproductive benefit. Aggression in combat and war is also believed to increase status and lead to greater respect among social groups which would also lead to greater reproductive fitness and access to more resources.

Evaluating Evolutionary Explanations of Human Aggression

  • The different types of socialization that occurs between men and women may equally explain human aggression much better than evolutionary explanations. Prinz (2012) argued that the differences in aggression between the genders could be attributed to how men and women are socialized. For example one study by Smetana (1989) found that parents had a tendency to physically punish boys for misbehaving however girls were instead spoken to about their behaviour and why it was wrong. Prinz argued this could explain the varying levels of aggression between genders as boys are taught aggression is an acceptable method of problem solving while girls are steered away from this. Girls on the other hand may come to accept they are physically weaker and use other forms of aggression that harm status and self-esteem instead (more psychological). This would suggest that both genders are aggressive but merely use different forms of aggressive behaviour.
  • Evolutionary explanations would suggest aggression is an adaptive response however this is not necessarily the case. Aggression can be an effective way to deal with some challenges but the cost is far greater overall which undermines this explanations validity. For example aggression can result in social ostracism, rejection from potential females, injury or even death. These costs harm a person’s reproductive fitness and survival and would make it more maladaptive than adaptive which undermines this explanation. Buss et al (2004) however believed aggression on average must have outweighed the potential costs when compared to other strategies and if this was the case natural selection would have favoured its development.
  • Daly and Wilson (1988) found the link between aggression leading to increased status was supported by anthropological evidence with many tribal societies bestowing increased status and honour among violent men. Campbell (1993) found this was true even in modern society with the most violent gang members in the United States often having the highest status among their peer group. Any slight threat to their status or reputation was also the cause for many acts of violence towards other males (Buss 2005). This would support evolutionary explanations as increased status among a peer group would lead to increased access to resources from within it. Aggression would then also serve as a useful tool to defend against threats to status and reputation.
  • A weakness of evolutionary explanations is social psychological explanations may be a better fit for explaining aggression. For example evolutionary explanations of aggression that are based on mating success, jealousy or status cannot fully explain why humans engage in extreme levels of cruelty which are not evident even in animals. For example the Rwandan genocide in 1994 or the mutilation of defeated enemies which no longer pose a threat. Such behaviour may be better explained through processes such as de-individuation instead which undermine aggression being an adaptive response.
  • Sexual jealousy does appear to have research support as Daly and Wilson (1988) found homicide rates were much higher when a woman either leaves her male partner or is about to leave. Victims of domestic abuse have reported their partners often state “If I can’t have you, no one can” as a reason and this supports sexual jealousy as a cause for aggression. Goetz et al (2008) also found support for this evolutionary explanation finding the reason behind why men were violent against partners was to punish them and deter them from forming relationships with other men. This would fit in with men fearing cuckoldry and potentially raising offspring that are not their own and aggression being a useful tool to deter this. On the other hand psychological theories could also explain this behaviour possibly even better; for example men’s aggression towards their partners could be due to socialization and the expectation that men need to be the alpha male and assert their authority in relationships. This would mean their behaviour is not driven due to it being adaptive but merely a learnt response possibly through social learning theory and other male models.
  • If aggression was an adaptive response within relationships then it would be expected that homicide rates of husbands who kill their partners would be consistent globally however this is not the case. This would suggest that such theories are culturally biased possibly towards western society as clearly other factors are involved making aggression more complex than evolutionary theories suggest. A serious implication of evolutionary explanations is they appear to suggest that aggression is beyond a person’s control due to it being “adaptive” and thus excusable. This raises serious ethical and moral concerns particularly within the legal system as it would raise the question of how culpable someone is for their behaviour, particularly in regards to partner homicides. This makes the research socially sensitive and care needs to be taken.

Social Psychological Explanations of Human Aggression

For this section on Aggression, you need to know the following for AQA A level psychology:

  • Social psychological explanations of human aggression, including the frustration-aggression hypothesis
  • Social learning theory as applied to human aggression
  • De-individuation.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

The frustration-aggression hypothesis is based on the work of Dollard et al (1939) and suggests that all aggression is the result of feeling frustrated which is defined as “any event or stimulus that prevents an individual attaining some goal and its accompanying reinforcing quality”. Barriers may be real or imaginary and prevent an individual achieving their aim causing frustration which then needs to be relieved in a cathartic way i.e. through the display of aggression.
According to the frustration-aggression hypothesis various factors affect the likelihood of aggression being displayed one of which is the proximity to the goal itself. If an individual perceives themselves to be close to achieving their goal then displaying aggression is more likely due to frustration when a barrier presents itself compared to if they believe the goal is much further away or less attainable.

Another factor is whether the individual believes the display of aggression will remove the barrier that is causing the frustration itself. If they believe aggression will have no effect on removing the barrier then it is seen as less likely. However if the person perceives displaying aggression will result in a more favorable outcome then it is more likely. Whether participants feel their behaviour is justified is also another factor that affects the display of aggression according to the frustration-aggression hypothesis. For example Doob and Sears (1939) asked participants to imagine how they would feel in varying situations of frustration e.g. waiting for a bus which went by without stopping. Most reported that they would feel angry in this situation however Pastore (1952) was able to distinguish that this was mainly when individuals felt the situation was unjustified. For example when presented with the same scenario but this time the bus had a clear sign stating it was out of service, participants expressed lower levels of anger. This would suggest that aggression is more likely to be displayed when individuals perceive the barrier to be unjustified in preventing their goal. Another factor which also affects the display of aggression according to this theory is contextual factors such as the threat of punishment.

As part of the frustration-aggression hypothesis, when individuals experience frustration they experience a drive to be aggressive towards the object of their frustrations. However this is not always possible or appropriate resulting in the aggression being inhibited. Dollard et al proposed in such cases aggression is displaced from the source on to something else and he referred to this as “kicking the dog” effect. This is because when the impulse to attack the source of their frustration is not met, they in turn look to target a scapegoat instead to still experience catharsis.

Evaluating The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

  • The frustration-aggression hypothesis has been criticized by psychologists such as Bandura who argue aggressive behaviour is just one possible response to frustration. He believed that frustration created only generalized arousal and it was social learning which determines how that arousal then influences the individual’s behaviour. Social learning theory would suggest that the individual would respond with aggression only if that behaviour had been effective previously (i.e. directly conditioned) or if they had seen it as an effective response by others (social learning). This alternative view therefore argues that an individual learns to use aggression under specific circumstances when they believe they are likely to be successful through it. This alternative viewpoint offers a more holistic explanation as to why not everyone who is deemed as frustrated in a situation responds with aggression which the frustration-aggression hypothesis cannot fully account for.
  • The theory also lacks research support particularly in regards to the concept of catharsis and the belief that aggression reduced arousal causing people to be less aggressive. Bushman (2002) found the opposite was true and that people who behaved aggressively were more likely to be aggressive in the future. He found aggressive behaviour kept angry feelings and aggressive thoughts active in memory resulting in more aggression which undermines the frustration-aggression hypothesis that catharsis reduced aggression. This would suggest the theory itself lacks validity as it is not able to account for all forms of aggression but merely one form.
  • In addition to this aggression is not always prompted by frustration. People who find themselves in a threatening situation may either “fight or flight” and any aggression may be for self-protection rather than due to frustration. This theory cannot also explain the premeditated and planned acts of aggression by psychopathic killers who are not driven due to frustration. This suggests the theory is incomplete and too simplistic as quite clearly other elements to explaining aggression exist.
  • Much of the research the frustration-aggression hypothesis was based on relied on hypothetical situations that participants had to imagine and answer questions on. The answers may therefore not reflect their true feelings in the given situation and it would be unethical to manipulate someone to feel frustration to measure aggression. This would have low predictive validity because participants are saying how they think they would feel and in reality they may act very differently.
  • The frustration-aggression hypothesis provides us with real-world applications particularly in understanding how mass killings of groups of people occur. Staub (1996) suggested mass killings were rooted in frustration which was caused by social and economic difficulties people faced within society. These frustrations then led to scapegoating of a particular group which led to discrimination and aggression towards them. This explanation has been used to explain the aggression directed towards Jews during the second world war and although ordinary Germans were not responsible, they condoned the violence (Goldhagen 1996) blaming them for the countries problems. This demonstrates how widespread frustration which is manipulated by media and propaganda can lead to violence consequences and scapegoating. This is more important than ever considering the far-right political parties spreading across Europe with immigration (scapegoats) being blamed as the culprit.
  • The theory suffers from gender bias as it cannot fully explain why men tend to be more aggressive than women. It is likely both genders feel the same frustration however the fact that men are more inclined to act on it rather than women suggests socialization and the expectation of gender roles as Bandura suggests is a factor in the expression of aggression. Another factor that may better explain the expression of aggression is the cognitive explanation which suggests it is maladaptive thoughts and belief systems (possibly due to socialization and expectations of gender roles) which encourage men to act on frustration. Women on the other hand would be more inclined to avoid or back down from such which would better fit in with explaining the disparity between male and female aggression.
  • Harris (1974) tested the theory to see if proximity to the goal affected the level of aggression displayed. Situations involving shop queues were used and confederates pushed in front of real people that were waiting to assess their reaction. The results found the closer people were to the front (their goal) the more likely they were to react aggressively to confederates pushing in front of them. This supports the frustration-aggression theory and its idea that proximity to the goal was a factor in whether aggression is displayed.

Social Learning Theory and Aggression

Social learning theory bobo doll bandura experiment

Social learning theory as applied to human aggression is based on the behaviourist approach and see’s environmental influences underpinning aggressive behaviour rather than genetic factors. Social learning theory also acknowledges cognitive mediating factors play a role on whether aggression is displayed or not. Social learning theory suggests we learn aggression through the observation of other aggressive models and observing the consequences of the behaviour and whether it is reinforced or punished. We learn about the form it takes, how it is used and the situations that produce it as well as the targets of aggression. According to this theory, this develops a particular kind of cognitive schema known as “the script”. These rules for how to behave become internalised and once established during childhood, this pattern of behaviour (and aggression) becomes a way of life.

Learning of aggression may occur through direct first-hand experience and assessing the outcome or through vicarious learning and the observation of other aggressive models with whom they identify. Children will learn about the consequences of aggression by observing these aggressive models and whether they are reinforced or punished (vicarious reinforcement). If behaviour is reinforced positively with a favourable outcome then they are more likely to imitate or repeat the behaviour. If the behaviour is punished for its use or the children have little using it they will then opt for other means.

Bandura (1986) proposed that for social learning to take place, children must be able to form a mental representation of events within their social environment as well as imagine the possible rewards and costs of acting out the aggressive behaviour. When situations arise that are deemed appropriate, the child will display the behaviour provided the expectation of reward is greater than the expected cost of acting out the behaviour.

A factor that affects the possibility of reproducing learnt aggressive behaviour is the level of confidence and self-efficacy the child believes they have. If children enact aggressive behaviour and develop a level of confidence in its use through favourable outcomes, they will be more confident in repeating it. If a child attempts to enact it and is met with disastrous consequences or have a low level of self-efficacy (confidence) in using aggression, they may avoid it opting for alternatives.

This fits closely with the 4 cognitive mediating factors that Bandura believed played a role in the reproduction of aggression. The first is attention and the behaviour must catch the attention of the observer. Aggressive acts tend to stand out from normal behaviour and this may be why they are easily learnt. The next is retention; the behaviour needs to be memorable so individuals can recall it later. The third process is reproduction; the individuals must be capable of reproducing the aggressive behaviour with the sufficient physical ability and skill set to enact it. The last is motivation: the individual must be motivated to engage in the aggressive behaviour and want to enact it. This would then account for the individual differences in people who observe the same aggressive acts; some will be happy to imitate it while others may not.

Evaluating Social Learning Theory and Aggression

  • The main supporting evidence for social learning theory as an explanation for aggression comes from Bandura’s bobo doll study (1961). The study involved children ranging in age from 3 to 5 years with half being exposed to adult models behaving aggressively towards a life-sized bobo doll and the other half exposed to an adult male that was non-aggressive towards it. The aggressive group observed the adult males strike the doll, kick it as well as shout verbal aggression towards it. Children were then frustrated by being shown toys which they were not allowed to play with and then taken to another room where the bobo doll was present. The results supported social learning theory as an explanation for how children (and people) may learn aggression as children from the “aggressive group” reproduced significantly more aggressive acts towards the bobo-doll. Boys reproduced significantly more acts which were similar to the adult males behaviour compared to girls supporting SLT as boys will identify with the male model more. The levels of verbal aggression between both genders however was similar. Children from the non-aggressive group were seen to exhibit almost no aggression which suggests the acts had been learnt through social learning supporting this explanation.
  • Bandura & Walters conducted a separate study to try and identify why a child would be motivated to perform the same aggressive behaviors in the absence of a model. The children were divided into 3 groups with each seeing a different ending to a film of an adult model behaving aggressively towards a bobo doll.
    Group 1 saw the model rewarded for their aggressive behaviour. Group 2 saw the model punished for their aggressive behaviour while group 3 saw no consequences for the aggressive behaviour. Results found the children’s subsequent behaviour was affected dependent on the film they had seen. For example children in group 1 who saw the model rewarded were the most aggressive while group 2 who saw the model punished were least aggressive. The third group who saw the model receive no consequences were in-between these results. Bandura claimed this type of vicarious learning supported social learning theories validity as an explanation for learning (and aggression) as children were basing their behaviour on the likely consequences and shaping it accordingly.
  • One major weakness with this study is it lacks population validity as the sample was based on impressionable young children who may be easily influenced. Due to this we cannot generalize their behaviour or thinking to the wider population which includes adults as they may be more inclined to think for themselves and exercise free will outside of reward based behaviour. Due to this the theory itself may lack generalisation when applying it to aggression and general behaviour within the population as this may be affected by other factors such as a greater contextual awareness of acceptable behaviour within society. What is or isn’t acceptable through understanding societal norms is something children have yet to fully grasp at such young ages which is a limitation of using children in such a study as the results won’t fully extrapolate to adults.
  • It is also possible that in Bandura’s study, children were displaying demand characteristics and behaviour they believed was expected of them. Noble et al reported how one child was overheard telling his mother “look mommy, there’s the doll we have to hit” supporting this criticism. This makes the behaviour observed lack realism and social learning theory as an explanation of aggression lack internal validity as it is not measuring true behaviour or learning.
  • Another methodological weakness which means the study lacks internal validity is the use of a bobo doll. This doll is not a living person and does not retaliate when hit which raises questions as to whether this study is actually measuring the imitation of aggression towards other human beings (who may be inclined to fight back) or can be generalized to real world situations. Bandura did recreate the study showing children a film of an adult model hitting a live clown which saw the children recreate this behaviour towards a living person too. This he argued shows learning and imitation is occurring and this study’s findings could be generalized towards real people in explaining aggression.
  • One weakness however for social learning theory is although research has proven there is an immediate effect on the observer after exposure to aggression, it lacks temporal validity as it does not allow us to see whether this continues in the long-term. This means over a person’s life-time aggression may not be necessarily learned this way. Further supporting evidence for social learning theory as an explanation for aggression comes from communities such as the Amish community where aggression is frowned upon. Due to this belief system among this community, they are seen as pacifists and aggression is rare. If aggression was biologically determined (due to genes or hormones) then they would be able to override environmental factors such as social learning which provides strong evidence that aggression is learned like SLT proposes.
  • One issue with this theory is it suffers from gender bias as it is useful for explaining the high levels of male violence through exposure and social learning but this cannot fully explain low levels of female aggression. Men and women are exposed to similar levels of aggression through the media or parental role models so they have the opportunity to learn the same behaviours however male aggression is significantly higher than female aggression. This is something SLT cannot fully explain beyond stating it is because males can relate to other males using aggression (identification with the role models) however other explanations may be a better fit for this. For example high testosterone levels is believed to increase status seeking behaviour which may be the confounding variable in explaining why men choose to learn aggression as an appropriate response.
  • Another strength of this theory is it can explain why people’s aggressive behaviours may vary so much. A young male may behave aggressively in the company of his peers who encourage and reinforce such aggression (increased status) but he may not recreate the same behaviour when at work or school where punishments are greater. This also offers us real-world applications as we can start to make predictions on where aggression is more likely to occur based on contextual factors. This may be helpful particularly in working environments, school policies or even professional sports where arousal may need to be high (boxing).
  • This theory also provides us further real world applications as we can begin to understand the consequences of social learning especially from the media and role models which may promote aggression. The fact that this theory suggests aggression is a learnt response means we can create interventions that look to retrain this response into something more acceptable. Cognitive behavioural change programmes have therefore been designed as part of counselling for anger management, parental advice as well as offending behaviour based on this premise across the western world. For example ACT against violence is an intervention programme designed by the American psychological association to educate parents about the dangers of providing aggressive role models. Weymouth et al (2011) found after parents completed this programme, they demonstrated more positive parenting behaviour and stopped relying on physical punishments. This highlights the practical benefits of this theory and how it can be used to decrease aggressive behaviour which can only occur if it has validity as an explanation.

De-individuation and Aggression

How de-individuation causes aggression is originally based on Le Bon’s crowd theory (1895) which was later developed further by Zimbardo into de-individuation. Le Bon described how an individual transformed in behaviour when they were part of a crowd through a combination of anonymity, suggestibility and contagion where a collective mind takes possession over them. Due to this the individual loses self-control and is capable of acting in a way that may go against their own personal or social norms. Zimbardo described how being in a large group gave people “a cloak of anonymity” which diminished any considerations for personal consequences for their behaviours. Factors that contributed to de- individuation included taking drugs, alcohol or even wearing a uniform as a person loses their sense of identity. De-individuation was described by Festinger et al (1952) as a psychological state in which inner restraints are lost “when individuals are not seen or paid attention to as people”. It is characterized by lower self-awareness and decreased concerns about their own evaluation by others. Diener (1980) refined this further suggesting de-individuation was mediated by self-awareness. When someone was alone their self-awareness acts as a regulator for their behaviour. In crowd situations their focus is outwards as there is lots of stimulation to attend to and their own self-awareness declines resulting in aggressive behaviours.

Under normal circumstances people refrain from acting aggressively because social norms prohibit such behaviour but also because as individuals they are easily identified and can face consequences for their actions. Being in a crowd leads people to believe they are anonymous and can’t be held to account for their behaviour. This results in behaviours that would normally be inhibited being expressed as inner restraints are reduced. The larger the crowd the greater the sense of anonymity and reduced sense of guilt and shame. Zimbardo proposed that these same conditions could also lead to an increase in pro-social behaviour dependent on the context (i.e. music festivals or religious gatherings).

De-individuation has been refined to distinguish between the effects of reduced public self-awareness (being anonymous) and reduced private self-awareness (forgetting themselves and loss of internal standards). Within a large group individuals may become less privately aware and some argue it is this loss of private self-awareness that is most associated with aggressive behaviour. There is also a feeling of responsibility being diffused and being shared by those around making de-individuated behaviour more likely. De-individuation can also occur if the identity of the individual is hidden in some way. This type of de-individuation is less likely to lead to aggression as there is still some awareness and no outward focus or distractions by a crowd however anonymity in general has been found to increase selfish and immoral behaviour (Zhong et al 2010). This demonstrates how identity is key to mediating behaviour.

Evaluating De-individuation and Aggression

  • Research support for de-individuation comes from Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison study (1972). A mock prison was created at Stanford university with participants playing either the role of guards, who were in a role of power, or prisoners. Guards wore mirrored sunglasses and uniforms which increased their anonymity and within days the individuals playing the guards were found to be overly aggressive towards prisoners due to them appearing to be de-individuated. This supports de-individuation as an explanation and how the feeling of being anonymous or hidden (through sunglasses and uniforms) may lead to aggression.
  • One issue with the theory of de-individuation is it suffers from gender bias as it assumes males and females will behave similarly aggressive under the same conditions. Cannavale et al (1970) found that male and female groups respond differently when de-individuated and increased aggression was only apparent in male groups, not females. Diener et al (1973) also found similar results and one possible explanation put forth by Eagly (2013) was that males responded to provocation in more extreme ways than females and being in a de-individuated state magnified this tendency. Therefore this theory lacks validity as it appears to relate to male aggression rather than both genders and it cannot be generalised to all members of the population. This means this theory is oversimplified and incomplete as there must be another element that dictates why only males are more likely to be aggressive when de-individuated which this theory cannot account for. For example it may be cognitive factors or socialisation that dictates a males need to be more aggressive or this may even be biologically determined through hormones (testosterone). Being in a crowd or group is acknowledged by most as affecting behaviour however the exact reasons behind this transformation in behaviour is still unclear and many factors appear to be involved.
  • Research into de-individuation has provided practical real world applications too as we have learnt anonymity increases the chances of de-individuation. CCTV camera’s and their use have been found to decrease crime when people are aware they can be identified and area’s have been kept well lit so darkness cannot de-individuate people too. This ensures personal responsibility for behaviour is maintained resulting in less anti-social behaviour which benefits society.
  • De-individuation can also be used to explain the strange aspect of collective behaviour such as “the baiting crowd” which form when witnessing suicide jumpers and urge them to kill themselves. Mann (1981) analysed 21 suicides reported between the 1960s and 1970s and found 10 of them saw the formation of the baiting crowd urging the person to jump. This tended to occur at night, in larger groups and when there was significant distance from the jumper who was high above them, all of which would have contributed to produce a state of de-individuation.
  • Mullen (1986) found evidence of the baiting mob when analysing 60 lynchings in the US between 1899 and 1946. The greater the number within the mob, the more savagery that occurred to lynching victims which supports de-individuation. This could be explained through de-individuation as people became less attentive, have more anonymity in the bigger crowd and thus self-regulation processes break down leading to an increase in the level of violence committed through de-individuation. With such research we can merely find a correlation between two variables and in this case the size of the mob appears to be related to more violence. We cannot be certain greater violence was specifically down to de- individuation and other unknown confounding variables may be contributing such as personality factors. For example events such as lynchings or suicides may attract people who have personality traits which are aggressive anyways which would create a biased sample of people that cannot be generalised to the wider population undermining this theory. Because of this we cannot be certain of cause and effect or that de-individuation is a valid explanation for such aggressive behaviour.
  • Another explanation offered is aggression may occur towards an individual not because of loss of identity by the perpetrator but rather due to the anonymity of the victim to them. When individuals have no connection to such victims this may be the thing that makes aggression towards them easier as they are faceless. Another criticism of de- individuation as a theory is it has a very narrow application as it can only explain aggression within specific contexts i.e. where conditions are right for it to occur. This theory cannot be applied to all counts of aggression which limits its use as an explanation for aggression.
  • De-individuation has support from some cross-cultural studies however suggesting it has some validity as an explanation as their is evidence for it being universal. Watson (1973) collected data on 23 societies and the extent to which their warriors changed their appearance prior to going to war. They were also studied to see which extent they killed, tortured or mutilated their victims. Results found societies where warriors changed their appearance the most through war paint or tribal costumes were also more destructive towards their victims compared to those that did not. This supports de- individuation as an explanation for aggression as such changes would increase the feeling of anonymity within the group allowing more aggressive behaviours. However this data is correlational and we cannot be certain of cause and effect. For example it may be that those who are most aggressive anyways find themselves engaging in more ritualistic behaviour that encourages war paint and tribal outfits to express this tendency.
  • A meta-analysis by Postmes & Spears (1998) on 60 research studies into de-individuation found the evidence base for de-individuation was weak. The effects reported by supporters of the theory are not as widespread across all crowds which undermines this explanation for aggression. Hirsh et al (2011) found the effects of de-individuation could be positive too when an individual was in complete darkness and doesn’t always lead to aggression. This was evident when participants had consumed alcohol which disinhibited themselves yet still showed positive behaviour. However this study was not conducted in a crowd setting and it may be that this is the variable which affects aggression.
  • Studies such as Zimbardo’s prison study have raised serious ethical concerns. The participants who played the prisoners were seen to be treated in a degrading way by the participants playing the guards and such a study would be difficult to replicate in todays modern world due to the ethical implications. A problem here is we would struggle to replicate this study to verify the results to confirm whether de-individuation did occur as critics of Zimbardo’s prison study suggest the effects of de-individuation were exaggerated. Therefore the explanation is difficult falsify and prove for certain that it is valid.
  • Another criticism of de-individuation as an explanation for aggression is it ignores the fact that people have free will and the ability to go against the crowd mentality. This explanation does not account for this, peoples individual differences, or even the fact that culturally people may behave differently outside of the western world where most research has focused. Positive behaviour has also been reported in group settings too where the criteria for a de-individuated state are met (large crowds, feelings of anonymity) however altruistic behaviour occurs instead. This would suggest other confounding or unknown variables are involved this theory has not accounted for.

Institutional Aggression in Prisons:

The specification states you need to know about the following for institutional aggression:

  • Institutional aggression in the context of prisons:
    • Situational explanations
    • Dispositional explanations

Situational Explanations For Aggression: The Deprivation Model

The situational explanation uses the deprivation model to explain aggression which proposes that the prison itself is the source of aggression from inmates due to it being stressful and oppressive (Peterson et al, 1999).

This explanation see’s institutional aggression being determined by prison specific variables rather than any personality characteristics the person brings in with them as the importation model proposes. Martin et al (2002) studied over 200 prisons and proposed the culture of prisons meant violence was seen as a necessary way to avoid appearing weak and being exploited. This study also found violent situations were more to do with non-material interests such as the need for respect, fairness or as a way of displaying loyalty and honour fitting in with this explanation. Cooke et al (2008) argued prisoners were only violent in certain circumstances which was inherent in prison environments and thus increased aggression. These circumstances could be narrowed into 3 key factors such as organizational, physical and staff characteristics.

Organizational factors include the influence of rules and regulations that prisoners have to obey and adhere to and this may cause aggression as many may be unhappy with this. Physical situational factors include overcrowding caused by a high prison density, cramped conditions, a threatening environment and lack of comfort all increasing aggression. Staff characteristics such as the attitude and behaviour of staff towards inmates may also affect aggression. This may be due to clash in personalities or prisoners unwilling to follow rules imposed by staff which results in consequences for the prisoner. These may then contribute to an aggressive response in return.

The deprivation model also links in with these key situational factors but proposes the loss of key needs (deprivation) due to the prison setting is the root cause of institutional aggression. Sykes (1958) narrowed this down to 5 key deprivations which caused aggression such as; the deprivation of liberty, autonomy, goods and services, intimate relationships with the opposite sex and security.

Sykes argued the deprivation of liberty reinforced the rejection from society increasing animosity and antagonizing an aggressive response. The loss of autonomy and freedom of choice in their day to day life increased the feelings of helplessness resulting in frustration and aggression while the loss of goods or services that many would expect in normal life (i.e. mobile phone usage) increased resentment. Lastly the loss of the ability to form an intimate relationship and deprivation of emotional and physical intimacy increases frustration as this is seen as important for most humans. The deprivation of security occurred as the prison environment does not feel safe leading many to fear for their personal safety. Heightened levels of awareness due to fear could lead to an overreaction and aggressive situations occurring.

Evaluating The Deprivation Model

  • The situational explanation and the deprivation model received support from the research findings of McCorkle (1995). Examining 371 US prisons the study found that situational factors such as overcrowding, lack of privacy and the lack of meaningful activity all contributed to prisoner violence towards other inmates and staff. Franklin et al (2006) also found support for the relationship between age of inmates and overcrowding causing aggression. Their meta-analysis found crowded prisons were more likely to increase aggression in younger inmates aged 18-25 than other age groups which could be attributed to the prison setting acting as a trigger. However it could also be argued that this is more to do with the characteristics of the individuals such as their gender and age range. For example men are more likely to be aggressive during this age range statistically compared to the general population even outside of prison and situational factors such as overcrowding may merely provide reasons to already aggressive individuals to express this.
  • The deprivation model provides real world applications to reduce institutional and prison aggression. For example it has been successfully applied in HMP Woodhill in the early 1990s. The prison governor David Wilson used the knowledge of the deprivation model and its proposed variables that increased aggression such as hot temperature, noise and overcrowding to set up two units for violent prisoners which reduced these variables. For example these wings were less claustrophobic, less prison-like in appearance and gave a good scenic view of the outside. Prison noise was also reduced and masked by music from a radio station and temperature was also controlled and cooled. The results found that assaults on other prisoners and staff were almost eradicated which provides strong support for situational variables as the cause for prison violence.
  • Adjusting the prisons like this raises other ethical and moral issues as well as issues of justice. Prisons are designed to be a punishment for dangerous offenders and adjusting them to make them “pleasurable” goes against their purpose. Many people, particularly victims would feel justice is not being served if prisoners are allowed such adjustments just so staff and other prisoner lives are improved at the expense of justice. Others may argue that this may make the thought of prison an ineffective deterrent if they were designed to be more tolerable which in turn may cause a rise in crime rates just to reduce institutional aggression. From a practical standpoint these changes may also be difficult to implement due to the costs of making such adjustments. Prisons are overcrowded because of a lack of funding, space and capacity and making them bigger would raise the liability towards the public just to ensure prisoner well-being which will likely be received badly by the public.
  • Another issue with the majority of these studies is they suffer from cultural bias. Most have drawn their conclusions from US based samples and their prison system is dramatically different to that of the UK or other countries. Not only this, US prisons are noted for being much more violent and using them as a baseline to draw conclusions would lead to skewed results which may not generalise to other countries. For example the problems the US has in respect to guns, racism and gang related crime do not apply to the same degree as the UK and yet these are factors cited in the importation model as causes for aggression.
  • The situational explanation for aggression is also supported by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The first level in the hierarchy is physiological needs which cannot be met due to the enforced regime of sleeping and eating or the lack of sexual intimacy. The safety needs of Maslow’s hierarchy are not met either due to the lack of perceived safety in a prison full of dangerous offenders. These roadblocks for individuals towards self-actualization may therefore lead to aggression as they vent their frustrations.
  • Other studies have supported the deprivation model. For example Cheeseman (2003) found the lack of stimulation and focus caused by the prison setting increased aggression levels. This aggression was then released in the form of violence as a means to relieve stress which links in with the frustration-aggression hypothesis. Factors such as overcrowding link in as there is greater competition for limited resources. This then elicits an aggressive response and the formation of gangs to help compete for resources takes this further. Haslam and Reicher (2006) supported this viewpoint arguing it was the prison which enforced the need to be in a group to gain access to resources which was the reason for higher levels of violence, thus supporting the situational explanation for aggression and the deprivation model.
  • Both explanations suffer from gender bias as they have been based on the research findings of studies which have targeted only the male population and male prisons. Women offend for significantly different reasons in the outside world and we cannot assume that studying male behaviour in prisons would offer us models of explanations for aggression for females either. Therefore these explanations for institutional aggression are gender biased as they assume they can explain female violence in prison too.

Dispositional Explanations For Aggression: The Importation Model

Irwin and Cressey’s Importation model (1962) proposed prisoners brought in their own violent social histories and traits when entering prisons and it was these personality traits that caused institutional aggression rather than the prison itself.

The importation model claims prisoners are not blank slates and draw on their violent experiences within an environment where toughness and physical exploitation are valued survival skills. Many of the normative systems and subcultures within society where violence and aggression are accepted and valued are imported into the prison settings where this “code of the streets” is continued. This may involve gang culture and rivalries which are an influence from the outside world and then brought into the prison setting.

Irwin and Cressey broke down prison life into three sub-cultures;

  1. The criminal sub-culture advocated a code of honour among fellow inmates such as not telling on inmates when misdemeanors are committed against one another. These rules would be adhered to by “hardened criminals” who were repeat offenders.
  2. The convict sub-culture focused on the position within the hierarchy and power. Aggression and the need to exercise power over other convicts is seen as necessary and this group is likely to be the most aggressive often coming from gang culture already.
  3. The conventional/straight sub-culture were members who were new to prison and likely one-time offenders. They avoid the other two sub-cultures and tend not to be aggressive usually getting along with prison guards.

Prisoners may also be predisposed to aggression because of genetics, testosterone, serotonin levels and learned history of dealing with problems violently. Other factors may be drug or alcohol addictions which exacerbate aggressive behaviours due to their dependencies not being fulfilled which they all bring into prison institutions. Other factors prisoners bring in may include anti-social personality disorders or those with a tendency for impulsivity and low self- control already prior to prison.

Evaluating The Importation Model

The dispositional explanation and importation model has received research support from Mears et al (2013). They measured whether violent behaviour originated from cultural belief systems which inmates imported into prison such as the “code of the street”. Results supported this hypothesis as inmates who lacked family support and were involved in gangs prior to imprisonment were found to be more likely to engage in inmate violence inside prison. Research by Poole and Regoli (1983) found the best indicator of violence among young offenders was by measuring pre-institutional violence regardless of situational factors within the prison. This provides strong support for the importation model as behavioural traits in the outside world correlate strongly with behaviours within prison. One weakness with generalising this finding is it is based on correlational data and you cannot be sure of cause and effect due to this. It may be that people with violent histories are targeted in prison because of past rivalries with others and this is why they respond with violence rather than instigate it. Therefore we can not generalise the findings and say for certain this behaviour is due to imported traits but rather because of the prison environment itself.

There is evidence that undermines the importation model however and offers support for this viewpoint. DeLisi (2004) found that inmates with prior gang involvement were no more likely than other prisoners to engage in prison violence which undermines the dispositional viewpoint. However critics have argued that this is because violent gang members tend to be isolated from the general prison population restricting their opportunities for violence. This means they may still be pre-disposed to prison violence but merely their chances to exhibit it are restricted. This is supported by Fischer (2001) who found that identifying and isolating gang members within a special unit reduced rates of serious assaults by up to 50% and thus supports the importation model.

Research by Harer and Steffensmeier supports the Importation model and undermines the deprivation explanation. Collecting data from 58 US prisons, they found black inmates had higher rates of violent behaviour yet lower rates of alcohol-related and drug related misconduct than white inmates. These patterns also match racial differences within US society and so support the importation model as such traits appear to be imported into the prison setting. However it could also be argued that black inmates are subjected to more segregation and abuse within society and prison staff and respond aggressively because of these situational stressors. White inmates with substance addictions in the outside world will likely continue to have them in the prison setting too as the prison is hardly a suitable environment to overcome their addiction problems. Regardless the conclusion from this study was race, age and criminal history were the best predictors of inmate violence where as none of the deprivation variables appeared significant in this respect.

Kane and Janus (1981) found the learned history of offenders was related to the number of violent offences they committed. Prisoners with lower levels of education, more serious crimes and a greater period of unemployment were more likely to be aggressive when inside prison. This shows clear support for the importation model and how an offenders previous learning and experience can be imported into the prison setting.

The importation model also presents us with real world applications. It suggests that rehabilitation should consider the home environment and the individuals own learning. This means aggression in prisons may be better dealt with by anger management programmes or CBT which is aimed at changing belief systems and if introduced early enough or even within prison settings, this may be able to reduce aggression.

Media Influences on Aggression

The A-level specification states you need to know the following for media influences on aggression:

  • Media influences on aggression, including the effects of computer games.
  • The role of desensitisation, disinhibition and cognitive priming.

The Effects of Computer Games

The interactive nature of violent video games mean they have the potential to have a greater impact than television violence. This is because the viewer is no longer a passive observer but rather interacting and engaging in violent behaviour which is often rewarded in video games.

Laboratory studies conducted by Stone et al (2005) have found video games increase physiological arousal, aggressive feelings and behavior in people straight after playing violent video games compared to non-violent video game play. Aggressive behavior itself cannot be encouraged or studied so alternative behaviour is measured instead. For example after playing violent video games participants are able to blast opponents with white noise to measure their level of aggression instead. Participants who played a violent videogame (Wolfenstein 3D) were found to blast their opponents for longer and rated themselves as feeling a greater sense of hostility compared to players of a calmer puzzle based game (Anderson and Dill 2000). This would suggest violent videogames could increase aggression towards others too.

Meta-Analyses aggregate the findings of numerous individual studies to measure how media influences on aggression. Bushman et al (2006) carried out a meta-analysis of 431 studies which involved over 68k participants, the majority of which were children (264). The studies examined the impact of TV violence as well as video games, music and comic books. The analysis found a significant effect due to media exposure with higher levels of aggressive behaviours, thoughts, feelings and heightened arousal. The study also found the long-term effects were greater on children while the short-term effects were greater for adults suggesting media can influence aggressive behavior in both age groups differently.

Evaluating The Effects of Video Games

  • One major criticism is comparing the blasting of white noise to aggression lacks internal validity as you are not measuring the true effects of media on behaviour. Aggression cannot be recreated due to ethical reasons so instead equivalent substitute behavior must be measured. The blasting of white noise may be seen by participants as more playful rather than aggressive and therefore the study is not measuring behavior that is indicative of real aggression. Such a study also lacks external validity as the methodological setup of such an experiment (using white noise to represent aggression) makes it difficult to make inferences about real aggression through video gameplay.
  • Although many studies assume violent games create feelings of aggression, Przybylski et al (2014) suggested aggression may be linked to feelings of frustration and failure due to the gameplay itself. This study found it was the lack of mastery and game difficulty that caused aggression and this was evident between violent and non-violent games. Although this may mean aggression is limited to when players play the videogame and not transfer over to everyday life, the views that violent games cause aggression are clearly too simplistic.
  • Critics have also argued that research studies which have found media influences aggression have generally overstated their cases. Kilburn (2009) argued that research studies have rarely measured aggression towards other people suggesting a lack of internal validity and generalization to real world settings. When aggression towards others or violent crime has been the measure of aggression, the relationship between media violence and aggression has been close to zero suggesting media’s effect is not as great as some have suggested.
  • A great deal of methodological problems also arise. For example most studies are culturally biased as they are based on Americans and the nature of media and culture in other countries makes generalization difficult from such findings. Therefore any findings regardless of what they implicate may be limited only to the culture it is based on. Samples have also been unrepresentative and gender biased with many participants being male and the results are then assumed to generalize to females too which may not be the case. Therefore there is a clear need for a better methodological approach when conducting research into media aggression.

The Role of Desensitisation and Aggression

Explanations based on desensitisation assume that under normal situations, anxiety about the use of aggression and violence inhibits their use. Those who are not used to media violence would presumably be shocked at witnessing an act of violence in the real world yet frequent viewing of such events in media may cause the person to become “desensitised” to such behaviour. This means anxiety is lowered in the use of aggression and it becomes a normalised approach due to repeated media exposure. Aggression then becomes generalised to real world settings too causing less anxiety and making violence easier to commit. Desensitisation is thought to take a long time and is the result of numerous repeated exposures of violent media influences.

One way researcher’s measure whether desensitization has occurred is through reduced physiological arousal. This is done measuring heart rate and skin conductance response when exposed to real violence after repeated media violence exposure previously (Linz et al 1989). As people habituate to violence and aggression from the media, their level of emotional, cognitive and behavioural response is reduced. Another way Linz et al (1995) has measured desensitization is to see whether there is a change in cognitive and affective reactions which would be present in people who are not desensitized. Such individuals are more likely to notice violence in real life and feel more sympathy for victims of violence as well as have negative attitudes towards the use of violence. Desensitised individuals are less likely to be this way making the use of violence and aggression easier to engage in.

Evaluating Desensitisation and Aggression

  • Desensitisation occurring in children was supported by Drabman & Thomas (1974). They found children became more tolerant of violence in films as the amount of violence they watched increased, supporting desensitisation as an explanation for media aggression. Carnagey et al (2007) also tested the claim that playing violent video games produced physiological desensitization and less physiological arousal to violence in the real world. Participant’s heart rate and skin conductance response was measured in this study. Participants played either a violent or non-violent video game for 20 minutes and then watched a 10 minute clip of real life violence. Those who played a violent video game prior had a lower heart rate and skin conductance response (lower arousal) when viewing the film involving real violence. This demonstrates and supports the argument that a physiological desensitization effect occurred as predicted by this theory.
  • Bushman (2009) also found supporting evidence for a desensitization effect occurring. When individuals who played violent video games for 20 minutes saw someone hurt in a fight, they actually took longer to help them when compared to individuals who played non-violent video games. This suggested a desensitization effect occurred supporting the theory as the fight affected them less emotionally.
  • However other studies such as the one conducted by Belson (1978) found no evidence to suggest a link between exposure to violence and anti-social behavior. This study looked at 1500 teenage boys and the link between watching violent media and anti-social attitude. No clear link was phone suggested a desensitization effect did not occur through the media.
  • Research into desensitization has had mixed results with some research finding a link while others haven’t. This means the link between media violence exposure and desensitization is clearly more complex than this theory suggests. The fact that repeated media exposure leads to lower physiological arousal may not necessarily mean aggression is more likely. This lowered arousal towards violent stimulus this may actually make them less inclined to engage in aggression as this is usually underpinned by high emotions.
  • Another issue with studies into desensitization is the lack of internal validity they have and their inability to fully measure what behavior is actually due to media exposure. It is difficult to establish this link between media exposure and desensitization as media influences are widespread yet not everyone is affected equally. Factors such as individual vulnerability and differences may explain why some people are more desensitized than others.
  • Research into desensitisation is primarily correlational making it difficult to establish cause and effect. It may well be that certain individuals are drawn to violent media because of genetic predisposition which makes them more desensitised anyways. With laboratory studies they lack ecological validity and realism and as participants know they are being observed, their reaction to violent media may be very different in real world settings. Therefore such studies may lack external validity due to the way media violence exposure is being artificially measured but also internal validity as the studies are not measuring a true desensitisation effect occurring.

The Role of Disinhibition and Aggression

People’s ideas of acceptable behavior are acquired through social learning which includes moral messages on television and media. Disinhibition means uncharacteristic behavior is demonstrated by an individual because they feel caught up or within the media and therefore act in a similar way as they are observing. The way media is explained to cause aggression through disinhibition is that children and people can infer standards of acceptable behavior through the observation of violent media. According to the disinhibition explanation of media aggression, watching or playing violent media can alter moral standards of acceptable behavior and legitimise the use of violence within people’s own lives by undermining the social sanctions that normally inhibit aggression.

Aggression caused by disinhibition can have an immediate influence or long-term effect. Media violence triggers physiological arousal which increases the chances of behaving aggressively. Within this aroused state, inhibitions are suppressed by the urge to act and prolonged exposure to media violence normalizes everyday violence making it seem a part of everyday life. Observing aggressive actions which are unpunished or justified on television reduces the viewer’s guilt on using violence themselves. This then causes individuals to feel less inhibited about being aggressive themselves. The disinhibition effect when on a computer can be explained due to anonymity, solipsistic introjection and minimization of authority (Suler 2004). Similar to deindividuation, if a person is anonymous and invisible behind an alias on a computer, they then view themselves as less culpable for their behavior as the fear of identification and consequences is no longer a deterrent. Solipsistic introjection is the feeling of becoming cognitively merged with the character in the videogame. This occurs when the player selects a character to represent them in the virtual world and by playing with them they come to incorporate part of their virtual character. Uncharacteristic behavior such as violence or aggression may then occur as the individual is not acting as themselves. Minimisation of authority occurs because in video games there is often no law enforcement or awareness of the potential legal consequences like there is in everyday life. Therefore aggressive behavior from the virtual world is acted out in the real world.

Evaluating Disinhibition and Aggression

  • Disinhibition taking place is determined by a number of factors many of which depend on the viewer themselves as well as the context in which the media is viewed. According to Collins (1989) younger children for example may be more likely to be drawn into high-action violent episodes without considering the consequences of this. For children growing up in homes where strong norms exist against violence, they are unlikely to experience sufficient disinhibition for them to display aggressive behaviours. For children growing up in families where violence or physical punishment is displayed by parents, the disinhibition affect may be stronger (Heath et al (1989). This demonstrates how the relationship between media violence and disinhibition is not clear cut and a number of factors mediate this such as individual and social characteristics.
  • Research has also found that observing the negative effects of disinhibition make it less likely. Goranson (1969) showed participants a film involving a boxing match with two alternative endings. One ending had no apparent consequences while the other saw the loser of the fight beaten badly and die due to his injuries. This study found the participants who saw no negative consequences were more likely to behave aggressively than participants who saw negative consequences. This supports the suggestion that disinhibition may be more likely when the media does not make apparent the negative consequences of disinhibited behavior to its viewers.
  • It is possible that not all forms of media evoke feelings of disinhibition and there is a bias in research favouring the disinhibition explanation for video games. Findings also suggest that the disinhibition observed may only have temporal validity and be limited to the time period while playing the video games. This means any observed effect such as aggression is only relevant when engaging with the media and negligible when away from the video game medium. Therefore behaviour observed lacks external validity beyond the test conditions. Disinhibition may also affect people differently, for example only people fully engaged (introverts) who are not distracted by external stimuli. This would narrow the number of people affected by disinhibition and the applicability of research into disinhibition may not be generalised across the wider population.

The Role of Cognitive Priming and Aggression

Cognitive priming was proposed by Berkowitz (1984) in an attempt to explain the short-term effects of media violence. Cognitive priming is the idea that we are exposed to cues via the media and these cues can trigger behaviour in us as they temporarily increase accessibility of thoughts and ideas related to what we observe. Cues can be anti-social in nature such as aggression or violence or pro-social such as altruistic behaviour.

Berkowitz proposed that when people are exposed to violent media constantly, this activates ideas or thoughts about violence which in turn “prime” other aggressive thoughts through their association in memory pathways. For example playing a violent video game which involves the player “killing” other characters may prime thoughts about physical aggression leading to feelings of anger and motivation to harm other people in real life. A violent film may temporarily lower the threshold for the activation of this type of thinking making it more easily accessible and easier to enact for a short period of time. According to cognitive priming, the more accessible a thought or idea is, the more chances it may be used to interpret social information. Prolonged exposure to violent media according to cognitive priming, results in a lowered activation threshold for aggressive thoughts allowing them to be accessed more readily. Zelli et al (1995) found that priming participants with aggressive stimuli influenced them to make hostile attributions about the behaviour of other people which increased the likelihood of aggressive behaviour by them.

Evaluating Cognitive Priming and Aggression

  • Bushman (1998) tested the hypothesis that exposure to violent media made aggressive thoughts more accessible to observers. Undergraduate participants watched either a 15 minute segment of a violent or non-violent film. Results found that participants who watched the violent film had faster reaction times to aggressive words than those who watched the non-violent film. This suggests cognitive priming as an explanation has validity as exposure to violent media primes memories related to aggression. Dill (2000) also found cognitive priming as an explanation is supported when examining computer game play. Researchers found participants who played violent video games had more cognitively accessible aggressive thought patterns than those who played the non-violent games. This supports cognitive priming as it suggests violent game play could prime aggressive thoughts in people.
  • Other research has suggested that cognitive priming only has validity as an explanation when media violence is realistic. Atkin (1983) examined film and game realism and the priming of aggressive thoughts and behaviours. This study found higher levels of aggression occurred when viewers watched more realistic violence. Fictional violence such as that found in computer games had less of an effect than games which had more realistic violence. This suggests exposure to realistic forms of aggression and violence when compared to cartoon or evidently fictional forms have a greater influence on the type of aggressive thoughts and behaviours in people. This presents real world applications too for producers of children's programmes as care can be taken to minimise the realistic nature of violent or aggressive behaviour which may then influence young viewers.
  • The idea of cognitive priming can be seen as overly simplistic. Social learning occurs only if the mediating processes are conducive to replicate the behaviour and this is likely to be similar for cognitive priming. Motivation, degree of impression and the context may all be factors which mediate the effect of cues. Therefore any violent media may not necessarily have an effect and a number of other contextual factors need to be considered too.
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