Social psychological explanations for human aggression - Aggression

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Social psychological explanations for human aggression


Dollard et al. (1939) created the frustration—aggression hypothesis, which argues that aggression is a consequence of frustration, which occurs from experiencing barriers to attaining goals. Aggression incurs relief from such frustration. The closer an individual is to attaining a goal, then the likelihood of frustration causing an aggressive response is heightened. If aggression is perceived as unlikely to remove a source of frustration, then aggression is unlikely to occur. Social learning theory (SLT) sees aggression as being learned via observation and imitation of vicariously reinforced aggressive models, where reinforcement is received indirectly by observing other people being rewarded for aggressive behaviour. SLT therefore views the acquisition of aggression as occurring through environmental influences rather than innate or internal forces and therefore believes humans are not born aggressive, but acquire it like other social behaviours. Deindividuation involves the loss of individual identity and inhibitions when in a crowd, where the capacity for self-awareness and consideration of the consequences of aggressive behaviour is reduced. Public self-awareness, where individuals value the impressions they make on others, is reduced by the anonymity of crowds, along with a diffusion of responsibility for one’s actions, while private self-awareness, where individuals consider their own thoughts and feelings, is also reduced.


Fig 15.3 Interactions with a Bobo doll

Focal study

Zimbardo et al. (1973) investigated the role of deindividuation in a mock prison. 24 emotionally stable, non-criminal male participants were randomly assigned the roles of either guard or prisoner. Guards and prisoners were deindividuated within their groups by the use of uniforms and other procedures increasing anonymity; prisoners being referred to by numbers rather than names and guards wearing reflective sunglasses that made eye-contact impossible. The guards created a brutal atmosphere and as they stepped up their aggressive behaviour, the prisoners responded passively. Both groups demonstrated signs of deindividuation, leading to a loss of personal identity. The guards exhibited increased levels of disinhibited psychological and physical aggression and the study was cut short due to the levels and effects of their abuse.


• Bandura et al. (1961, 1963) found that children, who had been deliberately frustrated and who saw an adult model behave aggressively to a Bobo doll, were likely to imitate specific aggressive acts they had witnessed when allowed to play with the doll and increased aggressive acts if the aggressive model was reinforced. This supports the idea of aggression being learned via SLT.

• Pastore (1952) tested the frustration—aggression theory using scenarios where the frustration was brought about by ’justified’ aggression, such as a bus not stopping to pick up passengers. He found that levels of aggression expressed in justified frustration settings were lower than in unjustified settings. This suggests the source of the frustration is key as to whether it leads to aggression or not.

• Guerra et al. (2003) looked at the effects exposure to models of violence had on children aged 5—12 in terms of aggression levels demonstrated. It was found that imitation of violence did occur, which gives support to the social learning theory.

Positive evaluation

Image Social learning is arguably a stronger force than biological influences, as there are whole societies that model and indulge in non-aggressive behaviour, such as the Amish communities in America.

Image SLT can explain why people become aggressive only in certain situations and in certain ways. Aggression only occurs in situations and in ways that have been specifically reinforced and because mediating factors prevent aggression in certain circumstances. If aggression was biological, it would not be situation specific.

Image Deindividuation can explain aggression occurring not just because of the anonymity of the aggressor, but also because of the anonymity of individuals being aggressed, for example where strangers are attacked.

Negative evaluation

Image Deindividuation in crowds does not always lead to aggression, for example at music festivals and religious gatherings. This reduces support for the explanation.

Image Research into SLT is criticised, as although it shows an immediate effect on the observer, it does not show whether this continues long term. This means that aggressive behaviour shown over a lifetime may not have been learned this way.

Image Aggression is not always prompted by aggression. Many murders are planned and premeditated and not underpinned by frustration — additionally not everyone who experiences frustration reacts with aggression. This suggests that the frustration—aggression hypothesis cannot explain all aggressive behaviour.

Practical application

As deindividuation can occur in darkness, a practical application of the theory is to ensure areas are kept well lit at night time. CCTV has a similar effect, as it makes people believe their identification is likely, decreasing the likelihood of them being aggressive.