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    What Causes Aggression? Is It an ‘Instinct’ or a ‘Learned Behaviour’? Essay

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    What causes aggression? Is it an ‘instinct’ or a ‘learned behaviour’? (a)Compare and contrast the views of any two psychological domains on the causes of aggression. (b)Evaluate the validity of their claims in the order to reach an informed decision about the causes of aggression. In order to explore the causes of aggressive behaviour, we have to be clear about what we mean by aggressive behaviour. The psychological definitions of aggression are determined by theoretical perspectives and there is no consensus within or across the sciences about its components.

    For example some researchers support that aggression is an inborn, instinctive process based on which we intend to harm others. Such approaches adopt a definition that places emphasis on the intention to harm others. So it views aggression as the intention to harm others and this is not dependent of whether actual harm is inflicted. Other theorists attribute aggression to being a learned behaviour and lay emphasis on observable behaviours that result in eliciting harm to another person.

    It highlights that the harm needs to be evident so it can be observed and does not view thoughts or unobservable emotions as being components of aggressive behaviour. Bandura in 1973 defined aggression as ‘behaviour that results in personal injury or destruction of property (Hogg, M, Vaughan, G. 1998, p. 40) Anderson and Bushman 2002 postulate ‘aggression is behaviour which causes intentional harm to another person’ (Glassman 2004, p. 337). Thus it seems current explanations of aggression fall into two board classes which focus on biological or social environment influences.

    The following essay is going to explore and contrast the distinct views of the biological and behaviourist domains on determining aggression. It will walk through the core ideas which form the basis for each theory and illustrate the main differences on whether they view aggression as an instinct or as a learned behaviour. I will conclude by assessing the validity of each theory based on existing research. The biological domain views aggressive behaviour as being an innate part of human nature and we are programmed at birth to act in that way.

    It looks at the genetic, inborn characteristics of the person and not the situation as being the key determinants. Among the biological approaches, important contribution came from the field of ethology, which is concerned with the comparative study of animal and human behaviour. As one of the fields pioneers, Konrad Lorenz (1974) offered a model of aggression that dealt specifically with the issue of how aggressive energy is developed and set free in both humans and animals. His core assumption is that the organism continuously builds up aggressive energy and he likens this process to the operation of a reservoir filling up with water.

    Occasionally the reservoir needs to be emptied in a controlled fashion, otherwise it will overflow. Whether or not this energy will lead to the manifestation of aggressive behaviour depends on two factors: (a) the amount of aggressive energy accumulated inside the organism at any one time; and (b) the strength of the external stimuli (e. g. the sight or smell of predator) capable of triggering an aggressive response. So this suggests the potential or instinct for aggression may be innate and the actual aggressive behaviour is elicited by specific stimuli in the environment know sign stimuli. Sign stimuli are environmental cues which regulate the expression of behaviours related to innate drives’ (Glassman 2004, p. 340) Some sign stimuli elicit the individual aggression, whereas other sign stimuli may act as inhibitors. He also argues that aggression serves an evolunationary function, allowing the strongest and fittest members of a group to survive and re-produce, whereas eliminating the weaker members. If the aggression is not frequently released in controllable and manageable amounts, that are in accordance with environmental cues the risk is that it will build up and become unmanageable and randomly expressed.

    Also geneticists have offered theories on aggression by examining physiological processes. Their main focus has been to look at how the brain functions and how it can control aggression. The behaviourist approach view aggression as a learned behaviour and place significance on environmental influences rather then internal drives. They see aggression as a particular class of voluntary responses, which are acquired and modified by the means of reinforcement. This viewpoint emphasises the role of the situation rather than the person and individuals are seen as passive and as receptors of stimulation offered by the environment.

    The external world shapes learning by offering reinforcement and learning itself is seen as the outcome of associating certain behaviours with rewards or punishments. There are two main aspects of aggressive behaviour which have been supported by this approach: instrumental aggression and the role of frustration in aggression. Instrumental aggression is ‘aggressive behaviour which is maintained because it is positively reinforced’ (Glassman 2004, p. 342). The primary goal of such aggression is not injury or harm to the victim; the aggression is simply a means to some other desired end. One such end could be self defence.

    Thus whenever the individual wishes to achieve the same environmental response, they demonstrate the same patterns of aggressive behaviour. In contrast not all acts of aggression lead to reinforcement and in contrast the individual may be punished. The behaviourists Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mower and Sears in 1939 introduced the concept of ‘frustration-aggression hypotheses. This incorporates the concept that aggression might actually be the automatic response of an individual that gets frustrated. Frustration can be defined as the blocking of a goal-orientated response and they viewed this to be the sole cause of aggression.

    They believed that whenever an individual tries to achieve a goal, environmental conditions block our activity and hence the individual experiences frustration and this can elicit aggressive behaviours. This concept represents the backbone of the approach as it indicates the environment affects the behaviour and the individual is seen as responding to external events. The aggressive energy need not explode directly against its source. Their theory suggests that people learn to inhibit direct retaliation, especially when others might disapprove or punish; instead we displace our hostilities to safer targets.

    Displacement occurs in the old anecdote about a man who, humiliated by his boss, berates his wife, who yells at their son, who kicks the dog, which bites the postman. It is clear though, not every frustration leads to an aggressive response. Therefore the earlier proposition of a deterministic relationship between frustration and aggression was altered into a probabilistic version by Miller in 1941. Moderating variables may also explain why aggression is frequently displaced away from the frustrator onto more easily accessible or less intimidating target.

    Marcus-Newhall, Pederson, Carlson and Miller 2000 found consistent evidence for the displacement of aggression from the source of the frustration onto a less powerful or more accessible target across a total of 49 studies. Berkowitz 1978 suggests that aggression can be produced by reinforcement, even in the absence of frustration and so challenges the original hypothesis too. In comparing the two domains, biological theories place their significance on genetic, inborn characteristics which drive a person’s behaviour and emotion.

    In contrast the behaviourists insist that aggression in humans is the product of environmental demands and is acquired through the customary laws of learning. They see aggression to be solely caused by a stimulus from the external world and it is a suggested response which is based upon reinforcement. On treating aggression, the behaviourists suggest the environment can be modified by ensuring the external world has an appropriate structure of reinforcement and punishment available. Hence this will inhibit people from learning aggression or the behaviour can be unlearned.

    Whereas Lorenz argues that nothing can alter to eliminate aggression all together but to provide suitable forms of cathersis such as sports to allow individuals to release the build up energy and prevent the random leakages. The validity of the biological domain comes under heavy criticism as it lacks empirical evidence. Lorenz’s concept of aggression energy is not easily measurable and lacks an operational definition. Also the comparative study of animal behaviours does not prove that they have the same cause in humans. Also the method of catharsis has little experimental support too.

    Despite the lack of direct evidence, the ethnologists view does have some appeal on the aspect that humans do have an evolutionary genetic heritage and seeing aggression as innate fits in well with some cultural beliefs. Overall though the evidence for a biological basis for aggression has gaps and thus is viewed as being more suggestive than conclusive. In contrast, the behaviourist theory has more direct supporting evidence and several studies such as those conducted by Lovaas 1961, Loew 1967 indicate that hostile and helpful verbalizations can act as regulators of non verbal aggression, so proving the concept of learning.

    Although the notion of not all frustration leads to aggressive behaviour and not all people respond to frustration in the same way does prevent the theory from being applied across the board. Different individuals may employ different sorts of aggressive behaviour in response to a frustrating situation and so the theory does not account for the different reactions and modes of expressing frustration. Also researchers have found that aggression can be exhibited when there is no obvious environmental reinforcement and he displacement of aggression can not be easily predicted. In conclusion despite the above criticisms the behaviourist approach does offer more in the way of supporting evidence than the biological basis and so is deemed a more plausible explanation. Instrumental aggression and frustration-aggression hypothesis together can account for many cases of aggressive behaviour and there seems no question that frustration can elicit aggression in certain instances. References: 1. Glassman W. E. and Hadad M. 004, Approaches to Psychology, Open University Press, Berkshire. 2. Krahe Barbara. 2002, The Social Psychology of Aggression, Psychology Press, East Sussex. 3. Green G. R. 1990, Human Aggression, Open University Press, Milton Keynes. 4. Hogg M. A. and Vaughan G. M. 1998 , Social Psychology, Prentice Hall, Harlow. 5. Parke R. D. Ewall W. and Slaby R. G. 1972, ‘Hostile and Helpful Verbalizations as Regulators of Nonverbal Aggression’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 23 Pg 243-248.

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