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Theories Of Aggression Essay, Research Paper

Aggression: Theories and Theoretical Solutions

I began my research on the topic of violent crime prevention. After reading about different crime programs, it became obvious to me that many of these programs conflicted in their deterrence philosophy. Many of the crime programs were based on a different theory of violence causation. It seemed more important for me to understand why violence exists before learning the methods of preventing crime. I looked up the definition of violence in several sources and after combining some words decided that violence is simply extreme aggression. Aggression is the behavior intended to injure another person. The six main aggression theories include: the instinct theories, the biological theories, the drive theories, the learning theories, the social learning theories, and the cognitive theories. Understanding the major theories of aggression is essential to understanding the theoretical and practical solutions to fighting crime.

Pioneered by Sigmund Freud, the instinctive theories of aggression are arguably the first explanations of human aggression. In the 1920 s Freud formulated his theories known as life and death instincts. He believed that the life instinct explained humans motivation to protect and reproduce themselves. Juxtaposed to Freud s life instinct was his death instinct a deep and usually suppressed desire to end the stresses of life by death. Freud considered aggression to be an expression of the death instinct towards other people rather than towards oneself to release the stresses of life.

Freud s death instinct is not the only aggression instinct theory that has achieved notable recognition. Scholar Konrad Lorenz established his theory on aggression based on Charles Darwin s theory of natural selection. Natural Selection states that only the strongest survive. Lorenz believed that aggression drive is a primarily species preserving instinct . (Montagu 1976) By the use of aggression species can easily gain more of their desired resources, thus defending their existence by aggressing and offending others.

The instinct theories tend to darken the image of humanity. Based solely on instinct theories, aggression and violence cannot be prevented because human nature cannot be changed. This means that crime prevention programs would be useless. History has shown us that certain crime prevention programs are effective at reducing crime.

Somewhat ironically, as a growing knowledge has lessened the plausibility of instinctive aggression theories, this knowledge has also lead to more modern theories of aggression that give an equally dark face to human nature. Biological theories of aggression have been a more recent subject of judicial debate. The question is if the biology of a human dictates its aggression, and ultimately violent tendencies, if the human has no control over its biology, can it be held responsible for its actions? Courts have agreed that if a person commits a crime, while having no control over their actions, then they are considered mentally insane and are at times legally not responsible for their actions. The biological theories have been categorized into four areas: neuronal, brain damage, genetic, and biochemical.

Neuronal aggression experimentation is done almost solely by electrical stimulation. Because of the sensitivity of the brain most of the experimentation is done on animals. The most recognized electrical stimulation experiment was performed by a psychologist named Delgado. He implanted an electrode in the brain of a bull. The bull was put in a bull-fighting ring and prompted to charge at a matador. In mid-charge a current was delivered to a part of the bull s brain. The bull came to a screeching halt. (class lecture) This experiment clearly demonstrated that the specific voltage of an electric shock to the brain could have an effect on aggression. This experimentation is still relatively young and it is hard to picture any application of it on humans in the near future. However, the effects of natural injuries on the brain can be studied more effectively.

It s becoming increasingly clear that we re never going to solve the problem of violent crime if we don t address the link between brain damage and criminal behavior, says University of Southern California researcher Adrian Raine, Ph.D. (Sullivan 1997) The most astonishing case study to date, which has brought much of the interest to the effect of brain damage on aggression, is the killings of Richard Speck. Speck murdered eight nursing students in the summer of 1966. When Speck was first place in jail he was visited twice weekly by the head Cook County Jail psychologist Dr. Marvin Ziporyn. After a few sessions with Speck, Dr. Ziporyn s believed that Speck was suffering from organic brain damage and was clinically insane. Speck s sister testified that he had suffered from an unusually high number of serious injuries to his head as a child. When he was six, he fell headfirst some ten feet from a tree and was knocked unconscious for twenty minutes. At ten, he ran headfirst into a steel rod that cracked his skull and bruised his brain. At twelve, he slammed his head against a rock after diving head first into White Rock Lake in Dallas, requiring more medical treatment. A few years later he was accidentally struck in the head with a claw hammer and went into convulsions. These and numerous other head injuries, Ziporyn believed, caused a considerable amount of brain damage. This brain damage, according to Ziporyn, probably played a major role in the aggressive delinquent behavior displayed by Speck during adolescence (). Some psychologists believe that if some major brain injuries are diagnosed and treated earlier and possible rise in aggression can be prevented.

Some researchers agree that aggressive behavior is genetic in origin. Studies published on genetic research have revealed that a specific stretch of DNA along a chromosome, if mutated, may produce violent behavior. A study that examines a family in which ten men over five generations displayed violent behavior has led geneticists to form specific causal links. It was noted that all violent family members were male and that the trait was [genotypically] passed from mother to son. This suggests that the single X chromosome in males may carry the trait for aggressive behavior. These same researchers found that all of the males who were violent had the same genetic marker and so did some of the women in the family, who would be carriers of the defect. The non-violent men in the family were not found to have the genetic marker (Katz, 1999). Researchers suspect that the link to aggression is on the chromosome that codes for the enzyme, monoamine oxidase A. Demonstrating the importance of a deeper look into the hereditary influences on aggression, many researchers believe that genes also help control production of behavior-regulating chemicals such as the neurotransmitter serotonin (Barnett, 1976).

Recent work in the field of neuropsychology has provided this additional information pertaining to aggressive tendencies. Advances in technology have allowed neuropsychologists to study the influence of neurotransmitters in facilitating aggression. Neurotransmitters are biochemicals directly involved in the transmission of neural impulses in the brain. Researchers have learned that some of these neurotransmitters, specifically norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and serotonin, may significantly influence the mechanisms in the brain responsible for aggression (Coscina, 1997). Further research supports the biological theory of aggression by suggesting that the neurotransmitter, serotonin plays a significant role in violent behavior. Serotonin works like a braking mechanism to restrain impulsive acts of aggression. There is a large body of literature supporting the relation between brain serotonin and aggression, both in animal research and human research. Many researchers found links between low levels of serotonin and aggression. One, Higley (1992) found that in rhesus macaques, increased aggression and risk﷓taking behavior (e.g., assaults on other monkeys, dangerous leaps from limb to limb) were associated with low cerebrospinal fluid levels of 5﷓hydroxyindoleacetic acid (5﷓HIAA), the major metabolite of serotonin. Another researcher, Coccaro (1996) reported that in humans with personality disorders, those with histories of aggression had lower levels of platelet binding sites for serotonin. According to Higley, (1992) Low levels of serotonin in the nervous systems of humans…are associated with high levels of aggression.

Differential roles played by male and female hormones have been connected with differential tendencies toward aggressive behavior. According to Dr. James Dabbs, a professor of psychology at Georgia State University, and lead researcher on the female Inmate study, Higher testosterone levels are related to criminal violence and aggressive…[behavior]…among women (Dabbs, 1997). The study measured testosterone in female inmates at a maximum-security prison. The findings, by Dr. Dabbs, are similar to those in studies of male prisoners. This indicates testosterone s effects on behavior are the same in women and men. He adds, Testosterone levels were highest among male inmates convicted of violent crimes such as rape, homicide and assault. Other researchers speculate that aggressive behavior in women…[is]…tied to a drop in serotonin that normally occurs just before the menstrual period (Dabbs, 1997). The symptoms [affiliated with premenstrual syndrome, or PMS] are believed to be due to changes in the hormonal balance between estrogen and progesterone (Moyer, 1976). During the preovulation phase, progesterone dominates over estrogen, peaking at approximately day fourteen (ovulation) when the estrogen level begins to increase and eventually dominate. Decreases in progesterone have been associated with high risks of violent suicide (Wetzel, McClure & Reich, 1971) and female crime (Dalton, 1961). Because the physiological changes can presumably have a strong influence on behavior, PMS has been used successfully as a criminal defense in British courts.

In 1939 John Dollard published his frustration-aggression hypothesis as a response to Freud s instinct theory. Dollard believed that when humans are interrupted in the pursuit of an objective they would become frustrated. This frustration will always trigger aggression, and all aggression will always stem from frustration. (Tavris, 1982) Dollard further added that once a person has built up a level of aggression they only have two options: to release it slowly as displacement, or to release it in a catharsis. (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999) Examples of releasing aggression, as displacement, would be to yell at a spouse or speed during traffic. Releasing aggression through a catharsis would be to visualize, observe or actively participate in extreme aggression (violence). Dollard s theory was regarded as a groundbreaking insight into human aggression; it wasn t until 1989 that his theory was revised.

Social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz didn t agree with a crucial part of Dollard s theory. Through experimentation Berkowitz discovered that experiencing a catharsis would in the short term reduce immediate aggression, but will in the long run would familiarize the aggressor with anger and make him or her more likely to be violent. (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999) Berkowitz also argued that frustration does not always turn into anger. (Tavris, 1982) Frustration is but one of many unpleasant experiences that can lead to aggression by creating negative, uncomfortable feelings. (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999) Plainly stated, negative uncomfortable feelings result in aggression. Berkowitz s experiments also showed evidence in the reciprocal good feelings reduce aggression.

How does an understanding of the drive theories help society prevent aggression and ultimately crime? Berkowitz might agree that if you remove all negative uncomfortable feelings than you might remove aggression. Psychologists have searched for sources that create negative uncomfortable feelings amongst people. Although these sources vastly differ from person to person, some universal experiences have been experimentally discovered that cause bad feelings in almost all subjects: noise, crowding, physical pain, temperature, threatened self-esteem, bad odors, and cigarette smoke. (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999) Theoretically a reduction of these sources of negative feelings should reduce crime – by reducing noise (ex. better traffic planning) and over-crowding (ex. better urban planning) and providing fans and air-conditioning to the sweltered crime should drop.

The learning theory of aggression is based upon the traditional psychological model of general learning. In this model, all actions can be reinforced, or reacted to, in two ways: positively and negatively. Positive reinforcement occurs when a subject achieves a goal through its action. An example where positive reinforcement would encourage aggression is if a child was to desire an object: a toy, for instance. To achieve his goal of obtain the toy the child aggresses on the owner of the toy by hurting them or steal the toy from them. Thus, the aggression was positively reinforced through the child s receiving the toy and in a similar situation the child would react the same way. Negative reinforcement occurs when an action prevents an unwanted result. Aggression would be promoted by negative reinforcement in this scenario: A child is being teased by his classmates; to stop the teasing he aggresses on his classmates (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999). This aggression prevents the teasing (result) from further occurring; the child succeeds with aggression.

Theoretically, the only preventive way to react towards an aggressive action is through successful punishment. For a punishment to be successful it must meet four criteria. First, the punishment must directly follow the aggressive behavior. Secondly, the punishment must be great enough to discourage the aggressor. Thirdly, the punishment must be consistent. Finally, the punishment must be applied and perceived as fair and legitimate by the aggressor. When these categories are met the punishment will be successful in deterring aggression. However, when punishment does not fulfill these criteria aggression will not be prevented and will most likely be reinforced. Punishment viewed as unfair could result in retaliation and punishment applied with anger may be imitated (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999). This theory serves as a major proponent against capital punishment. Some psychologists believe that capital punishment serves as a model for murder. This hypothesis is tied into the social learning theory.

Social learning theory hypothesizes that the rudiments of aggressive behavior are initially acquired through observing aggressive models (Bartol, 1999). The psychologist Albert Bandura s famous Bobo experiment is the foundation of this theory s relevance to aggression. In this experiment children were able to observe adults acting in a violent manner. These children, disturbingly, repeated all of the aggression their adult counterparts acted out. The concept of models influencing observers behavior is the underlying belief in holding the media accountable for aggression. Fortunately the social learning theory operates both ways; good models influence good behavior (Boeree, 1998). Theoretically, with this in mind, creating positive role models in the media can be used to fight aggression and ultimately crime.

The final theory of aggression is the cognitive aggression theory. This theory, unlike the rest recognizes that humans are rational beings and do not just react they think. This theory supports the statement by the NRA, which has become a clich in modern day language: Guns don t kill people. People do . The theory officially states that disagreeable incidents create negative affects, which arouse associations related to anger and fear. The results then depend on higher mental processing (Brehm, Kassin & Fein, 1999). The US judicial system is a prime example of this theory. Out of all the theories this is the only one to give a high amount of responsibility to the aggressor. It gives them the option to think and not act.

Although the theories of aggression are still evolving it seems as if crime laws will continue to be based upon the cognitive theory of aggression and use the other theories for small input. Understanding these theories gives the public the opportunity to correctly interpret proposed crime bills. Because the public elects the officials that create the laws it is absolutely crucial that the public is educated in the theories of aggression.


Bartol, Curt. (1999). Criminal Behavior. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Boeree, C. (1998). Albert Bandura. Shippensburg University [Online]. http://www.ship.edu/ cgboeree/bandura.html (11/26/99).

Brehm, S, Kassin, S, Fein, S. (1999) Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Coccaro, E.F. (1995) Science and Medicine (Scientific American), MDX Health Digest. 2, 1, 38- 47.

Coscina, D.V. (1997). The biopsychology of impulsivity: Focus on brain serotonin. In C.D. Webster &

M.A. Jackson (Eds.), Impulsivity: Theory, assessment, and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.

Dabbs,Dr.,I.(1997)Testosterone linked to violence in female inmates.Center for Advancement of Health[Online]. http://www.cfah.org/(11/28/99)

Dalton, K. (1961). Menstruation and crime. British Medical Journal, 2, 1752-1753.

Higley, JD, Mehlman PT, Taub DM et al.(1992), Cerebrospinal fluid monamine and adrenal correlates of aggression in free-ranging rhesus monkeys. Arch Gen Psychiatry 49:436-441

Jenning, Karen, I. (April 1997). Serotonin and judgement. Brain Briefings [Online]. http://www.sfn.org/briefings/serotonin.html (11/26/99).

Katz, Ingrid,I. (1999). Violent behavior-do we know it all? Center for Advancement of Health [Online]

Malick JB, Barnett A (1976), The role of serotonergic pathways in isolation-induced aggression in mice. Pharmacol Biochemical Behavior 5:55-61

Montagu, A. (1976). The Nature of Human Aggression. Oxford: Oxford.

Moyer, K.E.(1976). the Psychobiology of aggresson. New York: Harper & Row.

Tavris, C. (1982). Anger. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Watkins, Dr.,(1998)Terror in Chicago.GTE Internet [Online].


Wetzel, R.D., McClure, J.N., Reich, T. (1971). Premenstural symptoms in self-referrals to a suicide prevention service. British Journal of Psychiatry, 119, 525-526.


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