The 4 main theories of aggression: how do you explain aggression?
Aggression is a phenomenon that has been studied from many different perspectives . These usually revolve around the same question: is aggression innate, is it learned or is it both? And, in view of the difficulty of offering a single, clear-cut answer, the answers have been positioned in the same three dimensions: there are those who suggest that aggression is an innate phenomenon, there are those who defend that it is a learned phenomenon and there are those who try to understand it from the convergence between nature and culture.
Next, we will make a general tour through some of the main theories of aggression and we will incorporate the possibility of distinguishing between two phenomena that are usually matched: aggressiveness and violence.
Theories of aggression
The theories that have explained aggression have gone through different elements. For example, the intentional nature of the aggression, the aversive or negative consequences for those involved, the diversity of expression of the phenomenon, the individual processes that generate it, the social processes involved, among many others.
In this text we make a reading of Doménech and Iñiguez (2002) and Sanmartí (2006), with the intention of reviewing four of the great theoretical proposals that have explained aggressiveness.
1. Biological determinism and instinctual theories
This line emphasizes the distinctiveness of aggressiveness . The explanation is mainly given by elements that are understood as “inner” and constitutive of the person. That is to say, the cause of the aggression is explained precisely by what is “inside” each person.
The above is generally condensed under the term “instinct”, understood as a faculty necessary for the survival of the species, with which aggressiveness is defined in terms of an adaptive process, developed as a consequence of evolution . Depending on the reading that is made of the latter, there may be few or no possibilities of modifying the aggressive responses.
We can see that the latter corresponds to theories close to both psychology and biology, as well as to evolutionary theories, however, the term “instinct” has also been understood in different ways according to the theory that uses it.
In the case of Freudian psychoanalysis, aggressiveness as an instinct, or rather “drive” (which is the equivalent of “instinct” for the psyche), has been understood as a key to the constitution of the personality. That is to say, it has important functions in the psychic structuring of each subject , as well as in sustaining that structure in one way or another.
2. Environmentalist explanations
This line explains aggressiveness as a result of learning and various complex environmental factors. A series of papers are grouped here that explain aggressiveness as a result of an external element that is the main trigger. In other words, before aggression, there is another experience, related to an event alien to the person: frustration .
The latter is known as the frustration-aggression theory and explains that, just as instinctive theories proposed, aggression is an innate phenomenon. However, it depends at all times on whether or not frustration is generated. In turn, frustration is generally defined as the consequence of not being able to carry out an action as anticipated , and in this sense, aggressiveness serves as a calming of high levels of frustration.
3. Social learning
The basis of the theories that explain aggression by social learning is behaviorism. In these, the cause of aggressiveness is attributed to that which has been associated in the presence of a certain stimulus, as well as to the reinforcement that has come after the action that follows said association.
In other words, aggressiveness is explained under the classic formula of operant conditioning : in the face of a stimulus there is a response (a behavior), and in the face of the latter, there is a consequence, which depending on how it is presented can generate the repetition of the behavior, or extinguish it. And in this sense, it is possible to take into account which stimuli and which reinforcements are the ones that trigger a certain type of aggressive behaviour.
Perhaps the most representative of the theories of social learning has been that of Albert Bandura, who developed the “theory of vicarious learning”, where he proposes that we learn certain behaviors based on the reinforcements or punishments that we see others receive, after carrying out certain behaviors.
Aggressiveness, then, could be a consequence of learned behaviours by imitation , and for having assimilated the consequences observed in the behaviours of others.
Among other things, Bandura’s theories have made it possible to separate two processes: on the one hand, the mechanism by which we learn aggressive behavior; and on the other, the process by which we are able, or not, to execute it. And with the latter it becomes possible to understand why, or under what conditions, its execution can be avoided, beyond the fact that the logic and social function of aggressiveness has already been learned.
4. Psychosocial theory
The psychosocial theory has made it possible to relate two dimensions of the human , which may be fundamental to understanding aggressiveness. These dimensions are, on the one hand, the individual psychological processes, and on the other, the social phenomena, which far from acting separately, interact closely, and have as a consequence the occurrence of a specific behaviour, attitude, identity, etc.
Along the same lines, social psychology, and especially that of the socioconstructionist tradition, has paid attention to a key element in studies on aggression: in order to determine what behaviour is aggressive, first there must be a series of sociocultural norms that indicate what is understood as “aggression”, and what is not.
And in this sense, aggressive behaviour is what transgresses the socio-cultural norm. What’s more, a behavior can be understood as “aggressive” when it comes from a particular person, and it can be misunderstood when it comes from another.
This allows us to think of aggression in a context that, as a social being, is not neutral, but is sustained by determined power relations and possibilities of agency.
In other words, and given that aggressiveness does not always manifest itself as an observable behaviour , it is important to analyse the forms that represent it, manifest it and experience it. This allows us to consider that aggressiveness takes place only when a relationship is established, with which it is difficult to explain in individual terms nor with homogeneous shades that apply to all relationships and experiences.
Social psychology from here has explained aggression as a behavior located in a concrete context of relationships. Likewise, the most classic traditions have understood it as a behavior that causes damage in an intentional way. The latter leads us to raise the following problem, which is the possibility of establishing differences between aggressiveness and violence.
Aggression or violence?
Aggressiveness has been translated by many theories as “aggressive behavior”, which in other words is the action of attacking. And in this sense, is often equated to the concept of “violence” . From this, it is common to find that aggressiveness and violence are presented and used as synonyms.
Sanmartí (2006; 2012) talks about the need to note some differences between both phenomena. Said need leads us to distinguish between the participation of biology and the intentionality of each process , as well as to contextualize them in the framework of the social institutions that participate in their production and reproduction; which implies recognizing both the human and social character. A character that the adaptive or defensive response (aggressiveness) itself does not have.
For the same author, aggressiveness is a behavior that presents itself automatically before certain stimuli, and for the same reason, it is inhibited before other stimuli. And in this sense, aggressiveness can be understood as an adaptive and defensive process , common to living beings. But that is not the same as violence. Violence is “altered aggressiveness”, that is, a form of aggressiveness that is loaded with socio-cultural meanings. Said meanings make it unfold no longer in an automatic way, but in an intentional and potentially harmful way.
Intentionality, violence and emotions
Beyond being the biological response to potentially risky stimuli for survival, violence puts into action the socio-cultural meanings that we attribute to certain events understood in terms of dangerousness. In this sense we can think that violence is a behavior that can only take place among human beings, while aggressiveness or aggressive behavior, are responses that can also take place in other species .
In this understanding of aggressiveness, emotions such as fear play an active and relevant role, understood also in innate terms as an adaptive scheme and a survival mechanism. This leads us to consider that both fear and aggressiveness can be thought of as more than just “good” or “bad”.
Intersections of aggression and violence: are there types of aggression?
If it is possible to look at aggressiveness from the point of view of the processes through which a person becomes competent for society (socialisation), we can also pay attention to the different phenomena and experiences that are different, for example, because of differences in class, race, gender, socio-economic status, disability , etc.
In this sense, the experience that causes frustration and triggers aggressive behavior, which may later become violent, may not be triggered in the same way in women or men, in children or adults, in someone from the upper class and someone from the lower class, etc.
This is because not all people have socialized in relation to the same resources to live and manifest both frustration and aggression in the same way. And for the same reason, the approach is also multidimensional and it is important to situate it in the relational context where it is generated.
- Sanmartí, J. (2012). Keys to understanding violence in the 21st century. Ludus Vitalis, XX(32): 145-160.
- Sanmartí, J. (2006). What is this thing called violence? In Instituto de Educación de Aguascalientes. What is this thing called violence? Supplement to the Boletín Diario de Campo. Retrieved June 22, 2018. Available at http://www.iea.gob.mx/ocse/archivos/ALUMNOS/27%20QUE%20ES%20LA%20VIOLENCIA.pdf#page=7.
- Domenech, M. & Iñiguez, L. (2002). The social construction of violence. Athenea Digital, 2: 1-10.