Nature and Causes of Aggression - Social

Nature and Causes of Aggression - Social

Aggression is an example of an antisocial behaviour. Theories have been proposed to explain this behaviour in terms of innate and learned factors (nature vs. nurture). This section will focus on nurture: the explanations for aggression as a result of social interactions. But don't forget - there are many biological explanations, which provide alternatives to the following social ones.

This states that aggression is learned through reinforcement of direct experiences and imitation of aggressive models, such as parents, peers or even TV/film characters. Aggressive behaviours may not be imitated simply because they have been learned - vicarious reinforcement is required.

Nature and Causes of Aggression - Social

Support for this comes from studies using large, inflatable "Bobo dolls": Children were more likely to behave aggressively towards the doll if they had observed an adult hitting and throwing the doll (Bandura et al., 1963), particularly if they had seen the adult being rewarded for the behaviour (Bandura, 1965).

Evaluation of SLT:

For: Against:
Explains how reinforcement in different contexts can lead to differences in behaviour in different roles. Ignores biological factors, such as genetic and hormonal influences.
Explains influence of TV and film on the behaviour of children. Bandura's experiments had low ecological validity and high demand characteristics.

A person may lose their individuality in a crowd or whilst wearing a uniform, for example. This has two implications leading to increased antisocial behaviour:

Aggressor: Victim:
Responsibility for actions is abdicated to the group so inhibitions are lost and aggressive behaviour is more likely. Persons rights are ignored because they are not seen as individuals but as "one of them".
Nature and Causes of Aggression - Social

Zimbardo (1969) left 'abandoned' cars in New York and a small town in California - the one in the big city was stripped and vandalised very quickly whereas the one in the small town was left alone. This suggests that the larger the group, the more anonymous the individual is and, consequently, the more extreme the antisocial behaviour becomes.

Prentice-Dunn & Rogers (1989) suggest that an individual loses different types of self-awareness in a group.

Being anonymous to the people around you leads to less public self-awareness.

Losing sight of your own standards leads to less private self awareness.

It is not anonymity but the loss of private self-awareness that leads to increased anti-social behaviour.


For: Against:
Supporting evidence from research studies. Effect of group can cause prosocial behaviour (Diener, 1980).
Seems to contradict notion of social conformity but perhaps aggressors conform to the norms of a subgroup of society (Manstead et al., 1995) Perhaps deindividuation does not cause aggression but merely helps it to be exhibited.

This states that aggression may arise if we feel we are 'hard done by'. In other words, if we perceive that we are deprived of our rights (relative to others), frustration occurs leading to a 'readiness' to be aggressive (Stouffer et al., 1949; Berkowitz, 1972).

This theory can explain why people riot as a result of perceived social deprivation following a 'triggering' incident (for example, black community riots in Bristol and Brixton in the early 1980s) and why aggression is low in societies in which a person's expectations are attainable.

Two types of relative deprivation have been identified (Runciman, 1966):

  1. Egoistic relative deprivation: Individual compares him/herself with another similar individual. Relative deprivation may be sensed if the other individual is perceived to enjoy more privileges.
  2. Fraternalistic relative deprivation: Individual compares his/her group with another group. Relative deprivation may be sensed if the other group is perceived to enjoy more privileges.

As you might expect, feelings of fraternal (rather than egoistic) relative deprivation are more likely to lead to social disharmony.

Now test yourself with the following situations. Which type of relative deprivation may be felt in each case? Have a guess and then click on the question marks to reveal the correct answer:

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Some problems with relative deprivation theory:

1. Aggression can be caused by factors other than frustration, such as social learning.

2. Frustration may lead to other behaviours, such as depression or despair.