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  • Created on: 05-06-16 00:19

Social Psychological Approaches to Aggression: SLT

Social Learning Theory - SLT 

Main Premise: SLT suggests that aggression is learnt through eithe rdirect experience or vicarious experience. It aruges we learn by observing role models in our environment, by watching behaviour that is rewarding and copying it. 

Traditional Learning Theory: Operant Conditioning 

  • Learning by direct experience. If aggressive behaviour is reinforced (produces positive consequence) it is more likely to occur in similar situations in the future 

Bandura argues that aggression cannot be explained by traditional learning theory, instead Social Learning Theory:

  • Children learn aggressive behaviours by observing the behaviour of role models with whom they identify. They observe and learn the rewards and consequences of aggression (vicarious reinforcement). 
  • They also develop confidence in ability to use aggression to get what they want - self-efficacy 
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Bandura - completed Bobo Doll Study where he aimed to demonstrate 

  • A teaching effect - the child acquires the behaviour being modelled 
  • A motivating effect - which makes the reproduction of this behaviour more or less likely 

Collected a sample of 72 chidlren, split into 3 groups of 24. Children watched either an aggressive or non-aggressive adult model and then were tested for their imitative behaviour

  • Half of the children were exposed to an adult model behaving aggressively towards a Bobo doll and half exposed to a model who behaved non-aggressively 
  • Following the exposure to models, children were frustrated by ebign shown by not allowed to play with attractive toys. They were then taken to a room where there was a Bobo doll.

Found: The children exposed to the aggressive model displayed far more verbal and physical aggression towards the Bobo doll compared to children who had been exposed to non-aggressive model. Children who had seen a non-aggressive model displayed virtually no aggression towards the doll. 

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AO3 of the Bandura experiment - it lacks realism:

  • The Bobo doll used in the experiment was not a living thing and wouldn't retaliate
  • Therefore can it be used as support as it doesn't provide info on the imitation of aggression towards humans 
  • However, Bandura provided evidence to refute: conducted another study with live adult and found similar result

Strength: Explains lack of consistency in aggressive behaviour (why in one situation but not other)

  • The aggression might reap positive rewards in one situation but not in another
  • The theory is therefore helpful as it allows for pretedictions to be made about aggression

However, due to this, the theory takes a deterministic approach:

  • States aggression is the product of learning experiences that the child has experienced 
  • Ignores concept of free will as see's humans as robots responding to stimuli in the environment 
  • Individual choice is negated and this raises issues of who should be considered responsible for the act - if person just responding to environment they should be held responsible 
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Strength - Ablity to explain cross-cultural variations in aggression:

  • Able to explain why some cultures are aggressive and others aren't 
  • Some cultures may value aggressive behaviour (therefore model it) and other value non aggressive behaviour
  • Therefore explains why there is very little aggression shown in tribes like the Kung tribe, as within their culture parents do not use physical punishment and aggressive behaviour is not valued - no opportunity for children to model it 
  • In constrast, western cultures exposed to violence on TV and have much higher violence rate

Fails to consider role of nature within aggression:

  • Only considers the role of nurture = narrow approach as ignores role of biology e.g. genetics and hormones 
  • Research evidence has indicated that high levels of testosterone have an effect on aggression and such research casts doubt that aggression is purely learnt 
  • However, SLT theorists argue certain societies do not show aggression (e.g. Amish). If it was biological then they would have some aggressive members 
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Social Psychological Apps to Aggression: Deindivid

Deindividuation is a state of lowered sel-awareness, a temporary loss of personal identity, resulting from becoming part of a group, it can also occur in situations where people feel anonymous. It can have very destructive effects - sometimes making people more likely to commit a crime. 

A person many lose their individuality in a crowd, whilst wearing a uniform, whilst drinking or on drugs or on the internet. 

Hogg & Vaughan - "A process whereby people lose their sense of socialised indiviudal identity and engage in unsocialised, often anti-social behaviours" 

Deindividuated people are more likely to be aggressive behaviour their loss of indiviudality leads to reduced self restraint and deviant and impulsive behaviour.

Another theory of Deindividuation was suggested by - Prentice Dunn and Rodgers:

  • Being anonymous leads to less public self-awareness 
  • Losing sight or own standards and increased antisocial behaviour leads to less private self-awareness 
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Deindividuation: AO1

Key Research: Zimbaro 

  • Laboratory experiment with two conditions
  • Individuated condition - participants wore normal clothing with large name badge 
  • Deindividuated condition - participants wore bulky lab coats and hoods that covered their heads 
  • Participants had to administer a shock to a confederate as an 'aid' to help learning 

Found: Participants in the deindividuated condition were foudn to chock the 'learner' for twice as long as particpants in the individuated condition 

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Deindividuation: AO2

Theory has support from Diener Et Al:

  • Tested effects of disguise - observed groups of children as went trick or treating 
  • Found those in costume or in big groups were more likely to steal more sweets 

Futher support comes from the Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment:

  • 'Guards' were in uniform and wearing sunglasses (anonymous), they acted aggessively and the study had to be stopped early 
  • Supports as it indicates the power of deindividuation

However, Reicher and Haslam suggest that Zimbaro's participants were acting in temrs of percieved social roles, rather than losing their individuality - they were trying to act like guards 

Zimardo challenges this by pointing out the similarities of the p's in his experiment to the guards in Abu Gharib in Iraw where much of the aggression towards prisoners can be explained by deindividuating factors in the prison (anonymity, collective identity of prisoners)

The research is also highly unethical and highly socially sensitive 

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Deindividuation: AO2

Further contradictory support comes from: Johnson and Downing 

  • Repeated the Zimbardo study but this time invovled deindividuated p's in different ways 
  • One group wore masks and overalls and the other group wore nurses uniforms 
  • Found that the participants shocked more than a control group when dressed in uniform 
  • This demonstrates that deindiviudation does not necessarily lead to aggressive behaviour, but rather people respond to the normative clues associated with the situation in which they find themselves 

There is also a lack of research support: A meta-analysis was carried out of 60 studies of deindiviudation and found insufficent support for the main claim that antisocial behaviour and aggressive behaviour is more common in large groups or in anonymous settings 

Reductionist Theory:

  • The theory doesn't explain all types of aggression, for example just normal aggression, not in group or in anonymous situation

Deterministic: Ignores free will , it suggests that if people joined a group they are likley to engage in aggressive behaviour whereas there are people can withstand group pressure and not engage in this activity 

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Institutional Aggression: Importation Model AO1

Institutions = distinct entities such as schools or prisons, or may involve a whole society or sections within that society 

Act of institutional aggression range from the physical abuse of indiviudlats during intitiation rituals to acts to destory a national, racial or religious group (genocide)

Importation Model: Irwin and Cressey

  • Suggests people already possess certain characteristics that make an indiviudal more likely to be violent inside prisons - violence is the product of the characteristics of violence individual
  • Demographic variables such as race and age are said to affect violence in prisons 
  • Statistics suggest young inmates have a much more difficult time adjusting to prison; therefore more likely to have conforontations and view violence as way of dealing with conflict 
  • Research shows that black inmates are more likely to be violent - this could be due to them entering prison from impoverished communities with high crime rates (importing violent cultural norms)
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Institutional Aggression: Importation Model AO2

Harer and Steffensmeier provide support for the importation model:

  • Analysed data from 58 US prisons and found that black inamtes displayed higher violence
  • However, they showed much lower rates of alcohol and drug misconduct compared to white
  • They concluded that this reflected racial differences to do with these behaviours in the US 

However, Delisi Et Al provides contradictory research:

  • Conducted study of over 800 male inamtes with prediction inmates that were in violent gang prior to prison would increase levels of violence
  • However, found no evidence that gang membership had any bearing on levels of violence 
    • AO3: Only investigating prisons in the US - if researched prisons in Thailand probs different

Ethnic Differences provdes within institutional aggression by Gaes Et Al: Conducted study using entire male inmate pop in the US - found Hispanics more violent than non-hispanics. Also Asian inmates less likely to engage in violence. Therefore ethnicity appears to be a very powerful correlate of prisoner violence (Also supports the model) 

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Institutional Aggression: Deprivation Model AO1

Established by Sykes 

  • Claims it is the characteristics of the prison itself rather than the population that accounts for the violence - primarily the experience of the prison that causes stress which leads to violence
  • Sykes commented on those factors that migth attribute to aggression:
    • Loss of freedom, boredom, discomfort, loneliness 
  • Social psychological research also claims that other factors include:
    • Heat, noise and overcrowding 
  • For example, the overcrowding crisis in UK prisons has forced many inmates to share cells, and this is linked to an increase in interpersonal violence
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Institutional Aggression: Deprivation Model AO2

The model has research support from McCorkle Et Al 

  • Found that overcrowding, lack of privacy and lack of meainginful activity in prison all significantly influenced interpersonal violence 
  • Similarily Light found when overcrowding in prisons increases, so do the levels of violence

However, Poole and Regoli provide challenging research

  • Found that pre-institutional violence was the best predictor of inmate aggression regardless of the situational characteristics 
  • Therefore supporting the importation model as it states it is the individuals characteristics that creates the violence 

A strength is that it has real life application:

  • David Wilson (a crimonoligist and former prison governer) designed and managed two special units for the 2 most violence criminals in the UK 
  • In his investigations he changed the levels of noise, heat and overcrowding - found that there was a massive decrease in violent conduct - SUPPORTS AS SHOWS SITUATIONAL CHANGES LEAD TO A CHANGE IN BEHAVIOUR 
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Biological Explanations of Aggression: Neural AO1


  • Serotonin in normal levels has a calming effect on neural firing in the brain 
  • Low levels of serotonin (particularily in the pre-frontal cortex) removes this effect 
  • Normally serotonin works in the frontal areas of the brain to restrain the firing of the amygdala
    (Amygdala = part of the brain that controls fear, anger and other emotional responses)
  • If there is less serotonin in these frontal areas there is less suppression of the amygdala 
  • As a result, when the amygdala is stimulated by external (and threatening) events it becomes more active, causing the person to become more aggressive 
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Biological: Neural AO2

Supporting evidence comes from Rosado Et Al:

  • Took blood samples from 80 dogs (which had been referred to vets for aggressiveness)
  • They compared their blood with non-aggressive dogs 
  • Found that the aggressive dogs averaged 278 units of serotonin
  • The non-aggressive dogs averaged 387 units of serotonin 
    • AO3 - Cannot be generalised to humans 

Supporting evidence from Raine Et Al:

  • Meta-analysis of 29 studies on antisocial children and adults 
  • Studies consistently found lower levels of serotonin than normal in these individuals 
  • People who had attempted to commmit suicide had the lowest levels of serotonin 
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Biological: Neural AO2

Not everyone with low serotonin levels are aggressive

  • Longitudinal research shows children with low serotonin were more aggressive than children with normal levels, however when they became adults they showed no difference in aggression levels, despite still having low serotonin 
  • Maybe due to something else other than sertonin causing aggression

The link between serotonin and aggression is well documented in animals but not in humans 

  • A lot of the research relies on animals, the results cannot be generalised 

IDA: Research into the role of serotonin has real life applications

  • If aggression product of low serotonin then it should be possible to treat it by administering drugs that corrects this faulty e.g. SSRI. 
  • SSRI is very effective however only in the old and the young
  • The fact such a therapy has been based on the neural hypothesis provides support 
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Biological: Hormonal Explanation AO1


  • Testosterone is one of the androgen hormones (produced by male characteristics) which is why seen in most males - however women do have it but in low amounts 
  • Levels of testosterone reach a peak in young adult males and typicall these levels gradually decline with age 
  • The relationship between testosterone and aggression is not simple cause and effect - rather it is likely that testosterone effects a part of the brain that concerns aggression and so high testosterone = high aggression 
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Biological: Hormonal Explanation AO2

Supporting evidence is provided by Olweus Et Al:

  • Took samples of delinquent boys and non-delinquent boys 
  • Found higher levels of testosterone in the delinquent sample 
  • However, the result was not statistically significant 
  • Delinquents with a history of violence also had higher levels of testosterone 
    • AO3 - However, there is limited, as it is not statisically significant cannot really support 

More supporting evidence from animal research:

  • Research that has used the hormone removal and testosterone replacement approach has shown a definite link between testosterone and animal studies 
  • In general, research has found that castration leads to a decrease in aggression in animals
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Biological: Hormonal Explanation AO2

The link between testosterone and aggression is not clear:

  • Not all research has establshed the link e.g. Bain found no link between aggression and testosterone levels of men charged with violence/murder and men charged with non-violent crimes 

Gender Bias:

  • Most of the research is based on studies of men: this presents alpha biased view of relationshi
  • Currently there is little research into the relationship in females, but in fact the research that has been done has shown that the link might be even higher in females 
  • Women with high testosterone tend t respond to challenging situations with more aggression and dominance 
  • However, although gender bias it is necessary in order to produce more conclusive results as men have more tesoterone and therefore eaiser to measure 

Real-Life Applications: The theory has been sued to ingorm the argument why the presence of guns in the environment may increase aggresision - the presence of certain stimuli may trigger increase in aggression 

Therefore the theory has enabled a deeper understanding of why weapons lead to an increase in aggression 

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Biological: Genetic Explanation

Candidate Genes

Researchers identified candidate genes that are thought to contribute to aggressive behaviour - meaning that they believe that aggression is inherited 


Support comes from McGriffin and Gottesman:

  • In twin study found concordance rate of 87% for aggressive and antisocial behaviours for MZ twins, compared to 72% for DZ twins 
    • AO3 - Not a big difference, could have been due to environmental effects - also if it was only genetic woudl have been 100%

More support comes from Hutchings Et Al:

  • Adoption study found positive correlation between the number of convictions from criminal biological parents and number of convinctions for criminal violence among their sons
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Biological: Genetic Explanation

DRD4 and DRD3 

  • Dysfunctions of serotonin and dopamine are said to increase aggressiveness, therefore genes that are associated with the expression of these neurotransmitters are also considered to influnece aggressive behaviour indirectly 

Support comes from Faraone 

  • Found a modest association between variants of this gene and ADHD 
  • The relationship between ADHD and aggression has been consistently demonstrated 
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Biological: Genetic Explanation


  • Research has shown that the gene MAOA may also be associated with individual differeces in aggressive behaviour
  • MAOA breaks down the neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline and dopamine after they have transmitted an impulse from one nerve cell to another 
  • Indirect relationship

Supporting evidence from Brunner

  • Looked at family in the Netherlands 
  • The male members of the family behaved in a particularily violence and aggressive manner
  • These individuals were found to have abnormally low levels of MAOA
    • AO3 - this could have been effected by other facts e.g. nurture and the way they were raised. 
    • Also cultural differences, cannot be generalised 
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Biological: Genetic Explanation AO2

Genes do not determine aggression:

  • Some researchers argue that genes associated with aggression are not deterministic and only poorly predict than an individual would display higher levels of aggression
  • Morrison argues genes do influence aggression but only that it makes it more probable, not that its the cause 
  • So according to this, other factors (e.g. environment) determined whether someone displays aggressive behaviour 


  • If genes cause aggression does it mean they can be held responsible 
  • An italian judge in 2009 took the view that a person doesn't have free will over their aggression due to their genes and therefore decided to reduce the prison sentence he gave to someone guilty of murder 

Real Life Applications:

  • Research may be useful for offender treatment and rehab as it may be helpful in designing interventions for those thought to be at risk of developing criminally violent behaviour. 
  • Some researchers think genetic engineering would be useful in reducing violent behaviour, however ethical issues 
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Evolutionary Explanations of Aggression

Our male ancestors main concern was to find a mate and keep her (in order to reproduce) - this need to find and retain a mate brought males into competition with other males 

Males feared losing their mate, as it means they would not be able to pass on their genes. Due to this sexual jealousy evolved. 

Sexual jealousy is a state of fear caused by real or imagined threat to their status as an exclusive partner. Male sexual jealousy was a consequence of the females suspected sexual infidenlity. This is becasue infidelity on her part could result in her leaving for a new man or cuckoldry. 

For our ancestors, sexual jealousy was an adaptive response which helped them retain their mate


  • Occurs when a woman decieves male into investing in the offspring of another man 
  • As a result men lose their resources to children that aren't theres
  • Due to cuckoldry, males have evovled stratergies to protect themselves being cuckolded 
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Evolutionary Explanations of Aggression

Mate retention strategies:

  • Are driven by sexual jealousy to stop cuckoldry
  • If man feels threatened sexual jealousy occurs and more retention stratergies are used 
  • Studies of women who have suffered from domestic abuse have shown that the majority of victims cite sexual jealousy on the part of the male as the key cause of the violence 

Camilleri: The Cuckoldry Risk Hypothesis 

  • Predicts that males will be more willing to use sexually coercive (forceful and manipulative) tactics such as **** when the risk of cuckoldry is high. 

Buss and Shackleford:

  • Looked at mate-retention strategies used by married couples. When compared to women, men reported a significantly higher use of intrasexual threats (beating up other males). Women however reported a greater use of verbal possession signals (hes mine). Males with younger females made more of an effort to use mate-retention stategies including threats against her 
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Evolutionary Explanations of Aggression AO2

Support comes from Shackleford Et Al:

  • Used survey method to test prediction concerning the use of mate-retention strategies 
  • Male p's were questionned about use of them and how often they performed acts of violence against their partners 
  • Males use of mate-retention s was positively correlated with their violence scores against mate
  • In additional, results from female p's confirmed trent - females reported greater experience of mate retentions from their partners along with more incidents of violence from him 

Real Life Application: Allows for early detection of violence. Useful for both families and friends as able to identify danger signs. Also councseeling can be implemented before ti occurs to stop escalation of violence - extremely beneficial - saving womens lives from domestic abuse

Research has supported claim that sexual coercion of females is adaptive response to threat of infidelity: Camilleri 

  • FOund that the risk of a partners infidelity predicted the liklihood of sexual coercion in males but not in women - important as only males face risk of cuckoldry 
  • Goetz found that women who had been sexually coerced were more likely to admit to having been sexually unfaithful
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Evolutionary Explanations of Aggression AO2

Alpha Bias:

  • Most of the research into evolutionary explanations focuses on male mate-retention and male-male or male-female violence: therefore presenteing an alphia biased view of this area 
  • Females also display mate-retention s and can be violent towards their partner
  • Archer found that women initiate and carry out physical assaults on their partners as often as men 

Support comes from there being cross-cultural evidence that many incidents of male killing is the consequence of sexual jealousy:  Daly and Wilson found that a common theme was that sexual jealousy was initiated by fairly trivial comments about attractiveness of another mans wife. 

  • However, Buss and Shackleford argue that the EVO persepctive on murder cannot explain why people react in different ways when faced with same problem (flirting with wife) 
  • A lack of unviersal response casts doubts on the EVO P being sole explanation 

Most cultures act differently when it comes to aggression: fails to explain why some cultures male violence acquires social status whereas in others it leads to irreparable damage to the repuatation of the aggressor 

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Group Display

Group behaviour normally comes with advantages for its members - a behaviour will only occur when a group of like minded people come together for the same purpose. When they join forces and work together this is known as group display - in this context we are looking at aggressive group displays 


  • Among humans, natural sleection favours genes that cause individuals to be cooperative with other group members and aggressive to non-members.
  • Due to this altruism is promoted and aggression supresseted within the group, but between groups agression is promoted and altruism is suppressed 
  • Among early humans there was a constant threat from rival groups - therefore it is thought that men have evolved a specific tribal psychology that increases their tendency for intergroup aggression and includes ingroup favouritism, outgroup derogation and dehumanisation. 

Shaw Et Al: Natural selection has favoured mechanisms that make us wary/suspicious of strangers (xenophobia) as this would have allowed our ancestors to avoid attack 

In addition, MacDonald argues that it is also adaptive to exaggerate negative stereotypes of outsides as this overperception of the threat is less costly than underperception 


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Group Display

Poldari: Provides evidence for the existence of xenophobia in sports displays 

  • Analysed behaviour of Italian football crows 
  • Foudn that the views of the extreme right-wing political movements were evident in chants and abnners on Italian football terraces 
  • The displays were openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic 
  • Displays expressed outgroup hositility as well as consolidating ingroup identity and solidarity

Religious Group Displays 

  • Irons suggests that a universal dilemma faced by all groups is how to promote cooperation - the adaptive advantage of group living was the benefits that indiviudals gained from eachother
  • Henrich proposes humans have evolved to display CREDS which provide others with a reliable measure of the indiviudals degree of commitement to the group 
  • CRED's may be used by the group for many reason but main is to signal deep commitment 
  • Henrich points out religions with CREDs will tend to surivive and grow
  • Martyrdom (suicide bombers) can provide a powerful CRED regarding level of commitment - the adaptive power of this is when others witness it it increases the commitment of everyone 
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Group Display

  • All groups face the problem of free-riders, someone who takes advantage of free membership but fails to co-operate 
  • The high costs act as a deterant - e.g. Orthodox Jews 


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Group Display: AO2

The universal nature of war-dances cross-culturally suggests there is an evolutionary component:

  • Group displays have now replaced tribal war-fare and are a lot more ritualised - which has the benefit of success without danger
  • It works to intimidate the opposition and motivate their own members - therefore incoperated into sport - reflecting ideas of xenophobia
    • AO3- However, it couldl be argued that these sporting displays do not signify ritualised forms of aggression but serve as entertainment and are commercial 
    • However, as it is universal it does show evolutionary compontnet

As well as within the team, the theory states that the group display takes place with fans however

  • Marsh conducted observation of footbal fans, finding that the most aggression of verbal, symbolic, non-serious and harmless
  • Suggesting that group displays act as catharsis. allowing for safe release of negative emotion

Furthermore, End found that the environment of sports events encourages aggressive group displays, suggesting they are social construction, not an evolutionary thing  

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Group Display: AO2

This begins point how it could be due to something else - reductionist:

  • Evolutionary explanation fails to consider the role of biological and cognitive factors 
  • The deindiviuation theory would argue that such aggressive acts are carried out due to a reduced public awareness and an increase in anonymity 

However, the theory does have real life applications which is useful 

  • The theory has lead to an increase in understanding of why football violence occurs
  • It has led football clubs to taking steps to minimsie the influence of xenophobia - for example the singing of IRA songs has been forbidden
  • The fact the explanation has been used practically to enhance life and prevent agg is evidence

Bressler supports the CREDs:

  • Supports claim that more costly displays of religious commitment are important determinant of the success of the group
  • Found religious groups imposed far more costly requirements on their members than secular groups 
  • The costly requirements were also positively correlated with the lifespan of the group 
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