Aggression: Social psychological theories

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  • Created on: 03-01-13 17:46

What is aggression?

What is aggression?

The delivery of an aversive stimulus from one person to another, with an intent to harm and with an expectation of causing such harm, when the other person is motivated to escape or avoid a stimulus.

There are 2 types of aggression:

  • Affective- this is when the intention is so cause harm to the other persons
  • Instrumental- this is when aggression is simply a ‘means to an end’
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Social Learning Theory (Bandura)

Social learning theory suggests that aggression is learned in two main ways:

1. Direct experience / reinforcement: The person receives a reward directly for their behaviour (operant conditioning) (eg if child pushes another child and as a result gets something they want, the action is reinforced and more likely to be repeated) 2. Indirect experience / reinforcement The person observes another person and receives a reward for their behaviour. (Social Learning Theory). (eg an infant may observe an older sister get what she wants by throwing a tantrum. The younger child may imitate this in similar situations – modelling their own behaviour on their sister)

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The central part of learning and modelling behaviour is the presence of a role model from whom behaviour could be copied and the reinforcement received by that role model.

Bandura suggests 4 main steps in the ‘modelling’ process (ARRM):

Attention: More likely if the model is similar to you, attractive and powerful. Children must pay attention to what the aggressor is doing and saying in order to reproduce the model’s behaviour

Retention: The person must be able to store mental images of the aggressive behaviour of the model Reproduction: The person must be able to physically reproduce the behaviour. You are more likely to reproduce aggressive behaviour if you have low self esteem or you are highly dependent on others Motivation: The individual must be motivated to repeat the behaviour. The likelihood of performing the behaviour depends on reinforcement. Witnessing someone being rewarded for their aggression makes it more likely the act will be imitated

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Study supporting SLT


Bandura performed a number of lab experiments involving children observing an adult behaving aggressively towards a Bobo doll.

Bandura divided 66 nursery school children (aged 3 – 5 years) into three groups. All three groups watched a film where an adult model kicked and punched a Bobo doll.

  • Condition 1: Children saw the adult model being rewarded by a second adult.
  • Condition 2: Children saw a second adult telling off the adult model for the aggressive behaviour.
  • Condition 3: The adult model was neither rewarded nor punished

The children were then allowed to play in the room with the Bobo doll while the experimenters observed and rated their aggression.

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Condition 1 (adult rewarded) behaved most aggressively

Condition 2  (adult punished) behaved least aggressively

Condition 3   (no consequences) also behaved aggressively

All three groups showed the same ability to reproduce the model’s aggressive behaviour. Therefore they showed comparable levels of observational learning,  However,  those who had seen the model punished were least likely to apply this learning to their own behaviour.

Why does this study support SLT?

They are motivated by a role model and copied their behaviour. Also used ARRM.

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Evaluation of Bandura

  • Lab experiment – high control and high internal validity and can establish cause and effect, strong support for the study
  • The children were rated for aggressiveness prior to the study and participants matched for aggressiveness. This was necessary to get rid of participant variables, they won’t end up with a group that’s overly or under aggressive
  • Bobo Doll a demand characteristic - It is made to be beaten up, if it was another object, perhaps the study would be more valid.
  • only demonstrated short term effects; it does not follow the children later in life and thus observe their aggressiveness. However, Hicks found that 40% of a models acts could be reproduced up to 8 months later
  • A further criticism is that children may be likely to imitate the behaviour of a doll but could be less likely to imitate aggression towards another child. 
  • Johnson et al found that aggressive play correlated with teacher and peer ratings of aggression. therefore, aggressive play is an indicator of real aggression; reflects real life so it’s strong support for the study
  • Age bias – weak supporting evidence
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Evaluation of SLT

  • SLT can account for cultural and individual variations in aggression 
  • Yanomamo tribe are a very violent tribe; children grow up seeing their role models be aggressive, thus they learn to be aggressive. The Kun San tribe are peaceful, the children watch their role models be peaceful and mimic their behaviour.
  • SLT can explain why we behave aggressively in some situations and not others e.g:
  • In different situations we have different role models. For example, if someone was a rugby player, they would be aggressive when playing the sport due to the role models in their team and their coach. They then could have passive parents and copy their behaviour elsewhere
  • Oversimplified (reductionist)– people are not always rewarded for aggression – often they are punished.
  • Child watches sibling get punished for doing something, yet they can do the same thing. Criminals go to prison and are punished and sometimes reoffend.
  • Social learning theory is not a complete explanation of aggression as it does not explain the impulse to aggress, for example:
  • Even if you have watched a model behave aggressively, you may only act aggressive when you are frustrated.
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Evaluation : Approaches / Comparisons

Other explanations suggest aggression involves more than social psychological factors. For example:

Sociobiological theory – males will be naturally more aggressive due to their evolutionary past. 

Biological explanations – chemical imbalance,hormones, brain damage, genetics

Freud  - overdeveloped id, underdeveloped ego, phallic frustration may make you more masculine and therefore more aggressive.

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Evaluation : Issues and Debates

  • Free will / Determinism: Suggests that someone just observes behaviour and WILL imitate it, there is no free will
  • Reductionist: Simplified a complicated behaviour, suggests it’s just learning. Ignores thought processes and emotions.
  • Culture Bias: All in America, we don’t know if the process of learning is the same for most cultures
  • Focus on Nurture, ignores genes
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Deindividuation Theory


Deindivuation is a process whereby people lose their sense of socialised individual identity and engaged in unsocialised, often anti-social behaviour.

Deindividuation refers to the process of decreased self assessment and awareness, in situations where identification of an individual is difficult if not impossible.

Deindividuation may occur when we cannot be singled out eg: • In a crowd or a large group • When we are anonymous (eg wearing a uniform) • In a state of altered consciousness (eg drugs or alcohol) In these situations we may experience:

  • A loss of sense of individuality
  • Reduced self restraint
  • Deviant or impulsive behaviour
  • Reduced attention to how our behaviour might be evaluated
  • Change in normal standards of behaviour
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Zimbardo distinguished between:

Individuated behaviour – rational, conforms to acceptable social norms 

Deindividuated behaviour – based on primitive urges, not conforming to society’s norms(leading to anti-social acts)

People do not normally act in an aggressive way partly due to social norms inhibiting such behaviour and partly because they are easily identifiable. According to Zimbardo, the larger the crowd the more we are ‘faceless’ as we have a greater anonymity. This means we may be less fearful about how others perceive our behaviour and not feel guilty if we behave in an anti-social way. Public and private self-awareness:
Reducing public awareness (being anonymous and unidentifiable) and reduced private self awareness (losing focus on internalised norms, values and morals etc) is key in the process of deindividuation

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Evaluation : Studies supporting Deindividuation Th

Zimbardo's Prison Study:

Prisoners and prison guards in mock prison in the basement of Stanford university – told to ‘maintain order’. Guards came up with humiliating ways to traumatise the prisoners. Experiment ended after 6 days.

The guards were all wearing the same uniform, with glasses and billy clubs as a symbol of power, thus they became deindividuated, as they lost their own identity and became an aggressive prison officer.

The prisoners were also deindividuated as they all wore the same dress-like smocks and, like the guards, were nameless and had numbers in their place.

Their dendividuation caused them to group up and rebel. Moreover, because the guards were deindividuated, they were able to create humiliating punishments for the prisoners

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Watson (1973) 

Investigated 23 different cultures.  They found that warriors who depersonalised themselves with painted face masks were significantly more likely to kill, torture or mutilate captured enemies. 

This study supports deindividuation theory because by wearing a mask, they lose their personal identity and become deindividuated and are therefore more aggressive

Zimbardo - ‘Women in Hoods’ study (1969) 

  • ‘Learning task’ with female student participants
  • Female students gave electric shocks to a confederate on a learning task
  • Condition one – bulky lab coats and hoods
  • Condition two – normal clothes and name tags
  • Deindivuated groups gave twice as many shocks

Supports theory because the participants were deindividuated by wearing a uniform and hood and were more aggressive 

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Diener (1976) - ‘Halloween’ study

  • Naturalistic observation of 1300 trick or treating children 
  • Children in large groups and wearing costumes = more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour
  • Children who were deindividuated were more likely to be aggressive

Mann (1981) – ‘Crowd-baiting’ study

  • Analysed 21 incidents of suicide (reported in US papers – 60s + 70s)
  • Found 10 out of 21 cases in which a crowd had gathered to watch, baiting had occurred crowd urged potential suicide to jump
  • This tended to occur at night, when the crowd was large and when crowd distant (jumper v. high up) – all of these likely to produce a state of deindividuation in the crowd
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Evaluation: Comparison

Social contagion (Le Bon, 1895) – A few people in the crowd started to bait the victim then this spreads like a disease. This was first used as an explanation for the mass hysteria that sometimes sweeps through crowds and leads to mob behaviour.

Social Learning Theory: observing people doing it, so you copy their behaviour

Biological: genetic predisposition

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  • Deindividuation research has influenced crowd control practices e.g. as used by the police
  • Deindividuation explanation would suggest football violence involves a faceless crowd engaged in an **** of aggressive, selfish and antisocial behaviour. Marsh et al 1978 disagrees – he found undisciplined mob behaviour on match days actually consisted of several different groups, each with their own status.
  • Deindividuation may involve conformity to group norms – and new norms may appear in crowds – not just loss of inhibitions.
  • Anonymity of victims may be an important factor – not just the aggressor, e.g. The victims in the Mann study (anonymous victim on the top of the building, no emotional attactment), Zimbardo’s study with the prison guards. Also, if you attack someone’s shop, you don’t consider the impact of your behaviour on the shop owner. 
  • Johnson and Downing (1979) -The Zimbardo (hoods) experiment was repeated with groups in: KKK uniform (deindividuated) – showed highest aggression,  Nurses uniform (deindividuated)- showed least aggression, Own clothes (individuated) – showed more aggression than those in nurses uniform. This suggests that deindividuation doesn’t always increase aggression – the role associated with the uniform has an effect. (however, the KKK uniform conceals your face)
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  • Deindividuation does not always lead to aggression. Gergen (1973) study:

12 participants (6 per condition)

Condition 1 = light room (individuated)

Condition 2= dark room (deindividuated).

Dark room = first 15 minutes they were polite to each other, by 1 hour their inhibitions were lowered and most participants got physical! (1/2 cuddles + 80% were sexually aroused)

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Evaluation: Issues and Debates

Free will /Determinism

Too deterministic, it claims you will be aggressive when deindividuated.

Culture bias – 

Research mainly in USA, low population validity, cannot reflect to the majority of cultures and people

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Explanations of Institutional Aggression

Institutional aggression involves aggressive/violent behaviour that exists within and may be a defining feature of a certain institution or group.

Explanations of Institutional aggression in prisons:

Across England and Wales in 2006 11,476 violent incidents in prisons were reported which is a 541% increase on rates from 1996.  There are 2 explanations put forward to explain this aggressive behaviour:

1. The Importation Model – Irwin and Cressey (1962)

Inmates import their own norms, values, attitudes and personal experiences into their prison life when they arrive.  For example younger prisoners find it much harder to adjust to prison life so turn to past experiences eg violence for information on how to behave.  This is especially true if the inmate comes from a culture where violence is an appropriate response to conflict.  Adams (1981) studied black and white prisoners in America and found that black prisoners were more likely to be involved in violent incidents as they came from impoverished communities where violence is a cultural norm

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2.The Deprivation Model

The experience of imprisonment itself causes extreme stress and frustration which leads to aggression.  Harer and Steffensmeier (1996) stated that violence is caused by “problems of adjustment posed by deprivations or pains of imprisonment”.  As prisoners suffer these pains they react to it by engaging in interpersonal violence.  

What are the prisoners being deprived of?

  • Their own clothes
  • Freedom
  • Family
  • Sex

This is supported by the fact that as prisons become more overcrowded, violence increases as the prisoners are losing more of their personal space.

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Evaluation: Studies

Research support for the importation model

Harer & Steffensmeier:

  • Analysed data from 58 US prisons and found that black inmates displayed higher levels of violent behaviour but lower rates of alcohol and drug misconduct compared to white inmates
  • Conclusion: these differences reflect racial differences in these behaviours within US society generally – provides support that these characteristics are imported into the prison environment

Keller and Wang:

  • Found prison violence is more likely to occur where the most troublesome inmates are e.g. higher levels of assaults on staff occurring maximum security institutions
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Limitations of Importation Model

McCorkle et al:

  • Found that this model fails to provide suggestions for how best to manage violent offenders or reduce prison violence

De Lisi et al:

  • Studied over 800 inmates and found no evidence of gang membership prior to prison having any bearing on violence or misconduct within prison


  • No-one had a history of aggression in his prison study
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Evaluation of the Deprivation Model


  • It has been suggested that Zimbaro’s prison study supports the deprivation model because prisoners experiencing deprivation of identities/freedom etc. This led to increased aggression in the form of a prison riot 


  • McCorkle et al claim that stress levels associated with imprisonment are generally constant whereas serious outbreaks of violence are not and that serious violence is more a consequence of the management of prisons rather than the general deprivation that prisoners endure, this is a weakness of the model because if deprivation were constant we would expect violence to be constant also
  • McCorkle et al studies 371 US state prisons and found little evidence to support the connection between violence and overcrowding/living conditions
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Evaluation: Issues and Debates

Free will / Determinism (Deprivation model)

Determinist because if you’re deprived of freedom you WILL become aggressive


Doesn’t provide us with an in-depth explanation, could be due to homelessness, social life, etc

Nature/Nurture (Deprivation model)

• Focus on nurture

• Doesn’t take account of biological factors

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Institutional Aggression in Initiation Rituals

What is an initiation ritual?

Requirements that new members of a group must meet

What is the main function of these rituals?

Create common bond amongst members – all shared same experience of initiation – part of select group

How do Americans view hazing?

Unlawful in 43 states

How does Raphael explain initiation ceremonies?

Takes away weakness associated with childhood and replace with confidence of adulthood

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Outline one way that initiations are used in the military

Involve nightly beatings - dedovshchina


McCorkle (1993) found that in prisons the domination of weak inmates during initiation helps to maintain the hierarchy of the inmates.

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