Discuss Theories for Aggression in Sport

WJEC PY4 revision cards for theories of agression in sport

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  • Created by: Flo
  • Created on: 16-06-12 13:03

Defining Aggression

Gill (1986), identified three defining features of aggresion;

  • It is a behaviour, not a feeling.
  • It involvels harm or injury (either physical or mental)
  • It involves intent. Behaviours which cause harm are not classified as agressive if they are accidental.

Psychologists would differentiate between hostile agression (bad) and instrumental agression (good).

  • Hostile aggression is usually accompanied by anger and has the sole intention to cause harm.
  • Instrumental agression is not usually accompanied by anger and includes an intention to achieve a positive goal. 
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In addition to be hostile and instrumental aggression, coaches often encourage athletes to be more assertive. this is often mistaken as aggression by spectators, opponents and referees. Assertiveness is similar to aggression in that the athlete imposes themselves on the situation, but differs in that there is no intent to harm.

However, it may be too difficult for researchers to differentiate between different types of aggression and assertion as athletes may often have multiple intentions for the same action.

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Dollard et al (1939), suggested that aggression and frustration are linked in one of two ways. Building on Freud's idea on ego defense mechanisms, aggressive acts could provide a 'catharsis' frustrated individuals. This would predict that more frustrated people will be more aggressive. It is also possible that sport is a source of frustration for some people when events are not going their way. This would predict that more frustrating events will result in more aggressive behaviour.

Brekowitz (1993), developed this theory by acknowledging that frustration does not always lead to aggression but a readiness for aggression. This suggests that sports that involve more frustration will be more aggressive. 

  • Doob & Sears (1939), measured emotions whilst they imagined scenes of different frustration levels and found more anger in those imagining frustrating situations, implying that frustration increases levels of anger which therefore causes aggression. However, whilst it is true that frustration may increase anger, this anger may not result in aggression meaning that the study cannot offer highly valid supporting evidence. It seems that the study’s findings support the view that frustration can increase hostile aggression, which is accompanied by anger, but not instrumental aggression, which is not. This implies that the two types of aggression may have different causes, and that frustration cannot be seen as the sole factor.
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Social Learning Theory of Aggression

Aggression, and in particular instrumental aggression, may instead be seen as a learned behaviour, as is suggested by the Social Learning Theory proposed by Bandura.

Quanty (1977), showed that venting anger does not reduce aggression. This refutes the Frustration-Aggression theory as it implies anger or frustration may be unrelated to aggression. It is plausible that aggression is instead learned from role models and is positively reinforced through rewards, thus increasing its likelihood. Bandura demonstrated this in his Bobo Doll study, where children copied aggressive behaviour of role models that they saw. However, they were not aggressive when not exposed to an aggressive role-model. This offers support for Bandura’s theory, suggesting that aggression is not due to a build up of frustration due to environmental factors as both groups of children were in the same situation. It is also possible that merely witnessing aggressive behaviour causes a build-up of frustration, leading to aggression, and so the frustration-aggression theory is still possible. There is evidence for Bandura’s theory that aggression is a learned behaviour in the real world. Children, for example, watch wrestling and imitate wrestlers as they are role models who receive vicarious rewards, such as money and praise. They therefore copy their aggressive behaviour because they have learned it and seen that it brings rewards supporting the Social Learning Theory.

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Both these theories are too reductionist. Athletes are often frustrated and exposed to role models who seem to be rewarded for aggression but many of these will never be aggressive.

A consideration of situation-specific factors which precipitate aggression may be more useful.

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Perception of Victims

If an athlete believes an opponent intends to harm them they are more likely to respond aggressively. 

  • Harrell (1980), studied aggression in high school basketball and found that the best prediction of aggression was the amount of aggression directed against the participant. This suggests that rather than being an internal emotion or an imitation, aggression is a direct response to the immediate environment created by opponents. This view is compatible with Berkowitz’s ideas that it is this stimulus combined with frustration that triggers an aggressive response.
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Goal Orientation

Goal Orientation theory suggests athletes with an ego goal orientation are more likely to view aggressive acts as a legitimate way to win as they have less regard for the rules.

  • Dunn et al (1999) found elite ice hockey players with the highest ego goal orientation were most likely to view aggressive acts as legitimate and so display instrumental aggression. This suggests that some athletes exhibit more instrumental aggression, as it is seen by those with ego goal orientations to be an acceptable way of achieving a positive outcome. However, this does not explain hostile aggression as the intent of this is purely to cause harm, not to aid performance or win.
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Raifman et al (1991) found that pitchers in major league baseball were more likely to pitch aggressively when the temperature was higher, suggesting that increased temperature leads to more aggression.

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