Psychology A2 - Aggression

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  • Created on: 21-05-16 09:22

Social Learning Theory - Bandura

Social Learning Theory (SLT) suggests that aggression is a learned behaviour, and if it is modelled, we will observe and imitate that behaviour if that behaviour (aggression) is reinforced. This theory suggests that one must go through four specific stages in order for observation and imitation to occur. Firstly, there is the focus of giving attention to the aggressive role model. This is followed by retention, which is when one makes a mental representation of the role model's behaviour. If the individual has self-efficacy (a specific type of confidence related to the ability to do something), they will then be likely to reproduce the behaviour, especially if the expectation of reward is high, leaving the individual motivated to imitate the aggresssive behaviour.

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Social Learning Theory - Research (1)


  • Found that children who watched an aggressive act towards a bobo doll imitated the behaviour exactly.
  • Imitation was greatest when the role model was rewarded with sweets.
  • A control group who did not see aggressive behaviour showed no aggressive behaviour towards the bobo doll. They hugged/cuddled it instead.


  • Cross-sectional
  • Demand characteristics
  • Ethical issues
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Social Learning Theory - Research (2)


Studied children with behaviour problems including aggression. He found that their parents had been modelling aggressive behaviour and rewarding problem behaviour. Training parents to model more appropriate behaviour helped the children (P) - correlational.


Found that in a sampe of 11,000 children where the parent and child completed questionnaires that those who saw aggression more often were more likely to show aggression. Bandura called this Intergenerational transmission of violence. A child raised in a violent family is more likely to be aggressive as they grow up.


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Social Learning Theory - Research (3)

However.... Boys were found to be more likely than girls to show aggression. Whilst it could be suggested that the parent may have been male and therefore boys imitated more, if this was not the case then SLT is limited in its ability to explain gender differences. To understand gender differences we would need to consider biology and hormones.

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Social Learning Theory - Practical Applications

SLT offers practical applications if we wish to reduce the amount of aggressive behaviour in society. For example, it would make sense to reduce the amount of aggression in the media in an attempt to reduce vicarious reinforcement and the number of aggressive role-models. In addition, we can see with SLT that parents and teachers who punish poor behaviour with aggression will only serve to encourage the intergenerational transmission of violence. Vulnerable families in particular may need to support to learn different techniques for disciplining their children.

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Social Learning Theory - Wider Issues (1)

SLT can be used to explain cross cultural differences in levels of aggression. For example, Kung San of the Kalahari Desert are reported to have very low incidences of aggression. This can be explained by SLT as social norms mean that parents never modelled aggressive behaviour. They do not use raised voices and physical punishments are not considered socially acceptable. Compare this to Britain where it is to common to hear parents shout at children and we can see how SLT can be applied to explain cultural differences.

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Social Learning Theory - Wider Issues (2)


SLT is socially sensitive, since it implies that we will passively imitate aggressive behaviour that we see being modelled, provided that the behaviour is reinforced. This is to suggest that we do not have the free-will to think about whether or not imitating the aggressive behaviour is the right thing to do. This is especially socially sensitive for people who grow up in aggressive households, since it suggests they will inevitably be aggressive themselves. This level of determinism is upsetting as the people who grow up in aggressive homes may actually feel more determined to make sure that they do not behave the same way towards their own children when they are older.

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Social Learning Theory - Wider Issues (3)


Not everyone who watches an aggressive film will go on to imitate the behaviour they have seen, and not everyone who grows up with aggressive parents will grow up to be aggressive themselves. In fact, being exposed to aggression seems to affect different people in a different way. For example, boys have been found to be more likely to copy aggressive behaviour than girls. This suggests that SLT is overly reductionist and we need to consider other explanations. SLT is from the behavioural approach, which fails to take into account other influences on our behaviour. In particular when thinking about aggression, we should not rule out the possibility that biological factors, such as the role of neurotransmitters and hormones have a role to play.

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Deindividuation Theory (Diener)

DEINDIVIDUATION - A psychological state leading to a loss of self-identity.

Deindividuation can often happen when we are a part of a crowd. This can lead to us becoming disinhibited where we no longer feel the need to control aggressive urges. According to Diener, being in a crowd leads to three possible things: being anonymous, group unity and diffused responsibility. These three factors lead to a loss of self-awareness, which in turn leads to deindividuation. If one experiences deindividuation, then one is more likely to behave aggressively. This theory is displayed in real life events such as the My Lai massacre or the 2011 London riots, where people felt anonymous and that there would be no consequences for their aggressive behaviour as they were part of a crowd, with diffused responsibility.

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Deindividuation Theory (Diener) - Research (1)


Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment appears to support deindividuation theory. Firstly, the guards were likely to have experienced deindividuation because of certain environmental factors: They were in a group, all wearing the same uniform, and glasses to 'hide their identity'. Furthermore, the prisoners were dehumanised because: they were all given a number and all wore the same clothing. Zimbardo concluded that it was these environmental factors which must have led to the aggressive behaviour on the part of the guards they felt they wouldn't have any consequences to their behaviour.

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Deindividuation Theory (Diener) - Research (2)


Secondly, Zimbardo repeated Milgram's electric shock experiments. He compared two conditions. In the first, teachers (naive participants) wore a name tag; in the second they wore a hood that hid their face. In support of deindividuation theory, Zimbardo found those in hoods gave higher shocks.

However, these experiments have been criticised because it does not neccessarily prove that deindividuation was the cause of aggressive behaviour. The guards and the teachers may simply have been conforming to the uniform/outfit they were given. If it was a less aggressive uniform or outfit, maybe they would have been less aggressive, even though in theory they could still have been deindividuated.

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Deindividuation Theory (Diener) - Research (3)

In fact, JOHNSON & DOWNING showed this may be true because they repeated Zimbardo's Milgram type experiment and found that those in the surgical mask (still anonymous) gave less shocks then those who weren't anonymous.

Lots of this research is criticised for being laboratory based which means we cannot generalise to real life situations as the environment is artificial (lacks ecological validity).

There is also some support from non-experimental research. For example, WATSON found that the tribe/warriors covered in face paint had higher levels of aggression than those who didn't.

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Deindividuation Theory (Diener) - Wider Issues (1)

This theory can explain some violent crowd behaviour such as football matches.

But, cannot explain why many crowds are not aggressive and in fact bring out the best in people. For example, marathons, Olympic games, festivals (Glastonbury).

It could be that deindividuation is more likely in male dominated crowds, in which case there are gender differences which the theory does not explain. In fact, Cannavle found that males responded more aggressively than females when under conditions of anonymity. Explaining this gender difference socially is difficult, and may be better explained by biological theories (in particular the role of hormones such as testosterone) - REDUCTIONIST: Doesn't take biology into account.

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Deindividuation Theory (Diener) - Wider Issues (2)

Like Freud's theories, deindividuation is socially sensitive because it paints a very  negative view of human nature. This is because its basic premise is that if we could get away with being violent, we would. The only stopping us is our fear of being caught.

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Institutional aggression (1)

Definition: "Aggressive behaviour that exists within, and may be a defining feature of, certain institutions and groups".


  • Believes that aggression within institutions has causes within the institution, not from the outside. This is a situational explanation as it suggests aggression is caused by the environment in which these people are held. It is thought to be caused by  deprivations within the prison.
  • Basic Idea - the setting of the prison makes prisoners aggressive.
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Institutional aggression (2)

1. Deprivation of liberty: Loss of freedom - prisoners need permission to do everything, including eating and washing.

2. Deprivation of autonomy: Prisoners have no independence and very few choices - this can lead to frustration and therefore aggression.

3. Deprivation of goods/services: Inmates are forced to live in near  poverty conditions.

4. Deprivation of heterosexual relationships

5. Deprivation of society: many report feeling lonely and insecure.

Furthermore, these deprivations are exaggerated by situational factors such as heat, noise and over-crowding.

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Institutional aggression - Research

  • LOCKWOOD - Sexual assaults account for 25% of conflicts that occur in prison.
  • ZIMBARDO - Prisoners became violent as a result of being imprisoned. None of the participants had a history of being at all aggressive before they took part in the experiment.
  • McCORKLE - Poor prison management results in more incidences of prison violence. In particular, failing to ensure that prisoners engage in programmes of meaningful activity and overcrowding leads to more aggression and violence.

All of this research appears to support Sykes deprivation model because its the experience of being in prison and deprived that makes you aggressive.

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Institutional aggression - P & WI

P - Social psychologists who support the deprivation model because its the experience of being deprived that makes you aggressive.

W - This is an optimistic view, because it states that the prison violence is not inevitable. In theory, prisons can become less aggressive places and therefore offer some hope of rehabilitation.

W - There are several research findings which suggest it is not the experience of being locked up that makes people aggressive. There may be other explanations for the violence we see in prisons.

W - In Zimbardo's study it was not just the prisoners who became violent. The prison guards were as violent, even though they did not experience the same deprivations as the prisoners. This suggests that other social forces in prisons may play a role for example the guards were deindividuated and dehumanised.

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Institutional aggression (3)

THE IMPORTATION MODEL - an alternative way of explaining aggression in prisons (IRWIN & CRESSY 1962)

It may be reductionist to assume that all prison violence is the result of being imprisoned. An alternative explanation is that prisoners behave in certain ways in prison because they have brought their social and cultural norms in with them from outside.

1. There are racial and cultural differences in violence in prisons, even though all the prisoners experience the same deprivations. These racial differences appear to mirror the racial differences found in gangs outside of prisons, suggesting that the violence in prisons is just a continuation of what was going on outside. Eg. Hafen et al found violence was highest amongst black inmates, drug and alcohol abuse was highest among white inmates, as it is outside of prisons. This suggests that the importation model may be just as valid as the deprivation model.

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Institutional aggression (4)

2. The level of deprivation experienced by prisoners remains constant, and yet violence and aggression is not constant - there are times when it peaks and times of relative calm. Arguably, since Sykes conducted his research, conditions in prisons have improved, and yet violence and assaults continue to increase.

In conclusion, it may be that whilst social psychology can offer some ideas for making prisons less violent places, we may have to accept that at least some of the violece is imported from outside by already violent people. There is a reason why prisoners are locked up, and it may be that biological factors such as neural/hormonal imbalances may explain an individual's predisposition to violent and aggressive behaviour which has little or nothing to do with the prison setting.

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Neural mechanisms involved in aggression (1)


The amygdalae are almond shaped structures located deep within the temporal lobes. They form an important part of the brain's limbic system which is responsible for ouur emotional reactions. It is sometimes referred to as the brain's 'fear centre'. However, abnormalities in the size or function of the amygdalae and/or over stimulation of the amygdalae may be an underlying biological cause of violence.

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Amygdalae (R)

LEDOUX found that electrical stimulation of the amygdalae in rats caused them to exhibit 'fear and rage', supporting the hypothesis that an over-active amygdalae leads to aggression.

CASE STUDY OF JULIA: Suffered from epilepsy. After placing electrodes to the brain, they found that when playing the guitar, she smashed it against the wall.

PARDINI ET AL: recruited 56 men from Pittsburgh Youth Study, whose levels of aggression/psychopathic features were measured. 36 had a history of violence, and 20 had a history of no violence. MRI scans showed that those with smaller amygdalae showed more aggression than those with larger amygdalae. After 3 years, those with smaller amygdalae were 3 times more likely to continue to be more aggressive.

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Neural mechanisms involved in aggression (2)


The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is an area of the brain associated with the regulation of impulsive behaviour, helping see the future consequences of one's actions rather than seeking immediate rewards and acting on impulse. Studies have established that damage to the PFC causes patients to be oblivious to future consequences and focus only on immediate reward, unable to regulate their behaviour. The PFC's connectivity to other brain regions gives insights to the means by which it may regulate impulsive behaviour. For example it appears to have a role to play in regulating the emotional reactions which occur in the amygdalae. 

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Neural mechanisms involved in aggression (3)

Damage to the PFC may therefore mean that the reflexive, impulsive emotional response of the amygdala goes unregulated and we act without conscious thought for the consequences. Damage to the PFC results in a loss of self-control and may be responsible for violence which is impulsive and reactive.

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Pre Frontal Cortex (R)

RAINE: Assessed 41 murders using PET scans. These PET scans work out brain activity by measuring how much glucose uptake is occurring in brain cells. The more glucose uptake, the more active that region of the brain is. They found that there was a significant reduction in glucose uptake in the PFC of murderers when compared to control groups. This would appear to support the hypothesis that damage to (resulting in a lack of activity in) the PFC is an underlying cause of violence.

Research shows around 47% of prison population diagnosed with ASPD.

BLACKWOOD: Found that when you compare the brians of criminals with ASPD and psychopathy, with the brains of criminals with ASPD alone and with non-criminal controls, the group who are diagnosed as psychopathic (ASPD) have less grey matter in the PFC.

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Neural mechanisms involved in aggression (P)


You cannot hold somebody responsible for violent behaviour if the cause is biological and therefore out of their control.


If brain damage is the root cause, therapy such as CBT or 'anger management' will not work as the cause is biological.

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Neural mechanisms involved in aggression (W)


The role of the environment is underestimated, violent role models or being influenced by gangs may have an effect on behaviour, not just biological factors.


Socially sensitive because problematic children would be predicted to behave violently or aggressively in their adult lives which may not be the case.

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Hormonal mechanisms involved in aggression

Testosterone is a steroid hormone from the androgen group, which is linked to the prenatal and postnatal development of the male gender and physique, which in turn has been linked to more physical aggression in many species. Thus, aggressive behaviour tends to increase with testosterone, supported by the observation that there are noticeable sex differences in aggression in most species. Testosterone is present to a lesser extent in females, who may be more sensitive to its effects. In many species, castration is used as a means of reducing aggressive behaviour, although in humans the relationship between testosterone and aggression is less clear.

It may be that being male drives feelings of dominance and strength ('masculine role'), or it could be that testosterone has a direct, causal link to dominance and aggression as it does in other animals.

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Hormonal mechanisms involved in aggression (R)

BEAVER: Found a positive correlation between anabolic-androgenic steroid use and serious violent behaviour. Beaver concluded that young adult males who used anabolic-androgenic steroids reported greater involvement in violent behaviours than a control group who did not use these drugs.

DABBS: Found a positive correlation between testosterone and severity of crime in a sample of criminals. Those with the highest levels of testosterone had committed the most violent crimes (including **** and murder), whilst those with lower levels of testosterone had committed less violent crimes (such as theft and burglary).

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Hormonal mechanisms involved in aggression (R)

KLINESMITH: Measured testosterone levels in a sample of 30 male college students before and after they had asked to interact with either a gun or a child's toy for 15 minutes. Males who interacted with the gun showed significantly greater increases in testosterone and behaved more aggressively towards another participant compared to those who played with the child's toy.

This suggests that testosterone may account for aggressive behaviour, but that the increase in aggression is the result of aggressive cues in the environment. This is a good illustration of the interaction between nature and nurture.

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Hormonal mechanisms involved in aggression (P)

Helps us to understand the importance of weapons. Simply seeing a weapon can lead to more aggression, therefore, if we reduce the access to weapons, in theory the aggressive behaviour can also be reduced.


See the WI of neural.

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The role of genetics in human aggression (1)


Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) is an enzyme that breaks down important neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine and serotonin. A build up of these neurotransmitters is associated with impulsive and potentially aggressive behaviour. The enzyme is regulated by the MAOA gene which comes from the X chromosome. Humans have various forms of the gene, resulting in different levels of enzymatic activity. People with the low-activity form (MAOA-L) of the gene produce less of the enzyme, while the high-activity form (MAOA-H) produces more of the enzyme. Inheriting MAOA-L means you are less effective at breaking down the neurotransmitters associated with aggression, and therefore you may have a genetic predisposition towards aggressive behaviour. As it is located on the X chromosome, men only inherit one version of the gene, meaning if it is the low version, it will have a greater effect. Women inherit double, modifying the effects.

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The role of genetics in human aggression (R)

CASPI ET AL: Found that boys who had been maltreated as children and who had inherited the MAOA-L gene were significantly most likely to go on to become offenders themselves and develop antisocial problems. Boys who had been maltreated as children but who had inherited the MAOA-H gene were less likely to go on to become offenders themselves or develop antisocial problems.

McDERMOTT & BROWN: Found that those who had inherited the MAOA-L genes were most aggressive in their punishments of chilli sauce. When they were provoked, the punishments got worse. This supports the view that the MAOA-L gene effects aggressive behaviour when there is provocation. This demonstrates the link between nature and nurture. 

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The role of genetics in human aggression (P)

It is possible to test for the 'warrior gene'. This could put support in place for children who have inherited the MAOA-L gene. You would want them to be in groups which can help them control their feelings, for example, Judo/Karate.

You wouldn't want children being influenced by violent games.

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The role of genetics in human aggression (W)

There is a danger of over-emphasising the role of the MAOA gene. You could use the gene as an excuse for aggressive behaviour, by saying that it isn't their fault.

Reductionism - Lots of other social factors, such as violent media/role models, gang influence etc.

Some people are biologically predispositioned to be violent, however the environment is also an important factor.

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The role of genetics in human aggression (2)

The MAOA gene is not the only genetic factor implicated in aggression. For many years, people thought that males who inherited an extra Y chromosome (XYY) had a genetic predisposition to aggression. However, research has been unreliable, and it is more likely that the physical size of XYY males, combined with lower than average IQ scores, may make them more vulnerable to becoming 'caught up' in criminal behaviour.

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Evolutionary explanations for aggression (1)

  • Evolutionary psychologists believe that the ultimate cause of all our actions is to ensure the survival of our genetics. Aggression is an adaptive behaviour, meaning it helps us to survive.
  • They claim that human and animal aggression arises only when there is competition for the genes we need to survive.
  • We can fight for resources either directly or through fighting for status. Males are likely to fight for status as women are more likely to mate with a man with high status as they will be able to protect them and their offspring.
  • Reproductive mates are extremely important resources, as they provide the only way we can pass on our genes.
  • When a mate is unfaithful, this is called infidelity. This is a major concern for males, as it may lead to paternal uncertainty.
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Evolutionary explanations for aggression (2)

  • This is particularly a problem for species who use internal fertilisation, as there can be no way to tell which male has fertilised the female until the child is born.
  • Males want to safeguard against being cuckolded. To do this, they use anti-cuckoldry strategies, which involve jealousy. These strategies are often aggressive.
  • These strategies may involve direct guarding or negative inducements.
  • On the other end of the scale, some anti-cuckoldry strategies are not aggressive at all, for example conferring benefits. This involves gifts or compliments to get their women not to cheat. However, not all men have the resources to employ these strategies, so it is these men who are more likely to be aggressive - socially sensitive
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Evolutionary explanations for aggression (R)

In Detroit in 1985, 41% of male perpetrators of homicides were unemployed, although only 11% of the male population of the city were unemployed. These statistics support evolutionary theory because they seem to support the view that men with the least resources use violence to get what they want.

However, this is a very socially sensitive claim to make because not everyone who is poor is aggressive. And the relationship between resources and aggression is only correlational, meaning that third variables may interfere eg. gang involvement or role models (social psychology)

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Evolutionary explanations for aggression (R)

  • Statistics from the Justice Policy Institute state that men greatly outnumber women in US prisons by 1.36 million to 100,102. These statistics support evolutionary theory because men are likely to resort to violence in fear of being cuckolded.
  • HOWEVER, Archer found that women commit just as many assaults on family members as men do, which challenges evolutionary theory because women have no need to be violent as they cannot be cuckolded.
  • We could therefore argue that evolutionary theory is androcentric because it cannot explain aggression in women.
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Evolutionary explanations for aggression (W)

DETERMINISTIC because it implies that men have a hard-wired need for aggression, it is innate and adaptive. Which means it is socially sensitive as it suggests that men are inevitably aggressive, which may not be the case. And so it provides an explanation for domestic violence, an excuse for why men are aggressive.

REDUCTIONIST because they don't take into account other factors that might make us aggressive. Which means that it doesn't provide a full explanation for aggression. And so we need to consider other approaches, for example, biological explanations or the role of genetics, such as the MAOA gene. This can explain aggression in women.

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Evolutionary explanations for group displays (1)

A group display can be defined as 'a highly ritualised and organised display of aggression by and between groups of people'. 

The basic premise of this theory is that humans will be strongly driven to unite and form highly organised and 'strong' groups so that they can improve their own chances of survival. The theory also states that being part of a successful group increases one's status. Since status is positively correlated with reproductive fitness, a visible signal that we are very much part of this group will increase our chances of attracting a mate.


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Evolutionary explanations for group displays (2)


According to Darwin's theory of Natural Selection, war is inevitable because:

  • Resources (oil, land, food)
  • Remove some of the population (manage over-population eg. genocide)
  • Protect our 'in-group'

A powerful display of ritualised and organised aggression (such as public parades showing military strength) will be adaptive because:

  • Unites and strengthens our 'in-group'
  • Intimidates the 'out-group'.
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Group Displays (R)

DIAMOND reported that at the time of publication, 63% of the countries involved in 20th Century wars did so over land disputes due to insufficient space and resources. This research could be used to support the view that war is inevitable while there is competition for resources.

LEUNISSEN ET AL found that men who served in the military were perceived as having better sex appeal, especially if they have been brave in combat. This supports the evolutionary view that protecting your in-group increases your reproductive fitness.

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Evolutionary explanations for group displays (3)


Group displays are also common in sport, for example the Haka performed in rugby, or the well organised singing and chanting that goes on at football grounds. Arguably, people will be motivated to join the most united and well organised sporting groups so that they improve their own chances of being associated with that winning group. According to evolutionary theory, sport for humans is a kind of ceremonial conflict. It is a way of establishing winners and losers and organising people into hierarchies, with those who are most successful in sport having the greatest status and therefore better reproductive fitness.

National sport in particular can be used to promote patriotism and national identity, which unites 'in-groups' making them stronger.

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Group Displays (R)

LLAURENS found that being good at wrestling had a signficant positive effect on the number of offspring a man had (even when variables such as age, body condition and socioeconomic status were controlled). This could be used to support evolutionary theory that winning in sport increases reproductive fitness.

FOLDESI found that xenophobia (fear of 'foreigners') and racism is a common feature of all football violence. Their research in Hungary found that violent behaviour was aimed at 'out-groups' such as Jews, Gypsies and Russians. This could be used to support the view that group displays are used to unite and strengthen 'in-groups' and intimidate 'out-groups'.

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Group Displays (W)

  • SOCIALLY SENSITIVE - It suggests that these kind of behaviours are 'to be expected' and an inevitable part of natural selection. This would suggest that any attempt to challenge such behaviour are unlikely to have long term success.
  • REDUCTIONIST - Should be universal across all competitive sports, but this is not the case. End found that there was a direct relationship between how aggressive group displays are and the culture/environment in which a sporting event takes place, suggesting that group display behaviour could be just as well explained by social theories such as SLT or deindividuation.
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Group Displays (W)

  • SCIENTIFIC CREDIBILTY - Research which appears to support evolutionary explanations of group displays lacks scientific credibility, since it is impossible to falsify the link between group displays and natural selection. We can only hypothesise that evolutionary theory provides a plausible explanation for group displays but testing this hypothesis in highly controlled conditions is impossible because it is an abstract concept.
  • DEPRESSING - The evolutionary explanation for group displays in relation to warfare is somewhat depressing since it suggests that war is an inevitable and neccessary part of the process of natural selection. This is a socially sensitive theory which gives us no hope for a peaceful future.
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