Social Psychological Approaches to explaining aggression

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  • Created on: 26-05-16 10:21

Social Learning Theory

Although classical and operant conditioning play an important part in learning, they are inadequate to explain all learning in humans. Dollar and Miller (1950) used the term social learning to describe the process by which we learn from observing the behaviour of others and imagining what would happen if the behavior were imitated. 

Social learning theory, formulated by Albert Bandura, is an offshoot of strict behaviourism and is concerned with human behaviour. 

The likelihood of a person behaving aggressively in a particular situation is determined by:

  • Their previous experience of aggressive behaviour e.g. their parents. The may imitate aggressive parents.
  • How successful aggression has been as a behaviour will result in success at the point in time.
  • Stress can increase liklehood of aggression e.g. workload or noise.

According to the theory, children (and adults) will be aggressive is regularly exposed to aggressive models such as parents, same-sex peers and media figures. Reinforcement is also a factor - when people see someone getting what they want by being aggressive they are more likely to imitate them.

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The transmission of aggression through imitation

Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) investigated whether young children will imitate an aggressive model. The 36 boys and 36 girls aged 3 to 6. They used a bobo doll study to measure aggression,

The children in the aggressive condition reproduced a great many of the physical and verbal aggressive acts they observed. In the non-aggressive condition and control conditions, the children showed no aggression at all. Boys reproduced more physical aggression than the girls, but there was no difference in boys and girls with respect to verbal aggression.

Boys were more likely to be aggressive if they had seen a male model rather than a female one and girls were more likely to be aggressive if they had seen a female model rather than a male.

In another variation of this experiment Bandura found that children were much more likely to imitate an adult that they were when they saw no consquence for the adults. If they saw the adult model being punished they were unlikely to imitate the imitate the aggressive behaviour.

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Evaluation of Bandura's experiment

This experiment may lack internal validity because it can be argued that children naturally push over Bobo dolls so it may not be an aggressive act. However, others would argue it isnt natural to push over a Bobo doll with a mallet or a gun.

Banduras experiment may have low external validity as the study is not true to life and not representative of how the children would show aggressive behaviour in everyday life e.g. playing in the playground.

There are ethical issues surrounding the study is although nams remained confidental, videos are available on the internet. Also, the experiment teaches the children aggression so they may carry on being aggressive so they may carry on being aggressive when they wernt before. It is also socially sensitive research, as published findings may upset families who watch violent films.

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Evaluation of Social Learning Theory


  • Some cultures emphasise and model non-aggressive behaviour and so are more likely to produce individuals with low levels of aggression. For example among the Kung San people of the Kalahari desert, aggression is rare. Parents in this culture do not use physical punishment and aggression is devalued by the society as a whole. Therefore, a strength of SLT is its ability to explain difference in levels of aggression in different cultures.
  • There is experimental evidence to support SLT e.g. Banduras experiment.
  • People are often aggressivr in some situations but not in others. A person could be aggressive at home or in the car but perfectly agreeable at work. This suggest that people learn to behave differently in different situations because aggression brings rewards in one context but not in the other. SLT can account for this inconsisteny in aggressive behaviour.


  • Biological explanation of aggression have stressed factors unrelated to SLT. High levels of testosterone have been cited as a primary causal agent in aggressive behaviour.
  • The idea that environmental experiences must have an influence on SL of violence in chldren has face validity. A straight forward observational learning explanation appears to simplistic. 
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Deindividuation - the loss of a sense of individuality resulting in reduced public and private self awareness. As a result the individual feels a reduced sense of inhibition which may cause them to engage in anti-social behaviour.

Deindividuation theory is an account of the behaviour of individuals in crowds or groups. Individuals in groups fail to see the consequences of their actions and the social norms they usually follow are forgotten. It explains how rational individuals can become aggresivee hooligans in an unruly mob or crowd. Wearing a mask or being part of a large crowd increase a persons anonymity.

Le Bron proposed that the more anonymous the crowd the greater the threat of extreme action. Zimbardo (1970) also argued that there was more to deindividuation than just anonymity in a group and suggested that reduced responsibility, increased arousal and sensory overload due to drugs or alcohol play an important role. In crowds the individual may become so involved in the activity of the group that they are no longer self aware.

Prentice-Dunn and Rogers (1982) suggested that there are two types of self-awareness:

  • Public self awareness
  • Private self-awareness
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Types of self awareness

Public self-awareness

In crowds, we experience reduced public self awareness. This means that we have a sense of anonymity - we feel hidden in the crowd. Therefore, if the crowd behave aggressively there is a diffusion of responsibilty so we feel less responsible for anything bad that happens.

Private self-awareness

In crowds, we have a reduced sense of private self awareness. This means that we lose touch with our core values and beliefs which may result in anti-social violent behaviours.

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Deindividuation studies

Trick or treat study - Diener et al (1976) Children were asked to take one sweet then left. The children who were anonymous were more likely to take more sweets than the children who gave their names and addresses. Therefore, this study suggests deindividuation because the more anonymous the more anti-social they were.

Anonymous Lab coat study - Zimbardo (1969) Women were dressed in white lab coats and hoods, making them anonymous. Ps had to shock the victim. The anonymous Ps shocked longer than the control group, in ordinary clothes. Therefore, this study supports it, as it suggests anonymity would appear to contribute to aggressive behaviour.

The costume experiment (1979) This involved a variation of the previous study. Ps were made anonymous by wearing masks and cloaks similar to those of the KKK, or by means of nurses uniforms. Compared to the control condition Ps shocked more as the KKK, but shocked less as nurses. Therefore, this study rejects deindividuation as the wearing of KKK uniform may have increased shock levels rather than anonymity.

Darkened Room Arousal Study - Gergen, Gergen and Barton (1973) Both male and female students were asked to interact for an hour in a padded room. There were two conditions: Lights on; Lights off. Ps in the lit room said it was boring. However, Ps in the dark room touched eachother, and experienced a sensous hour. This study shows that deinidviduation leads to freeing of inhibitions, not just aggression

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The Stanford Prison Experiment - Zimbardo (1971)

Zimbardo conducted research into identification in a well known piece of research carried out in the basement of Stanford University. 24 male students were randomly allocated to become guards or prisoners in a mock prison. 

It was initally intended that the study would last for 2 weeks but after only 6 days the whole experiment was called off as a result of conditions deteriorating to such an extent that it has since often been described as 'a living hell'. Despite it being a simulation, the guards created a brutal atomesphere. Every guard at some time or another behaved in an abusive, authoritarian way. Many seemed to really enjoy the new found power and control that went with the uniform. The prison environment in which prisoners were dressed in smocks and nylon caps, and addressed only by their number, appeared to be an important factor in creating the brutal behaviour of the guards. The dehumanisation of the prisons by the guards togehter with the relative anonymity of each group (leading to a reduction in self awareness in the guards), made it easier for the guards to treat the prisoners in a brutal manner.


This study was a P observation, Zimbardo at said it was an experiment showing he plan it properly. This study has high ecological validaty because people began to believe it was real. It has practical applications as it was used in defence when it happened in Iraq. It has many ethical issues, Ps wernt given fully informed consent, stress was put on them and they were not give the right to withdraw.

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Evaluation of Deindividuation theory


Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment supports the theory of deindividuation


Conformity - Sherif placed participants in a dark room alone and then in groups of 3. He found that P's converged in their estimates of the movement of a spot of light in the group condition. Theories derived from research on conformity offer a different prediction of the behaviour of people in group situations. When people become part of a group the members of the group form a group norm which directs the behaviour of the group. This is in stark contrast to deindividuation theory which states that in groups we are released from the constraints of group norms.
Aggression is not always the consequence of deindividuation. The Darkened Room Arousal Study showed that deindividuation leads to pro-social behaviour e.g. hugging. Similarly there are many real life examples of situations where crowds have demonstrated pro-social behaviour e.g. crowd helping behaviour. 
There are alternative explanations for human aggression e.g. biological explanations which suggest that neurotransmitters and hormones play an important role.

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Explanations of institutional aggression

The Importation model

An individualstic explanation of aggression which suggests that it is the individual characteristics of the aggressor which are the most significant contributory factors in aggressive and anti-social behaviour. The importation model suggests that the prisoners bring their own social norms of behaviour, attitudes and experiences with them to prison. Prisoners do not produce novel aggressive behaviour in prisons but tend to replicate the aggressive behaviours they demonstrated before conviction.

Mills, Kroner and Weekes (1998) surveyed 202 inmates, using the alcohol dependance scale (ADS) they found that higher levels of serious institutional misconduct were associated with more serious levels of alcohol dependance. Other factors which seemed to be important included employment record, level of education and extent of criminal history prior to imprisonment.

Kane and Janus (1981) found that younger inmates, poorer inmates and ethic minorities are more likely to be aggresive while in prison in the US. They suggest that this is because these groups are more likely to be disenfranchised and seperated from the mainstream societies norms and values. Many of these individuals live in a subculture where aggression is valued, respected and reinforced.

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Explanations of institutional aggression

The deprivation model

States that it is the characteristics of the prison itself rather than the characteristics of the prisoners that accounts for prison violence. The model recognises that inmates may arrive at prison with personal values and norms of behaviour which are likely to lead to violence. It is suggested that it is primarily prison conditions such as boredom, loss of freedom and overcrowding which leads to frustration, stress and ultimately violent behaviour.

Deprivation of liberty - prisoners are denied the freedom of those on the outside. They are also denied some civil rights for example to vote in general elections.

Deprivation of autonomy - prisoners are deprived of their liberty of their liberty but they also lack the freedom to control their daily activities. For example, when they sleep, eat, exercise - all of these liberties are controlled by prisoner managers. Prisoners can become 'insitutionalised' which can have consequences for prisoners when they are released.

Deprivation of goods and services - prisoners are deprived of luxury items such as phones, TV, laptops etc. therefore they feel a sense of poverty making them frustrated and therefore aggressive.

Deprivation of heterosexual relationships - Men show their masculinity through females therefore in prison when deprived of these relationships they have to show masculinity through being aggressive.

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Evaluation of institution aggression

Keller and Wang (2005) found that prison violence is more common in maximum security prison than open prisons. This supports situational explanations however this can also support the importation model because the types of people that go to a maximum security prison are already violent.

Richards et al (2007) found that prison violence was highest in prisons with high staff turnover. This suggests that it is the characteristics of prisons not prisoners that lead to aggression.

McCorkle et al (1995) point out that deprivation of liberty are found in all prisons whereas prison violence is not. This finding undermines the deprivation model.

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