What is aggression? During my research, I have noted various definitions of aggression and have often found it to be coupled with violence. This human trait is so complex that it is difficult to pinpoint any one description, but I believe that for the purpose of this essay, this extremely loose term will have to suffice, as aggression is viewed differently according to the different approaches. “Aggression – a wide variety of acts that involve attack” (The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology-Third Edition 2001)
In this essay, I will explain and evaluate three psychological approaches of aggression from Sigmund Freud, Burrhus F Skinner and Carl R Rogers.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) developed the psychoanalytical theory of the personality, whereby he divided it into layers; the unconscious, preconscious and the conscious. These represented different levels of awareness in our minds. He also described the personality as the id, which is essentially what we are born with and is where the basic sexual and aggressive drives reside, the ego, which starts to develop as soon as interaction with the environment begins, and the superego, which represents the moral aspect of humans according to society’s standards and values. He believed that we are born with these inner feelings of aggression, which we use as a tool to obtain the things we want, but unfortunately, society restricts the use of this horrible behaviour for obvious reasons.
The display of aggressive behaviour would cause us to lose love and respect ending in lowered self-esteem. In order to get through life without imposing this unacceptable behaviour upon society, we have in our superego, incorporated something called ‘guilt’, which in turn makes us feel ashamed of this pushy, demanding insistence of gratification side of ourselves. However, this causes within us an eternal conflict that rages on through our everyday lives, in the unconscious level of our minds, where we only dimly recognise it.
He was however, concerned that these energies could not be permanently ‘bottled up’ and suggested that redirection of these energies (catharsis) into other channels ie.sport, work would be more socially acceptable. He called this sublimation and suggested that a good society would make this possible. Nevertheless, he remained pessimistic about this also as it only redirected the energy of aggression and did not really deal with the source of the ‘problem’.
Freud (1920) called the destructive force that forms aggression, Thanatos -the death instinct (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 1920) and believed that this is a natural human condition that is also aimed at ourselves. However, our natural life instincts prevent anything happening, but Freud thoroughly believed that the destruction of ourselves is inevitable, as aggression will always be at war with society and therefore the greatest obstacle to peace.
Burrhus F Skinner (1904-1990) who favoured the behaviourist approach to psychology, criticised the psychoanalytical theory by suggesting that psychology should be the study of behaviour and not just the mind. However, Skinner’s approach was radical, in that he did consider our inner thoughts and feelings, but denied that they had anything to do with behaviour (Skinner 1974). His study of behaviour involved close contact with the experimental laboratory, where he experimented with small animals such as rats and pigeons. As the experimenter, he was able to study the use of stimuli and reinforcement (cause and reward) of behaviour.
Skinner pointed out that aggression, like any other form of behaviour, is a result of social and physical issues in our environments. With this in mind, he believed that human behaviour is therefore controllable. In Skinner’s view, if aggression is apparent in a person, then it is determined by past and present relevant events, together with genetic endowment, hereditary factors that are passed through our genes in the process of evolution. He argued that full knowledge of these two sets of factors, genetic endowment and personal history, hold the key to controlling behaviour such as aggression.
The behaviourist approach fails to acknowledge individual free will and choice however, and the frustrations involved in the inability to express these. It is often these unobservable issues that cause behaviours, such as aggression. When looking at positive reinforcement, Skinner often refused to consider the mental causes of aggression ie if a drunk tries to start a fight with you in a pub, Skinner’s theory would indicate that the best form of action from previous experience would be to walk away. This however, ignores the events leading up to this point, and you may decide to stay and fight or maybe stay and make friends. The mind selects a response according to the desired consequence, which is a natural part of every function we perform but is not a straightforward case of positive reinforcement.
Carl R Rogers (1902-1987) was the founder of the humanistic approach to behaviour and like Maslow, he believed that there was nothing ‘bad’ about human behaviour and that we are capable of healthy growth towards Self Actualisation. This means that we have the potential to reach fulfilment and achieve warm relationships with others through acceptance and understanding of what we as humans are.
In order to understand the actualising tendency, Rogers claims that we should firstly be congruent, meaning that we should be aware of our inner feelings and accept them as a part of our nature. In this respect, what we express from those feelings is pure and true. Secondly, we should be able to empathise with our fellow man, in that we can understand what everything means to them from their point of view, as if we were in their ‘world’. Thirdly, we should be able to convey unconditional positive regard, meaning that we should be able to accept things as they are and who our fellow man is, without judgement or prejudice and without placing conditions upon their worth.
These are three essential ingredients for healthy growth towards being a fully functioning person. Obviously, with an approach such as this, there is little room for negative feelings such as aggression. Because of this positive force for healthy growth, Rogers believed that aggression could possibly be a result of a state of incongruence, where we may feel conflict between our sense of self and our ideal self (like Freud’s ego and superego) ie. When we become aware of our own set of values but are told by our parents to respect their set of values, taught to us previously, and the use of conditional regard is applied to enforce those values. This could possibly cause aggression by way of retaliation. However, he would not see aggression as inevitable or even an appropriate response, only as a possible response.
Rogers’ theory opposes Freud’s in that aggression is inevitable. However, these two approaches are similar in that they both believe that aggression is a result of conflict in the mind – Rogers’ sense of self and the ideal self are similar to Freud’s ego and superego. However, Rogers argues that we are not doomed as Freud views it. Rogers, who was optimistic about human nature, believed that rather than trying to repress the desires and needs that aggression demands, a self-actualised person would see that aggression is a part of our nature and that acceptance of it, along with all other feelings, serve to help us grow healthily in the way of a fully functioning person. As a humanist, Rogers believed that to try to hide from what is inherently a part of us is futile and the only approach to make is that of acceptance in order to believe in ourselves. He also recognised that aggression could be a healthy behaviour, as in competition.
Freud’s view that aggression is a common human characteristic does not constitute proof that it is innate. His views on catharsis as being a way of controlling the drives also lack support, and indeed support from one of his earlier disciples, Alfred Alder. With regard to aggression being innate and inherent, is aggression the result of genetics, or is it simply an excuse we use for violent behaviour? Could the answer lie in our environment and what we learn from it? Experiments performed by behaviourists such as Skinner have proved this, but do they offer all the answers? Is man born a completely blank slate? If that is the case, why do we keep messing up? Is this what Skinner meant when he maintained that man takes immediate gratification rather than looking at the long-term consequences?
The different approaches of Freud and Skinner offer interesting theories about the sources of aggression. Take violence on the television for instance. Freud may have considered this as a cathartic experience thus reducing the drive of aggression by way of siphoning off the built up pressure as discussed earlier. On the other hand however, Skinner would consider that violence on the television would serve to condition us to be more violent and therefore increase aggression.
In conclusion, it seems that each approach holds some validity whilst there is still room for further research. Freud discussed aggression and its source at great length but did not really offer any sound evidence about how to reduce it. Neither did he encourage further research into collecting more information about it. Skinner, on the other hand, had rather strong opinions about how to deal with aggression but offered little information as to its source.
Rogers had little to say about what aggression actually is but whilst his opinions on how to deal with it seemed realistic and acceptable, his theory, like Freud’s, offers no real proof. However, early as these theories were, they did offer some valuable contributions to the theory of aggression. Theories which have developed over the years and are continuing to do so, even though the reasons for aggression, and indeed all other human emotions, still elude us, remaining continually beyond scientific explanation.
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London, Penguin Books Ltd
Nye, Robert D (1975)
Three Psychologies: Perspectives from Freud, Skinner and Rogers (Fourth Edition)
California, Brooks/Cole (Wadsworth Inc)
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