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When you think of aggression, does anything from schoolyard fights to gun violence to horrors such as the Holocaust come to mind? It might seem hard to put genocide and a lunchtime brawl in the same category, but both are acts of what is called aggression, (just obviously on a much larger scale). Aggression is defined as is any behavior directed toward another individual that is carried out with the immediate intent to cause harm. There are many theories that attempt to explain why humans are aggressive, and there are several different debated causes of aggression, ranging from parenting methods such as spanking to the violence we absorb through the media (Anderson & Bushman).
Currently, there are five main theories that guide aggression research. They are the cognitive neoassociation theory, the social learning theory, the script theory, the excitation transfer theory, and the social interaction theory (Anderson & Bushman).
The cognitive neoassociation theory states that many different types of aversive events such as, but not limited to, experiencing frustration, being provoked, loud noises, uncomfortable temperatures, and undesirable odors can produce a negative effect on someone.
A negative effect produced by unpleasant experiences can trigger certain thoughts, memories, physical reactions, and physiological responses associated with fight or flight tendencies. The fight associations allow a rise to feelings of anger, whereas the flight associations give rise to feelings of fear (Anderson & Bushman). This model explains why when individuals feel frustration or anger the action tendencies associated with these feelings are acted upon.
The model gives researchers a good basis for understanding why aversive or triggering events can increase aggression in individuals.
According to social learning theory, “people acquire aggressive responses the same way they acquire other complex forms of social behavior-either by direct experience or by observing others” (Anderson & Bushman). Individuals, especially children observe the people around them behaving in various ways, and then learn what behavior is appropriate via what they just observed. This theory was demonstrated in the 1961 Bobo doll experiment. The experiment tested 36 boys and 36 girls from ages 3-6. 24 children were shown adults attacking & rough-housing with a toy doll, 24 children were shown adults who played in a quiet manner, and the final 24 children were not shown any toy at all. When the children were allowed to play with the toys, the ones “who observed the aggressive model made far more imitative aggressive responses than those who were in the non-aggressive or control groups” (McLeod). The results of this experiment support Bandura’s (1977) Social Learning Theory. There is strong evidence that children learn social behavior such as aggression & other advances through the process of observation learning – they watched the behavior of another person and learned that the aggression was okay. (McLeod).
The script theory proposes that when young people witness violence in the media, they learn aggressive scripts. Scripts define situations and guide behavior: The individual initially chooses a script to represent the situation and then assumes a position for themselves in the script. Once a script has been learned, it may be reclaimed at a point in the future and used as a guide for actions. This approach can be seen as a more specific and detailed account of social learning processes. (Anderson & Bushman). America has a gun & aggression problem, as we have seen with countless mass shooting after mass shooting. But why are so many of these shootings so similar & so continuous? Because every detail of them is played on the news for weeks at a time, it is completely possible to learn every detail of how the shooter acquired their weapon, arrived at their scene, and began firing. We can learn the exact script of how they carried out their shooting.
The excitation transfer theory makes note that physiological arousal does not deplete from the body quickly. If two or more arousing experiences are only separated by a brief amount of time, the arousal from the first event may be misattributed to the feelings from the second event. If the second event the individual experiences induces feelings of anger, then the increased arousal would only make the individual even angrier (Anderson & Bushman).
The social interaction theory says that when aggressive behavior is used, its goal is produce or exchange something out of the target. According to this theory, the actor of the behavior is a decision-maker whose decisions are motivated by the expected rewards (Anderson & Bushman). This theory is used to explain why individuals might commit a violent or aggressive act if they have the motivation of a reward after completing their aggression.
There are many different causes of aggression, with lots of evidence for each of them. Spanking has long been a controversial parenting practice, but evidence is suggesting that children who are spanked just twice a month, are already more aggressive than their peers by age five. Of the 2500 children who were studied, almost half were said to have ‘higher aggression’ and had been spanked more than twice a month. If you regularly smack or spank your child, they have an over 50% chance of becoming a bully and adopting their own aggressive tendencies vs children who are not hit by their parents (Sikora).The link between violent video games & aggression has also long been speculated. Violence in video games has been linked and very strongly suggested to be a culprit for the United States trend of mass shootings. This is a theory that even President Trump supports – in 2012 he tweeted “Video game violence & glorification must be stopped – it is creating monsters!”The American Psychological Association (APA) does consider violent video games to be a risk factor for aggression. Numerous studies and tests have brought forth clear results that the use of violent video games brings risk factors to increase aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for both short-term and long-term actions (Goldbeck & Pew).
The violence in some of these games can desensitize the player to seeing aggressive behavior & thus making them less empathetic to violence in the real world. The more hours one clocks in on video games that allow the user to control the violence, the higher the chance that the individual will have aggressive behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. These findings have not just been limited to the United States, the effects of violent video games have been seen in studies in both Western and Eastern countries. As a whole, males spend more time than their female counterparts playing violent video games, but when females do play these games, there is not a difference in the short-term and long-term risks (Goldbeck & Pew).
With all of the aggression youth experience and all of the violence they are exposed to, what solutions have been tried to reduce the aggression? In the 1990s, there was a called “Students for Peace”, which was a multi-component violence-prevention intervention program, that had the goal of reducing aggressive behaviors among students from eight different middle schools who had been randomly assigned. The intervention was based on social cognitive theory and the study had the creation of a School Health Promotion Council, peer mediators and peer helpers were trained, and teachers were also trained in conflict resolution and a violence – prevention curriculum. Any participating student was evaluated in the spring of 1994, 1995 and 1996. There were approximately 9000 students per evaluation. Any student who was a sixth grader in 1994 was followed all the way through until 1996.
Unfortunately, all cross-sectional evaluations indicated that there was so little to no intervention effect in several categories such as: “reducing aggressive behaviors, fights at school, injuries due to fighting, missing classes because of feeling unsafe at school or being threatened to be hurt” (Outcome Evaluation). This multi-year study indicated that the strongest predictor of violence in the eighth grade were violent behaviors in sixth grade and a poor academic performance. This experiment seemed ideal and regularly recommended, however, the comprehensive approach to violence prevention in schools that incorporates teachers, administrators and staff to model peaceful conflict resolution is challenging to implement, and, in the case of this study, proved to be inefficient. According to The Students for Peace, they suggest that interventions in the lives of students, especially at-risk youth, begin prior to middle school and involve parents and community members (Outcome Evaluation).
It is clear that aggression is a learned characteristic our youth can take on, but the measures we can take to prevent aggression are less clear. Do we need to implement laws that forbid parents from spanking their children? Or seriously crack down on the ability of individuals under 21 to play violent video games? How would we even go about the latter with the universal access of the internet in the 21stcentury? The Students for Peace study had every variable that would lead you to believe the experiment would be successful, and yet it wasn’t. Science and research has a long road ahead of us if we want to accomplish a serious crack-down on aggression in humans.
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