Aggression is any form of behavior by one person which is intended to cause pain, suffering, or damage to another person. Aggression includes many types of behaviors. Although most people usually only think of aggression in terms of physical attacks, verbal behavior meant to cause psychological harm is alsoaggression. Physical aggression includes behaviors like hitting another person or firing a gun. Verbal aggression includes behaviors like screaming at someone in anger or using an obscene gesture. Aggression is part of most societies but it is less controlled in the United States than in many other countries. Aggression is difficult to predict, and often hard to control.
Anger and aggression often, but not always, go hand in hand. Anger is a normal, and necessary, human emotion. It is how people naturally respond to threats, and it inspires powerful, often aggressive feelings that allow people to fight when they are attacked. When anger gets out of control, however, it becomes destructive and people respond aggressively. People need to express theiranger. Doing this in an assertive, not aggressive, way is healthiest. Beingassertive means that people make their needs clear and meet those needs without hurting others. People also suppress anger by holding it in while focusingon something positive; this can be a dangerous response to anger because theanger can turn inward and cause physical problems like high blood pressure or depression, or lead people to get back at others indirectly or develop a cynical and hostile personality. People can also control anger by calming themselves down, by taking steps to lower their heart rate and let the angry feelings go away. When these methods of controlling anger do not work, the resultis aggression.
People can behave aggressively in order to get what they want (to be rewarded); to be obedient to others; or in reaction to stress such as crowding or noise in their physical environment. People's perception of aggression is subjective. In some cultures, a raised voice may be interpreted only as a means ofgetting attention, whereas in others it might be seen as an aggressive act. People's tolerance for aggression may be related to moral or religious beliefs. In times of war, for example, opposing sides may feel morally or religiously justified in inflicting acts of aggression upon the enemy.
Psychologists classify aggression as instrumental and hostile. Instrumental aggression is aggressive behavior intended to achieve a goal. It is not necessarily intended to hurt another person. For example, a soccer player who knocks a teammate down as they both run to stop the ball from reaching the opposing team's goalpost is not trying to hurt the teammate. Hostile aggression, onthe other hand, is aggressive behavior whose only purpose is to hurt someone.Hostile aggression includes physical or verbal assault and other antisocialbehaviors. Most studies of aggression are geared toward hostile aggression.
There are several theories about the nature and cause of aggression. These include the: instinct, drive, and social learning theories. Although many people in the United States believe that aggression is instinctive, this theory has largely been discredited. This theory claims that aggression is biological.According to Sigmund Freud, the death instinct (Thanatos) is a reservoir ofaggressive tendencies that must be discharged periodically in order to remainmentally healthy. Under Freud's theory, however, there are safe outlets foraggressive impulses, for example, boxing with a sparring partner instead of punching out the boss. Researchers during the 1960s maintained that aggressionis caused by an innate fighting instinct. The instinctive theory of aggression claims that aggression builds up whether or not there is any outside provocation until it is likely that aggressive behavior will result, with little or no outside provocation. Some researchers who support this theory base it onthe study of the behavior of animals in their natural environments. According to the aggression as instinct theory, this instinct is shared by people andanimals.
The theory of aggression as drive claims that aggression is a result of the build-up of psychological frustration. It is a response to the frustration ofsome goal-directed behavior by an outside source. These goals include basic needs like food, water, sleep, sex, love, and recognition. In the 1930s, JohnDollard and his colleagues claimed that aggression must always result from frustration and that frustration always leads to aggression. In the 1960s, Leonard Berkowitz modified this theory to say that frustration makes a person ready to be aggressive but does not always lead to aggression. Frustration mustbe accompanied by anger in order for the person to become aggressive. This anger can be caused by something other than the frustrating situation. This theory is generally considered to be not very useful in understanding and controlling aggression.
Most research on aggression focuses on controlling it. Researchers are studying whether showing low levels of aggression (called catharsis) might be important in controlling high levels of aggression. This is a central component ofthe drive theory of aggression. Many people feel that "blowing off steam" periodically is important to good mental health.
Many researchers believe that the theory of aggression as social learning isthe most realistic and practical one. This theory claims that aggression is alearned social behavior. Under this theory, social influences, such as rolemodels and reinforcement, and situational factors, contribute to learning andexpressing aggressive behavior. According to Albert Bandura, people learn about aggression by personally experiencing it and by observing it. For example, children learn aggressive behavior from their parents and peers. Children also learn about aggression from movies, television, and comic books. Althoughexperiencing aggression has more effect than watching it, movies and television still have a major impact on aggressive behavior. Studies have shown thatwatching violence in the movies and on television can cause aggression in children and adolescents. Modeling of violence, whether in person or on a movieor television screen, shows children that aggression occurs and that it works. If they see that this type of behavior is rewarded, they are more likely to imitate it. If they see that aggressive behavior is punished, they are notlikely to imitate it. Once people have learned aggressive behavior, they mayact aggressively when they experience unpleasant events, are frustrated, or when they see other people act aggressively.
Violence, the use of physical force that is rough or hurts people, is one type of aggression. People are concerned about the growing number of children and adolescents who behave violently, including physical and mental aggression.Research shows that people learn aggressive behavior early in life. Even preschoolers can act violently. Whatever age the child is, violence must alwaysbe taken seriously. Many studies have identified factors which lead to an increased risk of aggressive behavior in children and adolescents:
- A history of aggressive or violent behavior
- Being the victim of physical orsexual abuse
- Exposure to violence at home or in the community
- Hereditary factors
- Use of drugs or alcohol
- Having a gun athome
- A stressful family life (poverty, severe deprivation, divorce, single parenting, unemployment, loss of support from the extended family)
- Brain damage from a head injury
Reducing these factors can decrease or even prevent aggressive behavior.
Who will become aggressive and where and when this will happen are difficultto predict. Some general characteristics of aggressive people are known, butthese do not help in predicting the behavior of any single person of group ofpeople. The childhood characteristics listed above help to predict aggression in adults. One study found that aggressive behavior was established by theage of eight, and that both boys and girls who were aggressive at this age were likely to be aggressive as adults. Aggressive behavior by criminals has been linked to age, sex, race, socioeconomic status, and drug or alcohol use.
Children can, however, be raised to resist violence. Parents, family members,and other people who care for children can teach them how to deal with theiremotions without using violence. Parents can reduce violence by raising their children in safe and loving homes. This includes:
- Giving children consistent love and attention,
- Making sure that children are supervised,
- Showing children appropriate behavior by setting a good example through their own actions,
- Never hitting children,
- Being consistent about rules and discipline,
- Making sure that children do not haveaccess to guns,
- Preventing children from seeing violence in the homeor community, and in the media, as much as possible,
- Teaching children how to avoid becoming victims of violence, and
- Teaching children how to stand up against violence.
During the past century, social scientists have attempted, through research with human and animal subjects, to learn more about the relative roles playedby nature and nurture in the development of aggression. Certain chromosomal abnormalities in humans appear to be associated with an increased tendency toward aggressiveness, though the interpretation of these correlates is controversial.
Social scientists have examined animal aggression from an evolutionary perspective, by looking at the relative costs and benefits incurred by the opponents in an aggressive encounter. When resources such as food, mates and territory are limited, the competition over them usually takes on a more aggressive quality. In cases of human conflict, the exact nature of costs and benefits isoften difficult to define objectively. Among animals, aggressive encountersrarely lead to death. Humans, however, are capable of killing one another, and over the course of history have done so on a grand scale. The invention ofsophisticated weapons now makes it possible for humans to annihilate their perceived enemies without seeing them. Why humans take part in aggressive actsthat have such extreme consequences has been the subject of considerable research and debate, as have questions concerning the nature of factors that bring out aggression. Because aggression is a form of behavior and because the biological and cultural origins of behaviors are difficult to separate from oneanother, it is likely that definitive answers to these and other questions will remain somewhat elusive.
Treatment for aggression focuses on controlling it. Children who behave aggressively should be seen by a qualified mental health professional. Early treatment is often helpful. Treatment focuses on helping the child learn to control anger, express anger and frustration in a way that is appropriate, be responsible for his/her actions, and learn to accept the consequences of his/her behavior. Problems in the family, at school, and in the community also need tobe addressed.
There are individual and group interventions to control aggression. Individual interventions include relaxation training, self-control training, communication skills training, contingency management, and psychotherapy. Relaxation training is effective in reducing tension and arousal states which often occurbefore aggressive behavior. People can use simple relaxation tools, like deep breathing, to calm down. There are many different formal relaxation techniques. People can also follow these simple steps:
- Breath deeply from thediaphragm (picture the breath coming up from the gut).
- Slowly repeata calm word or phrase, like "relax," or "take it easy." Do this while breathing deeply.
- Use imagery; see in your mind a relaxing experience. Thiscan be an experience you have had or just one that you imagine.
- Doslow yoga-like exercises to relax your muscles and make you feel calmer.
People who display aggressive behavior should practice these techniques everyday so that they learn to use them without thinking about it when they are in a situation that is likely to make them aggressive.
There are several forms of self-control training, which teaches people to control their own anger and aggression by making verbal statements in which theperson tells him/herself to respond to anger and arousal by thinking first and then using less aggressive behavior. Self-control training includes rational restructuring, cognitive self-instruction, and stress inoculation. Self-control training has been proven to work and is being used more and more often.
Communication skills training focuses on resolving conflicts by teaching people positive communication skills. It includes general communication trainingand negotiation training. To increase the chances that the agreements negotiated to resolve conflicts are lived up to, the aggressor and the person he/shebehaved aggressively against draw up written agreements called behavioral contracts. This treatment is very promising in controlling aggression and reducing conflict between people.
Contingency management, the use of rewards and non-physical punishment to control aggression, has the longest history as a method to control aggression. It has been very effective in controlling aggression, especially when it combines rewards for increasing constructive or pro-social behaviors with non-physical punishments like time out to decrease aggressive behavior.
Psychotherapy is a method of treating emotional problems in which the therapist and the patient work together to develop a supportive relationship. The therapist encourages the patient to talk about his/her problems and to be optimistic that therapy can help. He/she may suggest ways to cope with these problems. Techniques include psychoanalysis, group therapy, and behavioral therapy. It is not very effective in controlling aggression.
Group interventions to control aggression include psychological skill training, character education, values clarification, and moral education. They are typically done in small groups. Psychological skill training uses a series ofpsychoeducational procedures to teach people how to manage their aggression.These procedures include modeling, behavioral rehearsal, and feedback on performance. Psychological skill training has been demonstrated to be effective in controlling aggression. Character education is a comprehensive series of lessons in pro-social character traits designed for use in elementary schools.It is usually done using the Character Education Curriculum. Values clarification tries to build pro-social values without indoctrination. It helps students develop, clarify, and apply their own values by freely and thoughtfully choosing among the alternatives. Research has shown that values clarification may work somewhat in decreasing destructive attitudes and behavior and in increasing constructive alternatives. Moral education teaches people pro-social alternatives to aggression.