What is Aggression?
Psychologists often define aggression as behavior that is aimed at harming or injuring others (Coie and Dodge, 1998). Challenging behavior isn’t always aggressive—sometimes it is disruptive or antisocial or annoying. But aggressive behavior is always challenging.
It can assume many forms. It can be direct (like hitting, pushing, biting, pinching, kicking, spitting, or hair-pulling) or indirect (like bullying, teasing, ignoring or defying rules or instructions, spreading rumors, excluding others, name-calling, or destroying objects). Indirect aggressive behavior (“You’re not my friend”) is also called relational aggression because it endangers the relationship between the two people (Crick and Grotpeter, 1995).
Because the question goes straight to the heart of who we are as human beings, philosophers have been arguing about the nature of aggression since the time of the Greeks. Some, like Seneca and the Stoics in ancient times and Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, assert that aggression and anger are uncontrollable biological instincts that must be restrained by external force. Others, like the English philosopher John Locke, believe that a child comes into the world as a blank slate—tabula rasa—and experience makes him who he is (Dodge, 1991).
Both views still exist today. The frustration-aggression theory holds that when people are frustrated—when they can’t reach their goals—they become angry and hostile and act aggressively (Dodge, 1991; Reiss and Roth, 1993). Social learning theory takes the Lockean perspective, and it has dominated thinking on the subject of aggression for the last three decades. Based on principles of conditioning and reinforcement, it says that people learn aggressive behavior from the environment and use it to achieve their goals. Of course, these distinctions are difficult to make in practice. When you get right down to it, it’s impossible to attribute all aggression to frustration, and the way you respond to frustration probably depends on what you’ve learned (Pepler and Slaby, 1994).
The father of social learning theory is Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura, who contends that children learn aggressive behavior primarily by observing it. Children are great imitators, and they copy the models around them—family, teachers, peers, neighbors, television. At the same time, they observe and experience the rewards, punishments, and emotional states associated with aggressive behavior. When they see that a behavior is reinforced, they’re likely to try it for themselves; when they experience the reinforcement directly, they’re likely to repeat it. That is, when Zack hits Ben and gets the red fire engine, he will almost certainly try hitting the next time he wants something.
Social learning theory has spawned several sister theories that place more emphasis on cognition. According to the cognitive script model, proposed by L. Rowell Huesmann and Leonard D. Eron, children learn scripts for aggressive behavior—when to expect it, what to do, what it will feel like, what its results will be—and store them in their memory banks. The more they rehearse these scripts through observation, fantasy, and behavior, the more readily they spring to mind and govern behavior when the occasion arises (Coie and Dodge, 1998; Pepler and Slaby, 1994; Reiss and Roth, 1993).
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