Causes of Aggression: A Psychological Perspective

Updated on April 23, 2020
Mighty Pen profile image

I'm a professional therapist and a counsellor with a passion for psychology and the different workings of the mind and body.

What is the cause of human aggression?
What is the cause of human aggression? | Source

Is Aggression Innate or Learnt?

What Is Aggression?

Aggression is behavior which causes intentional harm to another person (Anderson, 2002). More specifically, aggression is defined as "any sequence of behavior, the goal response to which is the injury of the person toward whom it is directed" (Dollard et al.,1939). Although some definitions emphasize the role of intention, most psychologists agree that it is the actual observable behavior causing harm that defines aggression.

What Causes Aggression?

The nature vs. nurture controversy has been a continuing debate in explaining the origin of aggression. There are many different theories about the nature and cause of aggression, all of which can be divided into two types: those that believe aggression is innate and those that see it as learnt behavior.

We shall now examine these contrasting points of view:

  • The psychoanalytic approach (which views aggression as innate),
  • the cognitive approach (which claims it is learnt),
  • and both of these approach's limitations in understanding the root cause of aggression.


The Psychoanalytic Approach to Aggression

Psychoanalysis, the most well-known theory in a psychodynamic approach, was founded by Sigmund Freud. According to his theory, human aggression is an instinctive drive, one that springs from the person rather than the situation, and is therefore an unavoidable part of human life (Glassman, 2004). Freud believed that all humans possess two basic drives from birth that contribute to their personality development and behavior: the drive for aggression (thanatos) and the drive for pleasure (eros). Thanatos, or destructive energy, expresses itself in aggression towards others and towards the self. Moreover, the two primitive forces—the life and death instincts—seek constant expression and satisfaction, while at same time opposing one another in our subconscious. This conflict is the origin of all aggression.

Aggression as an Expression of Id

Freud viewed the aggressive drive as part of Id, the part of the psyche that motivates behavior, while ego, our rational self, and superego, our ideal image of ourselves, oppose or repress the aggressive impulses. The conflict between the different parts of personality creates tension in the individual, who then uses defense mechanisms or ways of coping with and blocking conscious awareness of this conflict. Anna Freud, Freud’s psychoanalytic heir, also emphasized the impaired parent-infant bonding as one of the causes of pathogenic behavior and believed that emotional attachments in early childhood help to ‘fuse and neutralize’ aggressive urges in later life (Freud, 1965).

Can Aggression Be Eliminated?

Thus, according to Freud's theory, one can never eliminate aggression, but can only try to control it by channeling it and striving for symbolic gratification. This indirect gratification results in catharsis, or the release of drive energy, and a failure to do so leads to aggressive behavior.


The Cognitive Approach to Aggression

Cognitive theorists believe aggression is learnt rather than innate, and they try to understand the ways in which it is learned. They emphasize mental processes such as perception and thoughts, along with the role of learning and situation, in understanding aggressive behavior.

Is Aggression Learned?

Albert Bandura, a theorist who pioneered the social learning theory, believed that aggression is imitated rather than learned through conditioning, and that reinforcement can be indirect. The Bobo Doll study (Bandura, 1961) shows that viewing aggression increases the likelihood of the viewer acting aggressively and that when an aggressive model is reinforced by praise, children learn that aggressive behavior is acceptable. Other studies on observational learning also show how children who are exposed to violence in the family are more likely to grow up to become aggressive themselves. (Litrownik et al., 2003)

The cognitive approach also claims that experience causes cognitive schemata to develop in the individual’s mind and affects the possibility of aggression. One field study on street culture shows how behavior is influenced by a "code" or schema that forms a set of informal rules for public behavior and encourages the use of violence to respond, if challenged. (Anderson, 1994)

Leonard Berkowitz, one of the pioneers of cognitive neo-association theory, suggests the idea of priming, in which violent thoughts and memories can increase the potential for aggression even when aggression hasn't been imitated or learned. In one study, individuals who were shown pictures of guns were more willing to punish another person than those shown neutral objects. (Berkowitz, 1984)

However, Anderson and Bushman have created a comprehensive general aggression model (GAM) which integrates social learning theory and neo association along with biological data on arousal. By recognizing both personal and situational factors, this theory suggests that aggression is the result of both the personality and interaction of the person and the situation. (Anderson and Bushman, 2002)

Comparisons Between the Different Approaches to Aggression

Both the psychoanalytic and cognitive approaches attempt to explain the origin of aggression, but from very different perspectives.

Aggression: Instinctual or Learned?

The psychodynamic approach views aggression as an instinctive drive and ignores mediational processes like thought and memory. The cognitive approach, on the other hand, claims that aggression is learnt behavior and emphasizes the thought processes that contribute to learning it.

What Role Does the Individual Play?

Psychodynamic approach sees the individual as helpless, driven by aggressive urges, and hence unable to control destructive impulses. In short, nothing can be done to eliminate aggression; it can only be channeled.

On the other hand, since a social cognitive approach sees aggression as learned behavior, it is not inevitable, and an individual is seen as actively involved in this process. Human beings are considered neither inherently good nor bad, but their actions depend on learning. (Glassman, 2004). Thus, any type of behavior can be shaped by modifying the environment to block imitation of aggressive models and schemas and by rewarding and punishing consequences.

Moreover, it is difficult to scientifically test the claims of psychodynamic approach, whereas the cognitive approach makes its claims on empirical evidence and extensive research.

The Role of Early Childhood

However, both approaches recognize the role of early childhood experiences in increasing aggressive behavior. For the psychodynamic approach, aggression can result from unresolved conflicts, while for the social cognitive approach, exposure to aggressive behavior, along with reinforcement, can encourage children to learn it.

Limitations to the Psychoanalytic Theories for Aggression

There is no existing scientific evidence to support Freud's theory of aggression, nor can it be empirically investigated. Thus, even though it describes aggression as innate, resulting from a conflict between different structures of the personality, it does not give a concrete source for it, and there is no way to prove or disprove this claim.

Also, Freud based most of his work on case studies made largely of pathological, middle class patients of the Victorian era, which makes generalizations to the wider population difficult. (Pervin, 1990)

His idea of catharsis as a control mechanism for aggression has also been disproved, with more studies showing that opportunities for catharsis increase, rather than decrease, aggression. In one study, participants who were given shocks and asked to retaliate later showed increased aggression, despite the initial opportunity to retaliate. (Geen, 1977)

Moreover, by suggesting the symbolic release of aggressive drive, he even ascribes nonviolent actions to aggressive motives. (Glassman, 2004)

Lastly, not only does the psychodynamic perspective ignore the thought processes involved in aggressive behavior, but also the role of the environment and outside provocation. In claiming that aggressive drive is an innate drive that we cannot eliminate, the psychodynamic approach seems too deterministic and leaves little room for the idea of personal free will.


Criticisms of the Social Cognitive Approach

The Social Cognitive approach has undergone several elaborations since it was first presented and continues to exert a strong influence. There are, however, several criticisms of this approach, one being that it is not unified enough.

It has also been criticized for being too focused on rational and cognitive aspects of behavior; e.g., it does not explain why people who are not normally aggressive sometimes behave uncharacteristically aggressively in some situations. The Bobo doll experiment itself is controversial, one criticism being that the children who acted aggressively in the experiment tended to be those rated as aggressive anyway, implying that factors such as emotions and personality are ignored by this approach. Also, it is difficult to generalize its findings to real life, as most experiments are done in a lab. However, some of the research on the relationship between watching violence in the media and real-life aggression supports Bandura.

The neo-association theory also depends on experiments for its claims, with only co-relational data for real-life aggression. Ethical constraints limit field studies as exposure to aggression, in whatever form, is likely to increase the potential for violence in observers, and this has serious implications. (Glassman, 2004)

Overall, the cognitive approach recognizes biological factors without regarding them as direct cause of aggressive behavior. It assumes that a person’s genetic endowment creates potential for aggression, while the specifics of aggressive behavior are acquired through experience. (Bandura, 1983) Despite the technical limitations, most studies are consistent with its claims, and the general aggression model in particular has great potential for future research.


The cognitive approach offers a more comprehensive view of aggression than the psychodynamic approach, yet to set ‘nature’ against ‘nurture’ in discussing aggression is to create a false dichotomy. Both heredity and social learning are important factors, and human beings, it seems, are neither driven completely by their urges nor helplessly vulnerable to environmental influences. Even when one is disposed to aggression and capable of behaving aggressively, a specific situation must elicit the act. Thus, in order to fully understand the complicated nature of aggression, further research is required into both factors before drawing any final conclusion.

Even when one is disposed to aggression and capable of behaving aggressively, a specific situation must elicit the act. Thus, in order to fully understand the complicated nature of aggression, further research is required into both factors before drawing any final conclusion.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      stena mutu 

      4 months ago

      how did some people criticised cognitive approach

    • profile image


      5 months ago

      could use a lot of this in my poster presentation but would where are the references to the citations please

    • profile image


      8 months ago

      I like this subject but where can we get references?

    • profile image


      10 months ago

      reference for evidence

    • profile image


      14 months ago

      Nature and nurture both plays a very important life in human being ....but when we discuss about aggressive behavior than I think nurture plays a very important role because any person may it be a child give response to the learned or observed behavior ....

    • profile image

      Daniel Hirschhorn 

      15 months ago

      The conclusion says it all: "Both heredity and social learning are important factors and human beings it seems are neither driven completely by their urges, nor helplessly vulnerable to environmental influences."

      Hence people are aggressive to one degree or another most of the time.

    • profile image

      Gurmeet singh 

      19 months ago

      Defensive aggression in threat also learned behaviour or innate behaviour

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      What about the energetic origin of aggression?

      Is it not obvious?

      Aggression always expresses itself by splashing out of energy.

      And if you've got an instrument to damp this energy, you win

    • profile image

      Wilkister Musanga 

      3 years ago

      Nature and nurture both contribute to aggressive behavior and thus we have to major on both sides to know the real causes of aggression

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      reference is not given

    • profile image

      3 years ago

      m&m are good

    • profile image

      S. Reen 

      3 years ago

      How does this APA citation look? (Everything in swirly brackets should be italicized, but I can't do that in this post. Also, you'll want to indent the second line 5 spaces.) (2016). {Causes of aggression: A psychological perspective}. Retrieved from

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      How to cite?

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Reference plzzzz

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      As is the growing trend, this is a gross mischaracterization of psychoanalytic theory and an overvaluation of cognitive theory based on a fetishization of "empirical support" (i.e., logical positivism), ignoring developments in the philosophy of science, and consistent with cognitive theory itself in that it speaks to our erroneous interpretation of data. I am not blaming you, the author, however, but our current culture around these issues. There a limited number of citations in the psychoanalytic section, mostly Freud. To be frank, it is a very shallow reading of Freud, who was constantly revising his theory. The unfalsifiability claim is pervasive and yet you do not elaborate it here. In fact you contradict yourself: the evidence you present that controverts social cognitive theories supports the idea that aggression is innate. Further, the evidence you present in favor of social cognitive theory only supports the hypothesis that aggressive BEHAVIOR is learnt, not aggression itself. So in fact your presentation draws a false dichotomy in the two theories, which, taken this way can in fact coexist: Aggression can be innate, while aggressive theory is learnt. You even initially present psychoanalytic theory as recognizing that behaviors are learned and aggression is dealt with differently, depending upon a number of learning experiences, including, but not limited to, the parent-infant attachment system. You go on to contradict yourself by saying that in psychoanalytic theory aggression is inevitable and the individual is at its mercy, ignoring the role of the ego in modulating aggression as well as a major tenet of psychoanalytic theory speaking to the agency of the individual. There is empirical support demonstrating these theories, if you would take the time to read anything more up to date than Freud. There is an entire discipline of neuropsychoanalysis providing empirical support through fMRI and other brain science. I say this out of frustration, because the case against psychoanalysis has become something of a witch hunt without any real understanding of how science works or of the philosophy of science and the fallibility of our methods. Moreover, cognitive behavior theory has become something of a brand and quite frankly a monopoly, with proponents of the theory claiming superior evidence over psychoanalytic models when in fact statistically and methodologically rigorous meta-analyses reveal little to no difference in their therapeutic efficacy. CBT has MORE evidence, due to a greater number of studies (again speaking to popularization through branding), but no evidence that it is more EFFECTIVE than psychoanalytic approaches, primarily because CBT is most often compared to no treatment, waiting lists, or bogus therapies, termed "treatment as usual," which are most often "supportive" therapies and not strictly psychodynamic/analytic. Lastly, much about psychoanalytic theory can be rephrased in behavioral/cognitive terms and vice versa, so the distinction is again a wash, but with the result that psychoanalytic therapists and researchers are shunned as unscientific and even unethical, falsely threatening our professional integrity and thereby our livelihood. Please do not jump on the bandwagon of psychoanalysis bashing and read the literature for both theories more critically and deeply with less cognitive bias (double entendre) that would otherwise create a cognitive distortion of hypothesis confirmation bias or even self-fulfilling prophecy (empirically supported cognitive terms to which you are falling prey in this article). Start with Shelder (2010) and Baardseth et al (2013) and note both articles are at least 6 years more recent than any of year citations and no doubt more comprehensive and rigorous. For neuroscientific research supporting psychoanalytic theory see the work of Andrew Gerber and Mark Solms. This is, of course, if you are truly dedicated to scientific truth rather than confirmatory bias.

    • profile image

      Marcus Jay 

      3 years ago

      Very interesting subject. I noticed you have in-text citations but no references. Where do you get your information to back your paper?

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      how do we cite this in APA format?


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)