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Causes of Aggression: A Psychological Perspective

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

Aggression psychology definition

Aggression psychology definition

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)
  • Both of these approach's limitations in understanding the root cause of aggression
Freud's theories

Freud's theories

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 the 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.

Diagram of a brain

Diagram of a brain

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?

The 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 based 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.

Is aggression taught?

Is aggression taught?

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 the direct cause of aggressive behavior. It assumes that a person’s genetic endowment creates the potential for aggression, while the specifics of aggressive behavior are acquired through experience. (Bandura, 1983) Despite the technical limitations, most studies are consistent with their claims, and the general aggression model, in particular, has great potential for future research.

Nature vs. Nurture

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.

To Learn More About Aggression


stena mutu on March 18, 2020:

how did some people criticised cognitive approach

dawnyc on February 19, 2020:

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

Nice on November 16, 2019:

I like this subject but where can we get references?

chotek on October 07, 2019:

reference for evidence

Meena on June 14, 2019:

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 ....

Daniel Hirschhorn on April 23, 2019:

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.

Gurmeet singh on December 22, 2018:

Defensive aggression in threat also learned behaviour or innate behaviour

propalo on February 08, 2018:

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

Wilkister Musanga on June 05, 2017:

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

zoya on May 16, 2017:

reference is not given

k on May 05, 2017:

m&m are good

S. Reen on March 25, 2017:

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

VIC on March 03, 2017:

How to cite?

geeta on January 11, 2017:

Reference plzzzz

wjnyc on December 14, 2016:

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.

Marcus Jay on November 29, 2016:

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

hiyaa on March 24, 2016:

how do we cite this in APA format?