The 4 main theories of aggression: how is aggression explained?

Aggression is a phenomenon that has been studied from many different angles. These often revolve around the same question: is aggression innate, is it learned, or is it both? And, given the difficulty of offering a single, forceful response, the responses have been positioned in the same three dimensions: there are those who suggest that aggression is an innate phenomenon, there are those who argue that it is. is a phenomenon. try to understand from the convergence between nature and culture.

Below we will take a general tour of some of the main theories of aggression and we incorporate the possibility of distinguishing between two phenomena which are generally paired: aggression and violence.

    Theories of Aggression

    The theories which explained the aggression went through different elements. For example, the intentional nature of the aggression, the aversive or negative consequences for the people involved, the diversity of expression of the phenomenon, the individual processes that generate it, the social processes involved, among others.

    In this text we read Domènech i Iñiguez (2002) and Sanmartí (2006), with the intention of reviewing four of the major theoretical propositions that have explained aggression.

    1. Biological determinism and instinctive theories

    this line emphasizes the distinctive character of the assault. The explanation is mainly given by elements understood as “interior” and constitutive of the person. In other words, the cause of the aggression is explained precisely by what is “inside” each one.

    The above is usually condensed under the term “instinct”, understood as a faculty necessary for the survival of the species, so that aggression is defined in terms of adaptive process, developed as a result of evolution. Depending on the latter reading, there may be little or no chance of altering aggressive responses.

    We see that the latter corresponds to theories close to both psychology and biology, as well as evolutionary theories, but the term “instinct” has also been understood in different ways depending on the theory that uses it.

    In the case of Freudian psychoanalysis, aggression as instinct, or rather “drive” (which is equivalent to “instinct” for the psyche), has been understood as a key in the constitution of the personality. In other words, he has important functions in the psychic structuring of each subject, As well as to support this structure in one form or another.

    2. Environmental explanations

    This line explains aggression resulting from learning and various complex environmental factors. A series of works are grouped here which explain aggression as a consequence of an external element which is the main trigger. In other words, before the assault, there is another experience, related to an event external to the person: frustration.

    The latter is known as the Frustration-Aggression Theory and explains that, as instinctive theories suggest, aggression is an innate phenomenon. However, it depends at all times on whether the frustration is generated or not. In turn, frustration is generally defined as the consequence of not being able to perform an action as plannedIn this sense, aggression serves as a sedative for high levels of frustration.

    3. Social learning

    The basis of the theories that explain aggression through social learning is behavioralism. In these, the cause of the aggression is attributed to what was associated with the presence of a given stimulus, as well as the reinforcement that came after the action following that association.

    In other words, the aggression is explained under the classic formula of operant conditioning: Faced with a stimulus there is a response (a behavior), and faced with the latter, there is a consequence, which depending on the way it is presented can cause the behavior to repeat, or turn it off. And in this sense, it is possible to take into account what are the stimuli and reinforcements that trigger certain types of aggressive behavior.

    Perhaps the most representative of the theories of social learning has been that of Albert Bandura, who developed the “theory of learning by proxy”, where he proposes to learn certain behaviors based on reinforcements or punishments. that we see receiving other people after certain behaviors.

    The aggression could therefore be the consequence of behaviors learned by imitation, And for having assimilated the consequences observed in the behavior of others.

    Among other things, Bandura’s theories made it possible to separate two processes: on the one hand, the mechanism by which we learn aggressive behavior; and on the other hand, the process by which we may or may not perform. And with the latter it becomes possible to understand why, or under what conditions, its execution can be avoided, beyond what has already been learned the logic and social function of aggression.

      4. Psychosocial theory

      Psychosocial theory has made it possible to link two dimensions of the human, Which can be crucial in understanding aggression. These dimensions are, on the one hand, individual psychological processes, and on the other hand, social phenomena, which far from acting separately, interact closely, and result in a specific behavior, attitude, identity, etc. at.

      Similarly, social psychology, and in particular that of the socioconstructionist tradition, has paid attention to a key element in the studies of aggression: in order to determine which behavior is aggressive, first there must be a number of socio-cultural norms indicating what is meant by “aggression” and what is not.

      And in that sense, aggressive behavior is what transgresses the socio-cultural norm. What is more: a behavior can be understood as “aggressive” when it comes from one person in particular, and may not be understood as the same when it comes from another.

      The above allows us to think about aggression in a context which, as a social being, is not neutral, but is based on power relations and certain possibilities of agency.

      In other words, and since the aggressiveness it does not always manifest as observable behaviorIt is important to analyze the forms that represent it, manifest it and experience it. This allows us to consider that aggression only takes place when a relationship is established, so that it can hardly be explained in individual terms or with homogeneous nuances that apply to all relationships and experiences.

      Social psychology here has explained aggression as a behavior set in a specific context of relationships. Likewise, the most classical traditions have understood it as behavior causing damage intentionally. The latter leads us to pose a next problem, which is that of the possibility of distinguishing between aggression and violence.

      Aggression or violence?

      Aggression has been translated by many theories as “aggressive behavior,” which in other words is the act of aggression. And in this sense, is often equated with the concept of “violence”. From this it is common to find that aggression and violence are presented and used as synonyms.

      Sanmartí (2006; 2012) tells us about the need to highlight certain differences between the two phenomena. This need leads us to distinguish between the participation of biology and the intentionality of each process, As well as to contextualize them within the framework of social institutions which participate in their production and reproduction; which implies recognizing both human and social character. Character that the same adaptive or defensive response (aggressiveness) does not have in itself.

      For the same author, aggression is a behavior that occurs automatically in the face of certain stimuli, and therefore inhibited in the face of other stimuli. And in this sense, aggression can be understood as an adaptive and defensive process, Common to living beings. But it is not the same as violence. Violence is “modified aggression”, that is, a form of aggression loaded with sociocultural meanings. These meanings make it happen no longer automatically, but intentionally and potentially harmful.

      Intentionality, violence and emotions

      Beyond being the biological response to potentially risky stimuli for survival, violence puts into action the socio-cultural meanings that we attribute to certain events understood in terms of danger. In this sense we can think that violence is a behavior that can only take place between human beings, while aggression or aggressive behavior, these are responses that can also take place in other species.

      Emotions, like fear, also understood in innate terms as an adaptive pattern and a survival mechanism, play an active and relevant role in this understanding of aggression. Which leads us to consider that fear and aggression can be considered beyond being “good” or “bad”.

      Intersections of Aggression and Violence: Are There Types of Aggression?

      While it is possible to look at aggression from the point of view of the processes by which a person becomes competent for society (socialization), one can also pay attention to different phenomena and experiences that are different, for example, by differences in class, race, sex, socio-economic status, disability, etc.

      In this sense, the experience that causes frustration and triggers aggressive behavior, which can then be violent, may not be triggered in the same way in women or men, in children or adults, in a person of the upper class and a person from the lower class, etc. .

      This is because not all people have socialized about the same resources to experience and manifest both frustration and aggression in the same way. And for the same reason, the approach is also multidimensional and it is important to place it in the relational context where it is generated.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Sanmartí, J. (2012). Keys to understanding violence in the 21st century. Ludus Vitalis, XX (32): 145-160.
      • Sanmartí, J. (2006). What is this thing called violence? In the Institute of Education of Aguascalientes. What is this thing called violence? Supplement to the Field Daily Bulletin. Accessed June 22, 2018.Available at
      • Domenech, M. and Iñiguez, L. (2002). The social construction of violence. Athenea Digital, 2: 1-10.

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