Social Psychological Explanations Of Human Aggression, Including The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis, Social Learning Theory As Applied To Human Aggression, And Deindividuation.

March 17, 2021 - Paper 3 Issues and Options in Psychology | Aggression

Social Psychological Explanations of Human Aggression


AO1: Frustration Aggression Hypothesis

The Frustration Aggression Hypothesis is a social psychological theory that argues that anger, hostility and even violence are always the outcome when we are prevented from achieving our goals (i.e. frustration).


Dolland et al first formulated the frustration-aggression hypothesis in 1939 and they made a few suggestions within the theory;

Frustration always leads to aggression, aggression is always as a result of frustration.  

This theory is based on the Psychodynamic theory of catharsis, ( catharsis the process of releasing, and relieving strong or repressed emotion). The following stages are proposed;


(1) An attempt to achieve a goal is blocked,

(2) Frustration is experienced,

(3) Aggressive drive is created,

(4) Aggressive behaviour displayed (e.g. violent fantasy, verbal / physical outburst.


This is cathartic because the aggression created by the frustration is satisfied, thereby reducing the drive and making further aggression less likely.

Expressions of Aggression
The frustration-aggression hypothesis recognises that aggression is not always expressed directly against the source of frustration, for 3 reasons.

(1) The cause of frustration may be abstract, such as an economic situation, the government, music industry etc.

(2) The cause may be too powerful and we risk punishment by aggressing against it, e.g. the teacher who gave you a lower grade than expected.


(3) The cause may just be unavailable at the time, e.g. the teacher mentioned earlier left before you realise what grade you were given.

In any of the above cases, the aggression is deflected (displaced) onto an alternative, a target that isn’t abstract, e.g. a pet, an inanimate object, sibling etc.

AO1: Research into the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis
Green (1968) studied male university students. Participants were given the task of completing a jigsaw. Levels of frustration were experimentally manipulated in 1 of 3 ways.
1. The puzzle was impossible for solve
2. Running out of time due to another student in the room (a confederate)
3. Participants were insulted by confederate as they’d failed to solve the puzzle.
Participants were then taken to the next part of the study, where they were asked to give electric shocks to a confederate when they made a mistake on a different task.
The insulted participants gave the strongest shocks on average, followed by the group that ran out of time, then the impossible task group. All 3 groups selected more intense shocks than a non-frustrated control group.

AO3: Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis Evaluation



(1) Point: There is a suggestion that aggression isn’t always cathartic. Example/Evidence: For example, Bushman (2002) found participants who vented their anger by repeatedly hitting a punch bag actually became angrier and aggressive rather than less. In fact, they found that doing nothing was more effective at reducing anger than venting anger. Elaboration: This is a weakness because the outcome of this study is very different form that predicted by the frustration-aggression hypothesis, which casts doubt on the validity of a central assumption hypothesis.

(2) Point: There are individual differences in how individuals respond to aggression.
Example/Evidence: For example, it is possible that someone may cry or withdraw rather than becoming aggressive. They may not feel anger and so react in a different way reflecting their emotional state. Elaboration: This is a weakness because it indicates that the frustration-aggression hypothesis does not, like it suggests, offer a complete explanation of human aggression and therefore could be considered incomplete.

(3) Point: There are methodological flaws in some of the research that can threaten population validity. Example/Evidence: For example, research such as that conducted by Green in 1968 has used all male university students. Elaboration:This is a weakness because it makes the findings difficult to generalise. Findings cannot be generalised to non-university students/older/younger people and, the all male sample makes the findings androcentric, results cannot be generalised to females.


AO1: Social Learning Theory:

Social Learning Theory is something that you have covered before throughout your Psychology course. Before you start to revise/study how Social Learning Theory (SLT) links to aggression, why not have a recap and see how many ‘key words’ you can remember and define?

Bandura (1965) claimed that aggression is learned in our species. There are four basic cognitive conditions essential for observational learning to take place.:

1. Attention the observer must pay attention to the model’s aggressive actions
2. Retention the observer must be able to remember the model’s aggressive actions, to form a mental representation of how the behaviour’s performed
3. Reproduction the observer must be able to transform the mental representation of the aggressive behaviour into actual physical action
4. Motivation the observer needs a reason to imitate the behaviour, which will depend on their expectations that behaving aggressively in a specific way will be rewarding


The role model The child is likely to pay attention to a role model with whom they identify e.g. a parent, a sibling or a friend (someone similar to themselves). Motivation can occur as a result of different types of reinforcement:

(1) Direct Reinforcement:
(i.e., being directly rewarded or punished).

Ӣ If the child is then positively reinforced for the behaviour (e.g. gaining popularity following a fight), this will increase the likelihood of them being aggressive again in similar situations.
Ӣ If a child is punished for a behaviour (e.g. being grounded following a fight), this will decrease the likelihood of them repeating the behaviour.

(2) Vicarious reinforcement:
(i.e. seeing others being rewarded or punished).
Ӣ When the child sees another person being rewarded for their behaviour, they are much more likely to imitate (or model) this behaviour. When the opportunity arises, the child will display the behaviour provided that the expectation of reward is greater than the expectation of punishment.


(3) Self-Efficacy:
Bandura believed that if a child is successful in displaying aggressive behaviour, they will develop confidence (self-efficacy). This increases the motivation to act in a certain way suggesting they will turn to aggression more often. However, someone who has been unsuccessful (low self-efficacy) will display non-aggressive behaviours.

Outline of how Social Learning Theory can be used to explain aggression (AO1- Description)

Social Learning Theory Flow Chart Application to Aggression

Key Research into Social Learning Theory and Aggression AO1 Description:

Albert Bandura aimed to investigate whether children would model the behaviour of an aggressive adult (role model).

The research design used was a laboratory experiment, 36 male and 36 female children, aged between 37-69 months were used as participants.


Participants were tested individually. Participants were put in a room to observe an adult role model’s (male/female) behaviour (aggressive or non-aggressive) towards a Bobo doll. Aggressive models hit it with a hammer and shouted verbal abuse at it.

After 10 minutes the participants were placed in a different room, with toys that they were told they couldn’t play with (this is called aggression arousal). Participants were then led into a room that contained a variety of toys, including a Bobo doll. The participants were observed playing for 20 minutes.

They found that the children who had observed the aggressive behaviour acted more aggressively when observed, and that boys acted more aggressively that girls. There was also a greater level of imitation of behaviour if the role model was the same gender as the child.

AO3 Evaluation Social Learning Theory and Aggression:



(1) Point: Evidence from real-life friendship groups supports the social learning of aggression. Evidence/Example: For example, Poulin and Boivin (2000) applied SLT to aggressive behaviour in boys, aged 9-12. They found that the most aggressive boys formed lasting and stable friendships with other aggressive boys. The boys used their alliances with each other to gain resources through aggressive behaviour and were reinforced in the form of approval from the rest of the ‘gang’. Elaboration: This is a strength because it demonstrates that aggressive behaviour continues as a result of a process of imitation and reinforcement. If the aggressive boys were not friends with each other and not subsequently positively reinforced for their aggressive display, we would assume that less aggressive role models would affect their behaviour.

(2) Point: There is evidence to support SLT as an explanation of aggression
Evidence/Example: Aronson (1999) provides support for Social learning theory with evidence from non-violent societies such as the Pygmies of Central Africa, who manage to live in cooperative friendliness. Elaboration: This is a strength because it shows that learning is integral to the development of behaviour, specifically relating to violence. Therefore, according to SLT if no aggressive role model exists then aggressive behaviour cannot be learned, which is what is being observed by Aronson, thus supporting SLT as an explanation of aggression.

(3) Point: A further strength that can be taken from Aronson’s (1999) study is that it was conducted in a real-life community. Example/Evidence: The Pygmies of Central Africa are a real-life community rather than a group that has been put together for the sake of an artificial laboratory experiment. The Pygmies would therefore be displaying real-life behaviour as opposed to the artificial behaviour that participants sometimes display in lab experiments. Elaboration: This is a strength because it means that the experiment is measuring naturally occurring behaviour which is reflective of real life, this behaviour can therefore be praised for having high ecological validity.


(1) Point: There are times when SLT cannot effectively be applied to the explanation of aggressive behaviour. Evidence/Example: For example, among cultures such as the Kung San of the Kalahari Desert direct reinforcement of children’s aggression is unlikely because social norms do not encourage it, parents tend not to use aggression to discipline children, meaning that aggressive role models are unavailable. Nevertheless, aggressive behaviour is displayed among the children. Elaboration: This is a weakness because if children are not observing aggression yet are still displaying aggressive behaviour, it would suggest that SLT is an inadequate explanation of all aggression and that an alternative theory of aggression must be considered.


AO1/Description: Deindividuation Theory:

Deindividuation has been defined as ‘the loss of one’s sense of individuality’. It is a process whereby people lose their sense of socialised individual identity and engage in unsociable, often antisocial behaviour.

Explanation of Crowd Behaviour:
Ӣ LeBon (1895) used the concept of deindividuation to explain behaviour of individuals in a crowd
Ӣ Typically, because we are identifiable, our behaviour is constrained by social norms, and we live in a society where most aggressive behaviour is discouraged.
”¢ When we become part of a crowd, we lose restraint and have the freedom to behave in ways we wouldn’t ordinarily contemplate. This is because we lose both our self-identity and responsibility for our behaviour.
Ӣ Responsibility becomes shared throughout the crowd, so we experience less personal guilt at harmful aggression directed at others.

Zimbardo (1969) distinguished between two types of behaviour:

(1) Individuated behaviour:
rational and conforms to social norms.
continue to self-monitor and regulate behaviour


(2) Deindividuated behaviour: 
emotional, impulsive and irrational.
cease to self-monitor and regulate behaviour and lose self-awareness.

Conditions that promote deindividuated behaviour include darkness, drugs, alcohol, uniform, masks/disguises and uniforms. The key thing with all of these factors is that they provide anonymity.

Self-awareness  deindividuation creates a greater likelihood of aggression, but not due to anonymity directly, but more the consequences of anonymity.

Private self-awareness = aggression
How we pay attention to our own feelings and behaviour this is reduced when part of a crowd. Attention becomes outwardly focussed to the events around us. We become less self-critical, less thoughtful and less evaluative.

Public self-awareness = aggression
How much we care about what other people think of our behaviour this is reduced when part of a crowd. We realise that we are one individual amongst many, and are therefore anonymous. We no longer care how others see us.


AO1/Description: Research into Deindividuation and Aggression

Zimbardo (1969) the hooded electric shock study.

Female undergraduates were involved in what they thought was a ‘study of learning’. A stooge was used to play the role of a ‘student’ and the participants played the role of ‘teacher’. The task was very similar to Milgram’s research into obedience.

Experimental group  wore lab coats and hoods that covered their faces and were always addressed as a group rather than individually (deindividuation)

Control group  wore normal clothes, name tags and introduced themselves.
The hooded participants gave twice as much shock as the control group. In addition, the strength of the shock given by the hooded participants (unlike the control group) didn’t depend upon whether the learner was described as ‘honest and warm’ or ‘conceited and critical’. This research shows that when there is removal of a person’s identity they are more likely to be display aggressive behaviour.


AO3/Evaluation Deindividuation as an Explanation of Aggression:


(1) Point: Further evidence to support deindividuation as being an explanation for aggressive behaviour comes from Deiner et al (1976).
An observation conducted on 1300 trick or treating American children at Halloween night. When the children wore masks and went from house to house in large groups they were more likely to steal money and sweets (i.e. engage in anti-social behaviour). Elaboration:This is a strength as this research supports the key assumptions of Deindividuation theory supporting the idea that individuals are more likely to be aggressive when they are anonymous and there is a removal of their personal identity. 

(2) Point: This research was carried out in a real life non-artificial setting. Evidence/Example: for example, this study looked at real-life trick or treaters who were unaware that they were being observed and therefore would be displaying natural behaviour and no demand characteristics. Elaboration: This is a strength because it means that the study was measuring real life natural behaviour, the findings have high ecological validity and strongly supports the key assumptions of the Deindividuation theory.



(1) Point: Evidence to question the link between deindividuation and aggression comes from Gergen, Gergen and Barton (1973) Example/Evidence: For example, 6 men and 6 women (unknown to each other) in normally lit rooms or in complete darkness. The results of this study showed that in the final fifteen minutes, the participants in the dark room began to get physical, half of them hugged each other, some of them became quite intimate and 80% reported feeling sexually aroused the norms of intimacy no longer prevailed. Elaboration: This is a weakness because this study suggests that deindividuation does not always lead to aggressive, anti-social behaviour, sometimes it can lead to pro-social behaviour and therefore calls into question the adequacy of the Deindividuation theory as an explanation of aggression.

(2)Point: The Deindividuation theory can be criticised for not considering the role of biology in explaining aggression. An alternative to the social psychological explanation of aggression is that of the Biological Approach. Example/Explanation: The Biological approach criticises social psychological theories; SLT has been criticised by the biological approach which includes looking at hormone levels as a cause of aggression. Higher levels of the male hormone ‘testosterone’ have been cited as the main cause of aggressive behaviour. Elaboration: This is a weaknesses as this casts doubt on learning being a conclusive explanation of all cases of aggression.

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