The Ethological Explanation Of Aggression, Including Reference To Innate Releasing Mechanisms And Fixed Action Patterns. Evolutionary Explanations Of Human Aggression.

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

Ethological Explanations of Aggression


AO1: Description of the Ethological Explanations of Aggression

Ethology Definition:
The study of animals in their natural environment within the context of evolution.’


This theory states that aggression is adaptive and that it promotes survival by:

(1) Protecting resources: e.g. territory, food, mates
A ‘defeated’ animal is rarely killed, but rather is forced to move elsewhere. This results in members of a species spreading out over a wider area, reducing competition pressure and the risk of starvation.

(2) Establishing dominance: e.g. status within a group
Aggression is a way of climbing the troop’s social hierarchy. Dominance within a group gives special privileges like priority mating rights and access to resources.


Ritualistic aggression: AO1:
Lorenz (an Evolutionary Psychologist) observed that fights between animals of the same species resulted in little actual physical damage. Most aggressive encounters comprised of mainly ritualistic signalling (e.g. displaying claws, baring of teeth etc) and rarely reached the point of becoming physical. Typically, intra-species aggressive encounters end with ritual appeasement displays. These indicate acceptance of defeat and inhibit aggressive behaviour in the victor, preventing damage to the loser (e.g. in defeat a wolf will expose his neck to the victor, deliberately making itself vulnerable).

Inmate Releasing Mechanisms and Fixed Action Patterns:

Innate Releasing Mechanism a built in physiological process or structure (e.g. a network or neurons) which is triggered by environmental stimuli and produces Fixed Action Patterns (a behavioural sequence).

Fixed Action Patterns have 6 main features:
1. Stereotyped, or relatively un-changing sequences of behaviour
2. Universal, the same behaviour is found in every individual of a species
3. Unaffected by learning, same for each individual regardless of experience
4. ‘Ballistic’, once the behaviour is triggered it follows an inevitable course and cannot be altered before its completion
5. Single-purpose, behaviour only occurs in a specific situation
6. IRMs are triggered in response to an identifiable specific sign stimulus/releaser.


AO1: Research into Innate Releasing Mechanisms and Fixation Action Patterns:
Male sticklebacks are highly territorial during the spring mating season, when they also develop a red spot on their belly. If another male enters their territory, a sequence of highly-stereotyped aggressive behaviour is initiated (a FAP), the sign stimulus that triggers the Innate Releasing Mechanism is the sight of the red spot. Tinbergen (1951) presented sticklebacks with various wooden models. Regardless of shape, if the model had a red spot the stickleback would aggressively display (red spot indicates that model would be ‘able to mate). If there was no red spot, there was no aggression, even if the model was realistically ‘stickleback shaped’. This supports the Ethological explanation of aggression as it shows that the male sticklebacks will challenge anything that threatens their ability to reproduce (and therefore threaten their survival).

AO3: Evaluation of the Ethological Explanation: 

Weaknesses of the Ethological Explanation:

(1) Point: A issue with the ethological theory is that it suggests the aggressive behaviour is universal to the species. Example/Evidence: For example, this is clearly not the case for humans, as even within the same situation some will react aggressively, others will not, questioning the presence of an innate mechanism and a fixed action pattern.
Elaboration: This is a weakness because the theory fails to consider individual differences and free will. As a result, the theory can be criticised for being both reductionist and deterministic.


(2) Point: Generalising from animal research to human aggression is problematic.
Example/Evidence: For example, most of the research testing the Ethological explanation is based on animal studies (e.g. Tinbergen’s research focuses on Stickleback males). There are very few pieces of research which focus on humans and the Ethological explanation of aggression. Elaboration: This is a weakness because it means that due to the fact that most research studies focus on animals and the Ethological explanation, findings are not able to be extrapolated (generalised) from animal studies to humans. This means that it is difficult to conclude whether humans would behaviour in the same aggressive behaviours (due to the same Ethological principles) as non-human animals.

AO1: Evolutionary Explanations of Human Aggression:

Theory of Cuckoldry as an Explanation of Aggression
According to Evolutionary Psychologists, men should be more distressed over acts of sexual infidelity because men have faced the problem of uncertain paternity (i.e. are they definitely the father of their child). While a woman always knows for sure that a child is hers, men cannot be 100% certain as they never know for sure the moment of fertilisation. Therefore, this paternity uncertainty is the result of a real threat that any investment in offspring that so not share the male’s genes is a waste of resources. In evolutionary terms, men who avoid cuckoldry are more reproductively successful. Psychological mechanisms (mate retention strategies) have evolved to increase anti-cuckoldry behaviour, which often drives men to display aggressive strategies men employ to prevent their partners from ‘straying’.

AO1: Research demonstrating The Theory of Cuckoldry as a potential trigger of aggressive behaviour:


Further evidence for the evolutionary theory of cuckoldry explaining human aggression comes from Buss et al (1992). Buss et al used the ‘forced choice hypothesis’. When thinking about a serious, committed romantic relationship they have had, participants were asked to indicate what would cause them more distress: imagining their partner forming a deep emotional attachment with another or imagining their partner enjoying a passionate sexual relationship with another. Women were more distressed at the thought of an emotional relationship, whereas men were more distressed at the thought of a sexual relationship. This shows that the significance of a sexual relationship is higher for men because of the uncertainty surrounding paternity, these findings then further support the explanation that a man may engage in aggressive behaviours to ensure the paternity of a child.

AO3: Evaluation of the Theory of Cuckoldry:

(1) Point:This theory of aggression can be criticised as being socially sensitivity.
Example/Explain: Some critics of the evolutionary theory of human aggression feel that the approach justifies violence by men against women as natural and inevitable.
Elaboration: This is a weakness and is socially sensitive on a number of levels, it condones aggression by men against women suggesting that such aggression is adaptive and is used to aid male survival. In addition, the theory suggests that males are the most likely perpetrators of aggression, failing to recognise the fact that females can also be aggressive towards males.

(2) Point: Evidence relating to child adoption also goes against the evolutionary theory of human aggression. Example/Evidence: Many men can love, care for and raise a child that they have adopted and therefore is not securing the continuation of his genes. Elaboration: This is a weakness because, such a situation shows that males invest their love, time and energy into non-biological children therefore suggesting that caring for a child is not always motivated by the continuation of genes and survival thus calling into question the role of such a situation in the motivation of male aggression towards females.


AO1:  Mate retention Strategies:

Wilson & Daly (1996) identified several mate retention strategies which involve aggression and even physical violence:

(1) Direct guarding: male vigilance over a partner’s behaviour, e.g. checking who they’ve been seeing, installing tracking apps on their mobiles.

(2) Negative inducements: issuing threats of dire consequences for infidelity e.g. “I’ll kill you if you leave me”


AO1: Research into Mate Retention Strategies:
Wilson et al (1995) found that women who reported mate retention strategies in their partners (agreeing with statements like “He insists on knowing who you are with and where you are at all times”), were twice as likely to have suffered physical violence at the hands of their partners.

AO3: Evaluation of the Evolutionary Explanation of Aggression:

Strength of the Evolutionary Explanation of Aggression:

(1) Point: Research into intimate partner violence supports the evolutionary explanation of human aggression. Evidence/Example: Shackelford (2006) found that men who had sexually coerced their partners were more likely to report that they thought their partners were being unfaithful. Women who reported that their partners had sexually coerced them were more likely to admit to having been unfaithful. Elaboration: This is a strength because the research suggests a clear relationship between sexual jealousies, mate-retention techniques by males and violence against women, thus supporting the theory.


(2) Point: Research into the evolutionary explanations of aggression has real-life practical applications. Example/Evidence: An important implication of this research is that such retention tactics can be used as an early indicator of possible domestic violence, and can alert friends, family and authorities to the potential threat faced by the woman, before it becomes more serious, or even life threatening. Elaboration: This is a strength because, it means that this research has practical applications in the real world in that individuals are able to identify early ‘indicators’ of domestic violence/aggression before such instances occur allowing couples to seek help in order to prevent an aggressive relationship from occurring.

Gender Differences Explained

Campbell (1999) argues that a female with offspring is motivated to be less physically aggressive because such behaviour would not only threaten her own survival, but also that of her child. So a more adaptive strategy for females is to use verbal aggression as a means of retaining a partner who provides resources. This explains why women are more likely than men to use non-aggressive methods of resolving disputes.

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