(2) 250 words DQ

Chapter 10:


Two men box in a boxing ring.

Tetra Images/SuperStock

Learning Objectives

By the end of the chapter you should be able to:

Define aggression and differentiate instrumental aggression, hostile aggression, and violence

Describe the possible origins of aggression

Explain whether men or women are more

aggressive, what age group shows the most aggression,

and how age and gender interact with types of aggression, including relational aggression

Explain catharsis and whether it works to reduce aggression

Describe displaced aggression and triggered displaced aggression

Explain the factors that influence our aggression: frustration, media, weapons, alcohol, and environmental factors

Describe the risk factors and consequences for antisocial behavior

Chapter Outline

10.1 Aggression

Origins of Aggression

Gender and Age Differences in Aggression

10.2 Aggression Cues

Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis




Environmental Factors

10.3 Catharsis and Aggression

10.4 Other Antisocial Behavior

Chapter Summary

* * *

The video and computer game industry is large, with 67% of households in the United States having at least one member who plays, and a total 24.75 billion dollars in yearly revenue (Entertainment Software Association, 2012). Though the amount of identified violence varies depending on who is doing the rating, many video games contain violent content (Carnagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007; Thompson, & Haninger, 2001; Walsh & Gentile, 2001). Both children and adults play such games, with half of game players between the ages of 18 and 49 (Online Education, 2013). The vast majority of adolescents, 97%, report that they play video games (Lenhart et al., 2008). Action and strategy genres are most popular, and more than half of games sold receive a rating of "Everyone" or "Everyone +10," meaning the game content in generally suitable for ages 10 and up (Entertainment Software Association, 2012). Does the playing of such games allow for the release of aggressive feelings? Or does playing video games with violent content teach violence? The debate concerning the effect of violent media is ongoing, with the video game industry, parents, children, gamers, and scientists all providing input (Ferguson, 2013; Entertainment Software Association, 2012). In this chapter, we will discuss where aggression might originate as well as cues that contribute to our aggressive feelings and behavior. Beyond the topic of aggression, the source and consequences of general antisocial behavior will be discussed.

10.1 Aggression

While sitting in a public place like a park, you are likely to observe a variety of behaviors in the people around you. Two children by the sandbox are wrestling with one another. The man and woman are yelling at one another and the woman begins to cry. Are these behaviors aggression? Aggression is intentionally harming someone who is motivated to avoid that harm (Baron & Richardson, 1994; Berkowitz, 1993). In order to be labeled as aggression the behavior needs to be intentional. The result does not matter as much as the intent. If you were swinging your arm around with no intention of hitting someone and accidentally did, your behavior may be careless but it is not aggressive. Both the children and the couple at the park appear to satisfy this requirement: their actions have intention. To be labeled as aggression, the behavior must have the intent of harm, and the harm may be relational, such as an insult, or physical, such as a punch. Harm can also differ in whether it is direct, like an insult or a punch, or covert, like gossip or adding poison to someone's drink. Also, the person toward whom the behavior is aimed must be motivated to avoid the harm. A visit to the oral surgeon, for example, may result in pain; however, the oral surgeon was not acting aggressively when she took out your wisdom teeth because you willingly submitted to the surgery.

At times we engage in an aggressive act that is a means to an end, not an end in itself. A bomber pilot who drops a bomb on a terrorist training camp intends to harm individuals there, but the pilot's final goal is to stop terrorist attacks, not cause harm to those particular individuals. Boxers throw punches to win a boxing match, not because of a desire to cause lasting harm to their opponents. A gamer shoots a villain to gain points or get to the next level in the game. When aggression is a means to an end, we call it instrumental aggression (Baron & Richardson, 1994; Feshbach, 1964). If one member of the couple in the park was saying hurtful things to bring about a breakup, that would be instrumental aggression. In contrast, there are times when the goal of the aggressive behavior is to cause harm. A fifth grader who spreads a rumor about an enemy may have hurting that enemy as an ultimate goal. This type of aggression is called hostile aggression (Baron & Richardson, 1994). Physical aggression that has the potential of severely harming someone is violence (Felson, 2002; Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi, & Lozano, 2002). A gunshot to the chest is violence, while a slap on the cheek is better described as aggressive behavior.

Test Yourself

Which of the following qualify as aggression, according to the psychological definition of aggression? Why? Click on each statement below to reveal the answer.

While stretching his leg into the aisle to get rid of a leg cramp, Mark accidentally trips someone coming down the aisle.

Fearing his colleague would get the promotion he wanted, Lester spreads a rumor about the colleague's unprofessional behavior.

Hoping to dislodge a bit of food caught in her friend's throat, Lindsey hits her hard on the back.

Origins of Aggression

Early human burial of three skeletons and various artifacts preserved in a museum case.


Evidence of aggression has been found in early human graves.

Where does aggression originate? Aggressive behavior is manifested in a variety of human cultures, and archaeologists and anthropologists have found evidence of aggression in the discovery of weapons in human burials and in marks on bones caused by aggressive behavior (Buss & Shackelford, 1997). Aggression is something that is innate to our person. Sigmund Freud, for example, believed that all people were endowed with aggressive energy, called Thanatos; and he argued that cultures were needed to control this aggressive drive. Today, evolutionary psychologists suggest that humans developed a tendency toward aggression because aggression provides an evolutionary benefit; inflicting harm on a rival is one way of gaining territory or mates, thus making it advantageous to use some degree of aggression in human relationships (Buss & Shackelford, 1997).

Although most cultures exhibit some degree of aggression, wide variations between cultures suggest that aggression is, to some extent, influenced by the social environment (Bond, 2004; Munroe, Hulefeld, Rodgers, Tomeo, & Yamazaki, 2000). For example, rates of aggression against partners tend to differ depending on the level of gender equality and individualism in a culture. In cultures with greater gender equality and more individualism, violence toward women is lower, although victimization of men tends to be higher in these cultures (Archer, 2006). Greater aggression is often found in countries with fewer resources, unequal income distribution, and nondemocratic governing systems, as well as those countries that have recently been at war (Bond, 2004). The form aggression takes and the effects it has can also differ depending on culture. In Japan, for example, relational aggression by peers is particularly damaging to children, not surprising given the interdependent culture focus on relationships (Kawabata, Crick, & Hamaguchi, 2010). Overall, aggression is an inborn tendency that appears in most cultures and is either increased or decreased by the norms of that culture.

Just as aggression rates among cultures vary, so do rates among individuals. Differences in rates of aggression between individuals are due to a combination of inborn or innate qualities (nature), and the environment (nurture). Some degree of this variation in rates of aggression between people can be traced to genetic differences. For example, the greater the genetic similarity between individuals in a family, the more they resemble one another in domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence). Identical twins, who share the same genes, are more similar to one another in rates of aggression than fraternal twins, who share only half of their genes (Hines & Saudino, 2009). But differences between twins with the same genes still exist, suggesting that, in the end, it is neither just genes nor just the environment that influence aggression. Individuals whose genes predispose them toward aggression may become more aggressive in an environment that encourages aggression or not show this predisposition in an environment that does not encourage aggression. For example, in one study of adoptees, only 10.5% of the adoptees whose biological and adoptive fathers did not commit a crime, committed a crime. These individuals had neither the genetic predisposition toward crime nor the environment to support criminal actions. Those whose environment but not biology included criminality—those whose adoptive father but not biological father committed a crime—did not show much more criminal behavior than the previous group; only 11.5% committed a crime. When the biological father, but not the adoptive father, committed a crime, 22% of the adoptees committed a crime themselves. Finally, of those individuals whose biological father and adoptive father committed a crime, 36.2% committed a crime (Hutchings & Mednick, 1977). Studies like this one determine that biology is an important factor in aggression. Individuals with inborn tendencies toward aggression are likely to be more aggressive than those who do not have such inborn tendencies. But the environment also contributes to expression of aggression, building on those genetic predispositions.

Research Challenges

The difficulty of social psychology research.

Critical Thinking Questions

What are some of the challenges in determining the causes of aggression?

What balance is hard to achieve when conducting research?

While humans are influenced by their genes, aggression is also a learned behavior. One of the earliest studies on the modeling of aggression involved children who were 3 to 5 years old. The children were divided into a number of groups and each group observed different things. Some children watched as an adult across the room beat up a 5-foot-tall inflatable doll with a weight in the bottom, called a Bobo doll. Other children watched as the same adult did the same actions on film. In one other condition, the children saw a cartoon cat doing the same actions the adult did. After frustrating the children by not allowing them to play with attractive toys, the researchers put the children in a room with a variety toys, including a 3-foot-tall Bobo doll. No matter how the children saw the aggression toward the Bobo doll—real life, film, or cartoon—they showed more aggressive behavior toward the doll and more total aggression than children who did not see any aggressive behavior (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963). Bandura proposed that people learn how to behave by observing others, a theory called social learning theory (Bandura, 1977).

Social learning theory helps us understand how experience with aggression in the home might influence aggression in other places. Children who come from homes where there is more aggression tend to show more aggression outside of the home (Garcia, Restubog, & Denson, 2010). Although findings are mixed, generally, young adults who observe their same sex parent perpetrate domestic violence are more likely to be aggressive toward their own partners as well as aggressive toward friends (Jankowski, Leitenberg, Henning, & Coffey, 1999; Moretti, Obsuth, Odgers, & Reebye, 2006). Employees who observe others acting aggressively in the workplace and are targets of aggression are more likely to behave aggressively (Glomb & Liao, 2003; Mitchell & Ambrose, 2012). This modeling is stronger for physical aggression than for verbal aggression (Kitzmann, Gaylord, Holt, & Kenny, 2003).

Gender and Age Differences in Aggression

As you sit in a park, you hear a fight happening behind you. When you turn around, who do you think would be most likely to be the perpetrator? A man or woman? A boy or girl? How old would you expect that person to be? When we look into differences in aggression, we find that across cultures, men and boys show more physical aggression than women and girls (Lansford et al., 2012). This does not mean that women are never physically aggressive; they simply show less of this type of aggression than men. Some studies show that women are more relationally aggressive than men, though many studies show no difference (Bettencourt & Miller, 1996; Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008; Eagly & Steffen, 1986; Landsford et al., 2012; Ostrov, 2006; Scheithauer, Haag, Mahlke, & Ittel, 2008). Some of the gender differences in aggression may come from gender roles. Women are expected to be less physically aggressive than men, so they may show less physical aggression in order to be in line with the expectations for their gender. Such an idea is supported by the finding that when individuals are angered or aggression is instigated, essentially no differences in aggression are found between men and women (Bettencourt & Kernahan, 1997). Given the right situation, women can be as aggressive as men.

The most physically aggressive age group is, surprisingly, toddlers. Children begin to use physical aggression in their second year, and this aggression decreases as they learn that hitting, kicking, and biting are not socially acceptable behaviors. Because the hit of a 2-year-old is generally not going to do much damage, we usually do not think about the frequency of physically aggressive behaviors in this age group (Tremblay, 2000). Overall, physical aggression tends to decrease through adolescence, though there is a great deal of variability amongst individuals (Underwood, Beron, & Rosen, 2009). For at least a subset of individuals, aggression increases in adolescence and young adulthood (Loeber & Farrington, 1998; Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998). For some teens it may be the onset of puberty, with its accompanying physical and hormonal changes, that triggers aggression (Najman et al., 2009). Some individuals that become physically aggressive in adolescence or adulthood showed other types of antisocial behavior in childhood or an unstable personality and it was only in adolescence or adulthood that the behaviors became aggressive (Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998; Pulkkinen, Lyyra, Kokko, 2009).

Two toddlers engaged in an altercation over a toy.


Toddlers are the most physically aggressive group.

Relational aggression shows a different developmental trajectory. Relational aggression is aggression focused on the destruction of relationships or social status through direct actions, reputation attacks, or exclusion (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). When a person spreads a rumor designed to damage someone's reputation, excludes someone from a social group, threatens to end a relationship, or tells others they cannot join one's group unless they do a favor for a group member, that individual is engaging in relational aggression. Original research on the concept included direct, rather than covert, acts, but much of the subsequent researchers have focused primarily on the nondirect types of aggression, such as spreading rumors or exclusion (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Geiger, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Crick, 2004; Tomada & Schneider, 1997). Relational aggression largely begins in the preschool years, and rises through childhood. Children learn how to use techniques like ostracism and gossip to harm others and get what they want. Relational aggression is common across cultures (Lansford et al., 2012; Tomada & Schneider, 1997).

High aggression in childhood and adolescence can have negative long-term effects, including increased risk of alcohol and drug abuse, divorce, unemployment, and mental illness (Farrington, 1991; Loeber, Farrington, Stouthamer-Loeber, Moffitt, & Caspi, 1998; McCord, 1983; McCord & McCord, 1960; West & Farrington, 1977). Onset of aggression in childhood that continues through adolescence is the most damaging to a successful transition to adulthood, although increased aggression beginning in adolescence is also problematic (Xie, Drabick, & Chen, 2011). The negative long-term effects of aggression are not limited to physical aggression. Both physical aggression and relational aggression have negative effects on children's adjustment (Crick, 1996)

Social Psychology in Depth: Mean Girls

The 2004 film Mean Girls follows one teenage girl as she is plunged into an American high school and mentored into meanness by a group of girls called the plastics (Michaels, Shimkin, & Waters, 2004). When conflict erupts because of a romantic entanglement, the girls engage in a variety of activities to discredit and harm one another. Do high school girls use the tactics shown in this movie to make friends or manipulate situations?

Research on aggression focused for a long time on the types of physical aggression that leave physical traces. Relational aggression, aggression that is focused on the destruction of relationships or social status, has become a more important topic in the last couple of decades (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). When gender gaps in relational aggression are found, they are often largest in high school and are not seen in some populations (Crick & Werner, 1998; Kistner et al., 2010; Lansford et al., 2012; Smith, Rose, & Schwartz-Mette, 2010; Spieker et al., 2012). Researchers find that girls report being both victims and perpetrators of relational aggression at least once within a year (Reynolds & Repetti, 2010). Nearly 20% of girls are described as aggressive, although all girls, not just this 20%, may use relational aggression at some point (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995).

The most commonly used and experienced types of relational aggression are gossip and intentionally ignoring someone, known as giving them the "silent treatment." The silent treatment is most often motivated by revenge. Spreading rumors about or excluding someone may also be used as a tactic for revenge, although these tactics are also described as ways to become closer to one's friends or to have some fun (Reynolds & Repetti, 2010).

Victims and aggressors report feeling sad, confused, and hurt at the time of the aggression. Aggressors also feel guilty, while victims feel angry and betrayed. Guilt is felt by victims when they perceive the aggression as revenge, and victims feel guiltier when they are receiving the silent treatment than when they are the victim of rumors or exclusion (Reynolds & Repetti, 2010). Those most hurt by the aggression are most likely to cope by becoming passive and using avoidant strategies (Remillard & Lamb, 2005). Over the long term, relational aggression can lead to peer rejection and mental health problems (Crick, 1996; Tomada & Schneider, 1997; Werner & Crick, 1999). Relational aggression has been identified as a factor leading to depression, borderline personality disorder, and bulimia (Ellis, Crooks, & Wolfe, 2009; Spieker et al., 2012; Werner & Crick, 1999).

Relational aggression is often used as a weapon, with the most common reason for engaging in relational aggression being revenge. A perpetrator might use relational aggression as revenge for some behavior the perpetrator did not like. The next most common reason for relational aggression is to get closer to one's friends by aggressing against someone whom those friends do not like. Victims correctly perceive these reasons and believe they are being punished for something they did to the perpetrator (Reynolds & Repetti, 2010). Fictional though Mean Girls may be, research shows that the tactics used in the movie are not at all fiction.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Does aggression differ from culture to culture?

Do men and women ever show the same rates of physical aggression?

10.2 Aggression Cues

A variety of factors may lead to aggression or make aggression in a particular circumstance more likely. People or circumstances that frustrate us can make us feel more aggressive. Media can teach us aggression. Weapons may provide cues for responding to a situation with aggression. Alcohol and uncomfortable environments, along with a triggering event, may lead us to respond with aggression.

Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

If you have been delayed in a bus station or an airport, you know what frustration feels like. Early on in the study of aggression, a link was made between frustration and aggression. Originally, aggression researchers made the statement that "the occurrence of aggression always presupposes the existence of frustration and, contrariwise, that the existence of frustration always leads to some form of aggression" (Dollard, Miller, Doob, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939, p. 1). Frustration, in this context, refers to the blocking of behavior that would have moved the person toward a particular goal. For example, if you want to get to Atlanta but the plane is having mechanical problems, you are blocked from your goal. The authors quickly realized that the use of terms like always would get them into trouble (Miller, Sears, Mowrer, Doob, & Dollard, 1941). While some people might respond to frustration with aggressive behavior, a frustrated person does not always do so. That person might respond with a variety of other behaviors. A frustrated 3-year-old might hit his mother in response to his frustration, but could also cry, go into another room, or start to whine.

Frustration with another person is more likely to lead to aggression than frustration from an outside cause. Feelings of being attacked, rather than frustration, are more likely to lead to aggression (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994). If the bus you were waiting for passed you by, you would be frustrated. If this seemed a deliberate attack from a bus driver that did not like you, you might respond with aggression. If, however, the bus had a sign on it that said it was headed to the garage for a repair you would be less likely to respond with aggression (Pastore, 1952).


Another possible source of aggression is the media. Children's television programs often contain displays of violence. On average, there are 14 acts of violence per hour in children's programming (Wilson et al., 2002). Does this affect the amount of aggression children engage in? Bandura's study, as discussed earlier, showed that children copy what others do. As shown in this study, it does not matter if the model is seen on film or in real life, the children copied the adult's actions. Since Bandura's time a large number of studies have shown that watching violence on television is related to greater physical aggression (Comstock, 2004). Longitudinal studies have shown that effects of watching violent television content are not just immediate, but long term as well (Krahe, Busching, & Moller, 2012; Ostrov, Gentile, & Crick, 2006) Relational aggression can also be learned through television. Children who watched more television depictions of relational aggression were more likely to show relational aggression toward their peers (Martins & Wilson, 2012). Through social learning television viewing can increase both physical aggression and relational aggression (Ostrov, Gentile, & Crick, 2006).

A boy sits with his back to the camera while playing a video game involving shooting guns.


Violent video games increase aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive feelings in both the short and long term.

Another potential source of aggressive models is video games. Studies show that aggressive behavior, thoughts, and feelings are increased over the short term and long term through the playing of violent video games (Anderson et al., 2008; Williams, 2009). Meta-analyses show that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive feelings (Anderson et al., 2010). This effect was shown in longitudinal studies as well as correlational studies, providing evidence that exposure to violence at an earlier time will result in more violence at a later time (Anderson et al, 2010; Moller & Krahe, 2009; Willoughby, Adachi, & Good, 2012). Violent video games, therefore, have a potential long-term impact on aggression.

Video game play leaves players with less empathy for others and higher desensitization to violence and other disturbing materials, though this effect may be different for individuals who play often versus those who do not (Glock & Kneer, 2009; Staude-Muller, Bliesener, & Luthman, 2008). For example, participants who played a first-person shooter game with a lot of violence showed desensitization to unpleasant cues; in this study, these cues were pictures of seriously injured people or threatening situations. Participants were also more reactive to aggressive cues, showing more aggression when later exposed to such cues (Staude-Muller et al., 2008). The findings of this study suggest that violent video games will make future aggression more likely and reduce a person's emotional reaction to the negative results of that aggression. The connection between violence in video games and aggressive behavior, thoughts, and feelings has been seen in Western cultures, like the United States, and in Eastern cultures, like Japan or China (Anderson et al., 2008; Anderson et al., 2010).


The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution safeguards the right of U.S. citizens to keep and bear arms. Depending on which survey you consult, between 34% and 43% of Americans take advantage of their second amendment right by owning a gun (Jones, 2013; Tavernise & Gebeloff, 2013). While about 43% of Americans are satisfied with the gun laws as they currently stand nearly the same percentage (38%) are dissatisfied and want more restrictive gun laws (Saad, 2013). Debates on gun control laws often arise following crimes involving firearms, such as the Sandy Hook school shooting of 2012. Firearms were a factor in 68% of the homicides in the United States in 2010 (Centers for Disease Control, 2010).

Although people might use firearms to harm others, do the weapons themselves have any impact on how people behave? When research participants were in the presence of a revolver rather than a badminton racket, they acted more aggressively toward another (fictitious) participant, giving more electrical shocks to the other participant (Berkowitz & LePage, 1967; Frodi, 1975). Weapons seem to cue individuals toward more aggressive responses or escalation of conflicts (Phillips & Maume, 2007). Increase in aggression in the presence of weapons is called the weapons priming effect, or the "weapons effect." Familiarity with weapons can affect how this manifests. Individuals with prior experience with guns, such as hunters, do not show an increase in aggressive thoughts when shown pictures of hunting guns, although those without prior experience with guns, nonhunters, do show an increase. This effect of familiarity is quite specific. When hunters are shown assault rifles, they do show an increase in aggressive thoughts (Bartholow, Anderson, Carnagey, & Benjamin, 2005). Overall it seems that when a weapon is present, people are primed to think aggressively and act more aggressively toward others.


Alcohol and aggression have also been linked. When people are intoxicated they may find themselves less able to think about long-term consequences and less able to curb impulses. In the face of provocation, this can lead to greater aggression (Giancola, 2000; Parrott, Gallagher, & Zeichner, 2012). An insult that might have been ignored when someone was sober may result in a swinging fist when the insulted person has had a few drinks (Denson et al., 2008). This is supported by research that shows those who generally have lower executive functioning, which includes self-control and monitoring of one's behavior, are the most likely to aggress when intoxicated (Giancola, Godlaski, & Roth, 2012). These individuals are not very good at controlling their actions when sober, so a lowering of inhibitions with alcohol leads to more aggression when provoked.

Alcohol may also affect aggression simply because it is expected to affect aggression. When research participants were given a substance that tasted and looked like alcohol but did not have any intoxicating qualities, they showed just as much aggression as when they were given actual alcohol (Rohsenow & Bachorowski, 1984). Recent research has suggested that one does not even need to consume the alcohol to show increased aggression. As with the presence of weapons, simply being in the presence of alcohol or alcohol-related images (alcohol advertisements) is associated with increased aggression (Bartholow & Heinz, 2006; Subra, Muller, Begue, Bushman, & Delmas, 2010), supporting the notion that alcohol-related images may trigger automatic associations with aggression. The tendency to expect alcohol to make one more aggressive is stronger in those who are dispositionally aggressive and drink heavily (Barnwell, Borders, & Earleywine, 2006; McMurran, 2009).

Environmental Factors

Generally, there are certain environmental factors that make people uncomfortable or stressed and are associated with aggression. If the waiting area at the train station were crowded, do you think you would feel more aggression? Research suggests that you would. In a study of nightclubs, researchers reported more acts of aggression when nightclubs were more crowded than when they were less crowded, or in locations where they were more crowded, like dance floors (Graham, Bernards, Osgood, & Wells, 2012; Macintyre & Homel, 1997). Although part of the reason for increased aggression may be frustration in not being able to get where one wants to go or not being able to interact effectively, factors like feeling crowded, uncomfortable, and stressed in such an environment could increase feelings of aggression. Bars that were unpleasant in other ways, such as smoky and unclean, also elicited more aggressive behavior in their patrons (Graham, Bernards, Osgood, & Wells, 2006). Noise, particularly noise one cannot control, is connected to higher aggression as well (Donnerstein & Wilson, 1976).

Figure 10.1: Anderson's study of temperature and aggression

Line graphs showing results from Anderson's 1989 study. The first shows that uprisings, family disturbances, assaults, and rape peaked in summer for the percent of yearly totals, and winter had the lowest percent. The second graph shows that violent crime, murder, and rape peaked during the third quarter of the year for the percent of yearly total aggressive acts. The first quarter of the year shows the lowest percent of these crimes.

Anderson (1989) found that aggressive behavior increases in hotter months of the year.

From Anderson, C. A. (1989). Temperature and aggression: Ubiquitous effects of heat on occurrence of human violence. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 74–96. doi: 10.1027/0033-29010.106.1.74. Copyright ©1989 by the American Psychological Association.

Discomfort in the form of heat is also related to aggression. Generally, greater heat is related to more aggression (Baron & Lawton, 1972). Uprisings, as well as assaults, murders, and rapes, are more likely in hot summer months than in cooler times of the year (Anderson, 1989; see Figure 10.1). One surprising finding about this connection involves baseball. Researchers counted the number of batters hit by a pitch per game for three years of major league baseball games as well as how hot it was while those games were being played. The number of batters hit when the temperature was 79°F or below was quite low. When the temperature was 80°–89° the number of batters hit rose some, with a dramatic rise in hits with temperatures 90° and higher (Reifman, Larrick, & Fein, 1991). The researchers controlled for confounding variables and other errors did not increase with the temperature, just the aggressive behavior of hitting a batter.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Does frustration always cause aggression?

Are people more likely to be aggressive when they are comfortable, when they are uncomfortable, or does it not matter?

10.3 Catharsis and Aggression

An angry woman throws clothes out of her apartment window.

Cultura Limited/SuperStock

A person might displace aggression on inanimate objects when aggression toward the actual source of anger is unacceptable.

Have you ever been told to vent your anger? Do you believe that expressing aggression toward the object of your aggression or some other object will reduce your aggressive urge? If so, you believe in catharsis. Catharsis refers to the idea that we can purge our emotions through a form of release. In the context of aggression, catharsis would involve engaging in aggressive actions to reduce aggressive feelings. Sigmund Freud believed that verbally venting one's aggressive urges would reduce aggression. He proposed that without the release of emotions, the energy for these emotions would build up inside and cause physical or psychological problems (Breuer & Freud, 1893–1895/1955). People engage in cathartic activities because they believe such activities will improve their mood or reduce the likelihood that they will express aggression in the future (Bushman, Baumeister, & Phillips, 2001).

The problem with catharsis when it comes to aggression is that it does not work. In study after study, researchers found that engaging in aggression did not reduce feelings of aggression, or likelihood of acting aggressively in the future (Berkowitz, 1964; Bushman, 2002; Geen & Quanty, 1977; Mallick & McCandless, 1966). In some cases, acting out increased aggression rather than decreasing aggression. Believing catharsis works to subdue anger or aggression does not make it more successful. Research participants who read a message convincing them that catharsis was helpful in reducing aggression were not less aggressive after punching a punching bag; in fact, they showed more aggression (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999). Acting out, particularly if you are ruminating on the object of that aggression while you are acting out, seems to serve as practice for more aggression.

Expand Your Knowledge: Psychological Researchers on Catharsis

Psychologists who research anger and aggression often come up against the cultural belief in catharsis for that aggression. For several short blog posts featuring psychologists on the topic of catharsis and aggression, click here.

In acting out aggression, people may direct anger to a punching bag, some other inanimate object, or a person other than the real target. This targeting of aggression toward some other person or entity is displaced aggression (Marcus-Newhall, Pedersen, Carlson, & Miller, 2000). If you threw a pencil at the wall rather than hitting your boss when the boss made you angry, you would be displacing your aggression. We displace aggression for a variety of reasons. We might displace aggression if the object of our anger is unavailable. When the bus drives away without you, the garbage can is the only thing left for you to yell at and kick. Other times, we displace aggression because it would not be acceptable or advantageous to act aggressively toward the true focus. If your boss made you angry, you may not express it toward your boss for fear of losing your job (Mitchell & Ambrose, 2012).

If you have ever been unreasonably aggressive toward a person who did something minor to annoy you, you may have experienced a type of displaced aggression called triggered displaced aggression (Pedersen, Gonzales, & Miller, 2000). With triggered displaced aggression, the person you are upset with has done something to bother you but your reaction to this minor event is really due to a larger event that happened earlier. Here, your aggression is triggered by some minor incident and displaced upon the cause of that minor event. In line with research on catharsis theory, when we ruminate on the cause of our aggression we tend to show more displaced aggression when we are triggered (Bushman, Bonacci, Pedersen, Vasquez, & Miller, 2005). For example, if your boss made you angry earlier in the day and you thought about it all day, and then your friend was a few minutes late when you met for drinks later in the day, you might blow up at your friend. Brooding over your boss' behavior meant you engaged in a great deal of aggression, which your friend triggered by his lateness. Individuals who engage in triggered displaced aggression are primed to interpret provocations, even mild ones, in an aggressive way, particularly if the triggers are part of the outgroup and are dissimilar or disliked by the person (Pedersen, 2006; Pedersen, Bushman, Vasquez, & Miller, 2008; Pedersen et al., 2000).

What should you do if you are feeling aggressive? If you want to lower your aggression, doing nothing is a better idea than venting your anger. Doing something opposite of your aggressive urges may be even more helpful. Send someone a text expressing your appreciation for him or her, pet the cat, or look at a picture of your family (presuming that it's not your family you're mad at). Playing prosocial video games will also reduce aggressive thinking and feelings (Greitemeyer, Agthe, Turner & Gschwendtner, 2012).

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Does catharsis work to reduce aggression?

How is triggered displaced aggression different from displaced aggression?

10.4 Other Antisocial Behavior

Aggression is one type of antisocial behavior. Antisocial behavior also includes behavior that goes against injunctive norms, deviant behavior like stealing, using illegal drugs, and vandalism. Although aggression does fit within the realm of antisocial behavior, it tends to develop at a different pace than the rule-breaking type of antisocial behavior, such as stealing. As noted, aggression tends to peak in early childhood, while rule-breaking types of antisocial behavior tend to increase until adolescence (Moffitt, 1993; Stanger, Achenbach, & Verhulst, 1997). A decrease in the rule-breaking type of antisocial behavior occurs in young adulthood, although, some still engage in such behavior and the effects of antisocial behavior earlier in life remain.

Expand Your Knowledge: Youth Violence Prevention

The U.S. Department of Justice provides a number of resources to encourage the prevention of youth violence. If you are interested in youth violence or are planning to be involved in youth work, click here.

A variety of life circumstances increase the likelihood of antisocial behavior. The environment in which children are raised can have a tremendous influence on the manifestation of antisocial behavior. For example, children whose childhood is marked with maltreatment or harsh or inconsistent discipline are also at greater risk for later engagement in antisocial behavior (Gershoff, 2002; Jaffee, Strait, & Odgers, 2012). Some of the connection between harsh discipline and antisocial behavior can be explained by parents who respond in a particularly harsh way to children whose behavior is difficult to deal with. However, such discipline seems to have an effect on antisocial behavior above and beyond any influence of a child's temperament (Jaffee et al., 2004). A breakup of the family is also related to higher levels of antisocial behavior at that time and later in life (Christoffersen, Francis, & Soothill, 2003; Peris & Emery, 2004). Individuals whose parents experience mental illness, particularly depression, anxiety disorders, or alcohol addiction are also more prone to antisocial behavior (Herwig, Wirtz, & Bengel, 2004). These difficult early experiences may prevent children from learning positive coping mechanisms, and may provide them with aggressive models for dealing with circumstances they encounter.

A male dressed in black uses a screwdriver to try to open the window of a house.

Knut Schulz/Westend61/SuperStock

Antisocial behaviors include stealing, drug use, and vandalism.

Children and adolescents who fall in with the wrong crowd are at greater risk for deviant behavior. Yet this works both ways; youth who are engaging in more antisocial behavior tend to make friends with other youth who are also engaging in such behavior (Elliot & Menard, 1996; Kendler, Jacobson, Myers, & Eaves, 2008). A teenager who occasionally shoplifts may become friends with another teen who does the same thing. Together they may talk about stealing and encourage one another to steal more often and more expensive items from stores (Patterson, Dishion, & Yoerger, 2000). Often times, deviant teens are drawn to other deviant teens, leading to even greater antisocial behavior in all involved.

Intelligence and personality also contribute to antisocial behavior. Teens with lower IQ test scores are more likely to commit criminal acts than those with higher IQ test scores (Möttus, Guljajev, Allik, Laidra, & Pullmann, 2012). Boys who are low in the personality characteristics of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability were also more likely to engage in deviant behavior (Möttus et al., 2012). A study of twins in Sweden showed that a great deal of the variance between people in antisocial behavior can be explained by genetic influences (Tuvblad, Narusyte, Grann, Sarnecki, & Lichtenstein, 2011). In this study, the identical twins were more similar in their aggressive antisocial behavior than the fraternal twins. Given the large contribution of genes on intelligence and personality, much of this genetic influence may be coming through intelligence and personality factors.

Antisocial behavior in adolescence has consequences later in life and may be a risk factor for antisocial behavior in adulthood (Bor, McGee, Hayatbakhsh, Dean, & Najman, 2010; Brook, Zhang, & Brook, 2011). Those who engage in antisocial behavior as adolescents are at higher risk for depression and show more symptoms of anxiety (Bor et al., 2010; Reef, Diamantopoulou, van Meurs, Verhulst, & van der Ende, 2009). Aggression also increases substance abuse risk. Those who were aggressive early in life show greater use of cannabis and alcohol (Bergman & Andershed, 2009; Bor et al., 2010). Antisocial behavior early in life also relates to more health problems later in life (Bor et al., 2010). Overall, antisocial behavior has negative effects, both in the present and later in life.

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

What factors are related to greater antisocial behavior?


Aggression is a behavior with a variety of causes. Aggression comes from within the person and is affected by external forces. A single factor may not determine whether someone is aggressive, but several factors together may lead to harm. Antisocial behavior, which includes aggression as well as other deviant behavior, also has a variety of causes.

Chapter Summary


Aggression involves intentional harm. We may harm because the harm itself is our goal, called hostile aggression, or we may harm as a way to reach another goal, called instrumental aggression. When aggression causes severe harm it is called violence. Aggression has origins within the person as well as the environment. Men and women show different rates of aggression, depending on the type, and aggression varies with age.

Aggression Cues

Aggression is more likely when someone is frustrated or attacked and can be affected by media, the presence of weapons, the consumption or even the presence of alcohol, and environmental factors like crowding, noise, and heat.

Catharsis and Aggression

Catharsis of aggressive feelings is an idea with a long history; and although many believe that expressing aggression will reduce feelings and likelihood of engaging in future aggression, it does not. In catharsis we may direct our aggressive feelings toward other, often safer, targets, as in displaced aggression.

Other Antisocial Behavior

Antisocial behaviors like stealing and vandalism have a variety of causes. Societal factors like poverty, familial factors like family breakup, and personal factors like personality all contribute to antisocial behavior. Antisocial behavior tends to have negative long-term consequences for people.

Critical Thinking Questions

The chapter described a variety of factors that may increase aggression. What other factors might affect aggression?

If factors such as media and alcohol increase aggression, is there something we as a society could do to lessen those effects?

Have you ever been in a situation where the heat, crowding, and noise made you feel more aggressive?

What are your beliefs about catharsis? Now that you know catharsis does not decrease aggression, what might you do when you are feeling aggressive in the future?

If you wanted to reduce antisocial behavior in your community what might you do?

Key Terms

Click on each key term to reveal the definition.


antisocial behavior


displaced aggression


hostile aggression

instrumental aggression

relational aggression

social learning theory

triggered displaced aggression


weapons priming effect