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

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

January 25, 2023

Aggression is a phenomenon that has been studied from many different perspectives . These tend to revolve around the same question: is aggressiveness innate, is it learned or is it both? And, given the difficulty of offering a unique and clear answer, the answers have been positioned in the same three dimensions: there are those who suggest that aggressiveness is an innate phenomenon, there are those who defend that it is a learned phenomenon and there are those who try understand it from the convergence between nature and culture.

Next we will make a general tour of some of the main theories of aggression and we incorporate the possibility of distinguishing between two phenomena that usually come together: aggression and violence.


  • Related article: "The 11 types of violence (and the different kinds of aggression)"

Theories of aggressiveness

The theories that have explained the aggression have gone through different elements. For example, the intentional character of the aggression, the aversive or negative consequences for those involved, the diversity of expression of the phenomenon, the individual processes that generate it, the social processes involved, among many others.

In this text we make a reading of Doménech and Iñiguez (2002) and Sanmartí (2006), with the intention of reviewing four of the great theoretical proposals that have explained aggression.

1. Biological determinism and instinctive theories

This line emphasizes the distinctiveness of aggressiveness . The explanation is mainly given by elements that are understood as "interior" and constitutive of the person. That is to say, the cause of aggression is explained precisely by what is "inside" each one.


The above is generally condensed under the term "instinct", understood as a necessary faculty for the survival of the species, with which, aggression is defined in terms of adaptive process, developed as a result of evolution . According to the reading of the latter, there may be little or no possibility of modifying the aggressive responses.

We can see that the latter corresponds to theories close to both the psychological and biology, as well as evolutionary theories, however, the term "instinct" has also been understood in different ways according to the theory that uses it.

In the case of Freudian psychoanalysis, aggressiveness as an instinct, or rather "drive" (which is the equivalent of "instinct" for the psyche), has been understood as a key in the constitution of personality. That is, what has important functions in the psychic structuring of each subject , as well as in sustaining said structure in one way or another.


2. Environmental explanations

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

The latter is known as the theory of frustration-aggression and explains that, as instinctive theories proposed, aggression is an innate phenomenon. However, it depends at all times if the frustration is generated, or not. In turn, frustration is generally defined as the consequence of not being able to carry out an action as anticipated , and in this sense, aggressiveness serves as a calming agent for high levels of frustration.

3. Social learning

The basis of theories that explain aggression by social learning is behaviorism. In these, the cause of aggression is attributed to what has been associated with the presence of a given stimulus, as well as the reinforcement that has come after the action that follows that association.

In other words, aggressiveness is explained under the classical formula of operant conditioning : before a stimulus there is a response (a behavior), and before the latter, there is a consequence, which according to how it is presented, can generate the repetition of the behavior, or extinguish it. And in this sense, it is possible to take into account which stimuli and reinforcements are those that trigger a certain type of aggressive behavior.

Perhaps the most representative of the theories of social learning has been that of Albert Bandura, who developed the "theory of vicarious learning", where he proposes that we learn certain behaviors based on the reinforcements or punishments that we see other people receive, after carry out certain behaviors.

Aggression, then, could be a consequence of behaviors learned by imitation , and for having assimilated the consequences observed in the behaviors of others.

Among other things, Bandura's theories have allowed to separate two processes: on the one hand, the mechanism by means of which we learn an aggressive behavior; and on the other, the process by which we are able, or not, to execute it. And with this last it becomes possible to understand why, or under what conditions, its execution can be avoided, beyond that the logic and social function of aggressiveness has already been learned.

  • You may be interested: "Operant conditioning: concepts and main techniques"

4. Psychosocial theory

Psychosocial theory has allowed us to relate two dimensions of the human , which can be fundamental to understanding aggression. These dimensions are, on the one hand, the individual psychological processes, and on the other, the social phenomena, which far from acting separately, interact closely, and have as a consequence that a behavior, an attitude, a specific identity, etc. occur. .

In the same vein, social psychology, and especially that of socioconstructionist tradition, has paid attention to a key element in studies on aggression: in order to determine what behavior is aggressive, first there must be a series of sociocultural norms that indicate what is understood as "aggression", and what not.

And in this sense, aggressive behavior is what transgresses the sociocultural norm. What is more: a behavior can be understood as "aggressive" when it comes from a specific person, and it can not be understood the same when it comes from another person.

This allows aggression to be thought of in a context that, being social, is not neutral, but is based on power relationships and specific agency possibilities.

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

Social psychology has explained aggression as a behavior located in a concrete context of relationships. Likewise, the most classic traditions have understood it as a behavior that intentionally causes damage. The latter leads us to pose a following problem, which is the possibility of establishing differences between aggressiveness and violence.

Aggression or violence?

The aggressiveness 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) talks about the need to point out some differences between both phenomena. This need leads us to distinguish between the participation of biology and the intentionality of each process , as well as to contextualize them in the framework of the social institutions that participate in their production and reproduction; which implies recognizing both human and social character. Character that the adaptive or defense response itself (aggression) does not have by itself.

For the same author, aggressiveness is a behavior that occurs automatically to certain stimuli, and therefore, is inhibited by other stimuli. And in this sense, aggression can be understood as an adaptive and defensive process , common to living beings. But that is not the same as violence. Violence is "altered aggression", that is, a form of aggression that is loaded with sociocultural meanings. These meanings make it unfold not automatically, but intentionally and potentially harmful.

Intentionality, violence and emotions

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

In this understanding of aggressiveness emotions play an active and relevant role, such as fear, understood also in innate terms as an adaptive scheme and a survival mechanism. Which leads us to consider that both fear and aggressiveness can be thought beyond being "good" or "bad".

Intersections of aggression and violence: are there types of aggression?

If it is possible to look at aggression from the point of view of the processes by means of which a person becomes competent for society (socialization), we can also pay attention to the different phenomena and experiences that are different, for example, due to differences in class, race, gender, socioeconomic status, disability , etc.

In this sense, the experience that provokes frustration and triggers an aggressive behavior, which may be violent afterwards, may not be triggered in the same way in women or men, in children or adults, in someone of upper class and someone of class. low, etc.

This is so because not all people have socialized in relation to the same resources to live 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.

Bibliographic references:

  • Sanmartí, J. (2012). Keys to understanding violence in the 21st century. Ludus Vitalis, XX (32): 145-160.
  • Sanmartí, J. (2006). What is that thing called violence? In the Institute of Education of Aguascalientes. What is that thing called violence? Supplement to the Diario de Campo Bulletin. Retrieved June 22, 2018. Available at //www.iea.gob.mx/ocse/archivos/ALUMNOS/27%20QUE%20ES%20LA%20VIOLENCIA.pdf#page=7.
  • Domenech, M. & Iñiguez, L. (2002). The social construction of violence. Athenea Digital, 2: 1-10.

Social Psychological Theories of Aggression - Social Learning Theory (January 2023).


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