THEORIES OF AGGRESSION
Aggression is a form of self-assertion (putting yourself forward or standing up for yourself). However, it is done through causing harm to yourself, to other people or to your environment. This can be physical harm involving breakages and bruises or mental harm, involving fear and anxiety. Physical aggression is violence and social aggression includes rumour spreading, insults and breaking off friendships. Threatening someone is aggressive because it causes them fear and anxiety, even if no violence occurs.
Aggression can take many forms but it is defined as any action that is aimed at causing either physical and/or psychological pain to oneself to others or to objects in the environment. The expression of aggression can occur in a number of ways, including verbally, mentally and physically - Charlotte Thomas (2012)
There are two camps when it comes to the psychology of aggression: the nature camp and the nurture camp.
Nativists (nature) argue that aggression is innate - it comes from within us. We are born with aggressive urges which never entirely go away, although self-discipline and a good upbringing might help us to control or re-direct these urges.
Nurturists (nurture) argue that aggression comes from our environment and no one is born aggressive. Aggressive behaviour is learned or else produced by social pressures. Put anyone in the right situation and they will behave aggressively, but anybody's aggressive behaviour can be reduced or removed if they are put in better surroundings.
Do we teach boys sports like rugby so that they can get rid of their innate aggression safely and productively... or are we teaching boys to be aggressive who wouldn't be otherwise?
THE NEUROPSYCHOLOGY OF AGGRESSION
A famous example is Phineas Gage, an American railway worker who suffered a terrible accident in 1848. The railway workers used dynamite to make the ground flat for laying the rail tracks, but an unexpected explosion nearly killed Gage. It blasted a "tamping iron" (a metre-long iron nail) through Gage's skull; the iron entered through Gage's cheek, passed through his brain and shot out of the top of his head.
Another case study is Charles Whitman, a Texan marine who, in 1966, murdered his family then shot a dozen strangers in a killing spree, before taking his own life. Whitman left a suicide note:
I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.
Testosterone is the hormone linked to aggression. Testosterone is produced in spurts, so the testosterone levels can rise suddenly and have an effect within minutes. It also varies seasonally in some animals, which is why red deer become aggressive in the mating period in the Spring. Males produce more testosterone than females (although female ovaries do produce testosterone) - and this is an explanation for why males are are aggressive than females on average.
Castration reduces testosterone levels in males. Wagner et al. (1979) castrated mice and observed that aggression levels dropped. When the castrated mice are injected with testosterone, their aggression levels (measured by biting attacks on other mice) rose back to pre-castration levels. This clearly suggests that testosterone is a cause of aggression in mice and may cause aggression in humans too.
The researchers found a negative correlation between 5-HIAA and aggression: aggressive monkeys had lower levels of 5-HIAA (and therefore of serotonin too); less aggressive monkeys had higher levels.
Low 5-HIAA/serotonin was associated with high risk-taking behaviour, such as aggression towards older, larger animals and taking long leaps from tree to tree. Many died as a result of this.
APPLYING THE BIOLOGY OF AGGRESSION TO REAL LIFE
In Shakespeare's play "Othello", the conniving servant Iago drives his master Othello mad with jealousy by making Othello think his beautiful young wife has given her handkerchief to another man. It all ends BADLY.
EVALUATING THE BIOLOGY OF AGGRESSION
Case Study- 4
Z. is a 9 year old boy who was referred by his mother regarding concerns she had around his behaviour at home. Z.’s mother identified the following problems – defiance (e.g. talking back to parents, defying parent’s authority, refusing chores at home and refusing to comply with house rules), behaviour management issues (e.g. inability to bring self under control when limits were set on the behaviour, having a tantrum when asked to stop an activity ). She reported no developmental issues. In addition Z.’s teacher recommended a cognitive assessment as he noted Z.’s excellent broad general knowledge; excellent reading with comprehension and his ability to promptly complete work accurately. His classroom teacher felt that Z. may be gifted.
In the first instance, Z. was assessed with the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Fourth Edition (WISC-IV). Z.’s unique set of thinking and reasoning abilities made his overall cognitive functioning difficult to summarise by a single score on the WISC-IV. He showed average to above average verbal skills and above average working memory skills; average nonverbal skills and below average processing speed skills. He did not fall within the gifted range of cognitive ability. Feedback and interventions were given with regards to the WISC-IV assessment with an emphasis on processing speed.
Z. was also assessed with the Child Behaviour Check List (CBCL). The CBCL results indicated very elevated range for the externalizing behaviours of oppositional defiant problems and also aggressive behavior. A course of Non Directive Play Therapy was commenced with Z. In addition his mother and father were provided with psychoeducation and also Child Parent Relation Training. Z.’s first nine sessions of Non-directive play therapy showed him mostly displaying acting out behavior with limit setting being the main focus. His parents reported his behaviour at home improving with a lessening of tantrums but he still remained defiant with regards to following parental instructions. Z. is continuing the sessions and will be assessed on the CBCL after 10 sessions.
Vinity Gill (Psychologist)