Aggression: A Learned Behavior
Studies have identified several factors that may play a role in the development of aggressive behavior. Genetics may increase an individual’s likelihood for aggressive behavior, and certain mental disorders may include symptoms of such behavior. However, aggressive behavior is most often learned, and can be influenced by a variety of different factors. This essay will discuss one of the many pathways through the learning process which can potentially result in aggressive behavior.
From infancy, a human being will react fearfully to any stimulus which indicates a potential danger. For example, loud noises, darkness, and harsh vocal tones from strangers can cause a child fear. Thus, fear is the unconditioned response (UCR) to several unconditioned stimuli (UCS) in his environment. A child also learns quickly to identify those who are his caregivers, who he can trust, and who will provide safety. However, if one of these trusted people, for example his father, displays aggressive behavior, a learning process known as classical conditioning may begin. At first the child may feel confused by his father’s behavior, but if the aggressive behavior continues the child will eventually learn to respond fearfully to his father. His father then becomes the conditioned stimulus (CS) producing the conditioned response (CR) of fear. Stimulus generalization might also occur. For example, the child may learn to respond fearfully to all adult males, to authority figures, or to anyone in a caregiver position.
At the same time, another learning process is also taking place. Psychologist Albert Bandura identified the process of observational learning, or “learning through observing the behavior of another person called a model” (Feldman, 2005, p. 211). Fearful of his father, the child will be exceedingly watchful of his father’s behavior, searching for cues of potential danger, but simultaneously learning the qualities of aggressive behavior. One critical factor that may determine if the child will eventually mimic his father’s aggressive behavior is the outcome of that behavior. If the father is arrested and convicted for his behavior, the child may see this as a negative effect and avoid the behavior himself. One the other hand, if the father’s behavior results in a continued position of power and control over those around him, the child may see this as a positive effect and imitate the behavior to achieve the same effect. Often these children become bullies’ and target smaller, weaker children in an effort to experience the same sense of power and control. This mimicking of observed behavior can lead to operant conditioning.
Operant conditioning is learning in which a voluntary response, in this case aggressive behavior, is made more or less likely to be repeated based on the resulting positive or negative consequences (Feldman, 2005, p. 195). If behaving aggressively allows the child to feel a sense of power and control and temporarily calms his feelings of fear, a negative reinforcement has occurred, and the child is more likely to repeat the aggressive behavior in an effort to experience further relief from fear. This long awaited freedom from fear is often so intoxicating that even harsh punishments have little influence or effect in stopping the behavior.
Children who live in aggressive environments for an extended period of time can often become so focused on their own personal survival that they lose sight of the effects that aggression has on others and justify their own aggressive behavior as a means of self-preservation. Since aggressive behavior is learned and reinforced through several learning processes over an extended period of time, extensive therapy is usually required to help an individual unlearn’ the behavior. As violence and aggression become an ever-increasing part of our lives, it is critical that we, as a society, find more effective ways to identify children and families at risk, develop more effective treatments for aggressors, and institute more effective controls over media violence.
Feldman, Robert S. (2005). Understanding Psychology (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-
Hill Companies, Inc.