Aggreession as a Learnt Behaviour

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Are humans innately aggressive or do we learn to be aggressive?

From time in memorial, there has always been conflict. As the world developed so did the scale of these conflicts. This hunger for violence and aggression has been questioned by many psychologists and as a result led to one of the more important questions of nature versus nurture. On the one hand some have argued that aggression is innate and on the other hand, it has been argued that aggression is a learned behavior and that our social environment influences us to be aggressive. In trying to answer the question of whether humans are innately aggressive this essay will look at theories that favor the nature argument and include ethology, evolutionary social psychology, psychodynamic theory and Freud’s theory of aggression. This paper will also evaluate the theories that support the idea of aggression being a learned phenomenon. That is the social learning theory. Before we proceed however, it is essential that we fully understand what is meant by the term aggression.

James Davies (Davies, 1970, p. 613) states that “aggressiveness implies a predisposition, an attitude of mind, an underlying characteristic whose likely product is a tendency for violent action, injury or damage”. Whereas Eron’s definition due to the difficulty of measuring intent restricts it to merely an act that injures or irritates another person. Citation. It has been observed that the definitions are linked to the theoretical position that one takes, so for instance theorists like Eron who believe aggression is a learned behaviour define it as an action. Whereas the theorists who believe in aggression as an inborn trait define aggression as an instinct. However, all theories of aggression do have one thing in common in that there is some form of injury as a result of aggression. One of the forerunners of aggression being an instinct was Sigmund Freud. Freud argued that Thanatos, the death instinct that we are born with was responsible for aggression (Mitchell & Ziegler, 2007). He asserted that all humans are born with this instinct and that society can help tame this so called beast through processes such as catharsis. “He implied that exposure to violence was a good thing” (Mitchell & Ziegler, 2007, p. 207). The psychodynamic theory is a revised version of Freud’s theory which asserts that aggression is an innate process that people use to release their primitive survival instincts (Hartman, Kris & Loewenstein as cited in Hogg and Vaughan, 2011).

According to the Ethologists, the instinct for aggression is innate but the actual aggressive behaviour is triggered by the environment or society. They argued that by studying animals in their natural environment, we could draw comparisons between animal behaviour and human aggression (Hogg & Vaughan, 2011). The evolutionary social psychologists took this a step further by not only stating that the basis for aggression was innate but added that there is a biological basis for aggressive behaviour. They propagated the idea of natural selection and survival of the fittest as a reason for aggressive behaviour. That is, aggression used by humans in order to gain economic and social advantages so as to promote the survival of family names or legacies.

Although the above theories about the innateness of aggression are interesting and thought provoking, their main weakness is the lack of evidence. Freud’s theory on aggression and furthermore the role of catharsis are just not plausible as many psychologists have shown that violence only begets more violence. The comparisons drawn between humans and animals are not sources that should be taken as evidence for this innate nature of aggression. As humans we have our own cultures that play a big role on our behaviour and unlike animals we are also able to reflect on this behaviour. Additionally, animals are not as aggressive as humans think they are. Wild animals that are brought...
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