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When one animal attacks another, it engages in the most obvious example of aggressive behavior. Psychologists have adopted several approaches to understanding aggressive behavior in people.
The Biological Approach. Numerous biological structures and chemicals appear to be involved in aggression. One is the hypothalamus, a region of the brain. In response to certain stimuli, many animals show instinctive aggressive reactions. The hypothalamus appears to be involved in this inborn reaction pattern: electrical stimulation of part of the hypothalamus triggers stereotypical aggressive behaviors in many animals. In people, however, whose brains are more complex, other brain structures apparently moderate possible instincts.
An offshoot of the biological approach called sociobiology suggests that aggression is natural and even desirable for people. Sociobiology views much social behavior, including aggressive behavior, as genetically determined. Consider Darwin's theory of evolution. Darwin held that many more individuals are produced than can find food and survive into adulthood. A struggle for survival follows. Those individuals who possess characteristics that provide them with an advantage in the struggle for existence are more likely to survive and contribute their genes to the next generation. In many species, such characteristics include aggressiveness. Because aggressive individuals are more likely to survive and reproduce, whatever genes are linked to aggressive behavior are more likely to be transmitted to subsequent generations.
The sociobiology view has been attacked on numerous grounds. One is that people's capacity to outwit other species, not their aggressiveness, appears to be the dominant factor in human survival. Another is that there is too much variation among people to believe that they are dominated by, or at the mercy of, aggressive impulses.
The Psychodynamic Approach. Theorists adopting the psychodynamic approach hold that inner conflicts are crucial for understanding human behavior, including aggression. Sigmund Freud, for example, believed that aggressive impulses are inevitable reactions to the frustrations of daily life. Children normally desire to vent aggressive impulses on other people, including their parents, because even the most attentive parents cannot gratify all of their demands immediately. Yet children, also fearing their parents' punishment and the loss of parental love, come to repress most aggressive impulses. The Freudian perspective, in a sense: sees us as "steam engines." By holding in rather than venting "steam," we set the stage for future explosions. Pent-up aggressive impulses demand outlets. They may be expressed toward parents in indirect ways such as destroying furniture, or they may be expressed toward strangers later in life.
According to psychodynamic theory, the best ways to prevent harmful aggression may be to encourage less harmful aggression. In the steam-engine analogy, verbal aggression may vent some of the aggressive steam. So might cheering on one's favorite sports team. Psychoanalysts, therapists adopting a psychodynamic approach, refer to the venting of aggressive impulses as "catharsis." Catharsis is theorized to be a safety valve. But research findings on the usefulness of catharsis are mixed. Some studies suggest that catharsis leads to reductions in tension and a lowered likelihood of future aggression. Other studies, however, suggest that letting some steam escape actually encourages more aggression later on.
The Cognitive Approach. Cognitive psychologists assert that our behavior is influenced by our values, by the ways in which we interpret our situations and by choice. For example, people who believe that aggression is necessary and justified-as during wartime-are likely to act aggressively, whereas people who believe that a particular war or act of aggression is unjust, or who think that aggression is never justified, are less likely to behave aggressively.
One cognitive theory suggests that aggravating and painful events trigger unpleasant feelings. These feelings, in turn, can lead to aggressive action, but not automatically. Cognitive factors intervene. People decide whether they will act aggressively or not on the basis of factors such as their experiences with aggression and their interpretation of other people's motives. Supporting evidence comes from research showing that aggressive people often distort other people's motives. For example, they assume that other people mean them harm when they do not.
Catharsis: In psychodynamic theory, the purging of strong emotions or the relieving of tensions.
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