Critically evaluate the following statement: “all aggression is learned.”

Introduction

The term aggression is generally used to refer to any form of behavior that causes harm. It is a hostile reaction that results in emotional or physical injuries on other people, and destruction of property. Most psychologists define aggression as a behavior whose intention is to harm another person whose wish is to avoid the harm (Miles-Novelo & Anderson, 2019). According to social psychologists, aggression manifests itself as a social problem that interferes with normal interactions and relationships between people (Bushman, 2017; Krahé, 2020).  Aggression takes many forms. These include physical aggression, verbal aggression, and relational aggression (Hills, 2018; Deans  & Boghal, 2019; Miles-Novelo & Anderson, 2019). Research work shows that humans tend to be most aggressive during early childhood and at adolescence (Kumar et al., 2016; Liu et al., 2013). Physical aggression is more common among males than females (Liu et al., 2013). Aggressive behaviors can be an indication of both physical and mental health problems (Ulrich et al., 2018). Thus, different levels of aggression can be used to inform diagnosis and treatment decisions. While some psychologists and researchers hold that aggression is inborn in the sense that it is influenced by biological factors, others insist that the behavior can be learned within one’s environment. The current essay critically evaluates the idea that all aggression is learned.

Aggression: Nature versus Nurture

Aggressive Behavior Manifestation throughout Human Life

Aggressive behaviors manifest themselves in different ways through various stages of human life. During childhood, aggression peaks at ages 2 and 3 (Liu et al., 2013). Children in at this age often find it difficult to communicate and express their needs. As a result, they throw tantrums and engage in verbal outbursts. At age five, the level of aggression tends to decline gradually (Liu et al., 2013).  Adolescence is a stage that is associated with emotional problems. To cope with such issues, adolescents tend to be deviant and they engage in emotional outbursts (Kumar et al., 2016). Aggression often decreases with age (Liu et al., 2013; Kumar et al., 2016). Therefore, the level of aggressive behaviors tends to be lower among adults than in adolescents and adults.

Etiology of Aggression and Underlying Causes

What exactly causes aggression is not known. However, psychologists opine that several factors may be involved. These include biological factors, medical diseases, pharmacological substances, psychosocial and environmental factors, and socio-cultural and economic factors among others.

Biological Factors

The biological factors that cause aggression are associated with imbalances of hormones and neurotransmitters, inactivity of certain genes, and abnormalities of certain brain structures. In a famous study conducted by Brunner et al (1993) in a Dutch family, it was established that less activity of the MAO (monoamine oxidase A) gene among males was associated with aggressive behaviors such as random anger outbursts and sexual assault attempts. In his study, Bernhardt (1997) found that there was a positive relationship between aggressive behavior and high levels of the hormone testosterone among males brought up in low socioeconomic environments. In the same study, the researcher discovered that aggressive behaviors among individuals were due to a combination of low levels of the serotonin neurotransmitter and high levels of testosterone. In a longitudinal study that involved boys with antisocial and aggressive behaviors, McBurnett et al (2000) found that low levels of cortisol hormone were responsible for the disruptive behaviors. In a study to investigate the brain structures involved in aggression, Davidson et al (2000) found that death row inmates had less active prefrontal cortex and amygdale. These parts of the brain are responsible for control and regulation of emotions.

Medical Diseases

Aggression can be caused by certain medical conditions or diseases. In a study to investigate the rate of aggression among patients with Huntington’s disease (HD), Fisher et al (2014) conducted a systematic review of relevant articles. The reviewed studies revealed that the condition was common among male patients with HD. In another study that supports the findings of Fisher and her colleagues, Tilov et al (2015) sought to determine the relationship between chronic diseases and aggression. The researchers used a Buss-Perry validated questionnaire to measure the level of hostility, anger and verbal and physical aggression among Bulgarian patients with musculoskeletal disorders, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus. It was established that patients suffering from arterial hypertension exhibited the greatest levels of physical aggression.  Those with diabetes showed the highest level of verbal aggression. Patients having hypertension also displayed highest anger and hostility levels.

Pharmacological Substances

Certain pharmacological substances are known to cause aggression.  Anderson and Bokor (2012) embarked on providing a primer on pharmacological as well as forensic issues pertaining to drug-induced violence. The researchers established that drugs caused aggression by way of changing the mode of action of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid, and norepinephrine. In a similar study conducted by the University of Connecticut School Of Pharmacy, it was found that anti-epileptic drug, immunomodulatory drugs, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants led to aggressive adverse drug reactions (ADRs). The drugs interfere with the functioning of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate (UCONN, 2020).

Psychosocial and Environmental Factors

Certain psychosocial health problems and some environmental factors are responsible for the development of aggression. Taft et al (2017) examined the relationship between aggression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They found that aggressive behaviors were stronger among males than their female counterparts with the mental health condition. Ackermann et al (2019) investigated sex differences pertaining to aggression among adolescents suffering from conduct disorder (CD). The researchers noted that females who had the CD exhibited higher levels of relational aggression than males with the same problem. Reich et al (2020) assessed the level of aggression in patients who were living with bipolar disorder (BD). They established that patients who had BD and a record of suicide attempt exhibited higher levels of premeditated aggression than those with the health problem and without a prior suicide attempt. Murray et al (2021) sought to determine the relationship between attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and aggression. They found a positive association between the condition and aggressive behaviors. In investigating the role that the environment plays in influencing aggression, Choi (2022) studied whether maternal and parental parenting stress could predict aggression among children. The results of the study revealed that the stress associated with parenting was predictive of aggression among children who had low levels of self-regulation.

Socio-cultural and Economic Factors   

Aggression is also associated with various socio-cultural factors and economic factors. Rai and Choi (2018) reviewed and synthesized different studies containing information on socio-cultural risk factors for domestic violence (DV) among South Asian female immigrants in various English speaking nations. The researchers discovered that factors such as patriarchal beliefs, attitude towards tradition gender roles, stigma associated with divorce, low acculturation, inadequate social support, and economic control by husbands led to aggression towards women. In a study similar to this one, Basar et al (2019) conducted a cross-sectional descriptive study to learn the attitudes held on violence against women within Kutahya, Turkey.  It was found that the attitudes related to education, occupation, income status, family type, marital age, gender, and exposure to violence among other factors were responsible for various aggressive behaviors.

Social Learning Theory

One of the major theories that explain the development of aggressive behaviors among individuals is the social learning theory. The theory was put forward by Albert Bandura. According to the psychologist, aggressive behaviors can be learnt through operant conditioning (Bandura, 2006). This involves positive and negative reinforcements. The major limitation of this theory lies on the fact that it does not focus on the power of free will (Rosenthal & Zimmerman, 2014). It neglects the complex nature of human behavior.

Biological Factors versus Environmental Factors

Whether aggression is an innate behavior controlled by biological factors or is a trait that can be learned in with the support of environmental factors is a debatable issue. On the one hand, some research work associates aggressive behaviors with biological factors such as brain neurotransmitter and body hormone imbalances, gene inactivity, and brain structure abnormalities (Brunner et al., 1993; Bernhardt, 1997; Davidson et al., 2000; McBurnett et al., 2000).  On the other hand, some studies link aggression with environmental factors such as child abuse, antisocial behavior during childhood, child neglect, exposure to substance abuse, overcrowding, noise, and temperature among others (Addo et al., 2021; Choi, 2022). Both the genetic and environmental models of aggression are limited by the fact that it is difficult to quantify genetic heterogeneity, phenotypes as well as environmental factors (Anholt & Mackay, 2012). This suggests that aggression can be a product of the interaction between genetic and environmental factors.

Several adoption and twin studies reveal that about 50% of aggressive behaviors among male and female can be explained by biological influences. (Bernhardt, 1997; McBurnett et al., 2000; Tuvblad, & Baker, 2013). The remaining 50% are caused by environmental factors that are not shared among family members (Tuvblad, & Baker, 2013; Addo et al., 2021). One of the major limitations of these findings is that their accuracy is dependent on the form of aggression that is being studied, the age of subjects, and method of assessment used. Some studies directly focus on gene-environment interaction (Rowe et al., 1999; Frieze et al., 2010). According to such studies, social disadvantaging and family adversity tend to moderate genetic factors responsible for aggressive behavior. However, such findings seem to ignore the fact that it is no all individuals who are likely to be affected by environmental exposures. It is also important to note that genetic predisposition tends to have different impacts depending on one’s environmental context.

A classic experiment on the cause of aggression is that of Bandura. The theorist held that aggression and other social behaviors could be learned through observational learning. This involved observing what others were doing and imitating them (Bandura, 2006). In Bandura’s experiment, children watched a certain film in which an actor hit a ‘Bobo Doll’ several times using novel strategies. The children successfully imitated that behavior (Bandura, 2006). Despite its significance, the experiment drew criticism for being unethical. It involved manipulation of children for them to behave aggressively. Contemporary researchers have also done a commendable work in understanding how person-by-situation interaction influences aggression. For instance, Caspi et al (2002) examined the impact of MAO gene on aggressive behaviors. They found that persons with lower activity levels of the gene were vulnerable to aggression. This is due to the fact that the gene plays a vital role in the inhibition of aggression. The study of Caspi and his colleagues was limited by the focus on a single trait. Emphasizing on aggression alone cannot be used to generalize the development of other human behaviors.

Conclusion

From the above evaluation of research evidence, it is clear that aggression is basically a social behavior determined by both genetic factors and environmental factors. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that all aggression has to be learned. Individuals who have the genetic predisposition can learn aggressive behaviors if they get exposed to certain environmental factors that support the development of aggression. Despite these important findings, there is need for further research into how genetic and biological factors exactly influence the process of learning social behaviors, and whether this depends on individuals’ environments. This can help to enhance the understanding on the causes and risk factors for aggression.

References:

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