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Below is an essay for the frustration-aggression hypothesis which is part of the paper 3 Aggression topic for the AQA psychology exam. If you are studying the aggression topic and need further help – you can get model essay answers that cover every single possible 16 mark essay question by clicking the aggression ebook image on the right – You can download this instantly, print it or use it across all your different devices.


Frustration-Aggression Theory

The frustration-aggression hypothesis is based on the work of Dollard et al (1939) and suggests that all aggression is the result of feeling frustrated which is defined as “any event or stimulus that prevents an individual attaining some goal and its accompanying reinforcing quality”. Barriers may be real or imaginary and prevent an individual achieving their aim causing frustration which then needs to be relieved in a cathartic way i.e. through the display of aggression.

According to the frustration-aggression hypothesis various factors affect the likelihood of aggression being displayed one of which is the proximity to the goal itself. If an individual perceives themselves to be close to achieving their goal then displaying aggression is more likely due to frustration when a barrier presents itself compared to if they believe the goal is much further away or less attainable.

Another factor is whether the individual believes the display of aggression will remove the barrier that is causing the frustration itself. If they believe aggression will have no effect on removing the barrier then it is seen as less likely. However if the person perceives displaying aggression will result in a more favorable outcome then it is more likely. Whether participants feel their behaviour is justified is also another factor that affects the display of aggression according to the frustration-aggression hypothesis. For example Doob and Sears (1939) asked participants to imagine how they would feel in varying situations of frustration e.g. waiting for a bus which went by without stopping. Most reported that they would feel angry in this situation however Pastore (1952) was able to distinguish that this was mainly when individuals felt the situation was unjustified. For example when presented with the same scenario but this time the bus had a clear sign stating it was out of service, participants expressed lower levels of anger. This would suggest that aggression is more likely to be displayed when individuals perceive the barrier to be unjustified in preventing their goal. Another factor which also affects the display of aggression according to this theory is contextual factors such as the threat of punishment.

As part of the frustration-aggression hypothesis, when individuals experience frustration they experience a drive to be aggressive towards the object of their frustrations. However this is not always possible or appropriate resulting in the aggression being inhibited. Dollard et al proposed in such cases aggression is displaced from the source on to something else and he referred to this as “kicking the dog” effect. This is because when the impulse to attack the source of their frustration is not met, they in turn look to target a scapegoat instead to still experience catharsis.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis Evaluation/Strengths and Weaknesses

The frustration-aggression hypothesis has been criticized by psychologists such as Bandura who argue aggressive behaviour is just one possible response to frustration. He believed that frustration created only generalized arousal and it was social learning which determines how that arousal then influences the individual’s behaviour. Social learning theory would suggest that the individual would respond with aggression only if that behaviour had been effective previously (i.e. directly conditioned) or if they had seen it as an effective response by others (social learning). This alternative view therefore argues that an individual learns to use aggression under specific circumstances when they believe they are likely to be successful through it. This alternative viewpoint offers a more holistic explanation as to why not everyone who is deemed as frustrated in a situation responds with aggression which the frustration-aggression hypothesis cannot fully account for.

The theory also lacks research support particularly in regards to the concept of catharsis and the belief that aggression reduced arousal causing people to be less aggressive. Bushman (2002) found the opposite was true and that people who behaved aggressively were more likely to be aggressive in the future. He found aggressive behaviour kept angry feelings and aggressive thoughts active in memory resulting in more aggression which undermines the frustration-aggression hypothesis that catharsis reduced aggression. This would suggest the theory itself lacks validity as it is not able to account for all forms of aggression but merely one form.

In addition to this aggression is not always prompted by frustration. People who find themselves in a threatening situation may either “fight or flight” and any aggression may be for self-protection rather than due to frustration. This theory cannot also explain the premeditated and planned acts of aggression by psychopathic killers who are not driven due to frustration. This suggests the theory is incomplete and too simplistic as quite clearly other elements to explaining aggression exist.

Much of the research the frustration-aggression hypothesis was based on relied on hypothetical situations that participants had to imagine and answer questions on. The answers may therefore not reflect their true feelings in the given situation and it would be unethical to manipulate someone to feel frustration to measure aggression. This would have low predictive validity because participants are saying how they think they would feel and in reality they may act very differently.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis provides us with real-world applications particularly in understanding how mass killings of groups of people occur. Staub (1996) suggested mass killings were rooted in frustration which was caused by social and economic difficulties people faced within society. These frustrations then led to scapegoating of a particular group which led to discrimination and aggression towards them. This explanation has been used to explain the aggression directed towards Jews during the second world war and although ordinary Germans were not responsible, they condoned the violence (Goldhagen 1996) blaming them for the countries problems. This demonstrates how widespread frustration which is manipulated by media and propaganda can lead to violence consequences and scapegoating. This is more important than ever considering the far-right political parties spreading across Europe with immigration (scapegoats) being blamed as the culprit.

The theory suffers from gender bias as it cannot fully explain why men tend to be more aggressive than women. It is likely both genders feel the same frustration however the fact that men are more inclined to act on it rather than women suggests socialization and the expectation of gender roles as Bandura suggests is a factor in the expression of aggression. Another factor that may better explain the expression of aggression is the cognitive explanation which suggests it is maladaptive thoughts and belief systems (possibly due to socialization and expectations of gender roles) which encourage men to act on frustration. Women on the other hand would be more inclined to avoid or back down from such which would better fit in with explaining the disparity between male and female aggression.

Harris (1974) tested the theory to see if proximity to the goal affected the level of aggression displayed. Situations involving shop queues were used and confederates pushed in front of real people that were waiting to assess their reaction. The results found the closer people were to the front (their goal) the more likely they were to react aggressively to confederates pushing in front of them. This supports the frustration-aggression theory and its idea that proximity to the goal was a factor in whether aggression is displayed.

Saj Devshi
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