Frustration-Aggression Theory

1 January 2017

But what if someone he barely knows told him “You are such a loser not to pass that exam”. In this case, his stored frustration will surely turn into aggression. Note that the frustration aggression theory does not provide explanation to all types of aggression, but it rather focuses on aggression that results from not being able to reach your goals. Moreover, we are often unable to satisfy our desires or accomplish our goals. Sometimes our ambitions exceed our abilities, or we misperceive the possibilities.

But sometimes we are blocked by an external barrier that precludes gratification. This may be a traffic jam preventing us from reaching an appointment, a college rule prohibiting us from taking a particular course, an amorous neighborhood tom cat interrupting our sleep, or our race restricting professional advancement. Whatever the barrier, we are frustrated. All of us are so frustrated from time to time. Of course, not all frustrations lead to anger.

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Indeed, it is more common to accept frustration, the blockage of our wants or goals, as feedback suggesting that we adjust or alter our aims. We do this automatically, hour by hour, day by day. Frustration signals the error in the trial-and-error process by which we dialectically adjust our perspectives to external powers and potentialities. To live, to assert one-self, is to be hindered, to face difficulties, to be opposed. Besides our desires and goals, our frustrations and anger, there are two other commonplace facts of life.

We sometimes desire or aim to injure or hurt others, and behave in such a manner, sometimes because of our frustrations. Again, in our subjective world, these two facts are incontestable. Our awareness of them enables us to better perceive others, to adjust our interests and interactions, and to develop predictive expectations. In the late 1930s, the commonplace enabling us to understand such behavior in certain contexts was erected into an invariant law of nature by a group of Yale psychologists (Dollard et al. 1939). First, they equated aggression with the desire to hurt or injure others.

This effectively confused the various forms of aggression with one overt manifestation and confounded the bases of aiming to harm another, which may be instrumental (as in spanking a child), defensive (as in kicking an attacker), or hostile (as in spreading malicious gossip). Were one to equate love with kissing, the conceptual, cognitive confusion would be no less.

Second, frustration was defined as interference with a goal response, thus keying frustration to an objective barrier or difficulty, and to manifest behavior. Interference was felt to be through punishment or goal inaccessibility, further confusing frustration as blockage with frustration as deprivation. On this conceptual base, the Yale group put forward its famous assumption (Dollard et al. , 1939: 1): This study takes as its point of departure the assumption that aggression is always a consequence of frustration.

More specifically the proposition is that the occurrence of aggressive behavior always presupposes the existence of frustration and, contrariwise, that the existence of frustration always leads to some form of aggression. They further hypothesized a direct positive proportionality between the instigation to aggression and the amount of frustration. This amount depended on the strength of the drive toward a goal, the degree of interference, and the number of frustrated responses.

The resulting instigation to aggression will be directed toward the perceived agent of frustration (displacement), and the act of aggression reduces instigation to aggression (catharsis). This formulation, which hardly stood up to theoretical and conceptual analysis, was operationally precise and, although it assumed internal drives, it was in the stimulus-response, behavioral tradition. It generated considerable laboratory experimentation and empirical research.

More than two decades of research has shown that frustration does not invariably lead to aggression, that frustration can lead to nonaggression, that aggression can occur without frustration, that in some cultures aggression is not a typical response to frustration, that some situations (such as threat and insult) can evoke more aggression than frustration, that the injustice of frustration is more significant than frustration itself, that frustration subsumes a diverse set of conditions, and that the aggression-frustration linkage need not be innate and could be learned.

What began as an exciting statement of a psychophysical law has ended with a conclusion that should have been anticipated: frustration sometimes provokes aggression; and aggression is sometimes provoked by frustration. The widespread acceptance of the frustration-aggression notion is perhaps attributable more to its simplicity than to its predictive power.

In point of fact, the formula that frustration breeds aggression does not hold up well under empirical scrutiny in laboratory studies in which conditions regarded as frustrative are systematically varied. Frustration, as commonly defined, is only one, and not necessarily the most important, factor affecting the expression of aggression.

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