UNDERSTANDING ANGER: THEORIES AND FACTS

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Social Learning Theory's explanations of aggression

 This theory denies that humans are innately aggressive and that frustration automatically leads to aggression. Instead Bandura (1973) argues that aggression is learned in two basic ways: (1) from observing aggressive models and (2) from receiving and/or expecting payoffs following aggression. The payoffs may be in the form of (a) stopping aggression by others, (b) getting praise or status or some other goal by being aggressive, (c) getting self-reinforcement and private praise, and (d) reducing tension. The Social Learning Theory also incorporates cognitive processes, like rational problem-solving, "trial runs" in fantasy to see what might happen if I did _____ , and the self-control procedures of self-observation, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement. Even children are able to control their aggression if they have some understanding of why someone else frustrated them (Mallick & McCandless, 1966). We have discussed Social Learning Theory in chapters 4, 5, and 6.

 We all frequently face an environment that presents frustrating, unpleasant experiences as well as cues that suggest there would be certain payoffs for different courses of action. Inside us are various emotional responses, such as anger, various motivations and urges to seek certain payoffs, and complex cognitive processes for weighing the pros and cons for different alternative responses, including aggression or violence, passive withdrawal, depression, increased striving to succeed, reasonable "assertive" handling of the situation, and other possible responses. Eventually, the person chooses a response and acts, then the result of that response is observed and evaluated in terms of its effectiveness. If the response is reinforced, it is likely to be used again.

 Tavris (1984), a spokesperson for this point of view, argues that anger is a social event, a way of saying "Hey, I'm hurting and you're in my way." She criticizes (a) the ethologists' instincts, (b) the Freudians' unconscious motives, (c) the clinicians' unresearched opinions based on sick people, and (d) the therapists' and pop-psych idea of expressing "built up" anger. She says all these views erroneously suggest that anger is beyond our control and overlook the real causes of frustration. Tavris believes in human choice and self-control. She thinks we continue to use our violence because "aggression pays" and because the other theories provide excuses for being angry.

 There is no doubt that aggression pays off. Parents who yell and threaten punishment get results. The child who hits the hardest gets the toy. The brother who is willing to be the most vicious in a fight wins. The teacher who gives the hardest tests and threatens to flunk the most students gets the most study time from students. The spouse who threatens to get the maddest gets his/her way. The male who acts the most macho and aggressive gets the praise of certain groups of males.

 It is not necessary that the aggressor be especially mean to get his/her way. The slightest overt hint of anger can communicate. Suppose you and your boy/girlfriend want to do different things some evening. The brief frown, the "roll" of the eyes, the comment "Oh, all right" may clearly communicate, "okay, have it your way but I'm going to be pissed all evening." Such a message is a powerful threat--and often an effective one, proving once again that, unfortunately, "aggression pays off."

Human nature vs. learned behavior

 I'm sure you recognize the old nature-nurture issue in these discussions. The difficulty, as I see it, is that both sides over-simplify and want to claim all the influence, i.e. on the one hand, the genes-instincts-hormones (biological determinism) theorists imply that hostility is "human nature." Indeed, 60% of Americans buy this idea, saying "there will always be wars, it is human nature." How sad that we are not better educated. No wonder the U.S. has used military force 150 times since 1850. There is, of course, a lot of fighting between countries, tribes, religions, spouses, and parents and children. But there is no evidence that we humans have inherited more of a tendency to dislike, fight, be violent, or to make war than to like, trust, be cooperative, or to make friends. Just because humans are biologically capable of being selfish and mean does not mean it is inevitable; we can control our lives. Too many people believe humans are violent because we are naturally and unavoidably aggressive. This widely held theory provides us with harmful expectations, self-fulfilling prophesies, and with excuses for being aggressive (Kohn, 1988).

 On the other hand, the currently popular cognitive-environmental theorists emphasize that behavior is a result of a process of learning from observing what actions pay off, what works. This theory over-simplifies human behavior in another way, namely, by neglecting the biological-physiological aspects, the emotions and needs, the unmindful "thought" processes (traditions, habits, unthinking routines), the unconscious processes (perceptual distortion, childhood experiences, unconscious resentments, motives, defense mechanisms--like displacement), and perhaps other significant factors influencing our behavior. For instance, Berkowitz (1993) says sudden unpleasant situations automatically generates negative emotions, including primitive anger feelings and hostile or flight impulses, even before the person has time to think about what has happened or what to do about it. Moreover, I am not ready to dismiss the many social-sexual needs that create conflicts for us as being purely "cognitive." And, I refuse to believe that the prejudice, violence, hatred, and greed that abounds in the world (and the love, acceptance, and altruism) are simply a result of our cognitive processes. How do you cognitively explain the raging parent who beats his/her 3-month-old infant to death? Nevertheless, cognitive theory is a very hopeful theory if not a complete one.

 Sorry for making things complicated but you need to prepare for a complex world. The good news is that there is overwhelming evidence that humans can, in the right circumstances and with appropriate training, be kinder and gentler by using their higher cognition. But, thus far, we seem to be loosing the battle against violence, as we will see in the next topic.

Child rearing practices

 By the time we are five years of age, we have learned to be kind and caring or aggressive. What is associated with an angry, aggressive child? Four factors are: (1) a child with a hyperactive, impulsive temperament, (2) a parent who has negative, critical attitudes towards the child, (3) a parent who provides poor supervision and permits the child to use aggression as a means of gaining power, and (4) a parent who uses power-tactics (punishment, threats, and violent or loud outbursts) to get their way (Olweus, 1980). Once a peaceful or hostile way of responding is established (by 5) it tends to remain stable. Olweus (1979) suggests aggressiveness is about as stable as intelligence.

 So, the best way to predict that a young adult will behave aggressively is to observe his/her early behavior. Aggression at age 8 correlates .46 with aggression at age 30! Children who were "pro-social," i.e. popular and avoid aggression, at age 8 were, 22 years later, doing well in school and at work, had good mental health, and were successful socially (Eron, 1987). Children who steal, aggress, use drugs, and have conduct problems with peers, family or in school, and then conceal the problems by lying, are the most likely to become delinquent (Loeber, 1990). Of course, many such children become good citizens, so don't give up. But society, schools, parents, and the children could prevent much of the later aggression if they made the effort to detect the problems early and offered help. It is crucial that we all learn "pro-social" (nice) behavior, starting early in life. Physical punishment teaches that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems.

 Aggressive children often come from aggressive homes, in which not only are their parents and others within the family physical with each other but even the child's own aggressiveness has been harshly punished (Patterson, 1976; Byrne & Kelley, 1981). Research has documented similar aggression from grandparents to parents to grandchildren. In addition, outside the family we learn more hostile ways of responding to frustration, such as in schools, on the play grounds, from friends, and especially from TV, movies and books. It has been demonstrated that we can learn to be aggressive by merely viewing a short film that shows aggressiveness as an acceptable response (Bandura, 1973). So, one doesn't have to have hostile parents or be subjected to noticeable frustration prior to becoming aggressive. One can just see aggression and then imitate it. That's why TV is so scary.

 The impact of TV has been studied extensively; it makes us more aggressive (Geen, 1978; Singer & Singer, 1981). This isn't surprising considering the average child of 15 has seen about 15,000 humans violently destroyed on TV. Even though the bad guy (like the aggressive child) is often beaten up by the good guy (the parent), the implication is that aggression is acceptable if it's for a good cause (Derlega and Janda, 1981). So, we are all exposed to a myriad of responses to frustration, but in many ways the message, again, is: "aggression gets results." Examples: the handsome TV star is often quick and powerful with his fists; every night the news documents that the most powerful nations win the wars and that the giant corporations eliminate jobs or do whatever makes a profit.

Self-hatred and understanding

 Theodore Rubin (1975) discusses self-hatred, defined as disliking any part of our selves. It involves all of our distortions of our real self, any self-put down, or any exaggeration of one's goodness or ability. When we distort or deny what we really are, it suggests we don't like ourselves. This dislike of self starts in infancy. Babies have all kinds of habits, needs, and emotions that parents prohibit: sloppiness, anger, greediness, jealousy, self-centered demands, etc. As a child, we all learned that parts of ourselves were bad. This self-hatred becomes automated in the form of depression, which both punishes us and drowns out other feelings too.

 Parents who are rejecting, neglectful, overdemanding, overprotective, overly punitive, or overbearing increase the self-hatred in a child. "I'm not good enough" becomes a central part of the self-concept. Such a child may be a "good girl/boy" but fear and rage may exist within, even when feeling empty and lifeless. Sometimes the self-hatred is conscious but the connection between self-criticism and other problems (depression, anxiety, fatigue) is unconscious. Sometimes the self-hatred is unconscious and we feel badly without knowing why.

Self-reports about anger

 James Averill (1983) views emotions as primarily a social phenomena. He studied self-reports about aggression: most people report getting mildly to moderately angry anywhere from several times a day to several times a week. However, the most common reactions to irritating situations were (1) activities to calm themselves down (60%), (2) talking about the incident to the offender (39%), or (3) talking to a third party (59%) without getting angry. Only 49% got verbally aggressive with the person who made them mad; even fewer--10%--got physically aggressive (1/3 of these incidents were with children). So, anger doesn't lead to much actual aggression; indeed, in 19% of the cases it lead to being "extra friendly." People feel like being verbally aggressive (82%) or physically aggressive (40%) but a wide variety of nonaggressive responses occur instead. So, your extra friendly co-worker may be angry about something!

 Over half the time, we get mad at a loved one, relative, or friend, so anger has, in a sense, more to do with love than with hatred. What usually (85%) makes us angry is that we feel the other person has done us wrong. They are at fault; they are to blame for interfering with our plans, our wishes, or for offending or insulting us. So, what are the reported consequences of getting angry? Primarily positive outcomes! 76% of the "targets" of anger said they gained some understanding of their faults and 44% gained some respect (29% lost) for the angry person. 48% of the time anger strengthened the relationship (35% became more distant). No wonder we get angry so often. It certainly has payoffs; however, this research overlooks the misery of constant anger or constant suppression of anger.

Is aggression a result of mental processes in social interaction?

 If we perceive and label another type of person or their actions as offensive or dangerous to us, then we are more prone to be aggressive towards that type of person. Just like a hungry person thinks more often of food, if we are angry, we see more signs of aggression and suspect more "enemies." It has been said, "a prejudiced person sees a Jew, a communist, or a 'nigger' behind every bush and beneath every bed."

 Our society and our subcultures provide us with stereotypes that direct our resentment, prejudice, and discrimination towards certain types of people. Prejudice tends to grow: if we dislike someone, we are more likely to hurt them, and if we hurt them, we are more likely to come to dislike them even more (Scherer, Aveles, & Fischer, 1975).

 For example, prior to the shooting of students (4 killed, 9 wounded) by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970, students across the nation had referred to the police as "pigs" (i.e. stupid, coarse, and brutal) and the police had seen students as "hippy radicals" (i.e. long-haired, drug-using, sexually immoral, dirty, foul-talking, violent ingrates). A day or two before sending in 6,000 troops, the governor of Ohio had called student demonstrators "nightriders" and worse than "communists" and promised to eradicate them; President Nixon called demonstrating students "bums;" Vice-President Agnew commented, "we can, however, afford to separate them [student radicals] from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding rotten apples from a barrel." It is easy to see how the stage was set for violence. Furthermore, after the shootings, the National Guard action was supported by many people who made comments such as these: "it's about time we showed the bastards who's in charge" and "they should have shot 100 of them" (Scherer, Abeles, & Fischer, 1975). Obviously, our thinking affects our feelings about people and our actions.

 Any time a leader speaks in terms of a negative stereotype or we think in such terms, we are sowing the seeds of violence. Every time we demean another human, we increase the potential for aggression. Every human being has a right to be judged on his/her own merits, not on the basis of a stereotype. Prejudice is discussed more later.


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