Aqa Psychology Deindividuation Essay Writing

Relationships Revision Notes

by Will Goulder published 2016


Exam Paper Advice

In the exam, you will be asked a range of questions on the topic of relationships, which may include questions about research methods or using mathematical skills based on research into relationships.

As in Paper One and Two, you may be asked a 16-mark question, which could include an item (6 marks for AO1 Description, 4 marks for AO2 Application and 6 marks AO3 Evaluation) or simply to discuss the topic more generally (6 marks AO1 Description and 10 marks AO2 Evaluation). There is no guarantee that a 16-mark question will be asked in this topic though so it is important to have a good understanding of all of the different areas linked to the topic.

There will be 24 marks for relationship questions, so you can expect to spend about 30 minutes on this section, but this is not a strict rule.


The evolutionary explanations for partner preferences

The relationship between sexual selection and human reproductive behavior

Anisogamy AO1

Anisogamy means two sex cells (or gametes) that are different coming together to reproduce. Men have sperm cells, which are able to reproduce quickly with little energy expenditure and once they start being produced they do not usually stop until the man dies.

Female gametes (eggs or ova) are, in contrast, much less plentiful; they are released in a limited time frame (between puberty and menopause) and require much more energy to produce. This difference (anisogamy) means that men and women use different strategies when choosing their partners.

Inter-sexual Selection (AO1)

Females lose more resources than men if they choose a sub-standard partner, so are pickier about who they select. They are more likely to pick a partner who is genetically fit and willing to offer the maximum resources to raise their offspring (a man who will remain by her side as the child grows to protect them both and potentially provide more children).

If they have made a good choice, then their offspring will inherit the positive features of their father and are therefore also more likely to be chosen by women or men in the next generation.

Intra-sexual Selection (AO1)

Whilst females prefer quality over quantity, anisogamy suggests that men’s best evolutionary strategy is to have as many partners as possible.

To succeed, men must compete with other males to present themselves as the most attractive mate, encouraging features such as muscles which indicate to the opposite sex an ability to protect both them and their offspring.

AO3

Buss (1989) conducted a survey of over 10,000 adults in 33 countries and found that females reported valuing resource-based characteristics when choosing a male (such as their jobs) whilst men valued good looks and preferred younger partners more than females did.

This was supported by research conducted by Waynforth and Dunbar (1995) who found that women tended to list physical characteristics when seeking a partner in personal ads and men promoted their wealth or resources.

Clark and Hatfield (1989) conducted a now infamous study where male and female psychology students were asked to approach fellow students of Florida State University (of the opposite sex) and ask them for one of three things; to go on a date, to go back to their apartment, or to go to bed with them.

About 50% of both men and women agreed to the date, but whilst 69% of men agreed to visit the apartment and 75% agreed to go to bed with them, only 6% of women agreed to go to the apartment and 0% accepted the more intimate offer.


Factors Affecting Attraction

AO1

Self-disclosure in the context of a relationship refers to how much information someone is willing to share. In the initial stages of a relationship, couples often seek to learn as much as they can about their new partner and feel that this sharing of information brings them closer together. But can too much sharing scare your partner away? Is not sharing very much information intriguing or frustrating?

Altman and Taylor (1973) identified breadth and depth as important factors of self-disclosure. At the start of a relationship, self-disclosure is likely to cover a range of topics as you seek to explore the key facts about your new partner “What do you do for work”, “Where did you last go on holiday”, but these topics are relatively superficial.

As the relationship develops, people tend to share more detailed and personal information, such as past traumas and desires for the future. If this sharing happens too soon however, an incompatibility may be found before the other person has reached a suitable level of investment in the relationship. Altman and Taylor referred to this sharing of information as social penetration.

An important aspect of this is the reciprocity of the process, if one person shares more than the other is willing to, there may be a breakdown of trust as one person establishes themselves as more invested than the other.

(AO3)

Aron et al. (1997) found that by providing a list of questions to pairs of people which start with superficial information (Who would be your perfect dinner party guest) and moving over 36 questions to more intimate information (Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing) people grew closer and more intimate as the questions progressed. Aron’s research also included a four-minute stare at the end of the question sequence, which may have also contributed to the increased intimacy.

Sprecher and Hendrick (2004) observed couples on dates and found a close correlation between the amount of satisfaction each person felt and the overall self-disclosure that occurred between the partners.

However, much of the research into self-disclosure is correlational which means that a causal relationship cannot be easily determined; in short it may be that it is the attraction between partners which leads to greater self-disclosure, rather than the sharing of information which leads to greater intimacy.

Physical attractiveness: including the matching hypothesis

AO1

Physical attractiveness is viewed by society as one of the most important factors of relationship formation, but is this view supported by research?

Physical appearance can be seen as a range of indicators of underlying characteristics. Women with a favourable waist to hip ratio are seen as attractive because they are perceived to be more fertile (Singh, 2002), people with more symmetrical features are seen to be more genetically fit.

This is because our genes are designed to make us develop symmetrically, but diseases and infections during physical development can cause these small imperfections and asymmetries (Little and Jones, 2003).

The halo effect is a cognitive bias (mental shortcut) which occurs when a person assumes that a person has positive traits in terms of personality and other features because they have a pleasing appearance.

Dion, Berscheid and Walster (1972) asked participants to rate photographs of three strangers for a number of different categories including personality traits such as overall happiness and career success.

When these results were compared to the physical attraction rating of each participant (from a rating of 100 students), the photographs which were rated the most physically attractive were also rated higher on the other positive traits.

The matching hypothesis (Walster et al., 1966) suggests that people realise at a young age that not everybody can form relationships with the most attractive people, so it is important to evaluate their own attractiveness and from this, partners which are the most attainable.

If a person always went for people “out of their league” in terms of physical attractiveness, they may never find a partner which would evolutionarily foolish. This identification of those who have a similar level of attraction, and therefore provide a balance between the level of competition (intra-sexual) and positive traits is referred to as matching.

AO3

Modern dating in society is increasingly visual, with the rise of online dating, particularly using apps such as Tinder.

In Dion et al.’s (1972) study, those who were rated to be the most physically attractive were not rated highly on the statement “Would be a good parent” which could be seen to contradict theories about inter and intra-sexual selection.

Landy and Aronson (1969) show how the Halo effect occurs in other contexts. They found that when victims of crime were perceived to be more attractive, defendants in court cases were more likely to be given longer sentences by a simulated jury. When the defendants were unattractive, they were more likely to be sentenced by the jury, which supports the idea that we generalise physical attractiveness as an indicator of other, less visual traits such as trustworthiness.

Feingold (1988) conducted a meta-analysis of 17 studies and found a significant correlation between the perceived attractiveness of actual partners rated by independent participants.

AO1

Kerckhoff and Davis (1962) suggested that when selecting partners from a range of those who are potentially available to them (a field of availables), people will use three filters to “narrow down” the choice to those who they have the best chance of a sustainable relationship with. The filter model speaks about three “levels of filters” which are applied to partners.

The first filter proposed when selecting partners was social demography. People are far more likely to have access to people who come from a similar background to themselves. This could relate to geographical proximity, social class, ethnic group or level of education for example.

The second filter that Kerckhoff and Davis suggested was similarity in attitudes. This was supported by their original 1962 longitudinal study of two groups of student couples (those who had been together for more or less than 18 months).

Over seven months, the couples completed questionnaires based on their views and attitudes which were then compared for similarities. Kerckhoff and Davis suggested that similarity of attitudes was the most important factor in the group who had been together for less than 18 months. This is supported by the self-disclosure research described elsewhere in this topic.

The third filter was complementarity which goes a step further than similarity. Rather than having the same traits and attitudes, such as dominance or humour, a partner in who complements their spouse has traits which the other lacks. For example one partner may be good at organisation, whilst the other is poor at organisation but very good at entertaining guests.

Kerchoff and Davis found that this level of filter was the most important for couples who had been together for more than 18 months. This may be the origins of the classic phrase “opposites attract”, though we may add the condition “although not for the first 18 months of the relationship.

AO3

This theory may be interpreted as similar to the matching hypothesis but for personality rather than physical traits.

Some stages of this model may now be seen as less relevant, for example as modern society is much more multi-cultural and interconnected (by things such as the internet) than in the 1960s, we may now see social demography as less of a barrier to a relationship. This may lead to the criticism that the theory lacks temporal validity.

This lack of temporal validity is supported by Levinger (1978) who, even only 16 years after the study, pointed out that many studies had failed to replicate Karchkoff and Davis’ original findings, although this may be down to methodological issues with operationalising factor such as the success of a relationship or complementarity of traits.

Again, the investigating the second and third levels of the filter theory look at correlation which cannot easily explain causality. Both Davis and Rusbult (2001) and Anderson et al. (2003) found that people become more similar in different ways the more time that they spend in a relationship together.

So it may be that the relationship leads to an alignment of attitudes, and also a greater complementarity as couples assign each other roles: “He does the cooking and I do the hoovering”.


Theories of Romantic Relationships

AO1

Psychologists Thibault and Kelley (1959) proposed the Social Exchange Theory which stipulates that one motivation to stay in a romantic relationship, and a large factor in its development, is the result of a cost-benefit analysis that people perform, either consciously or unconsciously.

In a relationship people gain rewards (such as attention from their partner, sex, gifts and a boost to their self-esteem) and incur costs (paying money for gifts, compromise on how to spend their time or stress). There is also an opportunity cost in relationships, as time spent with a partner that does not develop into a lasting relationship could have been spent with another partner with better long-term prospects.

How much value is placed on each cost and benefit is subjective and determined by the individual. For example, whilst some people may want to spend as much time as possible with their partner in the early stages of the relationship and see this time together as a reward of the relationship, others may value their space and see extended periods spent together as more of a necessary investment to keep the other person happy.

Thibault and Kelley also identified a number of different stages of a relationship which progress from the sampling stage, where couples experiment with the potential costs and rewards of a relationship through direct or indirect interactions, through the bargaining and commitment stages as negotiations of each partner’s role in the relationship occur and the rewards and costs are established and become more predictable, and finally arriving at the institutionalisation stage where the couple are settled and the norms of the relationship are heavily embedded.

Comparison Levels (CL) and (CLalt)

The comparison level (CL) in a relationship is a judgement of how much profit an individual is receiving (benefits minus costs). The acceptable CL needed to continue to pursue a relationship changes as a person matures and can be affected by a number of external and internal factors.

External factors may include the media (younger people may want for more from a relationship after being socialised by images of romance on films and television), seeing friends and families in relationships (people who have divorced or separated parents may have a different CL to those with parents who are still married), or experiences from prior relationships, which have taught the person to expect more or less from a partner. Internal perceptions of self-worth such as self-esteem will directly affect the CL that a person believes they are entitled to in a relationship.

CLalt stands for the Comparison Level for Alternatives and refers to a person’s judgement of if they could be getting fewer costs and greater rewards from another, alternative relationship with another partner. Steve Duck (1994) suggested that a person’s CLalt is dependent on the level of reward and satisfaction in their current relationship. If the CL is positive, then the person may not consider the potential benefits of a relationship with another person.

AO3

Operationalising rewards and costs is hugely subjective, making comparisons between people and relationships in controlled settings very difficult. Most studies which are used to support Social Exchange Theory account for this by using artificial procedures in laboratory settings, reducing the external validity of the findings.

Michael Argyle (1987) questions whether it is the CL which leads to dissatisfaction with the relationship, or dissatisfaction which leads to this analysis. It may be that Social Exchange Theory serves as a justification for dissatisfaction rather than the cause of it.

Social Exchange Theory ignores the idea of social equity explained by the next relationship theory concerning equality in a relationship – would a partner really feel satisfied in a relationship where they received all of the rewards and their partner incurred all of the costs?

AO1

Equity theory builds upon the assumption of Social Exchange Theory that romantic relationships can be viewed as economic models (loss, risk, benefits etc.), but factors in people’s desire for equality in relationships. If one partner is benefiting from more profit (benefits-costs) than the other, then both partners are likely to feel unsatisfied.

Walster et al. (1978) makes the distinction between an uneven level of rewards or costs between partners which may be balanced out over time or be perceived to have different values (perhaps one partner receives less rewards, but also suffers fewer costs from the relationship; they may not help with as much of the housework but treat their partner more for their effort) and the imbalance of profit, where one partner suffers from greater costs but does not receive a higher benefit for their trouble. They are under-benefiting whilst their partner over-benefits, which is likely to make both people feel uncomfortable.

What may be more damaging than initial inequity, which can be identified and dealt with (or perceived as normal) at the beginning of a relationship, is a change in equity over time. One partner may lose interest in the relationship or what is initially perceived as fair (perhaps one partner “chasing” the other) may be viewed as unfair if it continues to develop.

A partner who feels that they are receiving less profit in an inequitable relationship may respond by either working hard to make the relationship more equitable, or by shifting their own perception of rewards and costs to justify the relationship continuing.

AO3

Huseman et al. (1987) suggested that individual differences are an important factor in equity theory. They make a distinction between entitleds who feel that they deserve to gain more than their partner in a relationship and benevolents who are more prepared to invest by worker harder to keep their partner happy.

Clark and Mills (2011) argue that we should differentiate between the role of equity in romantic relationships and other types of relationships such as business or casual, friendly relationships. They found in a meta-analysis that there is more evidence that equity is a deciding factor in non-romantic relationships, the evidence being more mixed in romantic partnerships.

Social Equity Theory does not apply to all cultures; couples from collectivist cultures (where the group needs are more important than those of the individual) were more satisfied when over benefitting than those from individualistic cultures (where the needs of the individual are more important than those of the individual) in a study conducted by Katherine Aumer-Ryan et al. (2007).

Some cultures have traditions and expectations that one member of a romantic relationship should benefit more from the partnership. The traditional nuclear family, typical in the early to mid-20th century, was patriarchal, and the woman was often expected to contribute to more tasks, such as housework and raising the children, than the man for whom providing money to the family was perceived to be the primary role.

Rusbult’s Investment Model

AO1

Rusbult et al.’s (2011) model of commitment in a romantic relationship builds upon the Social Exchange Theory discussed above and proposes that three factors contribute to the level of commitment in a relationship.

Satisfaction and Comparison with Alternatives (discussed above), are the first two factors. They are the extent to which a partner feels a relationship is worthwhile for them when comparing other possible relationships and their investment against the rewards offered by the pairing. The third factor is an addition to the model, investment size, which explains why relationships do not all breakdown when the CL or CLalt are low.

Investment in relationships can be measured as a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic investments which have been made over the course of the relationship. Intrinsic investments are those which have been added by a single partner such as money towards a date or a gift, time spent with the person and any self-disclosures which have been made. Extrinsic investments are those which have been created or developed over the course of the relationship which are shared by both partners, such as large purchases (a house or car) or even children.

Rusbult’s model proposes that commitment occurs when the CL and CLalt are high and the investment level is high. We can observe this in a relationship through relationship maintenance mechanisms, or behaviors which only couples who are committed to a relationship will exhibit. These include behaviors such as forgiveness, willingness to sacrifice, and being overly positive about their partner.

AO3

Le and Agnew’s (2003) meta-analysis of studies relating to similar investment models found that satisfaction, comparison with alternatives and investment were all strong indicators of commitment to a relationship. This importance was the same across cultures, genders, and also applied to homosexual relationships.

Many of the studies relating to investment in relationship rely on self-report technique. Whilst this would be perceived as a less reliable and overly-subjective method in other areas, when looking at the amount an individual feels they are committed to a relationship, their own opinion and the value that they place on behaviors and attributes is more relevant than objective observations.

Again, investment models tend to give correlational data rather than causal, it may be that a commitment established at an earlier stage leads inevitably to the partner viewing comparisons more favourably and investing more into the relationship.

AO1

Duck’s (2007) phase model suggests that the breakdown of a relationship is not a single event, but rather a system of stages or phases which a couple progress through which incorporate the end of the relationship.

Intra-Psychic Phase

In this phase, one of the partners begins to have doubts about the relationship. They spend time thinking about the pros and cons of the relationship and possible alternatives, including being alone. They may either internalise these feelings or confide in a trusted friend.

Dyadic Phase

The partners discuss their feelings about the relationship; this usually leads to hostility and may take place over a number of days or weeks. Over this period the discussions will often focus on the equity in the relationship and will either culminate in a renewed resolution to invest in the relationship, or the realisation that the relationship has broken down.

Social Phase

Other people are involved in the process; friends are encouraged to choose a side, and may urge for reconciliation with their partner, or may encourage the breakdown, through expression of opinion or hidden facts (“I heard they did this…”). Each partner may seek approval from their friends at the expense of their previous romantic partner. At this point, the relationship is unlikely to be repaired as each partner has invested in the breakdown to their friends, and any retreat from this may be met with disapproval.

Grave-Dressing Phase

When the relationship has completely ended, each partner will seek to create a favourable narrative of the events, justifying to themselves and others why the relationship breakdown was not their fault, thus retaining their social value and not lowering their chances of future relationships. Their internal narrative will focus more on processing the events of the relationship, perhaps reframing memories in the context of new discoveries about the partner, for example an initial youthfulness may now been seen as immaturity.

AO3

Duck’s model may be a relevant description of the breakdown of relationships, but it does not explain what leads to the initial stages of the model which other models of relationships discussed earlier attempt to do.

Duck’s phase model has useful real-life applications. When relationship therapists can identify the phase of a breakdown that a couple are in, they can identify strategies which target the issues at that particular stage. Duck (1994) recommends that couples in the intra-psychic phase should be encouraged to think about the positive rather than the negative aspects of their partner.

Rollie and Duck (2006) added a fifth stage to the model, the resurrection phase where people take the experiences and knowledge gained from the previous relationship and apply it to future relationships that they have. When Rollie and Duck revisited the model, they also emphasised that progression from one stage to the next is not inevitable and effective interventions can prevent this.


Virtual Relationships in Social Media

AO1

Sproull and Kiesler’s (1986) reduced cues theory, proposes that we are less likely to self-disclose personal information in a Computer-mediated Communication (CmC) as people online are likely to be more disinhibited due to an increased deindividuation caused by the inability to access cues which many Face to Face (FtF) interactions rely upon such as facial expressions and verbal intonation. This means that people in online communications are more likely to be aggressive and rude in response to any personal disclosures made.

Walther’s (1996, 2011) hyper personal model, argues that actually CmC relationships encourage self-disclosure much earlier than FtF interactions, due in part to the sender of messages’ ability to alter and manipulate exactly how they come across to the other party. Walther says that this selective self-presentation means that the lack of cues serves to increase the speed and intensity of relationships as people are able to portray themselves in the best possible light. The deindividuation which occurs in CmC relationships can make people feel less accountable for their actions and therefore less inhibited, making disclosure much more likely.

Absence of Gating

Gating in relationships refers to a peripheral feature becoming a barrier to the connection between people. This gate could be a physical feature, such as somebody’s weight or a disfigurement, or a feature of one’s personality such as introversion or shyness. It may be that two people’s personalities are very compatible, and attraction would occur if they spoke for any length of time, but a gate prevents this from happening.

McKenna and Bargh (1999) propose the idea that CmC relationships remove these gates and mean that there is little distraction from the connection between people that might not otherwise have occurred. Some people use the anonymity available on the internet to compensate for these gates by portraying themselves differently than they would do in FtF relationships. People who lack confidence may use the extra time available in messaging to consider their responses more carefully, and those who perceive themselves to be unattractive may choose an avatar or edited picture which does not show this trait.

AO3

Walther and Tidwell (1995) point out that although some cues are absent, such as facial expressions, people can correctly use other cues, such as the length of time that it takes someone to write a response, to gauge their true feelings. Emoticons are often used as substitutes for facial expressions in CmC relationships, although these are more easily manipulated by the sender than their true reactions to stimuli.

The relevance of research into CmC relationships changes rapidly as more technology is released and the way that we interact with technology changes. Much of the research cited in this article took place before the year 2000. The way we interact with people over facetime®, emoticons and tinder® could be completely different to the technologies which were the inspiration for the theories outlined here.

The majority of relationships, especially romantic relationships, do not take place entirely online, but rather are a mixture of FtF and CmC, reducing the deindividuation effect required for the reduced cues and hyper personal theories.

McKenna and Bargh (2000) found that lonely and socially anxious people felt more-able to express their “true- selves” in CmC relationships, and the percentage of lasting relationships which began as CmC for these people were higher than for those formed in the offline world.


Parasocial Relationships

Levels of Parasocial Relationships

AO1

Levels of Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships may be described as those which are one-sided, Horton and Wohl (1956) defined them as relationships where the ‘fan’ is extremely invested in the relationships but the celebrity is unaware of their existence. Parasocial relationships may occur with any dynamic which elevates someone above the population in a community, making it difficult for genuine interaction; this could be anyone from fictitious characters to teachers.

Maltby et al. (2006) used the Celebrity Attitude Scale (McCutcheon et al., 2002) in a large scale survey and classified responses into three levels of behaviors and beliefs linked to relationships with celebrities.

    - Entertainment-Social is the least extreme relationship type. The person sees the celebrity as a source of entertainment and may speak about them often with like-minded friends. Examples could be discussions about soap operas or reality television stars.

    - Intense-Personal relationships occur when people connect aspects of the celebrity to their own identity. They may have a strong feeling that they should have a real life relationship with the celebrity and believe that they share a kinship.

    - Borderline pathological relationships are used to describe the actions of someone who displays obsessive behaviors relating to a celebrity. They may invest a large number of resources in meeting or attempting to befriend the celebrity, for example by sending them personal gifts.

The Attachment Theory Explanation

Bowlby’s theory of attachment suggests that those who do not have a secure attachment earlier in life will have emotional difficulties and attachment disorders when they grow up. Parasocial relationships are often associated with teenagers and young adults who may have had less genuine relationships to build an internal working model which allows them to recognise parasocial relationships as abnormal.

For example it may be that those with insecure resistant attachment types are drawn to parasocial relationships because they do not offer the threat of rejection or abandonment.

The Absorption-Addiction Model

McCutcheon (2002) proposed that parasocial relationships form due to deficiencies in people’s lives. They look to the relationship to escape from reality, perhaps due to traumatic events or to fill the gap left by a real-life attachment ending.

Absorption refers to behavior designed to make the person feel closer to the celebrity. This could be anything from researching facts about them, both their personal life and their career, to repeatedly experiencing their work, playing their music or buying tickets to see them live, or paying for their merchandise to strengthen the apparent relationship.

As with other Addictions, this refers to the escalation of behavior to sustain and strengthen the relationship. The person starts to believe that the ‘need’ the celebrity and behaviors become more extreme, and more delusional. Stalking is a severe example of this behavior.

AO3

The absorption-addiction model can be viewed as more of a description of parasocial relationships than an explanation; it states how a parasocial relationship may be identified and the form it may take, but not what it is caused by.

Methodologically, many studies into parasocial relationships, such as Maltby’s 2006 survey, rely on self-report technique. This can often lack validity, whether this is due to accidental inaccuracies, due to a warped perception of the parasocial relationship by the participant, or genuine memory lapses, or to more deliberate actions.

For example the social desirability bias making the respondents under-report their abnormal behavior. There is often competition between fans of celebrities to see who is the ‘biggest’ fan, which may lead to an exaggeration of the behaviors and attitudes when reporting the relationship.

McCutcheon et al. (2006) used 299 participants to investigate the links between attachment types and attitudes towards celebrities. They found no direct relationship between the type of attachment and the likelihood that parasocial relationship will be formed.


About the Author

Will Goulder is an A-level psychology teacher from CATS College Canterbury.


References / Bibliography

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Anderson, C., Keltner, D., & John, O. P. (2003). Emotional convergence between people over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(5), 1054–1068. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.5.1054

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377. doi:10.1177/0146167297234003

Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(01), 1. doi:10.1017/s0140525x00023992

Clark, R. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2(1), 39–55. doi:10.1300/j056v02n01_04

Davis, J. L., & Rusbult, C. E. (2001). Attitude alignment in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 65–84. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.81.1.65

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Feingold, A. (1988). Matching for attractiveness in romantic partners and same-sex friends: A meta-analysis and theoretical critique. Psychological Bulletin, 104(2), 226–235. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.104.2.226

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Kerckhoff, A. C., & Davis, K. E. (1962). Value consensus and need Complementarity in mate selection. American Sociological Review,27(3), 295. doi:10.2307/2089791

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Little, A. C., & Jones, B. C. (2003). Evidence against perceptual bias views for symmetry preferences in human faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270(1526), 1759–1763. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2445

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Aggression Revision Notes


by Bruce Johnson published 2017


Exam Advice

You MUST revise everything - because the exam board could choose any question, however, it does make sense to spend more time on those topics which have not appeared for a while.

Exam Tip:

With these particular questions there is a sizeable risk that people don’t understand the difference between the questions, and then write about the wrong thing. Make sure you know which is which, for example do you understand the difference between “Genetic explanations” and “Neural and hormonal explanations”, and do you have a model essay for each?


Section 1: Neural and Hormonal causes of aggression.

AO1

• The Limbic System (including the Hypothalamus and Amygdala) tends to act as an alarm system triggering aggressive response to certain types of threats.

• Giving testosterone to new-born female mice made them act like males with increased aggression, when given testosterone as adults. However, control females only given testosterone as adults did not react in this way (Edwards ,1968).

This suggests that testosterone masculinises androgen-sensitive neural circuits underlying aggression in the brain.

AO3

Research in Greece found that removing the amygdala reduced aggressive incidents by between 33% and 100%, although the sample was small – 13 patients.

The Phineas Gage study provides evidence that brain damage may have an effect on personality including aggression.

AO1

• The PET-1 Gene is linked to the production of the hormone serotonin, which inhibits (i.e. stops) aggression. Damage to the gene, in mice, raises aggression. [sometimes referred to as “Knockout Mice] (Deneris, 2003).

• Drugs increasing serotonin production lead to reduced levels of aggression, suggesting that low levels of serotonin are linked to increased aggression (Delville et al., 1997).

• Rats selected for reduced aggression levels had higher serotonin and greater levels of serotonin related activity than wild, more aggressive counterparts (Popova et al., 1991).

• Research shows a relationship between low levels of serotonin and violent behaviors, suggesting that a lack of serotonin is linked to aggression (Linnoila & Virkunen, 1992).

• Lidberg et al. (1985) compared serotonin levels of violent criminals with non-violent controls, finding the lowest levels of serotonin among violent criminals.

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Most evidence linking low levels of serotonin and aggression is only correlational and does not indicate causality.

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• Giving the hormone testosterone to new-born female mice made them act like males with increased aggression, when given testosterone as adults.

However, control females only given testosterone as adults did not react in this way, suggesting that testosterone masculinises androgen-sensitive neural circuits underlying aggression in the brain (Edwards ,1968).

• Testosterone affects certain types of aggression in animals, such as intermale aggression as a defence response to intruders, while predatory aggression is not affected (Bermond et al., 1982).

• Van Goozen (1997) conducted a natural experiment on trans-gender sex-change patients. This is one of the few cases where research was actually carried out on humans.

Findings revealed testosterone levels governed aggression. Males receiving testosterone suppressants became less aggressive. Females receiving testosterone became more aggressive.

• Aggressive Boys, violent criminals, military offenders all had high levels of testosterone (Dabbs, 1996).

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Individuals with elevated testosterone levels exhibit signs of aggression, but rarely commit aggressive acts, suggesting that social and cognitive factors play a mediating role (Higley et al., 1996).

Dabbs and Morris (1990) 'Blocked pathways to success' study: When a rich boy with high testosterone came home from the army he was less likely to get into trouble, but when a poor boy with high testosterone came home he was more likely to get into trouble.

This suggests testosterone doesn’t simply cause aggression, but it makes aggression more likely as a response to frustration.

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• The fearlessness Theory: Stress, caused by the hormone cortisol may inhibit aggression through fear. So individuals with lower levels of cortisol are less inhibited, more inclined to take risks and act impulsively (Raine, 2002).

• Low cortisol leads to Sensation seeking behavior, especially in males (Zuckerman, 2010).

• Low levels of Cortisol in delinquent teenagers with conduct disorder (Fairchild, 2008)

General Criticisms of Neural and Hormonal Research

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Much of the evidence is only correlational and may not prove causation. It isn’t clear whether hormones promote aggression, or aggressive behavior stimulates homrone production.

Comparative – much of the work on hormones and neurotransmitters has been done on animals and may not apply to humans so easily.

Reductionist: Sees only biological factors, overlooking social issues such as de-individuation Heredity / Environment: Biological theories tend to overlook the effects of socialisation and other environmental issues, such as environmental stressors.

Deterministic: Assumes humans have no choice and will follow primitive behavior patterns.


Section 2: Genetical Origins of Aggression.

Genes alone do not control aggression, rather they affect the production of hormones and neurotransmitters which in turn affects aggression. So you will also draw upon your knowledge of biological factors, but you MUST show a link to genetics for each one.

Basic Evidence of Genetic Influences on Aggression

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• Animal studies show instinctive patterns of behavior including aggressive behavior. If a whole species has a similar level of aggression then it must have a genetic basis.

• Twin studies have shown that twins have similar levels of aggression.

Using old Danish police records Christiansen (1977) demonstrated that levels of criminality showed a stronger correlation between identical twins – with the same genes – than between dizygotic twins.

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However criminality is not always the same as aggression.

Genetical Research on Serotonin

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• PET-1 Gene is linked to serotonin production which inhibits aggression. Damage to the gene in so called “knockout mice” raises aggression. Mutations in humans can have the same effect (Deneris, 2003).

• Acts of impulsive aggression, such as domestic violence, have a genetic link to the serotonergic system, suggesting that many genes may be involved in aggression (New et al., 2003).

Genetical Research on MAOa - The Warrior Gene

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• MAOa is an enzyme which helps with the re-uptake of neurotransmitters including serotonin. Humans with the MAOa L gene (L is for Low) have a lack of MAOa enzyme. Without this enzyme to recycle it the level of serotonin may become depleted.

• When researchers found the MAOa-L gene present in 56% of New Zealand Maori men it was nicknamed “The Warrior Gene”. Poa {2006] criticised this term as unethical - i.e. racist.

It was later found that the gene is present in 58% of African American men and 36% of European men, so it is actually a mainstream genetic variation with adaptive advantages associated with risk taking.

• A Dutch family has long history of aggression, and a genetic inability to process serotonin due to lack of MAOA (Brunner, 1993)

• Caspi et al (2002): Interaction of MAOA problem AND abusive childhood led to aggression. If boys with the MAOa – L gene suffered abuse in childhood , they were 3 times more likely to be aggressive when they reached adulthood.

Genetical Research on Testosterone

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• Bogaert et al. (2008) established that variations in male testosterone levels are inherited – and therefore genetic.

• Giving testosterone to newborn female mice made them act like males with increased aggression, when later given testosterone as adults. Females only given testosterone as adults did not react in this way, suggesting that testosterone masculinises aggression systems in the brain at birth, it’s not just an environmental issue (Edwards, 1968).

• Rissman et al. (2006) investigated Sry, a gene leading to the development of testes and high androgen levels in males. Male and female mice with and without the gene were tested. The Sry gene was associated with high levels of aggression, suggesting that genes and hormones interact and that sex chromosome genes also have a role.

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• Rissman et al. (2006) investigated Sry, a gene leading to the development of testes and high androgen levels in males. Male and female mice with and without the gene were tested. The Sry gene was associated with high levels of aggression, suggesting that genes and hormones interact and that sex chromosome genes also have a role.

• The Super-Male hypothesis (Sandberg, 1961) suggested the XYY Gene led to aggression. Later research by Alice Theilgard [1984] did show that 16 men out of 30,000 sampled had the xyy gene and that these were slightly more aggressive and slightly less intelligent but this is such a rare mutation that it does not explain aggression in the general population.

General Criticisms of Genetic Research

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Comparative – much of the work on genes has been done on animals and may not apply to humans so easily. However, the experiments which have been done on mice relate to chemicals and genes which are very similar.

Reductionist: Danger of seeing only biological and overlooking social psychology issues such as de-individuation. Tends to overlook the effects of socialisation and other environmental issues, such as environmental stressors. Genetic factors do not work in isolation but interact with environmental factors as well.

Deterministic: Assumes that humans have no choice and will follow quite primitive behavior patterns.


Section 3: Ethological Explanations of Aggression.

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Ethology is where we learn about human psychology from studying other animals.

• Conrad Lorenz believed that aggression was an innate adaptive response – something which had evolved in humans and animals to help them survive.

    • To see off predators: For example a group of hissing geese can drive off a fox, even though the fox would probably win a straight fight. If the geese survive, then the gene which led to that aggressive response will be passed on.

    • To get resources: Lorenz also suggested that much aggression was aimed at members of the same species, when competing for territory or sexual partners, but some animals are so fierce they could easily damage each other when fighting for dominance; Eg. Wolves, Stags, Lions.

This would be maladaptive – bad for the species. Therefore they fight until one backs down, not to the death, just to establish who is stronger and who is weaker.

This creates a society in which each individual knows their place. They have evolved ways of warning others to back off: Dogs bark and snarl, cats hiss, apes beat their chest or wave sticks about.

Niko Tinbergen called these Fixed Action Patterns [FAP]

Fixed Action Patterns [FAP]

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Lea [1984] analysed FAPs and identified 5 features:

  1. Stereotyped – behavior follows a certain pattern each time.
  2. Universal all the animals in that species use the same type of threat.
  3. Innate: all the animals in that species seem to be born with it and don’t have to learn it.
  4. Ballistic: Once it starts it cannot simply be stopped.
  5. Specific triggers seem to set it off.

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Breland and Breland found that animals tend to revert to instinctive behavior regardless of training. This would support the FAP theory.

It could be argued that some behaviors are learned in the environment – but maybe not all. Dogs can been trained by hunters, army and police to act in particular ways.

Eibesfeldt (1972) tried to identify human FAPS such as smiling to show non-aggression, however he found that our culture changes so quickly that cultural differences in signs can change more quickly than evolutionary patterns. Rude words and hand signs can change, so not evolutionary. Humans are certainly capable of developing new ways of expressing aggression – such as cyber bullying!

Innate Releasing Mechanisms [IRM]

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• Creatures have evolved an instinctive response to certain signs. [Like a red rag to a bull!]

Eg. Male sticklebacks will respond aggressively to the red underbelly of a rival male – but not to a female who does not have the red underbelly.

The Hydraulic Model of instinctive behavior [Lorenz 1950]

It may be easier to understand and remember the hydraulic model if you compare it to a toilet ! The water level gradually fills up till you flush it - then it has to be filled up again.

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• Lorenz said that all creatures build up a reservoir of Action Specific Energy – you could call it “pent up aggression”. When the Innate releasing mechanisms [IRM] trigger the Fixed Action Pattern [FAP] all the aggression is fired off.

Once it is out of the system the animal is less aggressive again till the level of Action Specific Energy has built up again.

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This explanation was probably an example of Lorenz trying to adapt Freudian ideas to animals! Freud wrote about the build-up of sexual energy [Libido] and Lorenz applied a similar idea here.

This theory fails to explain premeditated aggression and bearing grudges.

Holst [1954] found that instead of getting it out of the system , aggressive action could feed back to make the person more angry and increasingly more aggressive.

Arms et al. [1979] found that watching violent sport did not flush aggression out of the system but tended to increase it. Bushman does not agree with idea of Catharsis – says that aggression may lead to more aggression.


Section 4: Evolutionary Explanations of Human Aggression.

The central idea of this topic is that for aggression to be an adaptive feature it has to serve a purpose.

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• David Buss has identified 7 adaptations of aggression in humans:

• Self Defence

• Reputation to ward off future aggression

• To achieve status – more allies less enemies

• Get and keep better share of resources. Pinker (1997) states aggression evolved in men to compete for women. This may have been the MAIN reason for aggression as there was no other property worth fighting over as we evolved.

• Deny own resources to children of rivals

• To prevent other males sharing the prime females

• Prevent partner being unfaithful. For example, sexual jealousy may have evolved to ensure that men pass on their own genes rather than allowing other males access to their mate.

This is aggression between different groups, such as warfare and gangs.

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Buss states human males have evolved cognitive bias towards organised aggression: E.g.

    • Cognitive bias to expect attack

    • Cultivating tough reputation

    • Use of vengeance as a deterrent

    • Strategies for planning and timing an attack

    • Deception and the ability to detect deception

Cosmides and Tooby, the Military Contract: Men will only fight if those who share the rewards also share the danger. Other animals are not bright enough to work this out.

This is aggresion within a single group, mainly linked to male rivalry and sexual jealousy.

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• Daly and Wilson: Male – Male aggression among young men is common in all human cultures – suggesting it is evolutionary.

• Pinker (1997) suggests aggression evolved in men to compete for women. This may have been the MAIN reason for aggression as there was no other property worth fighting over as we evolved. Through most of evolution there was no money, no real property, so women were the only target of aggression.

• Potts and Hayden (2008): War and aggression aimed to control women’s mating habits since development of farming made inheritance of land important. Jealousy has evolved as a male response to the threat of infidelity. Jealous males are determined to pass on their OWN genes.

• Daley and Wilson (1988): Men may use jealousy and violence to control partners sexual behavior Violence is not intended to kill but may have that result. E.g. Fertile young women 10 times risk of domestic violence.

General Criticisms of Evolutionary Research

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Ethics: Waller says : Violence , Xenophobia and even genocide are adaptive, but this is very deterministic and unethical.

Ethics and Gender: Critics feel this theory could be used to justify violence against women. Buss himself always points out that we are not controlled by our genes, we have inherited the ability to learn and to choose.

Reductionist: Is this an over-simplification? Are there other issues which promote aggression such as culture or Individual differences in testosterone and cortisol.

Heredity & Environment: Are environmental factors a greater cause of aggression?

    • Environmental stressors, heat, noise etc

    • Cortisol levels in pregnant mother

    • Childhood abuse and neglect

Deterministic: Evolutionary explanations may seem to suggest that aggression is natural but Figuerdo [1995] suggests jealousy and domestic violence are context specific not inherent, women are less likely to be victims of domestic violence if they have several brothers in town, so aggression can be controlled.


Section 5: Social-Psychological explanations of Aggression.

In the 1960s Social learning theory seen as a challenge to behaviorists Suggested children learn things even without doing them, through observational learning and modelling.

Exam Tip: If the question asks about Social learning Theory it is not enough only to write about the Bobo Doll experiment. That was only one experiment – not the whole theory.

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• behaviorists believe learning occurs through experience followed by either punishment or reward. “Social Learning Theory” challenges that approach.

• The central idea of social learning theory is that people do not need rewards to learn aggression, they may copy the behavior of others, but this is less likely of they see the other people being punished.

Bandura states children learn by imitation, and are more likely to copy depending on:

  • The actual behavior of the role model
  • The status of the person copied
  • The closeness / immediacy of the person
  • How well we understand what is happening

Bobo Doll experiments: Children copied adults

Contributory factors:

  • Similarity: boys will copy boys, family links and groups etc.
  • Presentation: How close, live, immediate the violence was
  • Warmth: If the model was more friendly towards the subject
  • Prestige: If the model had high status
  • Appropriateness: If the behavior was “appropriate.

Vicarious reinforcement: (i) Adult was rewarded children slightly more likely to copy; (ii) adult was punished children were much less likely to copy.

Disinhibition: People are more willing to do things if they see that others are already doing them.

Bandura’s conclusions: Aggression is not inevitable. Children observe aggressive behavior in others, but how they act may depend on what the consequences of aggression were, particularly for those they use as role models.

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Positive Criticisms of Bandura

Huge implications for society -provides a key to understanding causes of good and bad behavior. Based on clear research in lab and followed up by many studies into TV violence, video games etc.

Negative Criticisms of Bandura

Experiment was in a lab – may lack ecological validity.

Children may have known that the Bobo Doll was designed for punching and therefore more open to suggestion, also they may have been aware of the experiment from other children in the group.

These are both examples of demand characteristics.

Media Implications

Viewing violence may cause children to develop cognitive scripts which involve violence in dealing with situations.

A danger that media violence makes children more desensitised, more hardened to acts of violence in real life.

Social Theory: De-Individuation

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• The central idea of this theory is that humans have a natural tendency to be aggressive if they think they can get away with it. Being disguised, or part of a crowd, will therefore lead to increased aggression.

• Festinger (1952) invented the term “Deindividuation”, defined by Fraser and Burchell (2001) “A process whereby normal constraints on behavior are weakened as persons lose their sense of individuality.”

Contagion Theory: Starting point for deindividuation

  • Le Bon 1896: People in groups become infected with a kind of group hysteria and act in ways they would not do on their own.
  • Blumer 1939: Circular reaction where the people add to the crowd and the crowd fires up the people.

• Zimbardo (1969): An electric shock experiment, similar to the classic Milgram study, found that disguised students were more likely to shock others – supports deindividuation.

• Deiner Et Al (1976) Studied 1300 American children “trick or treating” on Halloween. Children in disguised or in a large group behaved worse. Supports deindividuation theory.

• Mullen (1986) studied lynch mobs. The greater the number of people tended to correlate with the level of violence.

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Gergen 1973: Deindividuated persons in dark areas became more affectionate. Therefore de-individuation need not always lead to aggression

Postmes & Spears (1988): Deindividuated people are not necessarily aggressive - Crowds may be happy and good natured – as at pop festivals

Tajfel (1981): Reduced private self awareness. Taking on the values of groups we belong to – which may be peaceful or aggressive

Johnson and Downing: some people in Nurses uniforms and some in Ku Klux Klan outfits.

De-individuation led to better, more caring behavior by the nurses which suggests de-individuated people get into the role more and the role may not be aggressive.

Zimbardo: Stanford Prison experiment saw students adopting to perceived roles.

Emergent Norm Theory & convergence theory

These ideas can be used as criticisms of de-individuation. They suggest that groups or sub-cultures come together because they have some sort of similarity, (convergence) then establish their own norms (emergent norms). Often one person, or a few people will behave in a certain way which others like - so they copy. This argues against de-individuation and the faceless crowd, it does not imply aggression will result. A very good example would be the hippy culture of the 1960’s

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

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• Aggression is a result of frustration. Frustration is any event or stimulus that prevents an individual from attaining a goal and it’s accompanying reinforcement quality (Dollard & Miller, 1939).

• Displaced Aggression [Dollard 1939] You cant kick the boss, so you kick the cat. Like Lornez, Dollard thought that getting aggressive cleared the mind of frustrations [a Catharsis] and life could then go on as normal.

• Berkowitz (1989 ) updated version known as “Negative – affect theory”. Frustration is just one factor, others may include feeling uncomfortable [eg. Heat, Reifmann [1991]] - but could also be noise or loud music Certain cues may increase the tendency towards aggression such as seeing a weapon on the table – Berkowitz used a baseball bat in experiments. Also if the problem is unexpected the individual is less likely to control their aggression.

• So, the level of aggression will depend on:

  • how much you really want to achieve the goal
  • Whether you understand that there is a good reason for the problem
  • How expected / unexpected the frustration was

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Bandura (1973) Frustration may lead to aggression if that has worked for someone in the past and they have internalised that way of dealing with problems.

Harris (1974) Found that people at the front of a cue were less aggressive if someone pushed in, whereas people at the back of a long cue were feeling a greater sense of frustration and therefore mad a bigger fuss.

Wright and Klee (1999): Societies will be more stable and peaceful if they have systems which allow clever or hardworking people to rise to the top. Otherwise a strong but angry working class will develop, filled with people who resent being “kept down”.

Brown (2001) - holidaymakers became more aggressive when frustrated by delays.

Priks (2010) has tried to explain football violence this way. Supporters seem much more likely to misbehave when their team is losing.

Mallick and McCandles found that people were much less aggressive when given a reason for the frustration. Doob and Sears [1939]: people felt angry when a bus went by without stopping. But people were less angry if the bus had a sign saying out of service [Pastore 1952]

The danger is that it justifies deviant behavior: Plenty of people suffer injustice or unfairness and do not turn to violence. Therefore there must be some additional factor, such as a biological dimension, to explain why some people turn to violence or aggression when faced with problems and others don’t.


Section 6: Institutional Theories of Aggression.

The situational approach: prisons make people aggressive – it’s the situation to blame.

The dispositional approach: prisoners are aggressive people who make the prison violent.

The Situational Approach: Sykes’ (1958) Deprivation Model

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• Some institutions have harsh living conditions, such as prisons, army camps, refugee camp This is less of a problem if the deprivation is for a good reason; if you were on a “round the world yacht race” or a mountaineering trip you have positive attitudes to keep you going.

• Some institutions, deprive people of things they want:

  • liberty,
  • autonomy,
  • goods and services,
  • sexual relationships,
  • security

• This deprivation causes stress and frustration which leads to an aggressive sub-culture. But this only applies to places with harsh conditions: E.g. in prison, army, refugee camp etc. Less likely to be a problem if the deprivation is for a good reason; Eg. fitness & diet camp.

Effects

  • The general environment becomes dangerous and aggressive.
  • Some people retreat, back down, hide in their cells.
  • Others compete in order to get what they want.
  • Getting a tough reputation is very important in order to get respect and not be a victim.

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Support for Situational Model

McCorkle (1995) In a study of 317 United States prisons, poor facilities and overcrowding were found to influence levels of violence.

Franklin (2006): Age and overcrowding led to aggression, with younger inmates (18-30) being most aggressive in conditions of overcrowding. Her Majesty’s Prison Woodhill: Major improvements at this prison included less noise, better ventilation, attractive views and especially less crowding. This led to a massive improvement in behavior in the 1990s.

Criticism

Harer and Steffensmeir (1996) found that age, race and criminal background were the only variables which affected levels of aggression. This strongly argues for the importational model, not the deprivation model.

The Situational Approach: Dysfunctional Institutionsl

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Another situational argument is that the prisons themselves are dysfunctional. Milgram believed that people are loyal to the hierarchy of the organisation, but sometime the hierarchy encourages cruel behavior.

Much of Milgram’s thinking was influenced by events of the holocaust in Germany. Here the institutional aggression was on the part of the guards, rather than the prisoners.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Zimbardo found that ordinary students became aggressive and cruel when they took on the role of being a prison guard. At the time of the Zimbardo experiment there were many prisons in the united states where conditions were extremely poor, violent and overcrowded. Some even used the prisoners as slave labour on prison farms. Zimbardo’s experiment strongly supports the situational approach.

Historical Context

At the time of the Zimbardo experiment there were many prisons in the united states where conditions were extremely poor, violent and overcrowded. Some even used the prisoners as slave labour on prison farms. Zimbardo’s experiment strongly supports the situational approach.

Features of dysfunctional Power Systems (Zimbardo)

  • Isolated from the outside world
  • Own set of values
  • Cohesive group; guards don’t question orders
  • Under pressure to act quickly
  • Difficult situation to manage
  • Out-group seen as troublemakers

Dispositional Explanation: The Importation Model

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• A prison is a violent place because aggressive people are in there. Their aggressive attitudes become part of its nature. It’s a dispositional approach because everything depends on the attitudes of the prisoners. This may also apply to other groups and institutions; The army / Extreme political groups / Street gangs.

Irwin and Cressy 1962: People who are sent to prison already have well established criminal behavior patterns. Prisoners were often gang members before going to prison and their loyalties and relationships are continued in the prison environment.

They also have certain learned patterns of behavior – “The code of the Streets”. They may also have problems which cause problems with relationships. E.g, Lack of self-control - Delisi (2011); Impulsive, anti-social - Wang & Diamond (2003).

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Support for Irwin and Cressy / importation model

Men who were members of gangs before they went to prison are more likely to be involved in violent offences whilst in prison. Drury and Delisi (2011)

Mears (2013) believed that the code of the street is imported into prison and is the fundamental cause of aggression.

Poole and Regoli 1983: Violence before prison was the best indicator of violence inside prison. This supports the importation model.

Fischer (2001) Segregating gang members inside prison, so that they did not come into conflicts with other gangs, led to a 50% reduction in assaults.

Criticism of Importation Model

Delisi (2004) found that gang members were NOT more violent than other prisoners. However, this is a rather weak piece of research as it does not allow for the fact that those gang members had already been segregated away from other gang members. The importation model does not really explain why some organisations act aggressively when they are made up of good people supposed to act sensibly. Police officers, school teachers, traffic wardens, psychiatric nurses, and salesmen are all members of organisations which have sometimes been accused of acting in an aggressive way and yet these are very law abiding people who joined those organisations willingly and for good reasons.


Exam Tip

In January 2012 there was a short question (4 marks) which just said; Describe one experiment which investigated Institutional Aggression. A short summary of Zimbardo was all that was needed.


Section 7: Media influences on aggression.

Exam Tip: Many criticisms can be made of the methodologies used in studying the link between Media and Aggression. Click here for AO3 suggestions on this unit.

In recent years computer games have replaced film as the target of claims that children are taking on immoral attitudes and copying violence. Especially those involving violence, especially first person “shoot-em-ups” “Grand Theft Auto” is a very good example.

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• Five psychological theories could be mentioned to support the view that repeated exposure to video game violence may lead to real life aggression:

• 1. Learning theory [Skinner]

Everything you have ever learned about Operant Conditioning can be beautifully applied to this argument. The computer game is the world’s most effective “Skinner Box”.

The human is conditioned to think in patterns which have been pre-programmed into the machine. Basic ideas are taught in the basic levels and behavior is constantly shaped to conform to the rules of the game. Every act, every single click on the mouse, is instantly rewarded, by the computer’s response. Mistakes are instantly punished.

• 2. Learning theory [Bandura]

Attention  retention  production  motivation

Individuals model the aggressive acts in the game. Some characters, and some types of behavior, are more likely to be copied because they are seen as attractive and appropriate etc. There is no sense of real punishment for making mistakes – just game over and start again. This creates disinhibition, individuals unconsciously feel that if they commit aggression they will not be punished.

• 3. Social Cognitive Observational Learning Theory [an updated version of Bandura]

Psychologists have identified certain mechanisms which explain why we learn and copy behavior:

  • Schemas: Models which help us understand the world [Grebner 1994]
  • Normative beliefs: social rules and explanations [Guerra Et. Al.]
  • Cognitive Priming: What connects to what in the brain [Berkowitz, Huesmann]
  • Cognitive Scripts: A pattern of behavior we have ready to deal with certain situations

So the films don’t suddenly turn a person violent, but they might slowly cause the development of anti-social attitudes. This could be more effective in certain types of people [not very intelligent, have no positive role model, feel hard done by in life].

• 4. The General Aggression Model [Anderson and Dill]

This model brings together elements of Social learning and Cognitive Priming Theory and suggests that if we live in a violent environment – such as a war zone, we will adapt to it, our thoughts, feelings and actions will be based around violence and that is how we will survive. But could over-exposure to gaming have the same effects?

Evidence for General Aggression Model: Meta-Analysis Findings: Anderson et al. [2004] 35 studies examined Found that video game violence exposure is related to: increases in aggressive affect, cognition and behavior increases in physiological arousal; decreases in helping behavior.

• 5. Neurological Effects

Ritterfield and Mathiak [2006] -- Participants were subjected to a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan whilst playing a violent video game. It appeared to suggest that emotional areas of the cortex are to some extent “switched off” during the game, perhaps an adaptive mechanism which permits an animal to focus on survival. This is the same as happens when engaged in real acts of violence.

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• Cognitive priming is based on the idea that memory works through association. It therefore contends that events and media images can stimulate related thoughts in the minds of audience members. For example, if we have often seen clowns throwing custard pies at one another, then when we encounter a custard pie in real life we may think about throwing it at someone.

• A schema is a model of what we think normally happens. We assume that our parents will feed us and our friends will be pleased to see us because that is what normally happens.

• A cognitive script is a way of dealing with a situation. We have learned that in a hotel restaurant we sit down and wait to be served, but in a burger bar we line up at the counter.

• Berkowitz thinks watching violent movies could lead to storing schemas and cognitive scripts which involve aggression EG. the students in the Stanford Prison experiment had never been in a real prison but they may have had a schema based on movies they had seen. EG. Students who play “Grand Theft Auto” might develop a cognitive script for what to do when traffic lights turn amber. This may be different from the way their Grandma drives!

• Priming means that a particular event, or an image or even a word may be associated with these thoughts. We call that a trigger. When we encounter the trigger we may respond in the way we have been primed. EG. a football comes bouncing towards me - without thinking I put out my foot to stop it or kick it back, but if it’s a cricket ball I would pick it up and throw it back. I am primed to respond differently to the cricket ball. So Berkowitz argues that we learn anti-social attitudes from the media and these are associated with certain triggers.

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Steve Berkowitz [1984] did an experiment involving an argument in an office. In condition A there was a baseball bat on the side of the desk. In condition B there was a badminton racquet. Berkowitz found the presence of the baseball bat led to more aggressive responses.

Bushman [1998] Participants who had watched a violent film responded more quickly to aggressive words than those who had watched a non-violent film.

Anderson and Dill [2000] Found that playing a violent computer game led to more aggressive thoughts. They claimed that even playing the game just once could be having this effect, although the effect might only be short term.

Zelli [1995] found that cognitive priming could be used to make people suspicious of the intentions of others. This in turn led the people who had been primed to act in a more aggressive manner.

Murray [2007] – used fMRI scans to study children’s brains when watching violent and non-violent TV programmes. Violent films led to increased activity in those areas which deal with emotion, arousal and attention – not surprising – but also in the areas used to store episodic memory. This supports the suggestion that children can store scripts.

Atkin [2003] found that priming was more pronounced when the media was more realistic. However this may not simply mean it “looked better” it might relate to how much the participant believed it was realistic.

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• Media violence triggers biological [physiological] changes, specifically a general arousal, similar to how people respond to a real life threat [flight or fight]. If the level of fear is too much we may feel.

• In the natural world a certain level of natural fear should make people hold back from violent situations. The desensitisation argument suggests that if children watch too much violence on TV they will be less scared and therefore more open to aggressive activity.

• People become less likely to notice violence, or in real life. They have less sympathy for victims of violence. They have less negative attitudes towards violence. [Mullin and Linz 1995]

Measuring desensitisation

• Desensitisation can be monitored by physical indicators of stress, such as heart beat and galvanic skin response. [Linz 1989]

• Carnagey [2007] found that experienced computer gamers show less of a reaction to a film of real life violence.

Effects of Desensitisation

• Bushman and Anderson [2009] found that desensitisation made people less likely to help others in unpleasant situations.

• Dolf Zillman suggested that if we survive real life danger we feel good afterwards [winners] During an action movie we feel excited and stimulated. Later we want that excitement again but we become de-sensitised so we need more scary films to get us excited. This could transfer to seeking violence in real life.

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• Normally we act in certain ways because we have been socialised to know what is right and wrong. We get aroused and excited by a film or a game and this causes us to lose our inhibitions, acting in a more extreme manner till the excitement dies down.

• Long term Disinhibition: Too much violent TV can change our actual moral values so that we see more violent standards of behavior as acceptable. One aspect of this is that we often see acts of violence going unpunished in movies or games and this could lead to disinhibition.

Individual factors [Collins 1989] make disinhibition more or less likely:

  • Violent home background
  • Physical punishment of children
  • Younger viewers
  • Children with low intelligence
  • Children who believe their heroes are realistic
  • Children who believe the media reflects real life

• Disinhibition less likely if Strong family norms against violence or where adults discuss issues from the film with their children.


About the Author

Bruce Johnson is an A-level psychology teacher, and head of sixth form at Caterham High School


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