Frustration-Aggression Theory – Explaining the source of Aggressive Behavior


Why do people commit murders? Criminal psychologists have for decades sought to understand why some individuals commit serious crimes even in the presence of tough criminal justice penalties. In particular, it is intriguing why some people commit aggression-related crimes like murder despite the fact that the crime of murder often attracts penalties ranging from life imprisonment to death sentencing. The primary debate in psychology is whether aggressive behaviors among individuals result from nature (hereditary and genetics) or nurture (environmental influences including social norms) (Bowlby & Horley, 2011). Thus, aggression has been probed from psychological, sociological, and biological perspectives. This research paper examines the existing knowledge on the use of sociological theories, particularly the theory of aggression, to explain the causes of aggressive behaviors among individuals.

Social Learning theory

Primarily, the Theory of Aggression also called the Frustration-Aggression theory is one of the theoretical frameworks under the umbrella of social learning theory (Fortman, 2005). Social learning theory asserts that individual behaviors are reflections of norms in the society; thus, aggressive behaviors are a reflection of normalized aggressiveness in an individual’s immediate social surroundings (Sell, 2011). Social learning theory postulates that behaviors are learned through observation and imitation. Children observe keenly what their parents and older siblings do and strive to imitate their elder’s actions. Social learning theory maintains that aggressive behavior is learned through active observation and the ability to reproduce aggression through active imitation.  

The distinct processes of observation and imitation in social learning theory are mediated by behavioral modeling. Behavioral modeling progresses through four stages including attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation (Munyo & Rossi, 2013). During the stage of attention, individuals pay specific attention to behavioral responses based on the prevalence of those responses and the perceived functional value of the behavioral responses. The phase of retention entails encoding the observed behavioral responses through mental imagery, motor rehearsals, and symbolic rehearsals (Ferns, 2007). Thus, a child who observes domestic violence at home would often hit his peers in school as a process of motor rehearsing the violent behavioral responses.  

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The third and fourth stages of reproduction and motivation are characterized by the actualization of the observed behavior and the identification of motivational factors that catalyze the expression of specific behavioral habits. Reproduction of observed behaviors involves developing the physical and cognitive capacity to express specific behaviors (Bowlby & Horley, 2011). For example, reproducing aggressive behaviors like physical assault involve building adequate muscular strength or physical dexterity to deliver kicks and blows to targeted victims. On the other hand, identifying motivation involves mental imagination of incentives attached to specific behavioral responses. Aggressive individuals imagine that physical assault on their victims would produce fear and submission; thus, the imagined incentives of fear and submission motivate the expression of aggressive behaviors (Rami, Roziner & Schwartz, 2017). In this context of motivation, social learning theory posits that the feelings of frustrations and their imagined outcomes incentivize individuals to express aggressive behaviors.     

Frustration-Aggression Theory

Frustration-Aggression Theory was developed by Dollard et al. in 1939. The original postulation of Dollard et al. (1939) regarding the theory of Frustration-Aggressions says, “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.” In this context, Dollard et al. (1939) emphasized that aggressive behavior is not instinctual among individuals; hence, aggression is not inherent to genetics. Rather, aggression was initiated by individuals’ perceptions towards frustrating stimuli in the external environment. Thus, aggressive behaviors are reactive responses to perceived external stimuli.

Frustration-Aggression theory asserts that frustration results from the blocking of an on-going goal. Examples of on-going goals among individuals include the desire to acquire money or other material possession through robbery. The blocking of an on-going goal in a robbery situation may involve the refusal of the robbery victim to surrender material possession to the robber; hence, inconveniencing the robber in his or her goal to gain material possession. The blocking of an on-going goal causes the build-up of aggressive energy within an individual. Subsequently, the release of aggressive energy manifest as aggressive behaviors. Thus, a robber shoots and kills a victim because of the built-up aggressive energy attributable to the frustration of the robber while trying to acquire material possession from the victim.

In applied settings, the degree and frequency of aggression differ from one person to another. Frustration-Aggression theory postulates that the magnitude of aggressive behaviors and its deleterious implications depend on three factors include the degree of frustration, the aggressor’s preconceived reasons to expect frustration, and the closeness to the goal when frustration ensues (Sell, 2011). In an experiment on the effect of degree of frustration on the magnitude of aggressive behaviors, Barker et al. (1941) determined that children who were kept in a room full of toys for one hour before being allowed to play with the toys were more frustrated that children whose goal to play with the toys were delayed for 10 minutes. The children whose desires to play with the toys were delayed for one hour expressed a greater degree of aggression as evidenced by the eventual destruction of the toys compared to those whose desires were delayed for a shorter time. Therefore, prolonging the hindrance to achieving a goal leads to build-up of more aggressive energy; hence, leading to more aggressive responses. 

Regarding the aggressor’s expectations of frustration, Brown & Kulick (1979) conducted an experiment to determine the effects of high expectations and low expectations on the degree of frustrations. In the donations-related telephoning experiment, Brown & Kulick (1979) determined that individuals who were conditioned to harbor high expectations of receiving donations but eventually failed to receive donations exhibited more aggressive behaviors as evidenced by the harder slamming of phones compared to individuals who were conditioned to harbor low expectations of success. Therefore, unforeseen blocking of goals leads to more frustrations and severer aggression compared to a situation where an individual anticipates hindrance to achievement of specific goals. 

Regarding the closeness to a goal, Harris (1974) determined that in supermarket check-in queues, customers were more frustrated if the supermarket closes its doors when a customer was in front of the queue compared to if a customer was placed at the back of the queue. Therefore, the severity of frustration and resultant aggression depended on the perceived closeness to a goal when a frustration materializes (Munyo & Rossi, 2013). Thus, asking a child to go to sleep when the child is about to eat ice cream placed on the table causes more frustration compared to asking the same child to go to bed when the ice cream is beyond their immediate sight. Notably, Dollard et al (1939) reiterated that frustrations do not always lead to aggressive behavioral responses because each individual has varying abilities to tolerate frustration. Thus, provocative stimuli do not necessarily trigger same aggressive responses from all individuals.       

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Current Research Studies on the Frustration-Aggression Theory

Since 1939 when Dollard and co-workers proposed the Frustration-Aggression Theory, several researchers have embarked on determining the real-life applicability of the theory in accounting for aggressive behaviors in daily life. One study centered on the Frustration-Aggression theory is captured in a research article by Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach (2016) titled, “Aggressive behavior in road traffic – findings from Austria.” The study by Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach (2016) sampled 33 drivers aged between 18 years and 75 years on Austrian roads to determine the relationship between the drivers’ perceived frustration-inducing experiences and their consequent aggressive behaviors. The drivers were administered questionnaires containing statements related to the variables of frustration and aggression in road traffic. 

Regarding the study’s variables, sources of frustrations to the sampled drivers in Austrian roads were unappealing driving behaviors from other motorists including rough braking without reasonable cause, refusing to let other drivers move from one lane to another, driving too cautiously and or too slow, failure to switch from full beam to dim light for oncoming traffic, and delayed start at the moment of green light (Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach, 2016). Also, perceived sources of frustrations among the Austrian drivers involved the roads’ built environment including inconsistent traffic lights and unclear road signs and lane guides. On the other hand, aggressive behaviors among the drivers in Austrian roads manifested as the use of derogatory hand gestures towards other road users, over speeding, overlapping in heavy traffic, and aggressive overtaking. 

Findings from the study determined that drivers who reported experiencing more frustrating behaviors from other motorists had been involved in more accidents, with or without physical injury, compared to motorists who had perceived fewer instances of frustrations from other road users. For example, 45% of the respondents expressed that they got into accidents because they were overtaking a slow and extremely cautious driver (Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach, 2016). On the other hand, 30.7% of the respondents cited that they had hit a vehicle in front of them because the vehicle’s driver failed to drive off immediately at the green light. Moreover, 54.2% of the respondents agreed that they had used derogatory hand signs towards drivers who failed to dim their high beams at night to avoid inconveniencing oncoming traffic (Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach, 2016). 

Overall, the road aggression study by Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach (2016) revealed a positive correlation between road frustrations and aggressive driving habits. Primarily, aggressive driving responses among the sampled drivers resulted from the lack of cooperation from other road users. For example, delayed driving off at green light blocked the driver behind from rushing off to a designated destination. Thus, the delaying of other drivers from proceeding with their journeys caused frustration; hence, leading to aggressive driving responses including aggressive overtaking and over-speeding. Therefore, most aggressive behaviors were caused by road frustrations; hence, lending credibility to the Frustration-Aggression Theory.  

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Notably, the magnitude of driving aggression in Austrian roads depended on the duration of delay experienced by the drivers. For example, failure to dim high beams at night was closely correlated to aggressive cursing and gesticulating from other drivers. On the other hand, a convoy driving too slowly was closely associated with aggressive overtaking that led to fatal accidents (Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach, 2016). In this context, failure to dim the high beams at night did not slow down oncoming drivers; hence, the high beams only caused mild frustrations in form of cursing and offensive gesticulating. Contrarily, driving too slow delayed other drivers from reaching their desired destinations; hence, slow drivers caused excessive frustrations manifesting as aggressive overtaking. 

In this context, Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach (2016) revealed that the level of aggression among the Austrian drivers depended on the magnitude of frustrations attributable to the driving habits of other motorists. Thus, Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach (2016) substantiated that severity of aggression is mediated by the degree of frustrations as postulated by the Frustration-Aggression theory. Also, Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach (2016) demonstrated that frustrations were based on personal expectations of individual drivers; thus, only 45% of the respondents engaged in aggressive overtaking whenever they encountered slow traffic. 

Another study by Azimi, Kashani & Vaziri (2012) researched on the relationship between maternal parenting styles and the aggressive behavioral outcomes among children. Azimi, Kashani & Vaziri (2012) sampled 380 adolescent high-school students together with their parents or their primary caregivers. Aggression tendencies of the sampled participants were correlated with three parenting styles including authoritative parenting, authoritarian parenting, and indulgent parenting. Findings from the study revealed that authoritarian parenting style was closely related with high aggressive behaviors among the adolescents while high-school students who experienced authoritative and indulgent parenting styles showed low aggressive behaviors. 

In their study Azimi, Kashani & Vaziri (2012) determined that the authoritarian style of parenting promoted an atmosphere of dictatorial and coercive achievement of goals. For example, mothers using the authoritarian style were more likely to spank their children or verbally curse their children as a form of punishment. Subsequently, children observed and internalized the use of physical force and coercive verbosity as acceptable strategies to achieve their goals (Ferns, 2007). Consequently, children from authoritarian parents were highly likely to express verbal and physical hostility whenever they encounter frustrating situations that block them from achieving their goals. 

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On the other hand, Azimi, Kashani & Vaziri (2012) acknowledged that mothers using the authoritative and indulgent parenting styles were objective and reasonable in correcting their children. Authoritative and indulgent styles are centered on constructive dialogue between the parent and the child; hence, children from authoritative and indulgent parenting backgrounds observe that goals are achieved through reasonable dialogue. Contrarily, the authoritarian parenting style is punitive, restrictive, and centered on physical violence towards children (Azimi, Kashani & Vaziri, 2012). Therefore, the parental pressure in authoritarian parenting teaches children to forcefully break down any obstacle they encounter in their lives.

From a critical perspective, Azimi, Kashani & Vaziri (2012) demonstrated that tolerance to frustration and aggressive behavioral habits are products of social observations. Children observe maternal aggression and the submissive consequences of aggression as sufficient motivating factors to express aggressive behavioral habits. Therefore, the maternal choice of punitive and hostile parenting over dialogue means that an authoritarian-raised child will build low frustration tolerance levels (Munyo & Rossi, 2013). Subsequently, the low frustration tolerance levels explain why of adolescents from authoritarian parents engage in higher cases of physical assault, anger, and resistance to authority. Thus, Azimi, Kashani & Vaziri (2012) used to study to substantiate that frustration was the primary source of aggressive behavior.

In conclusion, social Learning theory posits that tolerance to frustration is learned through observation, imitation and modeling. Further, Frustration-Aggression theory proposes that frustration results from external stimuli that interrupt individuals from attaining their goals. The research by Furian, Kaiser & Schlembach (2016) ascertained that frustrating habits of other road users caused aggressive driving behaviors. Also, the research by Azimi, Kashani & Vaziri (2012)demonstrated that authoritarian parenting style built low frustration tolerance levels among children; hence, the positive correlation between authoritarian parenting and aggressive behaviors among adolescents. Overall, Frustration-Aggression theory appears to be a credible framework for understanding the source of aggressive behaviors in today’s societies.      

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  1. Azimi, L., Kashani, L & Vaziri, S. (2012). Relationship between maternal parenting style and child’s aggressive behaviour. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 69(2), 1276-1281
  2. Bowlby, D & Horley, J. (2011). Theory, research and intervention with arsonists. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16(3), 241-249
  3. Ferns, T. (2007). Considering theories of aggression in an emergency department context. Journal of Accident and Emergency Nursing, 15(4), 193-200
  4. Fortman, G. (2005). Violence among people in the light of human frustration and aggression. European Journal of Pharmacology, 526(3), 2-8
  5. Furian, G., Kaiser, S & Schlembach, C. (2016). Aggressive behavior in road traffic – findings from Austria. Transportation Research Procedia, 14, 4384-4392
  6. Munyo, I & Rossi, M. (2013). Frustration, euphoria and violent crime. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 89(4), 136-142
  7. Rami, B., Roziner, I & Schwartz, S. (2017). Change trajectories of aggressive behavior among children in long-term residential care. Child Abuse & Neglect, 65, 158-170
  8. Sell, A. (2011). The re-calibration theory and violent anger. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16(5), 381-389
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