Aggression is a problem that affects all members of society. There is no doubt that aggression pays off for some people. Parents who yell and threaten punishment get results. The child who hits the hardest gets the toy. The brother who is willing to be the most vicious in a fight wins. The teacher who gives the hardest test and threatens to flunk the most students usually gets the most study time from students. The spouse who threatens to get the maddest gets their way. The male who acts the most macho and aggressive gets the praise of certain groups of males. For decades psychologists have attempted to find the causes of aggression. The focus of this paper will to better understand the difference between behavioral and biological theories of aggression in hopes of gaining some knowledge on dealing with it in a positive manner.
Biological theorists suggest that aggression is caused by some genetic or biological factor. Maxon (1998) a leading theorist, proposed a theory that one’s genes affect one or more types of aggression in mice, which may be applied to humans as a genetic explanation of aggression. Many researchers believe that aggression is caused by some genetic or biological factor, and thus believe that cases involving aggression should be treated chemically. These views of genetic or material essentialism claim that not only are physical characteristics of an individual determined by genetic information, but one’s social roles, behaviors, and relationships also have a biological-genetic base (Kegley, 1996). Growing evidence points to the conclusion that biological factors do predispose some individuals toward aggression. Through much research, it was found that people who suffer from reduced levels of serration are more likely to suffer from reduced abilities to control their aggressive impulses. These findings lend support to the view that biological factors do indeed play an important role in at least some forms of aggression.
Behavioral theorists believe that being a victim of abuse at the hands of parents and peers, or by being immersed in a culture that glorifies violence and revenge causes aggression. The dawning realization of the constant back-and-forth between nature and nurture has resurrected the search for the biological roots of violence (Harris, 1998). Childhood experiences appear to be especially powerful, because a child’s brain is more malleable than that of an adult. A young brain is extra vulnerable to hurt in the first years of life. A child who suffers repeated abuse; neglect, as well as terror, experiences physical changes in his brain. The result is a child who shows impulsive aggression, a child who hits others when made fun of or put down. Other children can become unresponsive when exposed to violence. These children can many times become antisocial. One example of such a child is Kip Kinkel, who murdered both of his parents and injured some school classmates.
In contrast, behaviorist theorists suggest that most behaviors originate through learning processes. Watson thought that people’s behavior, whether good or bad could be explained by learning experiences (Nelson, Israel, 1997). In addition to a strong emphasis on learning and environment, Watson was committed to testing ideas by the experimental method (Nelson & Israel, 1997). The Law of Effect contributed by E.L. Thorndike, states that behavior is shaped by its consequences. If the consequence is satisfying, the behavior will be strengthened in the future; if it is uncomfortable, the behavior will be weakened. B. F. Skinner, another well-respected leading theorist, later substantiated Thorndike’s claims.
During the early years of a child’s life, parents control the child’s experiences of frustration and gratification therefore determining whether the child is reinforced for aggressive or non-aggressive behavior. Parents serve as models for their child to imitate. The parent who uses physical aggression in punishing his child is serving as an aggressive model. The child, through imitation, may be acquiring aggressive response patterns. If children see fighting and violent behavior, they learn that violence is an acceptable and “normal behavior” (Osifsky, 2001). It is not surprising then, that it has been found that the severity of parental punishment for aggression is associated with the child’s own display of aggression.
Children many times pick up their aggressive behavior in school, on the playground, from friends, and especially from television, movies and books. It has been demonstrated that we can learn to be aggressive by merely viewing a short film that shows aggressiveness as an acceptable response. Such shows for children include Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Batman just to name a few. One can just see aggression and then imitate it. Behavioral theorists emphasize the behavior is a result of a process of learning from observing. By the time we are just five years of age we have either learned to be kind and caring or aggressive. The most common factor that leads to an aggressive child is having a parent who uses aggression to control their child. The best way to predict if a child will be an aggressor is to observe his early behavior.
Biological theories of aggression have strong points as well as weak points. Causation is not well established in biological theories. If it is found that one gene exists in aggressive individuals and not in non-aggressive individuals: it is not determined if the genetic information causes aggression or if aggression causes a change in genetic information. Biological theories are strong in that the choice of treatment is obvious and it has been shown to be effective. These theories also put the responsibility within the individual. The bottom line of biological theorists is that a person’s environment does not solely affect his aggressiveness. A weakness of behaviorist theory is that it seems unrealistic to think that all cases of aggression are learned from the environment in which a person is raised. Both biological theories and behavioral theories have some weaknesses due to the fact that they do not have immense amounts of research to support them.
In closing, there is still an immense amount of work to be done in explaining the development of aggression and its true causes. There will always be one side that says there is a certain factor that causes aggression, while the opposing side will give a completely different cause. Many people believe that humans are violent because we are naturally and unavoidably aggressive. This widely held theory provides us with harmful expectations, self-fulfilling prophesies, and with excuses for being aggressive. I believe aggression is both biological and behavioral. Neither theory, by itself, can account for the rise in violent crimes among youth. However, together, the theories provide great structure for treatment. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what causes what; what matters is that aggressive behavior can be controlled.
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