Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

For a good many students of human behavior, the main reason why people become aggressive is that they have been frustrated. William McDougall, one of the first psychological theorists to be explicitly labeled a social psychologist, espoused this idea at the beginning of the 20th century. He maintained that an instinct to engage in combat is activated by any obstruction to the person’s smooth progress toward his or her goal. Sigmund Freud had a similar view in his early writings. Before he developed the notion of a death instinct, he proposed that aggression was the primordial reaction when the individual’s attempt to obtain pleasure or avoid pain was blocked. This general conception, widely known as the frustration-aggression hypothesis, was spelled out much more precisely in 1939 by John Dollard, Leonard Doob, Neal Miller, and several other psychologists, all at Yale University. This particular analysis will focus on highlighting many of the theoretical issues involved in determining the role of frustrations in the generation of violence.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis and Its Modifications

Frustration-Aggression HypothesisThe Yale group took care to define frustration clearly, not as an emotional reaction but as a condition interfering with the attainment of an anticipated goal. Aggression, in turn, was regarded as a behavioral sequence whose goal was the injury of the person to whom it was directed. The team then went on to contend not only that every frustration produces an urge to aggression but also that every aggressive act presupposes the existence of frustration. Few psychologists today accept both parts of this broad-ranging formulation. Moderating the first proposition in the Yale group’s sweeping analysis, in 1948 Neal Miller acknowledged that people prevented from reaching an expected goal might well have a variety of reactions, not only aggressive ones. Nevertheless, he argued that the nonaggressive responses to the frustration will tend to weaken, and the instigation to aggression strengthen, as the thwarting continues. The second part of the formulation, stating that all aggression is ultimately traceable to some prior interference with goal attainment, is largely disregarded these days. It is now widely recognized that an attack can at times be carried out in hope of fulfilling some nonaggressive desire, such as for greater approval by one’s social group. And so, rather than having been thwarted frequently, some highly aggressive people might have learned that their assaults are likely to bring nonaggressive rewards.

Critiques of the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

The 1939 monograph quickly captured the attention of many other social scientists and prompted the publication of a number of critiques basically insisting that an interference with goal attainment produces an aggressive urge only under special circumstances. Many of these objections have essentially been taken up nowadays by appraisal theorists, those psychologists who maintain that what specific emotion is experienced in a given situation depends virtually entirely on just how the situation is understood (appraised). In the case of anger (and presumably affective aggression as well), some of these writers contend that the goal blockage has to be perceived as a threat to the ego if it is to generate an inclination to aggression. Appraisal theorizing has also frequently proposed other restrictions—for example, that there will not be a desire to hurt some target unless an external agent is regarded as responsible for the thwarting, and/or the interference is perceived as improper, and/or the obstruction can be removed (i.e., the situation is controllable).

Investigations of the Relation between Frustration and Aggression

The controversy surrounding the frustration-aggression hypothesis has spurred a truly impressive number of investigations. Many (but certainly not all) of the laboratory tests have yielded supporting results. Taking only a very few examples, in one experiment reported more than two generations ago, children expecting to see an enjoyable movie were suddenly frustrated because the motion picture projector had supposedly unexpectedly broken down. When these youngsters played a game with another child soon afterward, they were more aggressive to their peer than were the non-thwarted controls, even though this person was clearly not responsible for their disappointment and the projector breakdown had not been an ego threat. In yet another study conducted some years later, the college-age participants were asked to complete a jig-saw puzzle in the presence of a supposed other student. In one condition the participants were unable to assemble the puzzle in time because of the other individual’s disturbance, whereas in another condition they couldn’t do the job because, unknown to them, the puzzle actually was insoluble. When all the participants were later able to administer electric shocks to this other student, supposedly as a judgment of his performance on an assigned task, those who had been obstructed by him were most punitive. But even those whose frustration had been internally caused were more aggressive to the other (and presumably innocent) individual than were their nonfrustrated counterparts. Even more intriguingly, much more recent research indicates that even young infants display angry reactions (in their facial expressions) when they are frustrated by the nonfulfillment of a learned expectation. It is as if there is an inborn tendency for thwarted persons to become angry and disposed to aggression.

Generally speaking, the entire body of this research indicates that anger and emotional (affective) aggression can occur even when the situational interpretations stipulated as necessary by appraisal theory are not made. Violence may well be more likely when the goal blockage is regarded as socially improper and/or deliberately intended by some external agent, but this may be because these appraisals heighten the instigation to aggression and not because they are necessary.

Extensions and Apparent Exceptions

All this is not to say, however, that an interference with goal attainment will invariably lead to anger and an attack on some available target. Some research initiated by the Yale group shows how general can be the basic idea that people become aggressive when they are unable to satisfy their desires—and also the inconsistencies that can be seen at times. Employing statistics from the southern United States at the time when this region’s economic prosperity was greatly dependent on its chief crop, cotton, Carl Hovland and Robert Sears demonstrated that before the 1930s, sudden drops in the value of cotton were also marked by a rise in the number of Blacks who were lynched. Unexpected financial losses, presumably interfering with the attainment of economic satisfactions, had evidently generated an increased number of assaults on an especially disliked group. Partly confirming the Hovland-Sears findings, Donald Green, Jack Glaser, and Andrew Rich reported that there was a relatively small but significant tendency for some measures of economic hard times in the South to be linked to an increased number of lynchings of Blacks in that region in the period the original researchers had studied. But they also noted that economic fluctuations were not related to variations in the number of Blacks lynched in the South after the 1930s. Furthermore, they also observed that changes in economic conditions in New York City had no influence at all on the number of hate crimes against gays, lesbians, and Blacks from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.

All in all, even if frustrations do generate an instigation to aggression, it is clear that this inclination is not necessarily always manifest in an open assault on an available target. Inhibitions prompted by the fear of punishment or by one’s own internal standards obviously may block the urge. In the Green, Glaser, and Rich research, whatever violent impulses the economically hard-pressed people might have had in New York City or in the U.S. South after the 1930s, their aggressive inclinations could well have been restrained by expectations of social disapproval, threat of legal punishment, or both. Much of the public conceivably might also have learned to respond to their privations in nonaggressive ways, in this case by calling for governmental help. And then too, it could also be that the stimulus characteristics of the available target affect the probability that the affectively generated instigation to aggression will be translated into an overt assault. Those persons, such as Blacks or Jews, who are greatly disliked by the thwarted people, or who are strongly associated with other victims of aggression, may be especially likely to be the targets of displaced aggression.

A Revised Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

However, even when one contends that factors such as these might mask the inclination to aggression, one must still wonder why there are so many occasions when failures to obtain an expected satisfaction clearly do not produce an aggressive reaction. In Leonard Berkowitz’s revision of the frustration-aggression hypothesis, he proposed that it is not the thwarting per se that generates the aggressive urge but the strong displeasure produced by the goal interference. People sometimes are not angered by their inability to reach an expected goal simply because they’re not very unhappy at this failure. And similarly, from this perspective, several of the appraisals sometimes said to be necessary for anger generate hostility primarily because these interpretations are often exceedingly aversive. Someone’s deliberate attempt to keep a person from fulfilling his or her desires is much more unpleasant than an accidental interference with his or her goal attainment, and thus, is much more apt to stimulate the person to aggression. This analysis regards the frustration-aggression hypothesis only as a special case of a much more general proposition: Decidedly aversive occurrences are the fundamental generators of anger and the instigation to aggression.


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