Learning Theory Explanations of Aggression in Children – III

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The underlying assumption is that aggressive behaviour is indeed learned, but that genetic and hereditary components also have a bearing. However, the learning aspects are extremely important and can ordinarily overcome whatever natural or constitutional dispositions there are toward aggression, opines Prof. Ashoka, in the third part of the four-part research paper, in the weekly column. A exclusive. 

Learning theoretical perspectives offer several explanations of aggressive behaviour. Scott (1958) addressed the instrumental learning of aggression and stated that the motivation for fighting is strongly increased by success and that the longer success continues, the stronger the motivation becomes. Therefore, Scott’s ideas can be translated as indicating that the likelihood that aggression will occur increases as aggression is reinforced (Zillman, 1979). Other learning theory interpretations of aggression are seen in to the stimulus control of aggression. The environmental stimuli that precede reinforcement are seen as having a potential capability for controlling behaviour. These environmental cues serve as discriminate stimuli that help the individual responses as indicated by the prevailing contingencies of reinforcement or punishment.  

According to Zillman (1979), Berkowitz has always entertained what could be considered a stimulus-control theory of aggression (1962, 1965) and has since committed himself more explicitly to the of classical conditioning of aggressive responses and to stimulus control in general (Berkowitz, 1970, 1973, 1974).  

Among learning theory explanations of aggression, there are also those that acknowledge genetic predispositions and biological, anatomical, and physiological components (Eron, 1980). Patterson (1982), for example, has reviewed research related to inherited antisocial characteristics of people and reports that research findings support a genetic predisposition for aggressiveness in some animal species. He cites the work of Mednick and Christiansen (1977) which reported the hyporeactivity of adult and juvenile criminals toward aversive stimuli, and of Mednick and Hutchings (1977), who found that there was a relationship between the antisocial behaviour of the child and criminality of the father. Their studies on identical and fraternal twins suggest a genetic contribution to antisocial functioning. Although there may be differences among species and there may be an innate predisposition toward aggression in some situations, Patterson (1982) states:  

The literature suggests that species differ in the (innate) disposition to learn aggression. For the animal lacking social experience, aggressive behaviour may be expressed in an incomplete form. Skill in aggression requires additional learning. The form in which aggressive behaviour is expressed may also change as a of age. For example, its earliest manifestations in primates may be temper tantrums, which do not have to be learned… 

The underlying assumption is that aggressive behaviour is indeed learned, but that genetic and hereditary components also have a bearing. However, the learning aspects are extremely important and can ordinarily overcome whatever natural or constitutional dispositions there are toward aggression. 

Currently, and for much of the past 20 years, social learning principles and techniques have been implemented in the treatment and conceptualisation of the aggressive population. Social learning theory approaches the explanation of human behaviour in terms of a continuous reciprocal interaction among three areas: “Human functioning is explained in terms of a model of triadic reciprocality in which behaviour, cognitive and other personal factors, and environmental events all operate as interacting determinants of each other” (Bandura, 1986, p. 18). The social learning theory of aggression outlines ways aggressive behaviour patterns are developed (origins), what provokes people to behave aggressively (instigators), and what maintains their aggressive actions (reinforcers).  

Aggressive behaviour, according to social learning theory, is acquired through learning in a social context, either from direct experience or by observing the behaviour of other people. Fleischman, Horne, and Arthur (1983) that:   

The problem behaviour of the individual is neither illogical nor crazy; rather it is seen as a pattern of learned responses to the contingencies of that system. Furthermore, while the behaviour of others within the system contributes to the individual’s deviancy, the behaviour of the individual contributes to and maintains the behaviours of others toward the person… 

Thus, although biological factors may influence aggressive behaviour, children are not born predisposed to perform specific aggressive acts (Bandura, 1973). Of primary concern to social learning theory is the role of modelling. Although new forms of aggressive behaviour can be shaped by selective reinforcement of successive approximations to it, the most complex behaviour is acquired by observing the behaviour of models. For children, the behaviour may be patterned after the people they observe in everyday life or after characters they become acquainted with via reading or television. A distinction is made, however, between the direct and vicarious learning that contributes to the acquisition of aggressive behaviour and factors that influence whether the child will actually use the aggressive behaviour he or she has acquired (Bandura, 1973). Therefore, social learning theory pays a great deal of attention to the potential models that serve as reinforcers for both prosocial and antisocial behaviours.  

The maintenance of aggressive behaviour is largely dependent on the consequences of an aggressive act. Aggressive behaviours that are rewarded tend to be repeated, whereas those that are punished or receive a less than expected reward tend to be discarded. The kinds of reinforcement that strengthen aggression are variable and include vicarious or observed reinforcement. Substantial evidence is available to support the importance of reinforcement in shaping and maintaining aggressive behaviour (Bandura, 1973, 1977, 1986).  

A basic idea within social learning theory is that people strive to maximise rewards while minimising costs (Horne, 1982). It is believed that social relationships that are maintained are so maintained by achieving a high ratio of rewards to costs and thus are seen as satisfactory. Conflict develops when rewards or behaviour-maintaining contingencies do not exist or when faulty behaviour change efforts are implemented. This idea of exchange is further identified by the processes of reciprocity and coercion (Patterson & Hops, 1972). “Reciprocity” refers to social exchanges in which two people positively reinforce each other at an equitable rate to maintain their relationship. Conversely, “coercion” refers to a relationship in which a person provides aversive reactions that control the behaviour of the other. In this case, negative reinforcement is the result of the termination of the aversiveness.  

To date, reinforcement and punishment have been emphasised as constructs that significantly influence the occurrence of behaviour patterns. Within social learning theory, there has been a growing emphasis on the role of thoughts, feelings, and other more complex cognitive events in controlling human behaviour (Bandura, 1986; Fleischman et al., 1983). This theoretical and clinical approach provides a complete framework within which to assess and treat oppositional defiant and conduct disorders of children.  

(To be continued)



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Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the '.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad