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Social Learning and Modeling: Is Aggression Learned?

15 January, 2016 - 09:21

As would be predicted by principles of social reinforcement, if we are rewarded for being aggressive, we’ll likely aggress again, but if we are punished for our violence, we may subsequently curb our aggression. The child who gets a toy by hitting another child and taking it is likely to continue being aggressive in the future, particularly if he or she is not punished for the action. Children who are more aggressive are also often seen as more competent, in part because they can use their aggression to get their way (Hawley, 2007). Björkqvist et al. (2001) found that girls who use nonphysical aggression reported being less lonely and were more likely to have higher status than did nonaggressive girls. In another study, aggressive boys were more likely to be accepted by their peers than were nonaggressive boys (Salmivalli, Kaukiainen, & Lagerspetz, 2000). Aggression seems to be paying off for these students.

Some aggression is learned through modeling the violence that we see all around us every day (Bandura & Walters, 1959). In his important research on aggression, Albert Bandura demonstrated that children learned new aggressive behaviors by observing aggressive models (Bandura, 1973). Bandura argued that we don’t just imitate the specific behaviors that we see, but that viewing aggression changes our schemas and our attitudes about aggression. Watching a parent hitting another person may not only increase a child’s likelihood of hitting but may also increase his or her beliefs that “hitting is OK” and that “one way to solve problems is by hitting.” Modeling teaches new ideas about aggression and can help explain why exposure to violence increases aggressive behavior in the long run (Huesmann & Kirwil, 2007).

Modeling is particularly problematic for children who grow up in violent families. These children are not only the victims of aggression, but they also see violence being inflicted on their parents and siblings. Because children learn how to be parents in large part by modeling the actions of their parents, it is no surprise that there is a strong correlation between family violence in childhood and violence as an adult. Children who witness their parents being violent or who are themselves abused are more likely as adults to inflict abuse on their partners and children (Heyman & Slep, 2002). In turn, their own children are also more likely to interact violently with each other and to aggress against their parents (Patterson, Dishion, & Bank, 1984).

Although rewards clearly increase aggression, perhaps punishment decreases it? Judicial systems are based in large part on punishing people for being aggressive, with fines, jail terms, and even the death penalty being used as punishments. There is, however, a problem with using punishment to reduce aggression, particularly when the punishment is itself aggressive. The problem is that the punishment may be modeled, which can increase the aggressive behaviors that we are trying to stop. In a meta-analysis, Gershoff (2002) found that although children who were spanked by their parents were more likely to immediately comply with the parents’ demands, they were also more aggressive, showed less ability to control aggression, and had poorer mental health in the long term. The problem seems to be that children who are punished for bad behavior may be more likely to change their behavior only for external reasons, rather than internalizing the norms of being good for its own sake.

Punishment is most effective when it is intense, prompt (before the person can derive much pleasure from the aggression), applied consistently and with certainty, perceived as justified, and replaced by a more desirable alternative behavior (Berkowitz, 1993). But even if punishment occurs under these ideal conditions, it may only suppress aggressive behavior temporarily (Baron & Richardson, 1994; Berkowitz, 1993).

One example of the use of violence to attempt to stop violence is capital punishment—the use of the death penalty. Although banned in many countries, capital punishment is used in countries such as the United States, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Although many people believe that capital punishment deters crime, there is little evidence that it actually does (Archer, Gartner, & Beittel, 1983). For one, the time period between the crime and the punishment is typically many years long, which makes it less effective as a deterrent. Second, many of the crimes that are punished by the death penalty involve emotional aggression and are not premeditated. They occur during arguments or while the perpetrator is under the influence of alcohol or recreational drugs. In these cases, even if the perpetrator has knowledge of the death penalty, this knowledge is not likely to have much effect on reducing crime. And capital punishment also means that many innocent people are wrongly executed for crimes they did not commit.