Cultural and Cognitive Aspects of Threat and Aggression
many cases, humans (just like other animals) become aggressive in an effort to
secure or defend resources. This is evident in the wars that have grown out of
national disagreements about who owns a particular expanse of territory; on a
smaller scale, it is evident when two drivers come to blows over a parking
space. Humans also become aggressive for reasons that hinge on symbolic
concerns, such as insults to honor or objections to another person’s beliefs or
behavior. The latter type of aggression is clear in many of the hateful acts
associated with stereotyping. It is also a powerful contribu-tor to the
conflict among ethnic groups or people of different religions.
the source of the aggression, it is obvious that people vary enormously in how
aggressive they are (Figure 12.15). Some of us respond to provocation with
violence. Some turn the other cheek. Some find nonviolent means of asserting
themselves. What determines how someone responds?
many years, investigators believed that aggression was more likely in people
with relatively low self-esteem, on the argument that such individuals were
particularly vulnerable to insult and also likely to have few other means of
responding. More recent work, however, suggests that the opposite is the case,
that social provocations are more likely to inspire aggression if the person
provoked has unrealistically high self-esteem (Baumeister, 2001; Bushman &
Baumeister, 2002). Such a person is particularly likely to perceive the
provocation as a grievous assault, challenging his inflated self-image; in many
cases, violence will be the result.
Other personality traits are also relevant to aggression, including a factor called sensation seeking, a tendency to seek out varied and novel experiences in their daily lives. High levels of sensation seeking are associated with aggressiveness, and so are high scores on tests that measure the trait of impulsivity, a tendency to act without reflecting on one’s actions (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Joireman, Anderson, & Strathman, 2003).
addition, whether someone turns to aggression or not is influenced heavily by
the culture in which he was raised. Some cultures explicitly eschew violence;
this is true, for example, in communities of Quakers. But other cultures
prescribe violence, often via rules of chivalry and honor that demand certain
responses to certain insults. Gang violence in many U.S. cities can be
understood partly in this way, as can some of the fighting among the warlords
of Somalia. Cultural differences are also evident when we compare different
regions within the United States; for example, the homicide rate in the South
is reliably higher than in the North, and statistical evidence suggests that
this contrast is best attributed to social differences and not to factors like
population den-sity, economic conditions, or climate (Nisbett & Cohen,
exactly does culture encourage or discourage aggression? The answer in some
cases involves explicit teaching—when, for example, our parents tell us not to
be aggressive, or they punish us for some aggressive act. In other cases, the
learning involves picking up subtle cues that tell us, for example, whether our
friends think that aggression is acceptable, or repugnant, or cool. In still
other cases, the learning is of a different sort and involves what we called observational learning. This is learning
in which the people around us model through their own actions how one should
handle situations that might provoke aggression.
noted, though, that observational learning can also proceed on a much larger
scale, thanks to the societal influences that we are all exposed to. Consider
the violence portrayed on television and in movies. On some accounts, prime-time
tel-evision programs contain an average of five violent acts per hour, as
characters punch, shoot, and sometimes murder each other (Figure 12.16).
Overall, investigators estimate that the average American child observes more
than 10,000 acts of TV violence every year (e.g., Anderson & Bushman,
that this media violence promotes violence in the viewer comes from studies of
violence levels within a community before and after television was introduced,
or before and after the broadcast of particularly gruesome footage of murders
or assassinations. These studies consistently show that assault and homicide
rates increase after such expo-sures (Centerwall, 1989; Joy, Kimball, &
Zabrack, 1986). Other studies indicate that chil-dren who are not particularly
aggressive become more so after viewing TV violence (e.g., Huesmann,
Lagerspetz, & Eron, 1984; Huesmann & Miller, 1994; for related data
show-ing the effects of playing violent video games, see Carnagey &
studies leave little doubt that there is a strong correlation, such that those
who view violence are more likely than other people to be violent themselves.
But does this correlation reveal a cause-and-effect relationship, in which the
viewing can actually cause someone to be more violent? Many investigators
believe it can (Anderson & Bushman, 2001, 2002; Bushman & Anderson,
2009; Carnagey, Anderson, & Bartholow, 2007; Cassel & Bernstein, 2007).
Indeed, the evidence persuaded six major professional societies (including the
American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the
American Psychiatric Association) to issue a joint statement noting that
studies “point overwhelmingly to a causal connec-tion between media violence
and aggressive behavior in some children” (Joint Statement, 2000).
Whether motivated by a wish to defend a territory or a desire to repay an insult, aggres-sion is costly. If we focus just on the biological costs to the combatants, aggression is dangerous and can lead to injury or death. For some species, and for some forms of vio-lence, these costs are simply the price of certain advantages—for survival or for repro-duction (e.g., Pennisi, 2005). Even so, natural selection has consistently favored ways of limiting the damage done by aggression.
way that natural selection seems to have done this is by ensuring that animals
are keenly sensitive to the strength of their enemies. If the enemy seems much
stronger (or more agile or better armed or armored) than oneself, the best bet
is to concede defeat quickly, or better yet, never to start the battle at all.
Animals therefore use a vari-ety of strategies to proclaim their strength, with
a goal of winning the battle before it starts. They roar, they puff themselves
up, and they offer all sorts of threats, all with the aim of appearing as
powerful as they possibly can (Figure 12.17A). Conversely, once an animal
determines that it is the weaker one and likely to lose a battle, it uses a
variety of strategies for avoiding a bloody defeat, usually involving specific
conciliatory signals, such as crouching or exposing one’s belly (Figure
mechanisms are evident in humans. For example, the participants in a bar fight
or a schoolyard tussle try to puff themselves up to intimidate their opponents,
just as a moose or a mouse would. Likewise, we humans have a range of
conciliatory gestures we use to avoid combat—body postures and words of appeasement.
of these mechanisms, however, apply largely to face-to-face combat; sad to say,
these biologically based controls have little effect on the long-distance,
large-scale aggression that our species often engages in. As a result, battles
between nations will probably not be avoided by political leaders roaring or
thumping their chests; soldiers operating a missile-launcher cannot see (much
less respond to) their targets’ concilia-tory body posture. Our best hope for
reducing human aggression, therefore, is that the human capacity for moral and
intellectual reflection will pull us away from combat, and that considering the
cruelty and destruction of violence will lead us to reconcile our differences
by other means.