Aggressive-cue theory

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When we watch the news on television or read about it in the newspaper it is most likely that the event we are reading about is an act expressing various forms of aggression. The aggression is most likely being exercised through some form of violent release. In the news whether on the television or in the newspaper the main subject matter of attention was the end result or the aggressive act that was committed, in most cases a crime. It is on rare occasion that the events leading up to an incident are actually taken into consideration.

For example, was the aggressor frustrated from work or traffic? Did he watch a violent movie before he acted out his aggression? Was he in a crowded area? Was it hot that day? Berkowitz’s Aggressive-Cue Theory states that a stimulus does not directly produce aggressive behavior but that it actually prepares you for aggressive action. A combination of aggressive cues and environmental stimuli would have to be present as well as something that triggers the response. The additional condition is what sets off the aggressive response but it is not the only factor that is responsible for the outcome of the external aggression.

Berkowitz compared the Aggressive Cue Theory to classical conditioning in that certain environmental factors and stimuli if present regardless if the person being aware or unaware of them could subconsciously have them primed and ready to respond to the catalyst that sets off the release resulting in an act of aggression. If the same situation occurs enough times the person will be conditioned to have the same response to different situations with strong similarities. For example, if it is common in the summertime for a family of six to argue at dinnertime in the hot kitchen while the newborn baby is crying, then it is more likely the next time the family has dinner at a different location under similar circumstances; hot, noisy, and crowded conditions they will experience the same outcome that they experience in their own kitchen.

Berkowitz also argues that “Catharsis occurs, when it does, not because the aggressor has discharged some supposedly pent-up aggressive energy, but because he has attained his aggressive goal, thereby completing an instigated aggressive response sequence” (Berkowitz, 2006). According to Berkowitz the only way to stop being aggressive is to act out the aggressiveness people have inside of them. They must focus the aggressive act on the person or thing that is causing them the frustration. The general public would disagree with that theory because while it may be the most direct way of relieving stress, frustration, and aggression it may not be the most practical.

There are many people in society that are constantly stressed over their daily routine. According to the Berkowitz solution of relieving aggression through catharsis, it would be therapeutic for people to act out on their aggression. While this form of release may benefit some people others would surely suffer from acting out upon their aggression and reaching their goal. What if their goal was to do serious harm to a family member or to a co-worker? They would be free from their pent up aggression but would have to be held responsible for their action as well that would most likely include jail time.

Other forms of release exist that do not involve physical or emotional injury that include the person or thing that is causing the aggression. Therapy is the safest way to relieve tension from a hostile environment the aggression does not have to be physically acted out to be released. The release can come in the form of conversation with a therapist or friend. Participating in extracurricular activities is also another form of relieving aggression. Physical play will exhaust any extra energy that might otherwise end up as an added stimulus to acting out in negative forms of aggression.

The purpose of the Aggressive Cue Theory is to explain and determine what variables should be taken into consideration when trying to figure out why people act out aggressively. The Aggressive Cue Theory could be utilized to help minimize aggression acts that lead to violent crimes. If people are aware of conditions that predisposes them to aggression, they could then consciously try to avoid certain those circumstances. Additional resources could be allocated to prevent and to act as deterrents in specific events that are known to have aggressive and violent acts committed by people that are typically not associated with those events.

Example / Application - Real-life

In a current report from CNN titled “Red shirt leader shot, protester killed as Thai unrest continues” (Rivers & Olarn, 2010), in this story the leader of a protest group that goes by the name of the red shirt was shot and killed. No one saw who shot him, the red shirt supporters were enraged and started to act out with a mixture of hostile and instrumental aggression towards the people they viewed as the instigators of their aggression. This is a perfect example of the Aggressive Cue Theory. If the people that organized the protest would have been aware of the situational factors that were present some preventative measures could have been accounted for in order to avoid any further damage.

The protestors had many effective stimuli and environmental factors that had them primed to act in the presence of any responsive catalyst. They were in a crowded area with very strong issues at hand. The catalyst that pushed everyone into action was the death of their beloved leader that they felt very affectionately towards. If their leader had been killed on a regular day under regular circumstances the crowds reaction would have been much different, fear would have replaced anger and their flight mechanisms would overruled their fight impulses. The crowd was primed to act out on the strong emotions that they were being exposed to.

Example / Application - Columbine

There are apparently two stories to the Columbine incident the original report and the report that came out ten years later. If the original report was accurate I believe that the Aggressive Cue Theory would have been applicable to the situation. Environmental were present as well as stimuli that would have the shooters ready to aggress towards their source of aggression. Catalysts in the form of bullies were ever present in the lives of the two shooters. The original reports and stories almost made it seem as if there was an abundant source of early warning signs that could have lead to the prevention of the columbine incident. It took ten years to unearth the truth behind the Columbine incident and the way the new story is unfolding it appears that it was more the case of instrumental aggressiveness being played out, then the result of jocks bullying undersized high school kids. The shooters were not outcast and were not loners, they may have suffered being bullied by jocks but it would not stand out compared to any other high school kid that had similar experiences. The prevention of Columbine would have to fall on other theories and sources. One of the shooters was depressed and the other was considered a psychopath.

If this would have been a different situation and the students that were being bullied acted out the aggression they were feeling but in a less lethal way it would have been the perfect resolution to the pent up aggression. According to Berkowitz the shooters had catharsis by playing out the level of aggression they were maintaining. This is the main error in the form of therapy that Berkowitz proposed as the catharsis towards ending aggression in the person that is suffering from it.

Therapy would have been an excellent way of playing out the shooters aggression it would have aided in relieving the stress they were suffering from. The shooters could have been strong predictors according to Berkowitz aggressive-cue theory but in the end it would have taken much more than professional interaction to avoid the Columbine incident from occurring. Theories can help set some solid guidelines as far as predicting behavior but it would take further action in order to successfully prevent violence from occurring in the future.


Baron & Richardson (2004). Human Aggression. (2nd edition). NY: Plenum.

Berkowitz, L., Schrager, S., & Dunand, M. (2006). Shared suffering can mitigate aversively-generated aggression: On the role of the target'sstimulus characteristics. Aggressive Behavior, 32(1), 80-87.

Buss, A. (2004). Anger, Frustration, and Aversiveness. Emotion, 4(2),131-132. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.4.2.121.

Pahlavan, F. (2008). Re-emerging conceptual integration: Commentary onBerkowitz's 'On the consideration of automatic as well as controlledpsychological processes in aggression.'. Aggressive Behavior, 34(2),130-132. doi:10.1002/ab.20243.

Verona, E., Sadeh, N., & Curtin, J. (2009). Stress-induced asymmetricfrontal brain activity and aggression risk. Journal of AbnormalPsychology, 118(1), 131-145. doi:10.1037/a0014376.

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