Excitation-transfer Theory

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Human aggression and violence influence many aspects of our society. Violent crimes affect us economically; costs for correctional facilities increased 619 percent between 1982 and 2005 to $65 billion per year (Peace Alliance, n.d.). An estimated 1.6 million people died violently in 2000 (Peace Alliance, n.d.). Violence affects children and young adults. In high school,17 percent of girls report that they have been physically abused and 1 in 3 of all students say they have been in a physical fight in the past year (Peace Alliance, n.d.).

To help understand aggression and aggression prevention, theories have been developed to explain what processes lead to aggression. Some of the first theorists suggested that aggression originates from some type of drive such as frustration, which encourages aggressive behavior (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). Frustration, anger and aggression were measured in infants to illustrate that frustration innately leads to aggression . In one study Berkowitz and Harmon-Jones relate frustration and aggression in infants by observing infants in uncomfortable situations and watching musculature changes such as fist clenching and grimacing (Buss, 2004).

Dolf Zillmann was not satisfied with these theories because drive cannot be measured (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). Zillman made a connection between arousal and aggression in which different physiological reactions could be measured (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). The excitation of arousal refers to the excitation of the sympathetic nervous system. Some components of arousal include increased or decreased heart rate, perspiration, blood pressure and length of breath (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). These reactions are thought to have evolutionary survival benefits described as the “fight or flight” response (Baron, & Richardson, 1994).

Zillmann created his excitation-transfer theory by taking into consideration the fact that physiological arousal dissipates slowly (Anderson, & Bushman, 2002). This means that if two arousing events happen within a certain amount of time from each other, the first event might be misattributed and transferred to the second event (Anderson, & Bushman, 2002). If the first event is labeled as anger the lingering arousal of the first event can influence the labeling of the second event as anger as well (Anderson, & Bushman, 2002). Arousal to the sympathetic nervous system can come from environmental factors such as exercise or synthetic stimulants like caffeine. In one study 62 male undergrads were put into two groups. One group took a placebo pill and another group took 350 mg of caffeine, both groups were provoked by a confederate (Taylor, O’Neal, Langley, & Butcher, 1991). The highest level of aggression was reported in the participants that received the stimulant but were told that they were given a non-arousing drug (Taylor, et al., 1991). They did not understand their synthesized arousal so they transferred their aggression to the provoking confederate.

Zillmann also conducted experimental research studies to confirm his theories. In one study he randomly assigned participants into two groups. One group was assigned to disc threading which did not excite the sympathetic nervous system and bike riding which substantially excited the sympathetic nervous system (Zillmann, & Bryant). Each participant was exposed to one of two different scenarios: one that was neutral and one of provocation. Six minutes later they were then given the opportunity to act aggressively to their opponent (Zillmann, & Bryant). As theorized the participants with excitation and provocation reacted most aggressively to their opponents (Zillmann, & Bryant).

Misattribution of arousal can also result in a decrease of aggression (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). In one research experiment Younger and Doob conducted a study where they gave one group of participants a placebo pill telling them that it would increase arousal. The second group was also given a placebo pill but were told that it would relax them (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). When provoked, participants that were told they should be calm, blamed outside sources for aggressive behavior (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). The participants that were told they should feel more aroused because of the pill believed it to be a reaction of the pill resulting in less aggression (Baron, & Richardson, 1994).

Example / Application - Real-life

Misattributing arousal resulting in aggression can often be found in real life situations. Recently in the news a tragic incident was reported describing how Venezuelan boxer Edwin Valero who often came home after a match to batter his wife, ended up stabbing her to death and finally then hung himself in jail (Rafael, 2010). Many other factors contributed to this tragedy that do not relate to the excitation-transfer theory such as depression and alcohol abuse.

This is not the first time that boxers have gone home after a match and beaten their wives. The boxing culture is now looking at the idea of how to leave aggression in the ring. The idea is that there is an appropriate place for aggression and it should not transfer to their homes or anywhere else outside of the ring. This concept of “leave it in the ring” has to do with the excitation-transfer theory. Boxers must psych themselves up to be aggressive and exert a lot of physical energy, which highly excites their sympathetic nervous system. This aggression stays with them and it can be difficult for some to come down from the high of the fight. (Rafael, 2010). This aggression is then transferred to another event.

A possible solution to this problem of excitation and transferred aggression is that boxers should be able to have cool down zones after their matches. The concept of a cool down zone is that boxers would be able to get support and learn how to not misattribute their aggression from the match to outside sources. This would hopefully serve as an intervening tool to stop the aggression from being transferred.

Example / Application - Columbine

There were many factors that lead to boxer Edwin Valero’s arrest for murder, contrary to popular belief there were not as many factors that lead to the results of Columbine. The excitation-transfer theory does not apply to Columbine. After 10 years of investigations, facts from popular myths have been separated and the profiles of the two boys, Erik Harris and Dylan Klebold are available for review (Chen, 2009). Some of the myths of Columbine were that Harris and Klebold were outcasts, bullied, and seeking revenge against jocks (Chen, 2009). Investigations have ruled out all these reasons and have found the two boys to be mentally ill (Chen, 2009). Because mental illness is more of an innate trait than an environmental trait the excitation-transfer theory does not play a part in Columbine. Even if any of the original scenarios were true their aggression would have been direct not misattributed which is an essential component of the excitation-transfer theory.


Anderson, C., & Bushman, B. (2002). Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 27-51.

Baron, R. A., & Richardson, D. R. (1994). Human Aggression. 2nd ed. New York: Plenum Press.

Buss, A., H. (2004). Anger, Frustration, and Aversiveness. American Psychological Association, 4(2), 131-132.

Chen, S. (2009). Debunking the myths of Columbine, 10 years later. Retrieved May 9, 2010, from http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/04/20/columbine.myths/

Taylor, S. L., O’Neal, E. C., Langley, T., & Butcher, A. H., (1991). Anger, Arousal, Deindividuation and Aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 17, 193-206.

The Peace Alliance (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2010 from http://www.thepeacealliance.org

Rafael, D. (2010). Champ targets violence against women. Retrieved May 9, 2010, from http://www.sports.espn.go.com/sports/boxing/news/story?id=5120390

Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1974, December). Effect of residual excitation on the emotional response to provocation and delayed aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(6), 782-791.

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