Frustration-Aggression Theory

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Aggression is defined as an action with the intent to harm, and can be physical and non-physical (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). There are many areas where aggression manifests in our society today, such as domestic violence, abuse, school bullying, road-rage, and war. Many social scientists look to theories to explain this phenomenon. Amongst the many different explanations, some say frustration, which is defined as the blocking of ongoing goal-directed behavior, often leads to aggression (1994). Two main paradigms, Dollard’s Frustration-Aggression Theory and Berkowitz’s Cognitive Neoassociation Model, both illustrate how one may become aggressive through frustration. Both models have been changed and challenged, however, evidence suggests there are four mediating factors which influences frustration, nonetheless can often be the antecedent to aggression (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). The four mediating factors are, Magnitude of Frustration, Aggressive Cues, Arbitrariness of Frustration, and Cognitive and Emotional Processes. I will be focusing on specific literature that illustrates the four social mediating factors of frustration, how they may lead to aggressive behaviors, and then applying them to real world situations.

Magnitude of Frustration is the intensity of blocking goal directed behavior. According to Dollard’s Frustration-Aggression Theory, how intense the situation, for it may become the antecedent to an aggressive act (1994). For example one study had confederates brake into a queue and said, “Excuse me” or nothing at all. They concluded the participants who were closest to their goal in the queue and didn’t receive an “excuse me” statement often lead to physical aggression (Ahmed, 1982). Similarly in another study, confederates experienced more aggression from a person who was 2nd in the queue verses being the 12th person in the queue (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). In other words, being so close to ones goal and being neglected may be one act in an aggressive manner, due to the excitement and expectation of receiving your goal. They also found that the mere acknowledgement of ones behavior might reduce the subject from being aggressive.

Frustration may facilitate aggression in the presence of aggressive cues (1994). According to Berkowitz reformulated Aggressive-Cue Theory he states “Aggressive cues can intensify the aggressive reaction resulting from a barrier to goal attainment (1994).” For example, confederates were to break into a queue, and had to either wear a T-shirt that stated “ Drop Dead” or “Please I am in a hurry.” Their results indicated more aggression from the participants that experienced the confederate with the “Drop Dead” shirt verses the shirt that said, “Please, I am in a hurry” (Harris, 1976). In a similar study by Gustafson, he exposed aggressive cues in a film to the deprived reward participants. It resulted in this group delivering higher shocks than the group who were not exposed to the aggressive cues (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). In other words, the aggressive cues verses the neutral cues proved to enhance the frustration, which lead to aggression.

Frustration has also led to aggression by unexpected blocking of goals. In other words, expecting a goal however ultimately being prevented from it all of sudden. Arbitrary of Frustration has been proven to be a strong antecedent to aggressive behaviors. For instance, a teacher (confederate) had to deliberately and arbitrarily frustrates the participants, soon after they were given the opportunity to prevent a teacher (confederate) from gaining employment (Rule, Dyck, & Nesdale, 1978). The data reveled the teacher was more rejected for employment by the group who were exposed to the arbitrary frustration (1978). In other words, because of unexpected thwarting by the teacher, the arbitrary of frustration group acted out aggressively by not employing the teacher.

Attributions are made when one experiences conflict in their environments. In other words, we tend to try to understand and attribute causation to these experiences. Through emotional and cognitive process, Berkowitz suggests frustration is most likely to lead to aggression when the individual’s emotional experiences are interpreted as negative (Baron, & Richardson, 1994). For example, two groups were provoked and directed to ruminate and hit a punching bag. The experimenters found the rumination group who thought of their perpetrator while punching the bag had increased anger and aggressiveness verses the distracted group (Bushman, 2002). In summation, rumination is a cognitive and emotional process and thus may have the ability to fuel the frustration, which may result in aggression. Furthermore, the study also concluded distraction may decrease frustration, which may prevent aggressive behavior.

Example / Application - Real-Life

In a recent news story on ABC entitled “Small Man Hood Jokes Lead to Miami TSA Officer’s Arrest”(Mayer, 2010), a couple of men found themselves in a situation which lead to a violent aggressive act. So what was the antecedent to the violent aggressive behavior?

Frustration-Aggression Theory could very well explain why and how the subjects found themselves in an aggressive situation. According to the article the culprit was constantly being teased and taunted for the size of his penis. After several months he stated “ he couldn’t take it anymore” (Mayer, 2010). Ultimately, he wanted to “resolve the problem and finally getting respect” by approaching the man and requesting to fixing the problem, however the victim proceeded to decline (Mayer, 2010). Nonetheless, the culprit then engaged in the aggressive act of beating the victim with a police baton.

The goal of the perpetrator was to gain respect and to extinguish the constant jokes of his penis size (Mayer, 2010). He was blocked from this goal due to the victim declining his request to talk about the issue. According to the Magnitude of frustration, one must have intense feelings of the experience of achieving ones goal. In the study above, cutting in a queue right before goal attainment, can lead one to act more aggressively verses cutting the 12th person in line. The TSA officer approached the victim face to face, with the goal in mind of getting the teasing to stop, but was not acknowledged by the victim, nonetheless increasing the frustration and acting aggressively.

The culprit believed by approaching and asking to resolve the problem, for he had the possibility to resolving his goal. According to the study above, participants tended to act out aggressively toward the teacher who all of sudden deprived them when they expected a reward. Hence, this coincides with the culprit expecting the reward, but evidently was thwarted from his goal, thus acting out aggressively. According to the evidence, he was waiting for him in the parking lot hoping that the teasing would not continue after he spoke to the victim.

The perpetrator said after months of ridiculed “he could not take it anymore” (Mayer, 2010). Consequently, the perpetrator engaged in cognitive and emotional process or rumination, which may have fueled his frustration even more. Similarly, in the study above, subjects were provoked and frustrated, and then told to ruminate about it, thus the end result was increased aggressiveness.

The article stated the culprit was a TSA officer, thus one can make the inference that his job position may have elicited him to result in aggressive behaviors. In other words, aggressive cues like his baton or uniform could have fueled his frustration even more. As we have seen above, when researchers exposed a group to aggressive cues in a film to a who were deprived of there goal, they tended to deliver more shock than the control group. Moreover, due to the officer carrying a baton or have been in uniform, this could very well contribute to the frustration, which lead to the beatings.

Overall, this article is a typical example of the Frustration –Aggression Theory and Cognitive Neoassosciation Model with the influence of the mediating factors of frustration.

Example / Application - Columbine

In the case of Columbine, two teenagers went to their high school and killed several other kids and teachers. Many theories were suggested to why these boys would go on such a rampage, however after being reviewed from many psychologists, it was found that major psychological issues were the end reason to the grandiose killings. The two boys were described as being different in their psychological patterns. Harris was described as having had psychopathic traits, where as Klebold, is described as a, hotheaded, depressed and suicidal (Cullen, 2004). Though the factors surrounding the case point in the direction of simply psychological issues, however the question is whether or not these boys were being blocked from their goal and how were they being thwarted from their goal.

First, what was the goal? According to USA Today, Harris once wrote, "I feel like God and I wish I was, having everyone being OFFICIALLY lower than me"(Toppo, 2009). The journals of these boys exuded hate, control and power over people (Cullen, 2004). Hence we can decipher, the end goal was to feel superior to people. So did frustration play a part in the violent aggressive behaviors on April 20th 1999? Were these two boys blocked from gaining control over people, thus plotting a major attack at their school? According to the Frustration Aggression theory, the boys were being deprived from their goal of feeling superior to people, therefore acting out in an aggressive way, in an attempt to ease their frustration. Furthermore, the barrier of their goal attainment was their psychological perception, or what most psychologists suggest self-esteem issues (2004).

Looking at Magnitude of Frustration, psychological perception could have influenced frustration, by which both perpetrators were completely at the mercy of their minds, thus not being able to perceive being in control or superior. Perhaps being frustrated by the their perception could have also been fueled by an aggressive cue. Some evidence points to the violent video game they played as being a factor in their behavior (Nizza, 2007). According to Berkowitz, aggressive cues can influence on an individual who is already frustrated by the blocking of a goal. Looking at the research above, a shirt, that states “Drop Dead”, elicited more aggression after being with held from their goal. Hence, we can make the assumption that explicit violent games could have possibly added to the frustration of not attaining their goal. Another area that may prove affected, by the barrier of goal attainment, was their emotional and cognitive process. Both Columbine boys’ experienced high levels of rumination, consequently it can enhance aggression if one feels thwarted from their goal (Bushman, 2002). Their journals were evidence of the constant rumination of how they felt angry for not being superior to people, thus possibly fueling the frustration.

Arbitrariness of Frustration or unexpected thwarting didn’t occur here. The boys were not under the impression that this goal had been taken from them. According to research on sudden deprivation of a goal, one must experience an arousal of sudden reward deprivation. Furthermore, there was no evidence that suggests the boys felt this unexpected thwarting to their goal.

After comparing the influence of frustration on the Columbine case, we can see in some areas, frustration could have been the culprit, which led to the aggressive behaviors. Due to recent advancements in psychiatric medications, we can see that if these young boys got psychiatric help, it might have been possible for them to develop a better understanding of their perceptions, thus obtaining a more realistic goal. Lastly, frustration may or maybe not have played a part in Columbine, but just with the simple understanding of frustration being blocked from a goal, we can very well consider it.

One must look at the entire context of a situation to fully understand the root cause behind any aggressive behavior. Frustration-Aggression hypothesis is the attempt to explain the phenomenon of violence and aggression in our world. Dollard and Berkowitz had great ideas and have definitely given the world of psychology another answer to why aggression occurs in our societies. However, in addition to Dollard’s and Berkowitz’s early contributions indicating that frustration leads to aggression, we see that mediating factors prove more important when associating frustration with aggression. Mediating Factors of Frustration has given many researchers evidence to objectively say frustration can sometimes facilitates aggression; hence all intensify or instigate frustration. We have seen this notion illustrated with the Columbine case and the TSA officer that was fed up with his coworkers. Nonetheless, the interpretation and emotional response to a situation can be the deciding factor to whether frustration will lead to aggression (Baron, & Richardson, 1994), thus frustration may not always cause aggression


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