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9.5: Thinking Like a Social Psychologist about Aggression

Thinking Like a Social Psychologist

This chapter has reviewed how social psychologists understand human aggression and violence. These actions surround us every day and cause much pain for many people. We have seen how social psychologists study aggression, their understanding of why it occurs, and how we might attempt to reduce it. Did you learn something about human aggression that surprised you and that helps you better understand social tragedies, such as school shootings, violence in sports, and even terrorism?

Perhaps you were surprised that social psychologists consider aggression to be primarily about self-concern. Although violence is designed to harm others, this is not usually its underlying goal or its underlying cause. Violence is more about the self and threats to it. We react violently when we feel bad about ourselves, for instance, when we feel that our status is threatened or when we are experiencing other negative emotions. But because you are thinking like a social psychologist, you will realize how important the self-concept is—so important, indeed, that threats against it can result in extremely violent acts.

Think about the recent school shootings in the United States and in other countries. And think of other events, such as wars, terrorism, and even genocides, that have occurred over the past century and even in your lifetime. Does your new understanding of aggression help you better understand that how unusual and unexpected events such as these—which go against our natural desires to trust, respect, and care for others—occur, and how they are understandable outcomes of the nature of human beings?

Aggression is another example of the person-situation interaction. Some people are naturally more aggressive than others, but the social situation may either increase or decrease the likelihood that aggression actually occurs. Think for a moment about your personality and about the situations that you spend time in. Are these likely to create aggression? If so, how might you change your behavior to reduce the likelihood of being aggressive?

Because you are now more aware of the variables that cause aggression, we hope that you will work harder to try to prevent it—both in yourself and others. Can you see how alcohol abuse can be harmful because it may lead to sexual and physical violence? Can you see how even nonviolent aggression, such as gossiping, spreading rumors, and bullying, can be harmful to the self-concept of others and have unexpected negative outcomes? Do you see now the strong influence of viewing violence, for instance on TV and in video games, can increase aggression? Can you see why catharsis doesn’t work? Perhaps now you can also understand how you and others can learn to react more calmly to the frustrations that provoke you.

We hope you will apply this new knowledge in your everyday life. We must all work harder to reduce our own aggression and to help others reduce theirs.


Charles Stangor (University of Maryland), Rajiv Jhangiani (Kwantlen Polytechnic University), and Hammond Tarry (Adler School of Professional Psychology). The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the creative commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University. For questions regarding this license, please contact