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In sports and in business, the term “aggressive” is frequently used when the terms “assertive,” "enthusiastic," or "confident" would be more accurate. For example, an aggressive salesperson is one who tries really hard to sell you something. Within psychology, the term aggression means something different. Most social psychologists define human aggression as any behavior that is intended to harm another person who wants to avoid the harm. This definition includes three important features. First, aggression is a behavior. You can see it. For example, you can see a person shoot, stab, hit, slap, or curse someone. Aggression is not an emotion that occurs inside a person, such as feeling angry. Aggression is not a thought that occurs inside someone’s brain, such as mentally rehearsing a murder one is about to commit. Aggression is a behavior you can see. Second, aggression is intentional. Aggression is not accidental, such as when a drunk driver accidentally runs over a child on a tricycle. In addition, not all intentional behaviors that hurt others are aggressive behaviors. For example, a dentist might intentionally give a patient a shot of Novocain (and the shot hurts!), but the goal is to help rather than hurt the patient. Third, the victim wants to avoid the harm. Thus, again, the dental patient is excluded, because she or he is not seeking to avoid the harm (in fact, the patient probably booked the appointment weeks in advance and paid to have it done!). Suicide would also be excluded, because the person who commits suicide does not want to avoid the harm. Sado-masochism would likewise be excluded, because the masochist enjoy being harmed by the sadist.

The motives for aggression might differ. Consider two examples. In the first example, a husband finds his wife and her lover together in bed. He takes his hunting rifle from a closet, and shoots and kills both individuals. In the second example, a “hitman” uses a rifle to kill another person for money. The motives appear quite different in these two examples. In the first example, the man appears to be motivated by anger. He is enraged when he finds his wife making love to another man, so he shoots them both. In the second example, the “hitman” appears to be motivated by money. The “hitman” probably does not hate his victim. He might not even know his victim, but he kills him anyway for the money. To capture different types of aggression based on different motives, psychologists have made a distinction between hostile aggression (also called affective, angry, impulsive, reactive, and retaliatory aggression) and instrumental aggression (also called proactive aggression). Hostile aggression is “hot,” impulsive, angry behavior that is motivated by a desire to harm someone. Instrumental aggression is “cold,” premeditated, calculated behavior that is motivated by some other goal (e.g., obtain money, restore one’s image, restore justice).

One difficulty with the distinction between hostile and instrumental aggression is that the motives for aggression are often mixed. Consider the following example. On April 20, 1999, the 110th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birthday, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered their high school in Littleton Colorado, USA with lots of weapons and ammunition. They murdered 13 students and wounded 23 others before turning the guns on themselves. Harris and Klebold were repeatedly angered and provoked by the athletes in their school. However, they planned the massacre more than a year in advance, did research on weapons and explosives, made drawings of their plans, and conducted rehearsals. Was this an act of hostile or instrumental aggression? It is hard to say. That is why some social psychologists have argued that it is time to get rid of the distinction between hostile and instrumental aggression.

Another distinction is between displaced and direct aggression. Displaced aggression (also called the kicking the dog effect) involves substituting the target of aggression: The person has an impulse to attack one person, but attacks someone else instead. Direct aggression involves attacking the person who provoked you. People displace aggression for several reasons. Directly aggressing against the source of provocation may be unfeasible because the source is unavailable (e.g., the provoker has left the situation), or because the source is an intangible entity (e.g., hot temperature, loud noise, foul odor). Fear of retaliation or punishment from the provoker may also inhibit direct aggression. For example, an employee who is reprimanded by his boss may be reluctant to retaliate because he does not want to lose his job.

Violence is aggression that has extreme physical harm as its goal, such as injury or death. For example, one child intentionally pushing another off a tricycle is an act of aggression but is not an act of violence. One person intentionally hitting, kicking, shooting, or stabbing another person is an act of violence. Thus, all violent acts are aggressive acts, but not all aggressive acts are violent. Only the extreme ones are.

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