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Understanding Family Violence: Causes, Types, and Consequences


Slide 1

Last week we discussed the biological, learning, and situational factors related to criminal behavior.  In this presentation, we will cover Chapter 5 which explores human aggression and violence.

Slide 2

In Chapter 5, your textbook discusses the major psychological perspectives on aggression and violence.  Most psychologists today believe that aggression is acquired and maintained in the same way that other human behavior is acquired and maintained, with cognitive factors being especially important to consider. However, as more research data are published, this learning perspective becomes increasingly complex, and additional factors must be considered. For example, physiological arousal certainly plays a major role in aggressive and violent behavior.  High levels of arousal seem to facilitate (not cause) aggressive behavior in many situations.

Slide 3

Aggression is commonly defined as behavior that is intended to harm another person physically or psychologically, or to destroy an object. Any definition is limited because aggression comes in many forms and depends upon the motivation of the supposed aggressor. We cannot necessarily detect aggression in a person’s behavior alone; for example, someone passively sitting on a doorstep may be acting aggressively if he or she intends to block someone’s entry by doing so. On the other hand, a light shove between friends is not aggression; between enemies it is. Furthermore, aggression may or may not be socially acceptable. For these reasons, social psychologists have preferred to focus on categories or types of aggression, such as those covered in the chapter.

Slide 4

The “weapons effect” as discussed in your course textbook may account for some of the violence in today’s society.  The mere presence of an aggressive stimulus (such as a weapon) increases the probability that aggression will occur. Since many individuals associate weapons with violence, the more exposure one has to weapons, the more likely it is that one will engage in aggressive behavior. The availability, accessibility, and visibility of weapons in the U.S. particularly in some neighborhoods may account for the prevalence of violent behavior in some areas.

Slide 5

Although the two terms are often used synonymously, it is important to distinguish the difference between “road rage” and “aggressive driving”. Road rage, a term coined by the media in the late 1980s, is defined as an incident in which an angry, impatient, or aroused motorist intentionally injures or kills, or tries to injure or kill, another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian, in response to a traffic dispute, altercation, or grievance.  Aggressive driving, on the other hand, is usually considered less serious. Generally, aggressive driving is the result of a motorist becoming impatient or frustrated, and it is often not the direct result of the behavior of another motorist.

In recent years, high-profile incidents of road rage have been covered by the media and have even formed the basis of a film starring Samuel Jackson and Denzel Washington. Individuals known to have been involved in road rage incidents typically have a history of aggressive behavior and substance abuse. Aggressive drivers, by contrast, usually displace the aggression they feel toward individuals in their lives onto their driving behavior, sometimes on a regular basis. While less serious, aggressive driving is far more prevalent than road rage.

Slide 6

Cognitive scripts are considered patterns of behavior that people follow when confronted with an unfamiliar or new situation. They may be learned by direct experience or by observing significant others. For a script to become established, it must be rehearsed from time to time. With practice the script will not only become encoded and maintained in memory, but also it will be more easily retrieved and utilized when needed. Spontaneous violence is said to occur when an individual’s cognitive scripts—or what he or she has learned in the past—support violent behavior. This is another way of saying that the person has found that being violent worked in the past, at least from his or her perspective.  


Slide 7

Hostile attribution bias refers to a person’s interpreting the actions of others as hostile toward him or her. Youth and adults prone toward violence are more likely to interpret ambiguous actions as hostile and threatening than are their less aggressive counterparts. Hostile attribution is a stable attribute that continues into adulthood. At its extreme level, the bias represents a cognitive deficit in processing that distorts social information so dramatically that the individual is literally unable to process that information accurately.  In some cases, some people may engage in extreme violence toward others they interpret as trying to do them harm. However, this is distinct from mental disorders, such as paranoid schizophrenia, in which individuals believe others are trying to do them harm.

Slide 8

Overt and covert forms of aggression must be considered in any discussion of crime.  Overt aggression is more likely to be involved in both violent and serious property-economic crimes, whereas covert aggression is more likely to be at work in the less serious property offenses.  Overt aggression involves direct confrontation with victims, high level of arousal and violence, and a lack of social cognitions for coming up with nonaggressive solutions. It can begin very early in childhood, especially in boys. Covert aggression is characterized by indirect behavior, less emotion, and cognitive capabilities such as planfulness. Covert aggression is more likely to evolve over time as a strategy for interacting with others or obtaining material goods.

Slide 9

Reactive aggression includes anger expressions, temper tantrums, and vengeful hostility, and more generally “hot-blooded,” unplanned aggressive acts. It is used in response to the actions of others or simply not getting one’s way. Proactive aggression, on the other hand, includes bullying, domination, teasing, name-calling, and coercive acts—in other words, more “cold-blooded” aggressive actions. Reactive aggression appears to be a reaction to frustration and is associated with a lack of control due to high states of arousal. In general, reactive aggression is a hostile act displayed in response to a perceived threat or provocation. Proactive aggression, by contrast, is less emotional, and more driven by expectations of rewards.  

Slide 10

Research has shown that gender differences in aggression may be due to cultural and socialization processes that promote different kinds of aggression. Environmental cues are also important in forming cognitive scripts and in the aggressive strategies individuals employ for various situations. For example, the current work of cognitive psychologists suggests that there may be socialized differences in the way girls and boys construct their worlds. Social learning theorists have long held that girls are “socialized” differently than boys, or taught not to be overtly aggressive.  Boys are not simply more aggressive than girls; they are aggressive in a different way.  Boys and girls are thought to be born with the potential to be equally aggressive, but girls are socialized not to be overtly aggressive, whereas boys are encouraged to be overtly aggressive “to defend” themselves. Research supports the observation that boys and girls are equally physically aggressive toward their peers when they are toddlers, but that this pattern soon changes as they get older and enter their elementary school years.  Researchers have concluded that gender differences in aggression were not documented in infancy. Only in the preschool years did observable gender differences begin to emerge, with boys displaying more overt aggression than girls.

Slide 11

Overt aggression becomes especially prominent in boys from elementary school age onward. Boys are taught to be tough, not to cry, to take on the bullies and physically defend themselves. However, many researchers report that girls are more likely to engage in relationship or interpersonal forms of aggression rather than the physical forms of pushing and hitting. Researchers also have found that girls and women tend to use more covert, indirect, and verbal forms of aggression, such as character defamation and ostracism. Others report that girls are far more likely to employ relational aggression, such as abandoning one friend in favor of another, spreading malicious gossip, or ridiculing another’s physical traits.

Slide 12

While most of the research on media violence decries its effects, particularly on young people, it is important to emphasize that there are alternative perspectives. For example, many individuals, including some scholars, believe that playing violent video games has a cathartic effect, allowing young people to get out their aggressions in a socially acceptable manner. Nevertheless, social learning theorists note that the media and the models they provide substantially affect our attitudes, values, and overall impressions about violence. A debate or discussion on the effects of media violence may be a good way to approach this topic, since students invariably have opinions on this issue.   

Slide 13

The research community is sharply divided on the long-term effects of violent media on aggressive behavior. To date, the overwhelming bulk of the research suggests that portrayals of violence on television and movies may have a significant effect on the frequency and type of aggressive and violent behavior expressed by America’s youth. However, there are wide individual differences in these responses. Children and adolescents who are already prone to aggressive behavior and who are frequent viewers are more likely to be affected negatively.  Media violence appears to influence children more strongly than adults, as they seem to be more susceptible to its long-term effects. Similar to studies on violent film and TV programs, recent research consistently suggests that heavy exposure to violent video games may be significantly linked to increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, aggressive feelings, and decreases in helping behavior.  Not all researchers agree with this perspective, however, and some suggest that the association between media violence and aggressive behavior has been overstated.

Slide 14

Chapter 5 discusses the major psychological perspectives on aggression and violence. Answers to what can be done about aggression and violent crime rest ultimately on one’s perspective of human nature. If one believes that aggression is innate and part of our evolutionary heritage, a position held by mainstream psychoanalytic and ethological thought, then the conclusion must be that aggression is part of life, and that little can be done to alter this basic ingredient of human nature. Clues for reducing aggression are found in the behavior demonstrated throughout the animal kingdom. If, on the other hand, one believes that human aggression is acquired, then the key becomes principles of human learning and thought, and hope that one can change this acquired behavior for the betterment of humankind. The distinction between the innate and learning viewpoints has been somewhat oversimplified, but most contemporary theories on aggression fall within one or the other camp. At this point, the learning perspective has garnered considerably more empirical support than the innate perspective. Cognitive factors are especially important in explanations of human aggression. 

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