Aggression is necessary for survival?

In the Sunday Times magazine on 3 April 2011 Matt Rudd wrote:

‘Your typical, stressed, panicky westerner is in constant alarm mode. It’s the fault of our caveman brains again. We are designed to have a survival mechanism which kicks in and pumps stress hormones around out bodies to help us escape from the occasional sabre-toothed tiger. But in the modern world, the sabre-toothed tigers are everywhere: missed trains, unreasonable deadlines, hoodies, extortionate electricity bills, courtesy calls, traffic wardens, mobile-phone yobs, your children’s SATs, the neighbour’s Cupressocyparis Leylandii.’

The front cover and cover story of the same edition of the Sunday Times magazine is headlined - ‘The Inside Story of a Child Killer’. It is the tragic story of Jon Venables, one of the 10 year old boys who killed the toddler James Bulger in Bootle, Liverpool back in 1993. The story reveals how Jon Venables himself grew up in an aggressive household, killed a young child and then required a new identity to protect him for the rest of his life from the aggressive reprisals of those who would seek revenge. 

Aggression – definition

Aggression can take many forms but it is defined as any action that is aimed at causing either physical and/or psychological pain to oneself to others or to objects in the environment. The expression of aggression can occur in a number of ways, including verbally, mentally and physically.  

However, it is more complex than this as it is both an emotional reaction intended to harm and also a means of maintaining social order, as animals compete over food, mates and homes for example. Similarly, young men in particular fight for respect, resources and ultimately to be chosen by women. They pursue these goals with displays of boasting, bragging, showing off and attempts to humiliate competitor males. There are a number of psychological theories and models that have been advanced to explain aggression. In the main they fall under two broad headings: instinctive and learned response theories. 

There are also several categories of aggression and violence including: 

Hostile aggression – this is aggressive behaviour driven byarousal, impulsivity, and is immediate to the situational provocation.

Protective aggression - may be closer to the kinds of aggression identified by instinct theories and would include a mother protecting her young or a male it’s territory.

Instrumental aggression - is a learned response where aggression is a mechanism for achieving certain goals rather than for seeking revenge.

Rage – isa particular type of uncontrolled and extreme aggression.

Aggression can also be directed inward or may take the form of group violence by individuals or nations. It may be a response to any number of factors including fear, injustice, pain, threat, invasion, lack of control, inadequacy or frustration.

Instinctive response theories

The first theory is that aggression is an instinctive response inherent in all animals, including humans, and that it is necessary for, or at least contributes to, survival. It begins in the amygdala where threats are identified and anger starts the fight or flight response. Supporters of this theory argue that human beings are programmed to act aggressively and that it is an instinctive or biological urge involving neural and hormonal mechanisms and/or genetic factors. The instinctive response theory is all about survival.

Freud claimed that human behaviours are motivated by sexual and instinctive drives known as ’the libido’ – energy derived from Eros, or the life instinct. He argued that it was the repression of these instinctive urges that leads to aggression and this, he maintains, is demonstrated by the male and female Oedipal Complexes. Where these childhood conflicts have been successfully resolved, aggression is removed. In most cases this has been achieved by the time the individual reaches adulthood. 

Freud also developed the concept of another primitive and innate instinct - that of ‘Thanatos’, or the death force. The energy from Thanatos, according to Freud encourages destruction and death and, in the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, negative energy is produced and directed at others as aggression to prevent the build up of excess and the self-destruction of the individual. This is ‘catharsis’ or the filter that controls or modifies aggression by easing or releasing the tension.

Konrad Lorenz combined Freud’s hypothesis with Darwin’s theory of natural selection and proposed that instinctive aggression was a product of evolution. In this theory, aggressiveness is beneficial and allows for the success and survival of populations of aggressive species since the stronger would eliminate the weaker ones over the course of evolution.  In his 1966 book ‘On Aggression’, Lorenz argued that whilst animal and human aggressive behaviour was motivated by survival, aggressive behaviour in humans is not appropriately shaped and modified. Lorenz had a rather bleak view of the human race and said that the degree of violence that humans direct toward their own kind is unmatched even by the fiercest animal. He talks about the fact that human’s have developed the ability to kill each other from a distance and that this means that inhibitory factors such as empathy for the victim are not activated. 

From his study of animal behaviour, Lorenz also developed a model, similar to Freud’s, where aggressive forces build up like water in a dam and these forces have to be released and spill over into aggression. This is called a hydraulic model because it views motivation as a liquid and the accumulation and discharge of that liquid influences behaviour. There have also been, and will continue to be, scientific and medical experiments indicating a chemical or biological relationship between serotonin, testosterone, the frontal lobe, brain chemistry and levels of aggression in animals and humans. This is a continuation of the nature versus nurture debate applied in this case to aggression. 

In these theories, along with biological or genetic explanations of aggression, the role of external factors or the environment is minimised and aggression is described as essentially an instinctive, automatic or unlearned behaviour. This allows aggressive acts to be described and sometimes dismissed as evil, something that just ‘is’ – it is not behaviour that has been learnt and so is untreatable. However, simply calling aggression an instinct does little to explain it and does not help us to understand the variation in behaviours and how to help more aggressive individuals adapt better with and to their environment. Freud’s theories are essentially based on hypotheses, good stories that may ring true, but for which there is no body of empirical evidence

Learned response theories

The counter position is that humans are not innately aggressive and it is not an internal mechanism at all.  According to these theories, aggression is a learned response and individuals learn to be aggressive to get what they want as part of normal development and social behaviour. They do this by watching others and imitating their behaviour and learning to respond in this way themselves through positive reinforcement – where their aggressive behaviour is rewarded by a ‘pay-off’, such as praise or status or by being able to stop the aggression of others. The aggressive act becomes positively associated with the reward, which encourages further displays of aggression. 

This theory gives rise to the debate about individual behaviour, particularly in childhood, being influenced by TV violence or video games. It also leads to debates about the influence of poor parenting on childhood development, the perpetuation of patterns of anti-social behaviour through the generations, the cycle of domestic violence and abuse and the impact on the young of poor celebrity role models such as aggressive footballers. Alternatively, the instinctive theorists may argue that letting off steam on the football terraces at the weekend is simply the essential catharsis needed to maintain a level of acceptable behaviour during the rest of the week.

In the 1960s and 70s, Albert Bandura brought together elements of instinctive and social learning theories. He argued that an individual’s biological make-up creates the potential for aggression but it is the actual expression of aggression - the form it takes, how often and in what situation, that is learned. He is famous for this BoBo doll experiments involving children observing aggressive and non-aggressive adult models and then being tested for learning that would reveal evidence of imitation.   

He claimed that in order for social learning to occur the child must:

  • form a mental representation of events in their social environment
  • have expectations of future outcomes involving possible rewards and punishments for their aggressive behaviour

Then, when appropriate opportunities arise in the future, the child will display the learned behaviour, providing the expectation of reward is greater than the expectation of punishment. Bandura’s work demonstrated that behaviours can be observed and measured and the variables can be manipulated and measured again. His work is also significant in that it revealed how individuals can regulate and control their own aggressive behaviours and this gave rise to a new type of self-control therapy.

In 1939, Dollard and Miller developed their frustration-aggression hypothesis, as a behaviourist’s alternative to Freud’s theory that aggression was driven by internal libido. They suggested that aggression was driven by frustration or, as they defined it, by ‘the state that emerges when circumstances interfere with a goal response’. They argued that aggression was actually a failure to acquire adaptive behaviours in response to a particular set of circumstances, that is, when the path to a particular goal is blocked.   

However, they went further and said that aggression was an inevitable consequence of frustration and that the ‘occurrence of aggressive behaviour always presupposes the existence of frustration and the existence of frustration always leads to some form of aggression’. Others contributed to the debate and added detail to the hypothesis, such as, that the amount of frustration and subsequent aggression depends on how near the individual is to their goal when they become blocked.

Berkowitz (1989) modified the hypothesis and suggested that external conditions, like frustration, serve to arouse a strong motive to exhibit aggression but that frustration does not actually produce aggression, as it would do if it were a cause and effect. However, he said that it produces a readiness to respond aggressively. Equally, frustration may result in other states such as depression or withdrawal and, clearly, not all aggression is preceded by frustration such as aggression that is an instant response to an attack.  

The Social Learning Theory and the frustration-aggression hypothesis have been applied to the study of brutal crimes by Megargee (1966) and to the study of serial killers by Hale in 1993. Megargee reported that a sub-set of individuals, who commit brutal aggressive crimes, are often over-controlled individuals, who repress anger. He talks about a group of offenders who are unable to express their anger in normal ways and end up exploding with tragic consequences as the aggression spills over. This is not typical and these offenders have too much inhibition rather than too little. However this would support the early theories of Freud and the hydraulic model of Lorenz.   

Hale links frustration, humiliation and rewards. He argues that, for a serial killer, again the frustration gets in the way of an instigated goal and their built up aggression must be released. However, their behaviour is often a delayed and there can be an indirect release of aggression. They are unable to release their aggression on their source of frustration and are forced to choose more vulnerable individuals to act upon.

Summary and Conclusion

The Sunday Times article and other accounts of the James Bulger case document the dysfunctional, violent and aggressive family environments of both Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. They talk about the part played by the parents of the two boys and the learned behaviour of those growing up in aggressive social and family environments. But the article also says that, sadly, there was nothing really remarkable or unique about their backgrounds and that there are many children in apparently similar situations who do not go on to commit such violent acts.

It is true that many children grow up in deprived environments, with domestic violence, crime and poverty, and the majority do not go on to become child killers. Social learning theories fail to fully explain, or help us to really understand, the unique set of circumstances that could and do lead to extreme levels of aggression. 

Certainly, extreme acts of aggression are not necessary for survival and, in a society that is highly regulated by criminal law; they provide an unsatisfactory strategy for successful survival. Equally, if aggression is an instinctive human response and some sort of inherited pre-disposition, it is not clear why some people tend to be more aggressive than others. No one single theory or even a combination of all the instinctive response and learning theories taken together, provides a satisfactory answer to these questions. 


Bandura, Albert (1977) Social Learning Theory.

Berkowitz, L. (1989). The frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation in the Psychological Bulletin.

J. Dollard, L. W. Doob, N. E. Miller, O. H. Mowrer, and R. R. Sears (1939)  Frustration and aggression.

Hale, R. (1998) The Application of Learning Theory to Serial Murder, or "You Too can Learn to Be a Serial Killer". In R. M. Holmes, & S. T. Holmes, Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder.

Lorenz, Konrad (1966) On Aggression.

Megargee, Edwin (1966) Under controlled and over controlled personality types in extreme antisocial aggression.

Rudd, Matt  Don’t Worry, be Happy Sunday Times Magazine 3 April 2011.

Smith, David James The Secret Life of a Killer Sunday Times Magazine 3 April 2011.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Show comments

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals