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Adolescent affective aggression: an intervention model.

Although we see, hear, and read about the aggressive nature of our society on a daily basis, the alarming statistics on aggressive behavior by our nation's youth bring the problem into focus. Over 41 million aggressive crimes were reported in the United States in 1981. Over half of these were committed by adolescents under the age of 20, and it is estimated that only one third of these aggressive acts against others are ever reported (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1983).

In our nation's secondary schools, each month, approximately 28,000 students and 5,200 teachers are physically attacked. Additionally, approximately 8% of urban high school students missed at least one day each month because they were afraid to go to school (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1983).

Certainly efforts to curb this aggressive behavior requires multifaceted efforts. Legislative support and community, school, and family involvement are all viable approaches.

Other than passive forms, aggression displayed by adolescents (either verbal or physical) is readily observable behavior. The predictive elements involving feelings and thoughts, however, tend to be more covert in nature and therefore more difficult to identify. Thus, the methods employed by teachers and parents to reduce aggressive behaviors in their adolescents often includes punishment after it occurs. Alternatively (and recommended here), cognitive/behavioral approaches afford opportunities to prevent the aggression. However, the timing of these interventions often lacks specificity. The model described here provides this specificity.

Generalized aggression may be viewed as instrumental and affective. Instrumental aggression is described as aggression without intent to do harm, while affective aggression presupposes cognitive/emotional etiologies for overtly aggressive behaviors (Geen, 1990). An example of instrumental aggression would be the motivation of a football player to tackle his opponent. However, affective adolescent aggression is the focus here, with emphasis on the indicators of aggression and the means to intervene in order to reduce the intensity and/or frequency through educational processes.

Affective (or angry) aggression may be viewed as a provoked (justifiable or not) emotional response within the context of a stimulating situation. However, affective aggression need not be motivated by anger, but may parallel the enactment of aggressive behavior (Berkowitz, 1983). It is also generally accompanied by nervous system activity and increased blood pressure and pulse rate (Johanasson, 1981).

Affective aggression may be elicited from one of two proactant variables: (1) the state of the person, and (2) the external situation. However, the specific situations that elicit aggression include a wide range of aversive conditions which cause persons to feel aroused. This arousal in potentially aggressive persons elicits the affective aggressive response (Geen, 1990).

A functional model of affective aggression, based upon Geen's theoretical model, is provided to delineate the identifiable variables in the aggression process. Strategies for identification and intervention are then provided.

Functional Affective Aggression Model

A model for functional affective aggression is provided in Figure 1. It provides a means of identifying underlying cognitive processes of aggression, and delineates components of the process through observation of its manifestations.

The model is comprised of three components: effecting stimuli; aggressive reactions (conditioned and unconditioned); and contingencies or consequences of aggression.

Effective stimuli. Both predispositional factors and eliciting circumstances can be viewed as elements which stimulate the emergence of aggressive forms of behavior. Preventative measures for aggressive youths, therefore, should focus on these specific elements. Predispositional factors can be both genetic and environmentally induced. Aggressive potential (i.e., genetic aggression) appears to be a universal trait in humans. Rushton, Fulker, Neale, Nias, and Eysenck, (1986), for example, in studies of twins, found that approximately 50% of the TABULAR DATA OMITTED aggressive personality trait is due to hereditary. Coupled with evidence supporting innate mechanisms of aggression in lower animals, e.g., Lagerspetz (1979), seems to confirm that aggressive tendencies in humans are at least partially innate, and presumably stronger in some than others.

An additional predispositional factor involves environmental correlates. A diversity of social, cultural, and conditioning factors set the stage for potential adolescent aggressive behavior. These include reward for aggression (Geen & Stonner, 1971), cultural values (Mulvihill & Tumin, 1969), stress levels (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer, & Lazarus, 1981), and social context (Feierabend & Feierabend, 1972).

The recognition of predispositional factors allows one to make predictions as to which and when individuals are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior. However, an additional stimulus is generally present before aggression is manifested--the presence of frustrating circumstances.

Frustrating circumstances. Adolescents are constantly bombarded with potentially frustrating circumstances, and generally they have had little experience in handling them. Such frustration occurs each time a goal, no matter how minor, is not met.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis (Dollard, Doob, Muller, Mourer, & Sears, (1939) has emerged as one of the most controversial models of aggression in the past several decades (e.g., Miller, 1941; Buss, 1966; Rule & Percival, 1977). The hypothesis is that frustrating events create an aggressive drive state which motivates and can result in aggressive behavior. Of course, other variables may be at play which determine whether and to what extent aggressive behavior will occur.

Early frustration-aggression hypotheses (e.g., Dollard et al., 1939; Miller, 1941) emphasized the direct relationship between frustrating circumstances and aggressive behaviors or tendencies. More recent research (e.g., Vasta & Copitch, 1981; Briere, 1987), however, indicates that a general state of emotional arousal or agitation immediately follows an event interpreted as frustrating and precedes a specific aggressive tendency.

Primary Appraisal. A potential intervening variable in the aggression equation immediately following the onset of a frustrating circumstance and resultant arousal is that of an initial appraisal of the circumstance. This variable is critical not only in determining if the aggression will occur, but the magnitude of aggression. Based on this appraisal the reaction may vary. For example, if the provocation is perceived to be malicious or deliberate, a heightened stress level may be evoked. On the other hand, if the event is perceived to be nonintentional, the resultant stress may be relatively low. Thus initial evaluation may determine if and to what degree the adolescent will become aggressive (Haskins, 1985; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Arousal. Arousal is described as a physiological process in which an individual reacts neurally to specific stimuli (Moyer, 1976). The recognition of this generalized state of arousal served as a major factor in the reinterpretation of the two-fold frustration-aggression hypothesis (Berkowitz, 1969). Geen (1990) maintains that: "If we consider frustration to be mainly a source of increased arousal, many of the problems . . . |in explaining aggression~ appear to be resolved. To answer the question of whether frustration may lead to behaviors other than aggression, such as instrumental action or regression, the answer would be that it does when the responses have a higher probability of occurrence than does aggression, i.e., when the person is disposed to do something other than to aggress".

In other words, any event which serves to increase a state of arousal may, according to the adolescent, serve as a precursor to aggression (Zillmann, Kotcher, & Milarsky, 1972).

At this point in the progression of affective aggression, a process of cognitive labeling occurs. Anger, for example, should arise if an individual experiences arousal and then attributes it to some anger-related cognition, e.g., when the adolescent is provoked (Manstead & Wagner, 1981); and once arousal has been labeled anger, it can influence aggression far beyond the time the arousal has dissipated (Geen, 1990).

Control Level. The ability to control anger and the resultant aggressive tendency may depend upon a variety of factors and result in a variety of forms of aggression. Social norms (Rule, Dyck, McAra, & Nesdale, 1975), perception of self (Zimbardo, 1970), guilt (Bandura, 1971), empathy (Baron, 1977), fear of retaliation (Shortell, Epstein, & Taylor, 1970), and cognitive development (Parke & Slaby, 1983), among many other factors potentially control levels of aggressive tendency. One, for example, may, as a result of one of the aforementioned factors, enlist too much control over the arousal response. This, in turn, may result in passive forms of aggression (a very common reaction in adolescents) or even lessened aggression. One may alternately apply too little control, and active aggression may occur. Similarly, acceptable levels of control may occur where one is allowed to vent anger through aggression (often termed aggression catharsis) while still maintaining social and internal norm mechanisms.

Contingencies of Aggression. As is true for all behavior, contingencies which occur as a result of aggression tend to regulate future probability of aggressive behaviors (Epstein & Taylor, 1967; Dengerink & Covey, 1983). Although contingencies which tend to increase nonaggressive behaviors (or conversely decrease them) involve positive actions, in many situations the contingency for aggression is aggression itself (e.g., spanking or yelling at a child who was fighting).

The natural consequences of aggression also have the potential to reinforce aggressive acts by producing results which benefit the aggressor. A parent who yells at a child to keep him or her quiet may in fact get the child to be quiet. Similarly, an adolescent who is aggressive toward another may obtain the desired result, again reinforcing the validity of the initial aggression. Additionally, through a nontrial process of modeling the behavior (e.g. watching others aggress) the adolescent may inadvertently learn aggressive alternatives.

For may adolescents, highly aggressive behavior is a daily life event and beyond their capability of altering without assistance. Intervention techniques, to be successful, must have the potential to maintain greater power in social situations than do the more aggressive options adolescents often use.

Implications: External Control and Intervention

Using the described model of affective aggression, intervention as a means of curbing or controlling aggression may be implemented at several points. Recognition of each point in the aggression is critical for the selection of appropriate interventions. The control and intervention mechanisms described here focus on behavioral and cognitive-behavioral techniques.

Cognitive techniques focus on altering maladaptive thought patterns that have developed when certain external events are present. Intervention using cognitive procedures generally includes: (1) substituting positive/rational self-statements when confronting potentially stressful situations; (2) replacing irrational cognitions with alternatives while experiencing stress; and (3) providing appropriate positive contingencies including positive self-statements upon successful management of the situation. The proposed model provides an analysis of affective aggression which permits implementation of these and other procedures through a process of recognition.

Stimuli. The prevention of initiation of aggression is difficult in that it requires the avoidance of frustrating circumstances. Despite the difficulty, adolescents can develop skills for avoiding certain stimuli which invariably result in aggression potential. Ellis (1962) suggests that people set themselves up for failure and frustration through the thought and language options they choose. For example, thinking or saying that we "must" or "want" rather than establishing simple preferences sets the stage for failure, frustration, and aggression.

Additionally, a variety of ethological techniques may be employed to avoid frustration. Daily logs and diaries can be useful in identifying patterns of behavior which lead to frustration. Once these are identified, new patterns can be developed which tend to avoid such conditions.

Unconditioned Responses. The arousal response to frustrating circumstances, although reflexive in nature, is recognizable by the physiological changes which occur. These physical manifestations allow for intervention at the point of arousal. Through classical conditioning and cognitive behavior therapy, procedures can be learned which may alter or curb the behavior. The general state of arousal and the simultaneous labeling of that arousal as anger, is the unconditioned response to the frustrating conditions. Recognition of this reflexive/physiological response provides a convergent point where redirection can occur and aggression be avoided.

Conditioned Responses. The degree to which aggressive behavior patterns have physiological or environmental origins appears equivocal. However, the conditioned portion of the variations in aggressive responses appears to be considerable. Additionally, aggressive behavior patterns in childhood have been found to be strong predictors of later maladjustment (Megargee, 1966).

In addition to unconditioned responses to provocative stimuli, learned responses can occur. The learned pattern of dealing with various levels of arousal and anger is termed "control level," which is both internally and externally derived in that our own perception of our ability to control aggressive tendencies may differ from those perceived by others. Wherever the locus of determination may be, control levels can be determined to be either deficient, excessive, or appropriate. This internal control mechanism incorporates one's history of dealing with aggression, coupled with skills developed to cope with aggressive tendencies.

Deficient control levels, given the provocative stimuli and propensity for aggression, result in overt aggression. Although aggression involves the act of doing harm to another, additional conditions must be applied. Intent to cause harm (Dollard et al., 1939), and the expectation that the act will cause harm (Kaufman, 1970) must be taken into account. Thus, the act, the intent, and the expectation combine to differentiate the type of aggression.

Although one may think of the person who manifests deficient controls as assaultive, chronically overcontrolled persons may also display outbursts of violent behavior (Megargee, 1966). Excessive control levels may result in internalization of aggressive tendencies and manifest as passive aggression or be defended through processes such as displacement. Additionally, repressed anger has been positively associated with high blood pressure, hypertension, and coronary disease (Canon, 1929; Schachter, 1957; Baer, Collins, Bourianoff, & Ketchel, 1979; Gentry, 1985). An appropriate control level allows adolescents to tolerate negative environmental conditions.

Contingencies. Aristotle believed that through viewing a classical tragedy, a catharsis ensues. Similarly, Freud (1932) postulated that through aggression we cathartically vent our destructive instincts. However, the cathartic value of aggression remains equivocal (Geen, 1975).

Despite its cathartic potential, reinforcement of aggression appears to have greater influence on dominant aggressive than reactive aggressive individuals (Coie & Dodge, 1986). Reactive aggressive individuals tend to misinterpret the intentions of others, inferring hostility, while dominant aggressive individuals use aggression to attain personal objectives. Thus, the dominant aggressive are more influenced by contingencies than are those influenced by cognitive interpretation of motives.

Aggressive actions (punishment) to curb aggressive behavior evokes significant reservations. Not only does it seem to be contradictory, the use of punishment may have a negative effect on the punisher. Dengerink, Schnedler, & Covey (1978) found that the successful use of punishment may have the dubious side effect of increasing the likelihood the punisher will continue to use punishment--in turn substantiating the postulate that reinforcement procedures have a strong effect on dominant aggressive individuals.


Perhaps the most critical element in providing intervention for aggressive adolescents is one of timing--when to intervene, when to teach self-management and control, and most importantly, when adolescents themselves must learn to use these techniques to curb their aggressive tendencies.

Four separate interventions based upon this model are crucial in deterring aggression. These are contingent upon placement within the aggression continuum.

Intervention A: Prevention and Avoidance. Prior to onset, adolescents can significantly reduce episodic aggression through an awareness and implementation of prevention and avoidance techniques. For example, in a study conducted by Coie and Dodge (1986), reactive aggressive boys were found to be deficient in their ability to accurately interpret peers' intentions, and tended to overattribute hostile intent. Social-cognitive approaches have been demonstrated to be effective in prevention and avoidance of aggression. These include (1) development of social knowledge, (2) generation of effective alternatives for resolving social problem, (3) development of self-efficacy for assertive versus aggressive responding (Deluty, 1979), (4) understanding expectations regarding the positive outcomes of assertive versus aggressive responding, (5) development of awareness of attributional biases and errors and distortions in attending to social cues.

Intervention B: Recognition of Arousal. Since physiological manifestation may serve as cues to aggressive potential, then recognition can be a first step toward formulating an intervention process. At this point, adolescents can learn anger management strategies. These may include (1) anger control programs, (2) cognitive restructuring (Ellis, 1962), and (3) relaxation exercises.

Intervention C: Self-Management and Coping Strategies. These strategies include active participation of the adolescent in modifying the severity of aggression. The assumption here is that the aggressive behavior has not been prevented, but can be altered in degree. Interventions include (1) behavioral rehearsal, (2) moral reasoning, and (3) perspective taking.

Intervention D: Reinforcement of Acceptable Levels of Aggression. Aggressive adolescents tend to believe that their aggressive acts lead to desirable outcomes. This perception may partially explain the failure of traditional use of punishment to deter future aggression. Reinforcement for nonaggressive behavior, and life-space intervention (Wood & Long, 1991) have been demonstrated to effectively reduce aggressive behavior.


Aggression is apparently a function of our nature and a product of our environment. Through a better understanding of the processes, both internal and external, which contribute to aggression, the task of reducing aggression in individuals and society becomes more manageable.


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Author:Wells, Don; Miller, Mark J.
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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