Origins of Violence and Aggression

by Eleanor Guetzloe

The origins of violent and aggressive behavior have been studied for many years by a great number of researchers from many disciplines: psychology, medicine, sociology, anthropology, ethology, biology, ecology, law, education, and other sciences. It is generally accepted that there is no single cause-that it results from a complex interaction of physiological, psychological, and environmental variables. Such variables include brain injury, metabolic disorders, being male, alterations in central nervous system serotonin, availability of weapons, exposure to violence in the media, and whether or not violence is acceptable in a particular society.

According to Bandura, there are three essential components of aggression: (a) origins (the factors related to acquisition or development), (b) instigators (events that activate or provoke aggression), and (c) reinforcers (rewards for aggressive behaviors). Bandura has suggested that most aggressive behaviors are acquired through observational learning (modeling or imitation), important sources of which are (a) the family, (b) the subculture, and (c) media events. The instigators of aggression include (a) observation of aggressive acts, (b) aversive treatment, (c) expectations of positive outcomes of aggression, (d) instruction (e.g., a situation in which authorities command their followers to commit aggressive acts), and (e) bizarre symbolic control (e.g., delusions or hallucinations). Aggressive and violent behavior can be rewarded through (a) external reinforcement (e.g., getting money or objects of value, gaining social status, or escaping from an aversive situation), (b) vicarious reinforcement (seeing others being rewarded for aggressive behavior), or (c) self-reinforcement (enhancing self-esteem or blaming/dehumanizing the victim).

"Risk factors" associated with aggression and violence are listed below. These are factors on which there is general agreement among many authorities, gleaned from many different studies of violent and aggressive individuals.

Factors Related to Aggression and Violence
Predisposing Factors
  • Neurophysiological problems
  • Cognitive problems
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Sociocultural expectations
  • Observational learning
  • Reinforcement of violence and aggression
  • Being victimized
  • Emotional deprivation
Early Predictors of Violent Behavior
  • Past violence
  • Being victim of abuse
  • Violent parent or sibling
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Pyromania (fire-setting)
  • Temper tantrums
  • Verbal aggression
Opportunity Factors
  • Release from incarceration
  • Reduction of supervision
  • Cessation of medication
  • Presence of potential victim
  • Availability of a weapon (especially a firearm)
Precipitating Events
  • Disruption of love relationship
  • Substance abuse
  • Insults to self-esteem
  • Invasion of personal space
  • Instruction from another
  • Frustration
  • Aversive treatment
Family Factors Associated with Youth Violence
  • Inadequate management skills
  • Coercion
  • Noncompliance
  • Harsh discipline
  • Inconsistent discipline
  • Limited supervision
  • Parental distance and uninvolvement
  • Parental pathology and limitations
  • Stressful external events
Factors Contributing to School Violence
  • Violence in society (and the reporting of violence in the media)
  • Availability of weapons
  • Family and cultural influences
  • Drug traffic
  • Racial conflict
  • Gang/cult/group influences
  • Failure of the juvenile justice system
  • Inadequacy of school "structure"
Conditions That Exacerbate Aggression/Violence
  • Crowding
  • Irritating noise
  • Boredom
  • Unsocialized group members
  • Rewards for aggression
  • Unskilled staff (or too few or too easily intimidated)
A Plan for Prevention

The first step toward preventing or reducing violence is to develop a plan for the specific individuals and environment for which the interventions will be designed. In the following discussion, suggestions will be made for a safe environment in the home, school, and community.

Eleanor Guetzloe, Ed.D., is on the faculty at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. This material is abstracted from handouts from the T/TAC sponsored conference, Challenging Behavior: Making Our Schools Safe Again, May 1, 1997.