Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Aggression in adolescents
What motivates aggressive behaviour in adolescents, and how can it be reduced?
This chapter explores the issue of aggression in adolescents. Explaining why it is such an issue, before exploring a variety of motivating factors behind such behaviour. Key social learning theories are noted, as well as other social determinites of aggression, and biological underpinnings of said behaviour. Finally, we breifly explore ways in which we can reduce such aggression, with relation to previously explored motivations behind the behaviour.
What is Aggression?
Aggression is any behaviour that is enacted by a person that intends to cause either physical or psychological damage to another person, animal, or object. There are many different ways to categorise adolescent aggression. One approach is to distinguish between violent and relational aggression. Violent aggression is any type of aggression that means to cause direct harm to another, whereas relational aggression involves harming others through affecting their social standing (Moffitt, 2001). Bullying and fighting are both examples of violent aggression, whereas socially isolating others and gossiping are forms of relational aggression. Another way to typify aggression is as either proactive or reactive. Proactive aggression is any aggressive act that is performed without provocation, whereas reactive aggression is in response to an event (Espelage, Low, Rao, Hong, & Little, 2014). Finally, aggression can be seen as instrumental or hostile. With instrumental aggression, any behaviour is a means to an end, whereas hostile aggression is done only with the intent to harm another.
Aggression in Adolescents
Adolescent aggression yields many different outcomes. Those thatsubstance abuse (Low & Espelage, 2014), underage consumption of alcohol, and use of marijuana (Herrenkohl, Catalano, Hemphill, & Toumbourou, 2009). Those who are aggressive perform poorly at school compared to other students (Krahé, Busching & Möller, 2012), and such aggression has been linked to a higher likelihood of teenage suicide (Yen et al., 2013) Unsurprisingly, adolescent aggression is also predictive of later aggression (Herrenkohl et al., 2009).behave aggressively are more likely to have other behavioural problems such as
Bullying is an act of aggression that is repeatedly enacted against another person, and done with the aim of causing harm to the receiver of such aggression. The recent advent of social media and rising levels of access to mobile phones by adolescents has meant that bullying has been easier than ever to perpetrate, and even harder to escape and with a level of anonymity that makes punishing such behaviour even more difficult (Menesini, Nocentini, & Camodeca, 2013). Victims and perpetrators of bullying have both been found to be more likely to use drugs in adolescence than their peers, which often leads to later, more severe, drug problems (Espelage et al., 2014).
Learning Aggression from Others
Bandura’s Theory of Socially Learned Aggression
Albert Bandura’s (1977) theory of socially learned aggression posits that a person does not have to experience reinforcement or punishment themselves in order for behaviours to increase. Rather, they can learn by watching the way in which others behave, and seeing what consequences follow. Imagine you are a 13-year-old boy in the playground. You watch others play and see a fight break out. As the fight progresses you watch others come and egg on the brawlers. The winner emerges, and their friends erupt in cheers and carry them away. Although you didn’t personally experience being in a fight, you just learned that doing so leads to praise from your peers, and are therefore likely to replicate the behaviour in a bid to be cool too. Banduras theory doesn’t just extend to observing such behaviours first hand. Hearing about them later, or seeing illustrations of violence in the media can lead to socially learned aggression too. It’s not all bad news though, watching others experience negative consequences of their aggression makes a person less likely to recreate the behaviour. However, it all depends on how these consequences are perceived by the observer, if punishment is reinforcing to them as they look for a way to achieve attention or notoriety, punishing aggressive behaviour in public may lead to the opposite of the desired effect.
Script theory states that individuals create “scripts” for the way in which they should behave in certain situations. We form these scripts by collecting information on how we and others have behaved in these situations in the past, and how those behaviours yielded different results (Huesmann, 1998). Similar to Bandura’s theory, we are more likely to incorporate something into our script if we have seen others being rewarded for behaving in such a way in the past (Huesmann, 1988). However, behaviours which haven’t been rewarded can make their way into scripts,if the behaviour is seen as normal to the individual. Generally speaking, scripts are useful, and aid us in knowing how to act in a situation with minimal hands on experience. However, if exposed to instances of behaviour that aren’t socially acceptable repeatedly, this leads to social scripts being formed that may lead to antisocial behaviour (Krahé & Busching, 2014).
Four Elements of Social Learning
Attention Is the observer paying attention to the model? Observation without engagement is unlikely to lead to imitation.
Retention Does the observer remember the act? Observing behaviours that are more easily remembered makes them more likely to be reproduced. This is especially relevant in relation to social scripts
Ability Can the observer recreate the act? If the observer doesn't have the ability to recreate the behaviour, they will be unable to do so.
Motivation Does the observer want to perform the observed behaviours? Often viewing another person acting aggressively isn't enough to cause the observer to recreate the behaviour, especially if they have been punished for doing so in the past. A variety of motivational factors that could further explain aggressive behaviour will now be explored.
Social Causes of Aggression in Adolescents
A variety of familial influences contribute to levels of aggression in adolescents. Poor parenting has been found to be one of these elements, with features such as parent to child abuse, neglect, and low monitoring of children’s behaviour leading to aggressive tendencies, with childhood maltreatment showing its effects long into adolescence (Cavete & Orue, 2013; Low & Espelage, 2014). It is theorised that this is likely due to those experiencing such mistreatment developing a cognitive schema that justifies the abuse and neglect they experienced, and the child in turn believing it to be normal. Further to this, aggression between parents has been shown to lead to aggressiveness in children later down the road (Fosco, Lippold, & Feinberg, 2014). With both violent and relational aggression being passed onto children (Moffitt, 2001) . It is proposed that this is due to two processes, the first of which involves aggressiveness between parents spilling over to children, and again having the children develop this into a cognitive schema which justifies such mistreatment. The second likely explanation is that the child would model such behaviour off their parents, having learned it to be an effective way to communicate and solve issues. These theories are also likely to mediate the relationship between overall levels of family violence and adolescent aggression that have been found in the past (Espelage et al., 2014).
A major social contribution to aggression in adolescents is peer group relations. Faris and Ennett (2012) sought to understand what elements of these peer group relations would contribute to aggressive behaviour. It was found that seeking popularity was an important predictor of aggression, as was the level of aggression within the individual’s social circle, and the size of the group, with larger groups creating higher levels of aggression. They theorised that for those seeking popularity, behaving aggressively was a way to assert their dominance over others. These thoughts were echoed by Moffitt (2001) in an earlier, large-scale study, in which he stated that adolescents use aggression in order to gain popularity. Size of group seems to increase aggression through creating a more competitive environment; the larger the group, the harder it is to become popular, the higher the levels of aggression required to do so (Faris & Ennett, 2012). However, despite the effect that status seeking has on levels of aggression, even if a group member isn’t seeking popularity, the level of aggression within the group will still affect their aggressiveness. This pattern is likely to follow Bandura’s Theory of Socially Learned Aggression, as although the individual may not want to be popular themselves, seeing another’s aggression being reinforced by other group members makes behaving in that way in the future more likely.
Violence in the Media
The consumption of violent media - including video games, television, movies, music, and reading materials - has been found to be a large contributor to aggressive behaviour (Krahé et al., 2012). This effect has been found to be more apparent in teenagers than in adults (Krahé et al., 2012). Teenagers are especially at risk for the effects of violent media affecting their own rates of aggression due to their liking for such media and therefore higher level of consumption (Krahé et al., 2012). Furthermore, adolescents are more suggestible and more receptive to forms of observational learning that have been associated with media violence and individual aggression (Krahé et al., 2012). These links have been found to be due to violent media consumption leading to aggressive behaviour, rather than aggressive individuals seeking out such forms of entertainment (Slater, Henry, Swaim, & Anderson, 2003). Furthermore, this link was still found when controlling for other risk factors for aggression explored in this article, showing that those who are already at risk of violence are not more likely to consume violent media or to be effected by it. Rather, violent media acts independently (Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, & Eron, 2003). This effect has also been found to extend to both males and females, although females are less likely to consume violent media (Lemmens, Valkenburg, & Peter, 2011).
There are many different explanations for the link between violent media consumption and aggressive behaviour. Bandura’s Theory of Socially Learned Aggression has been used to explain such increases in aggressive behaviour (Krahé et al., 2012). By viewing violent behaviour resulting in favourable outcomes, the consumer associates such behaviour with positive consequences and is therefore inadvertently reinforced to behave in a similar way in the future. Script Theory has also been implicated in the relationship between viewing violent media and aggression, with such media providing many examples for individuals to form a maladaptive script regarding aggressive behaviour (Krahé et al., 2012).
Finally, a reduction in empathy may contribute to an increase in aggression towards others (Krahé et al., 2012). Just as empathy motivates us to not perform behaviours that may lead to other’s pain, a lack of empathy motivates persons to perform a behaviour despite the fact that they may cause another person discomfort. This reduction in empathy follows from the repeated exposure to persons being victim to violence and the normalisation of such victimising (Krahé et al., 2012).
Levels of aggression have been thought to differ significantly between females and males, with males generally exhibiting more aggressive behaviours than their female peers. However, recent research has found that males and females ratherdiffer in the types of aggression that they display. Males are more likely to display physical aggression, and it has been found that one reason behind this gender disparity is due to the socialisation of such male aggression (Poteat, Kimmel & Wilchins, 2011). Poteat et al. (2011) found that males that physically aggress tend to hold beliefs that the use of aggression is an effective way to express their masculinity. Furthermore, Poteat et al. (2011) stated that males rather than females, felt that perpetrating physical aggression was both effective and appropriate method to deal with provocation, and as such would act accordingly. Although not less frequent, aggression perpetrated by females is less obvious. Moffitt (2001) found that female aggression was more likely to manifest in a relational manner. Girls were more likely to use aggression in a non-physical way in order to alter social groups, finding that, similar to males and violent aggression, relational aggression was an effective way to deal with conflict and improve social status.
Biological Causes of Aggression in Adolescents
Brain Structures Implicated in Aggression
One theory surrounding levels of aggression in adolescents is that individuals may have reduced levels of empathy, and therefore would not understand negative effects their aggression has on others. A main area of the brain associated with empathy is the amygdala (Decety, Michalska, Akitsuki, & Lahey, 2009), and it, unsurprisingly, has been implicated in aggression in adolescents.
Adolescents with conduct disorder, a disorder that is typified by high levels of aggression, have been found to have higher levels of amygdala activation compared to a control group when viewing images of others in pain (Decety et al., 2009). It’s not an all or nothing relationship,those that act aggressively don’t have exponentially higher levels of amygdala activation as a group, rather it differs as a function of how many aggressive acts have been performed. Additionally, level of enjoyment in others pain is correlated with a more active amygdala when imagining others' pain (Decety et al., 2009). It has been suggested that such findings indicate that individuals with high levels of aggression experience pleasure when viewing others in pain, rather than empathy as is normal for those who do not aggress. Importantly, further studies have found that those with high exposure to media violence have similarly high levels of amygdala activation when exposed to violent stimuli (Kalnin et al., 2011). Following what we know about the causal effect of violent media on aggression, it may be that this effect is indeed mediated by a decrease in empathy.
The Prefrontal Cortex
It has also been theorised that heightened levels of aggression are due to reduced impulse control when compared to non-aggressive peers. The prefrontal cortex has been associated with impulse control in humans, and interestingly has been found to be less active in those who exhibit aggressive behaviour (Strenziok et al., 2011). A study by Strenziok et al. (2011) found that teenagers showed reduced functioning in areas of the prefrontal cortex when imagining themselves committing aggressive acts. Activation of the prefrontal cortex has been found to be a major element in controlling aggressive behaviour due to its connections with other parts of the brain that are associated with reward, memory, and other functions essential for considering the consequences of a behaviour (Strenziok et al., 2011). This decreased prefrontal cortex activation may explain motivations behind aggressive behaviour in those that haven’t been exposed to others being reinforced for such behaviour, and who have repeatedly been punished for such behaviour. They just can’t consider the consequences before acting.
Low Resting Heart Rate
Without a doubt the best predictor of aggressiveness in teenagers is a low resting heart rate (Ortiz & Raine, 2004). It has also been found that those high in aggressiveness often engage in such behaviours as a form of sensation seeking (Ye, Yang, & Ren, 2012). As such, a theory was formed that a low heart rate leads individuals to seek heightened autonomic arousal, and many find aggression to be the way in which to do this (Portnoy et al., 2014). Portnoy et al. (2014) tested this theory, finding that indeed the link between low heart rate and higher levels of aggression was due to an increase in sensation seeking, with increased autonomic arousal serving as a potent reinforcer for such behaviour in the future.
Multiple neurotransmitters have been implicated in adolescent aggressive behaviour. Serotonin has been found to be a key player in levels of impulsivity in teenagers, with low levels being implicated in high aggressiveness (Halperin et al., 2006). Dopamine, which plays an important role in reward-oriented behaviour, has also been found to have an effect on aggressiveness (Conway, 2012). The presence of an unusual combination of dopamine and serotonin receptor genes has been found to lead to very high levels of aggression in adolescents (Hohmann et al., 2009). Furthermore, a difference in the genetic expression of a dopamine receptor also leads to heightened levels of aggression, but not as high as those when the gene was expressed in this way and an additional serotonin transporter gene was present. A variety of explanations have been posed to explain the effect of such irregularities on aggression in adolescents. One possible explanation is that these abnormalities lead to an increase in impulsivity. Another may be that this difference in serotoninergic gene expression affects adolescent reactions to stress, leading them to act aggressively in response to stressful situations, whereas those with normal receptors would not (Conway, 2012). A final theory is that this difference interacts with early exposure to adversity to lead to heightened levels of aggression in adolescence (Reif et al., 2007).
How Can Aggression In Adolescents Be Reduced?
Studies have shown that monitoring of adolescent social behaviour by their parents leads to a reduction in antisocial behaviour, including aggression (Low & Espelage, 2014). Parental monitoring allows the adult to intervene if they believe their child is engaging in poor social choices, and therefore leads to a difference in peer selection, with those with involved parents being less likely to associate with individuals that are themselves aggressive (Li, Feigelman, & Stanton, 2000).
Combatting the Influence of Violent Media
An intervention designed by Krahé and Busching (2014) to lower the consumption of violent media and combat the effect that it has on levels of aggression was found to be effective. The intervention took place across five, 90-minute in school sessions across five weeks, and involved reducing the amount of violent media consumed by participants and teaching skills for critically evaluating such media and the effects that it has on an individual’s levels of aggression through multiple pathways. This intervention was found to lead to a reduction in both violent media consumption and the effects the remaining level of violent media consumed had on participants. These results were still present 24 months after the intervention, suggesting long-term efficacy of the program.
As those with high levels of aggression have been found to have lower levels of empathy, and we know that such neural sites responsible for the feeling of empathy can be affected by viewing violent media, it would seem that an intervention to teach aggressive individuals empathy would be effective. Castillo, Salguero, Fernández-Berrocal, & Balluerka (2013) thought so, and utilized an intervention that teaches emotional intelligence skills in order to directly affect participants’ levels of empathy, and in turn their aggressiveness. The study found that those that underwent the training showed significantly lower levels of aggression compared to pre-intervention levels.
Aggression in adolescents leads to a number of negative consequences, including increased levels of substance use, and other behavioural problems. Such aggressiveness can be explained by a manner of motivational elements. Primarily, there is a large influence of social learning on adolescent aggression, as well as other social elements that further motivate an individual to act aggressively. Additionally, there are a variety of biological influences underpinning such behaviour,which seem to have an effect on an individuals impulsivity, sensation seeking, and empathy levels among others. The motivational factors of adolescent aggression are not simple, however, as multiple elements seem to work together and affect each other to change cognitions and in turn lead to aggressive behaviour. Despite this, there are many ways to combat aggression in adolescence, with a few specific interventions demonstrating how knowledge of motivation behind such aggression can lead to a reduction in the behaviour.
Castillo, R., Salguero, J. M., Fernández-Berrocal, P., & Balluerka, N. (2013). Effects of an emotional intelligence intervention on aggression and empathy among adolescents. Journal Of Adolescence, 36(5), 883-892. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.07.001
Conway, C. A. (2012). Coaction of Stress and Serotonin Transporter Genotype in Predicting Aggression at the Transition to Adulthood. Journal Of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 41(1), 53-63.
Decety, J., Michalska, K. J., Akitsuki, Y., & Lahey, B. B. (2009). Atypical empathic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder: A functional MRI investigation. Biological Psychology, 80(2), 203-211. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2008.09.004
Espelage, D. L., Low, S., Rao, M. A., Hong, J. S., & Little, T. D. (2014). Family Violence, Bullying, Fighting, and Substance Use Among Adolescents: A Longitudinal Mediational Model. Journal Of Research On Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell), 24(2), 337-349. doi:10.1111/jora.12060
Faris, R., & Ennett, S. (2012). Adolescent aggression: The role of peer group status motives, peer aggression, and group characteristics. Social Networks, 34(4), 371-378. doi:10.1016/j.socnet.2010.06.003
Fosco, G. M., Lippold, M., & Feinberg, M. E. (2014). Interparental boundary problems, parent–adolescent hostility, and adolescent–parent hostility: A family process model for adolescent aggression problems. Couple And Family Psychology: Research And Practice, 3(3), 141-155. doi:10.1037/cfp0000025
Halperin, J. M., Kalmar, J. H., Schulz, K. P., Marks, D. J., Sharma, V., & Newcorn, J. H. (2006). Elevated Childhood Serotonergic Function Protects Against Adolescent Aggression in Disruptive Boys. Journal Of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 45(7), 833-840. doi:10.1097/01.chi.0000220855.79144.ae
Herrenkohl, T. I., Catalano, R. F., Hemphill, S. A., & Toumbourou, J. W. (2009). Longitudinal examination of physical and relational aggression as precursors to later problem behaviors in adolescents. Violence And Victims, 24(1), 3-19. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.24.1.3
Hohmann, S., Becker, K., Fellinger, J., Banaschewski, T., Schmidt, M. H., Esser, G., & Laucht, M. (2009). Evidence for epistasis between the 5-HTTLPR and the dopamine D4 receptor polymorphisms in externalizing behavior among 15-year-olds. Journal Of Neural Transmission, 116(12), 1621-1629. doi:10.1007/s00702-009-0290-1
Huesmann, L. R. (1998). The role of information processing and cognitive schema in the acquisition and maintenance of habitual aggressive behavior. In R. G. Geen & E. Donnerstein (Eds.), Human aggression: Theories, research and implications for social policy (pp. 73–109). San Diego, CA: Academic Press. doi:10.1016/B978-012278805-5/ 50005-5
Huesmann, L. R., Moise-Titus, J., Podolski, C. L., & Eron, L. (2003). Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 39, 201–221. doi: 10.1037/0012-16184.108.40.206
Kalnin, A. J., Edwards, C. R., Wang, Y., Kronenberger, W. G., Hummer, T. A., Mosier, K. M., & ... Mathews, V. P. (2011). The interacting role of media violence exposure and aggressive–disruptive behavior in adolescent brain activation during an emotional Stroop task. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging Section, 192(1), 12-19. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.11.005
Krahé, B., & Busching, R. (2014). Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Media Violence Use and Aggression: A Test of Intervention Effects Over 30 Months. Psychology Of Violence doi:10.1037/a0036627
Krahé, B., Busching, R., & Möller, I. (2012). Media violence use and aggression among German adolescents: Associations and trajectories of change in a three-wave longitudinal study. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 1(3), 152-166. doi:10.1037/a0028663
Lemmens, J. S., V alkenburg, P . M., & Peter, J. (2011). The effects of pathological gaming on aggressive behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 38–47. doi:10.1007/s10964-010-9558-x
Li, X., Feigelman, S., & Stanton, B. (2000). Perceived parental monitoring and health risk behaviors among urban low-income African-American children and adolescents. Journal Of Adolescent Health, 27(1), 43-48. doi:10.1016/S1054-139X(99)00077-4
Low, S., & Espelage, D. (2014). Conduits from community violence exposure to peer aggression and victimization: Contributions of parental monitoring, impulsivity, and deviancy. Journal Of Counseling Psychology, 61(2), 221-231. doi:10.1037/a0035207
Menesini, E., Nocentini, A., & Camodeca, M. (2013). Morality, values, traditional bullying, and cyberbullying in adolescence. British Journal Of Developmental Psychology, 31(1), 1-14. doi:10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02066.x
Moffitt, T. (2001). Sex differences in antisocial behaviour conduct disorder, delinquency, and violence in the Dunedin longitudinal study. Cambridge, UK New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ortiz, J., & Raine, A. (2004). Heart Rate Level and Antisocial Behavior in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-Analysis. Journal Of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 43(2), 154-162. doi:10.1097/01.chi.0000101373.03068.5c
Portnoy, J., Raine, A., Chen, F. R., Pardini, D., Loeber, R., & Jennings, J. R. (2014). Heart rate and antisocial behavior: The mediating role of impulsive sensation seeking. Criminology, 52(2), 292-311. Doi:10.1111/1745-9125.12038
Poteat, V. P., Kimmel, M. S., & Wilchins, R. (2011). The Moderating Effects of Support for Violence Beliefs on Masculine Norms, Aggression, and Homophobic Behavior During Adolescence. Journal Of Research On Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell), 21(2), 434-447. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00682.x
Reif, A., Rösler, M., Freitag, C. M., Schneider, M., Eujen, A., Kissling, C., & ... Retz, W. (2007). Nature and Nurture Predispose to Violent Behavior: Serotonergic Genes and Adverse Childhood Environment. Neuropsychopharmacology, 32(11), 2375-2383. doi:10.1038/sj.npp.1301359
Slater, M. D., Henry, K. L., Swaim, R. C., & Anderson, L. L. (2003). Violent media content and ag- gressiveness in adolescents: A downward spiral model. Communication Research, 30, 713–736. doi:10.1177/0093650203258281
Strenziok, M., Krueger, F., Heinecke, A., Lenroot, R. K., Knutson, K. M., van der Meer, E., & Grafman, J. (2011). Developmental effects of aggressive behavior in male adolescents assessed with structural and functional brain imaging. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 6(1), 2-11. doi:10.1093/scan/nsp036
Ye, B., Yang, Q., & Ren, H. (2012). Temperament and parenting styles on adolescent aggression in adolescence: A test of interaction effects. Chinese Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 20(5), 684-687.
Yen, S., Weinstock, L. M., Andover, M. S., Sheets, E. S., Selby, E. A., & Spirito, A. (2013). Prospective predictors of adolescent suicidality: 6-month post-hospitalization follow-up. Psychological Medicine, 43(5), 983-993. doi:10.1017/S0033291712001912