Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Cultural differences in aggression

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Cultural differences in aggression:
How does culture influence aggression?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. The 2005 Cronulla Riots are an example of aggressive group behaviour

Imagine you are walking home alone after a long day at work. You do this same walk every day but today you are exhausted and all you want is to be home on the couch watching your favourite TV show. To get home quicker, you decide to take a short cut through an alley. The alley is deserted and there is only one dim light to guide the way. That’s when you see him. A man, apparently coming out of nowhere is walking towards you. Can you tell whether this man will act aggressively towards you? Does the culture of the man and your own past experiences affect your judgement? Are the man's gender and the country you are in additional aspects to be considered?

It is arguable that the topic of cultural influences on aggression has never been as important in our history as it is now. With the current war on terror it is easy to take an ethnocentric view of other cultures and see them as more aggressive and fanatical than our own culture. But is one culture really more aggressive than another? Australians call themselves laid back and non-confrontational but can they really call themselves that after the Cronulla riots?

The aim of this chapter is to use psychological theories to uncover the motivation behind aggression with an emphasis on the cultural influences of aggression. It is the hope of this investigation that you will gain a greater knowledge of yourself and of those from other cultures which you can use to enrich your life through tolerance and appreciation of our diverse world cultures.

Theories of aggression[edit | edit source]

Aggression has been liked to numerous brain regions including the frontal cortex and the amygdala. Aggression has also been linked to the hormones testosterone and arginine vasopressin as well as the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Although there are numerous psychological theories of aggression, for the purposes of this chapter cognitive neoassociation theory, social learning theory, social role theory and the general aggression model will be the focus. Some psychological theories of aggression not covered in this chapter are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1.

Evolutionary, instinctual and excitation transfer theories of aggression

Aggression theory Description
Evolutionary theory Aggression is thought to act as an adaptive solution to problems that arise within the environment (Buss, & Shackelford, 1997)
Drive theory Freud proposed that in each of us there is a death instinct where aggressive energies build up until they can no longer be contained (Buss, & Shackelford, 1997).
Excitation transfer theory Residual stimulation can amplify an aggressive reaction to an event (Anderson, & Bushman, 2002).

Cognitive neoassociation theory of aggression[edit | edit source]

In 1939, Dollard and colleagues proposed the frustration-aggression hypothesis (Berkowitz, 1989). This hypothesis states that “aggression is always a consequence of frustration” (Dollard et al., 1939, p. 1 as cited in Berkowitz, 1989). According to Dollard et al. frustration is caused by anything that prevents an individual from reaching a goal that they were either explicitly or implicitly striving to achieve. Frustration causes an individual to act aggressively towards the cause of the interference. The threat of punishment may deter an individual from acting aggressively, displace the aggressive inclinations onto a different target or change the form of the aggressive act, for example from physical to relational forms of aggression (Berkowitz, 1989).

Since its first proposal, the frustration-aggression hypothesis has garnered interest, but also criticisms. Leonard Berkowitz (1989) supported the concepts proposed in the frustration-aggression hypothesis, however he viewed frustration as an aversive event, that is, anything that one would choose to avoid. Aversive events produce a state of negative affect which then has the potential to generate aggressive behaviours. Berkowitz’s cognitive neoassociation theory of aggression proposed that past events are linked together in memory and form a guide for how a person will react to a situation (Anderson, & Bushman, 2002). For example, due to past experiences, a situation may be interpreted as harmful which in turn may activate fight (anger) or flight (fear) responses depending on the individual. The cognitive neoassociation theory does well at explaining hostile forms of aggression (Anderson, & Bushman, 2002). For an example, see box below.

Columbine high school massacre

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold perpetrated the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre. Harris and Klebold, students of Columbine High School shot and killed 12 students, one teacher and injured a further 21 people. The massacre ended with Harris and Klebold taking their own lives. It is thought that the pair’s actions were as a result of being bullied at school (an aversive event). According to cognitive neoassociation theory, aversive events can be interpreted by an individual as either anger or fear inducing depending on formed associations and cognitive evaluations. In the case of Harris and Klebold, they experienced anger. Over time, Harris and Klebold’s anger was amplified to the extent that it lead to their extreme aggressive behaviours directed at everyone at the school.

Social learning theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Illustration of a Bobo doll used in Bandura's experiments. Children were found to imitate aggressive models

Albert Bandura(1973) criticised Dollard and colleague’s hypothesis and instead stated that frustration only creates a general emotional arousal. Social learning determines how the person will respond to this arousal. Social learning theory explains aggressive behaviour as a learning process through observation, imitation and reinforcement (Bandura, 1973).

In a series of experiments, Bandura used bobo dolls to demonstrate children’s imitation of aggressive adult models. In one study (1961), Bandura randomly allocated children to the aggressive model condition or to the nonaggressive model condition. In the aggressive model condition, children watched the model perform a number of aggressive acts towards the bobo doll. Aggressive acts included punching, kicking and pommelling the doll on the head with a mallet. On the other hand, children in the nonaggressive model condition watched a model calmly assemble tinker toys, completely ignoring the bobo doll. After watching the model, children in both conditions were mildly frustrated before spending 20 minutes in the experimental room which contained a variety of toys including the bobo doll. It was found that children who had watched the aggressive model not only played more aggressively with the toys but what they watched was also highly effective in shaping the children’s behaviour. That is, the children became copies of the model. Bandura (1963) also found that children behaved more aggressively after watching aggressive cartoon and human models on TV.

Similarly, social role theory is often used to explain the differences between men and women’s behaviour (Archer, 2004). Historically, women cooked, cleaned and looked after the family while men went out and ‘brought home the bacon’. According to social role theory, differences in behaviour occurs as a result of this division and has been passed down through generations (Archer, 2004). Men and women play roles (e.g., mother, wife, husband, business man). Whichever role an individual plays will determine what behaviours are accepted and rejected (Archer, 2004). For instance, boys are taught to view aggression instrumentally. That is, boys view aggression as a way of achieving a goal. On the other hand, girls are taught to view aggression in expressive terms. That is, aggression is seen as a loss of self-control.

General aggression model[edit | edit source]

Anderson and Bushman (2002) saw all previous explanations of aggression as only answering part of the problem. They proposed the general aggression model which aimed to integrate existing theories of aggression. The general aggression model has three stages of processing:

  1. Person and situation interaction: Whether or not an aggressive reaction is caused depends on the person and the situation. Personal factors include elements such as personality traits, beliefs, values, goals and sex. Situational factors include elements such as aggressive cues, provocation and frustration.
  2. Routes: The input by personal and situational factors will determine the internal mental state. That is, cognitions, affect and arousal. These three elements are highly connected and each will greatly influence the others.
  3. Outcomes: The person undergoes an appraisal of the situation integrating all sources of information including their own social learning history. A thorough appraisal of the situation will lead to thoughtful action. On the other hand insufficient appraisal will lead to impulsive actions.

Culture and aggression[edit | edit source]

In 2007, a Swedish artist, Lars Vilks, produced a number of drawings depicting the prophet Muhammad as a dog. After one drawing was published in a regional newspaper, numerous protests by the Muslim community took place. The situation escalated and death threats were made to Vilks and others involved in the publication of the newspaper. Further, this incident may have been a contributing factor to the 2010 Stockholm bombings. What may be a joke to some, causes aggression in others.

Research on cross-cultural aggression is still in its infancy. Most research on aggression has been limited to the Western world. Nevertheless, recent research on the influences of aggression cross-culturally have provided interesting and exciting results. Although aggression theories were formed in Western cultures, the cross-cultural translation is still relevant. Putting cognitive neoassociation theory, social learning theory, social role theory and the general aggression model together in a cultural sense, predictions and explanations of cross-cultural aggression can be made. Aggression will be more common in cultures where people who experience an aversive event then experience aggression as a result of their beliefs, values and past experiences. Further, children who are in cultures that value aggression may have more aggressive models which they can imitate. They may also receive more reinforcement of their aggressive behaviour. The following sections of this chapter will address research findings on the influences of culture on aggression with a consideration of the theories of aggression.

Cross-cultural differences in aggression between men and women[edit | edit source]

Men in a number of different cultures around the world have been shown to be more physically and verbally aggressive than women (Ramirez, Andreu, & Fujihara, 2001). Men are also more likely to shoplift and commit other criminal behaviours (Ramirez, Andreu, & Fujihara, 2001). A 2007 study conducted by Acher and Thanzami demonstrated, using a population of young Indian men, that there was a positive relationship between weight and height and aggressive behaviours. That is, as men with higher weights and heights were more aggressive.

How would different aggression theories explain the relationship between aggression and the height and weight of men?

1 Social learning theory

A. Larger men are more easily frustrated
B. Men who grew up to be more aggressive had more aggressive models during childhood
C. Larger men have more active fight responses than smaller men

2 Cognitive neoassociation theory

A. Survival of the fittest
B. Larger men have more testosterone
C. Larger men are more likely to associate aversive events with fight responses rather than flight responses as a result of past experiences

Cultures are often divided into collectivism and individualism. Collectivist cultures place emphasis on the needs and desires of the group (Severance et al., 2013). Individualist cultures on the other hand place emphasis on the needs and desires of the individual (Severance et al., 2013). This distinction is believed to create differences in aggressive behaviours between cultures and between men and women as a result of cultural values.

Figure 3. North Korean family. Korea has a collectivist culture. Collectivist cultures emphasise the masculine/feminine division.

In 2006, Archer conducted a meta-analysis that reviewed the literature concerning cross-cultural physical aggression between partners. In line with social role theory, it was hypothesised that cultures that endorsed a more masculine/feminine division would display higher rates of female victimisation. That is, in cultures where women had less power in society, they would be victimised more often by their male partners. The results indicated support of this hypothesis. Those in collectivist cultures typically displayed more stereotypical masculine or feminine values and as a result women were more likely to be victimised by their male partners. However, the results of this study also demonstrated that male victimisation increased as women’s power in society increased. Thus, in an individualist culture where women and men have equal power in society, both sexes may display physically aggressive behaviours towards their partner.

Campbell and Muncer (1987, as cited in Thanzami, & Archer, 2005) demonstrated that men tend to view aggression as a way of achieving a certain goal, while women tend to view aggression as a loss of self-control. This finding supports social role theory in that aggression is approved in men but not women[factual?]. Thanzami and Archer (2005) hypothesised that this finding could be applied to individualist and collectivist cultures. They predicted that people from an individualist culture would view aggression in more instrumental terms, while those from a collectivist culture would view aggression more expressively. Participants of the study included British male and female university students from two different ethnic groups; Anglo-Saxons and Asians. The authors found that women in both samples held higher rates of expressive beliefs about aggression than men. However, contrary to their prediction, the results indicated that Asian men scored higher on instrumental scales of aggression than Anglo-Saxon men. Thanzami and Archer proposed as an explanation for this result that Asians were more likely to be subjected to racist hostility and violence. As a result, they may feel justified in being aggressive to such incitements. This study highlights the complicated nature of studying cultural influences on aggression and the numerous factors that must be considered.

Sexual aggression[edit | edit source]

Hall, Sue, Narang and Lilly (2000) sought to investigate the relationship between interpersonal and intrapersonal factors and their influence on sexual aggression in a collectivist and individualist population. Participants of the study were male Asian American and European American university students. It was hypothesised that the Asian American population would display more collectivist characteristics (interpersonal factors) while the European American population would display individualist characteristics (intrapersonal factors). In the Asian American population, the social group within which the individual was placed was the largest factor in determining sexual aggression. If an individual was in a group that accepted the rape myth and were hostile towards women, then the individual may act in a sexually aggressive manner towards women to prevent loss of group acceptance. However, if sexual aggression is seen to negatively impact on one’s reputation, the aggressive act will be inhibited. Clearly evident from this finding is the impact the social environment has on sexual aggression in Asian men. On the other hand, the European American sample were less concerned about group acceptance and reputation. Instead, aggressive sexual behaviour appeared to be as a result of personal beliefs and standards (intrapersonal factors). That is[grammar?], individuals who accepted the rape myth and harboured hostility towards women despite the beliefs and standards of others in their environment, were more likely to be sexually aggressive.

Honour[edit | edit source]

Many collectivist cultures (for example Turkey and Pakistan) have what is termed as an 'honour culture' (Severance et al., 2013). Honour differs from face which is the acknowledgement of an individual’s place in the hierarchy of a society (Severance et al., 2013). An individual is not born possessing honour, instead it is something that must be earned and can therefore be lost (Severance et al., 2013). Due to the interdependent nature of collectivist cultures, honour loss is contagious among family members and close friends (Severance et al., 2013).

Figure 4. Map indicating the southern states of America. Men from the South were found to react more aggressively to an insult than men from the Northern states

In a series of experiments, Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle and Schwarz (1996) investigated the differences between aggression in southern and northern American male university students. Southern American males are believed to have a culture of honour which for them meant masculine courage, physical strength and a pride in their manhood (Fischer, 1989 as cited by Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996). As a result, it was hypothesised that men from the South would react more aggressively to an insult than men from the North. The results of the experiment were consistent with the hypothesis. After being insulted, men from the South were visibly more upset and had higher cortisol and testosterone levels. The study also found that when southern men were insulted in front of a confederate of the experiment, they were more likely to be aggressive than the northern men in order to redeem their masculine honour.

To test the results of Cohen et al. on a cross-cultural sample, van Osch, Breugelmans, Zeelenberg and Bölük (2012) studied the consequences of an insult on a Turkish and Dutch population. Turkey, like many Mediterranean countries has an honour culture, while the Netherlands does not. In particular, Turkey has a culture of family honour, which can be defined as the concern of the reputation of one’s family (van Osch, Breugelmans, Zeelenberg, & Bölük, 2012). The results of the study indicated that Turks reacted more aggressively to an insult than the Dutch. Neither group differed in scores of masculine honour which lead to the conclusion that differences in aggression was a result of holding family honour beliefs. The authors suggested that any insult could be interpreted by Turks as a threat to the reputation of their family. Direct insults to the family would therefore result in strong aggressive behaviours.

How would the general aggression model explain the results of van Osch, Breugelmans, Zeelenberg and Bölük (2012)?

A. Turks evolved to be more aggressive than the Dutch.
B. Personal factors in the Turks such as their beleifs, values and goals caused a negative mental state that when appraised led to aggressive reactions.
C. The Turks had been aroused by a previous event. The residual arousal caused them to interpret the insult with more aggression than the Dutch.

Are there universal dimensions of aggression?[edit | edit source]

Severance et al. (2013) investigated whether aggression was viewed universally the same or whether it was culturally specific. Participants of the study included 409 undergraduate students from the United States, Pakistan, Israel and Japan. Results of the study revealed similarity in some aspects of aggression across cultures, however cultural beliefs and values created nuances.

Severance et al. demonstrated that direct and indirect forms of aggression appeared across all cultures. It was found that Americans and Japanese associate direct acts of aggression with physical harm while those from Israel associated direct acts of aggression as being exclusively verbal. The Japanese participants viewed direct aggression as the most destructive. Severance et al. believe this result reflects the value the Japanese place on maintaining social harmony in order to preserve face. Any conflict is concealed and dealt with by indirect means.

Further, it was found that being the victim of various aggressive acts could result in damage to self-worth across all cultures. However, culture determined which act would cause this result. For instance, in Pakistan and Israel, damage to self-worth resulted when an individual’s honour was at risk. People from these cultures saw social exclusion as a severe threat to self-worth as it impacted on their way of life and mental well-being. On the other hand, in the United States and Japan, damage to self-worth was as a result of being insulted publicly.

Speaking to people from other cultures

Imagine that you are about to close a big business deal with Mr Ozaki, a renowned Japanese business man. You have been working on this deal for a long time, sacrificing a lot of time with your family and friends. It all comes down to this one phone call. You have spoken to him many times before but this is your final chance to sway him your way. Unfortunately this hasn’t been the best day for you and the poor phone line connection doesn’t do wonders for your mood. As a result you speak to Mr Ozaki in a firmer and less polite manner than you ever have before but you still feel you got all the valid points across. Surprisingly, a couple of days later you find out that Mr Ozaki has cancelled the business deal. You knew that the deal wasn’t definite but you thought it was more than likely going to happen. So what happened?!

Severance et al. (2013) demonstrated that people from individualistic cultures may overlook the consequences of verbal aggression in different cultures. Japanese view verbal aggression as a direct attack on one’s reputation. Simply using an aggressive tone of voice when speaking to someone from Japan could result in far more severe consequences than intended.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The aim of this chapter was to use psychological theories to uncover the motivation behind aggression from a cultural perspective. This chapter has discussed numerous research findings which have highlighted the importance of interpersonal values, intrapersonal values, beliefs and past experiences in determining what causes aggression in different cultures. It is the hope that from this chapter you have gained a greater understanding of cross-cultural aggression and can use this knowledge to enrich your own life through acceptance and respect of other cultures.

Take home message
  • Numerous psychological theories can be used to explain aggression. This demonstrates its multifactorial and complex nature. Aggression is not a 'one size fits all' scenario and culture adds an additional element for consideration.
  • Collectivist and individualist cultures differ in the emphasis they place on the masculine/feminine division. This division demonstrates a difference in values, beliefs and social learning experiences. What is important to someone from a collectivist culture, may be very different to someone from an individualist culture.
  • Insults to an individual from an honour culture can be interpreted as a threat to the reputation of their family. This in turn, increases the likeliness of aggressive behaviours. Acknowledging that insults are interpreted differently cross-culturally can improve one's life through increased awareness and understanding of different cultures.
  • There are many universal dimensions of aggression, however, culture will create nuances in the interpretation of aggression. Understanding these nuances will help communication with other cultures that can be used to better one's life through appreciation of different cultural values.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human Aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27-51. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135231

Archer, J. (2004). Sex differences in aggression in real world settings: A meta-analytic review. Review of General Psychology, 8, 291-322. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.8.4.291

Archer, J. (2006). Cross-cultural differences in physical aggression between partners: A social-role analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 133-153. Retrieved from

Archer, J., & Thanzami, V. L. (2007). The relation between physical aggression, size and strength, among a sample of young Indian men. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 627-633. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.01.005

Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Oxford, England: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. Ross, D. & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582. doi: 10.1037/h0045925

Bandura, A. Ross, D. & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3-11. doi: 10.1037/h0048687

Berkowitz, L. (1989). Frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 59-73. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.106.1.59

Buss, D. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (1997). Human aggression in evolutionary psychology perspective. Clinical Psychology Review, 17, 605-619. Retrieved from

Cohen, D., Nisbett, R. E., Bowdle, B. F., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult, aggression and the southern culture of honour: An "experimental ethnography". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 945-960. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.70.5.945

Hall, G. C. N., Sue, S., Narang, D. S., & Lilly, R. S. (2000). Culture-specific models of men's sexual aggression: Intra-and interpersonal determinants. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 6, 252-267. doi: 10.1037/1099-9809.6.3.252

Ramirez, J. M., Andreu, J. M., & Fujihara, T. (2001). Cultural and sex differences in aggression: A comparison between Japanese and Spanish students using two different inventories. Aggressive Behavior, 27, 313-322. doi: 10.1002/ab.1014

Severance, L., Bui-Wrzosinska, L., Gelfand, M. J., Lyons, S., Nowak, A., Borkowski,W., ... Yamaguchi, S. (2013). The psychological structure of aggression across cultures. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34, 835-865. doi:10.1002/job.1873

Thanzami, V. L., & Archer, J. (2005). Beliefs about aggression in british students from individualist and collectivist cultures. Aggressive Behaviour, 31, 350-358. doi: 10.1002/ab.20065

van Osch, Y., Breugelmans, S. M., Zeelenberg, M., & Bölük, P. (2013). A different kind of honor culture: Family honor and aggression in Turks. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 16, 334-344. doi: 10.1177/1368430212467475

External links[edit | edit source]