Outline and evaluate one or more social psychological theories of aggression. (8 marks + 16 marks)

For this question, you should discuss relevant theories such as social learning theory and deindividuation. Be careful not to include too much AO1 content here: there should be twice as much AO2 as their is AO1.

Social Learning Theory (SLT) suggests that children learn aggressive behaviour by observing others acting aggressively. They also learn under what situations people are likely to be rewarded for their aggressive behaviour (this is known as vicarious reinforcement) or punished. As a result, they learn how to perform aggressive acts when appropriate (i.e. when rewards will follow), and will learn not to perform aggressive acts when they will be punished for it.

For social learning to take place, the child must form a mental representation of the behaviour as well as an expectancy of any future outcome of them performing that behaviour. If opportunities for aggressive behaviour arise in the future, the child may display that behaviour provided the expectation of reward is greater than the expectation of punishment.

SLT is supported by Bandura et al., who found that children who observed a model behaving aggressively towards a Bobo doll were more likely to reproduce the same behaviours when they were later allowed to interact with the doll; the children even improvised their own aggressive actions towards the doll. This was particularly the case when they saw the adult rewarded for their aggressive behaviour, thus supporting the claim that the expectation of reward influences the likelihood of a behaviour being performed.

However, this study lacks validity because the children may have been aware of what was expected of them, leading to them displaying demand characteristics when they were allowed to play with the doll. The study also focuses on aggression toward a doll rather than real-life aggression, meaning the same results may not apply to other settings. However, a subsequent study  using a live clown instead of a doll found similarly high levels of imitation among children, showing that SLT does apply to violence aggression towards other people.

A strength of SLT over simpler learning theories is that it can also explain aggressive behaviour in the absence of direct reinforcement. For example, in the children in the Bobo doll studies were never directly reinforced for their own aggressive behaviour; the concept of vicarious reinforcement is necessary to explain their actions.

Ethical issues can make SLT difficult to test experimentally, as it is considered unethical to expose children to aggressive behaviour with the knowledge that they may then imitate those acts in their own behaviour. Thus, many of the hypotheses that form a part of this theory of aggression cannot be subjected to experimental validation.

Deindividuation is a state that is categorised by the loss of a sense of individual identity. It involves a loss of public self-awareness (concern about how others view you) and private self-awareness (regard for your own thoughts and feelings). This loss of self-awareness can lead to increased aggression as it minimises concerns about evaluation by others and about your own moral standards, thus weakening the normal barriers to aggression.

Deindividuation can be caused by being anonymous (and therefore effectively unaccountable), for example in a crowd or a mask. Anonymity can diminish awareness of your own individuality, instead being merely part of a large group. Deindividuation can also be caused by an altered consciousness due to drugs or alcohol.

The role of deindividuation is supported by Zimbardo et al., who simulated a prison with participants being randomly assigned guard or prisoner role. The guards - who were deindividuated by their uniforms and dark sunglasses - became extremely aggressive towards the prisoners. This shows that anonymity can lead to aggression, thus supporting deindividuation theory.

This study is widely considered to be unethical due to the physical and psychological pain inflicted upon the participants who were assigned as prisoners. The study also has a low population validity as only young, male, American students were tested. The results should therefore only be generalised to other people with extreme caution, if at all. Despite its shortcomings, this study does have a high ecological validity due to the realistic setting.

Research evidence supports the idea that large crowds can lead to increased aggression. Mullen conducted a content analysis of newspaper reports of lynchings in the US and found that larger crowds usually resulted in more savage killings, supporting deindividuation theory. However, lacks historic validity as it may only apply to a very specific time in US history.

Despite the findings that large crowds can increase aggression, many large group (such as religious gatherings) are very peaceful. One meta-analysis of sixty studies found insufficient support for aggression in large groups. This suggests that groups do not create aggressive conditions, refuting the ideas of individuation theory.