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Myers (2008) defines aggression as “physical or verbal behavior intended to cause harm” (p. 345). However, this definition doesn’t encompass the complexities of aggressive behavior. In real-life scenarios, any form of aggression causes harm to others. If someone yells and threatens when there is nobody else around to hear, is it considered aggression or just yelling? This is not aggression. Aggression is the act of doing harm, which may include causing harm to self, to others, to objects, or to animals.

Aggression is a behavior, not a consequence. It cannot be judged as intentional or unintentional. For instance, if you walk up to a friend and slap your friend’s arm, your behavior would be considered as physical aggression. Slapping would be considered a behavior defining aggression. Now, consider a situation where you walk up to a friend and slap your friend’s arm because a big bee is about to sting. In this case your act of slapping will still be considered an aggressive behavior. The consequence of your action is the bee flying off and your friend saying, “Hey, what did you do that for?”

Understanding the biological basis of aggression is not difficult if you consider it in terms of animal behavior and their need to survive. What would make an animal become aggressive? It could be to protect the young ones (maternal aggression), to hunt (to reduce the drives of hunger and thirst), or to save life from enemies. It is interesting to note that the neural pathways and brain structures associated with hunger, thirst, and reproduction are connected to the structures associated with senses and emotions. Brain structures such as the hypothalamus and amygdala have been associated with emotional responses such as fear and aggression (Passamonti, Rowe, Ewbank, Hampshire, Keane, & Calder, 2008).

See the linked document for more on aggression.

Myers, D. (2008). Social psychology (9th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Passamonti, L., Rowe, J., Ewbank, M., Hampshire, A., Keane, J., & Calder, A.(2008). Connectivity from the ventral anterior cingulate to the amygdala is modulated by appetitive motivation in response to facial signals of aggression. Neuroimage, 43(3), 562–570. Retrieved from


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Operational Definitions and the Bobo
Doll Experiment

PSY3010 Social Psychology

©2016 South University

Operational Definitions and the Bobo Doll Experiment


The Operational Definition of Aggression

To measure aggression, psychologists use an operational definition. An operational definition describes
behaviors that can be observed and recorded. Some of the common examples of each category of
operationally defined aggressive behavior is as follows:

Physical Aggression: This could include hitting, punching, grabbing, pinching, slapping, pushing, pulling
hair, biting, and throwing objects at others.

Verbal Aggression: This could include threatening to harm others. Yelling and screaming without threats
is nonverbal aggression.

Self-Injury: This could include self-injurious behavior (SIB), which include banging your head or body
against objects, hitting you own body with objects, and slapping or punching yourself.

Property Destruction: This could include throwing items and breaking objects such as windows,
television sets, pictures, and furniture.

A good way to understand the cognitive or learned basis of aggression is by observing young children in a
playground or a day-care center. Since the children are small, their aggressive acts will be proportional to
their size. Nevertheless, the intensity and frequency of their physical (hitting, pushing, punching, kicking,
and biting others) or verbal (yelling at others) aggressive behavior will be rather high.

If aggression has a biological component and children are frequently observed to engage in aggression,
then it would be logical to assume that as you mature you will learn how not to be aggressive or, in other
aspects, learn how to focus your aggressive behaviors on something that is socially acceptable such as
sports and other forms of competition. This perspective is speculative, but it does help in understanding
the link between the biological and learned aspect of aggression.

In the Bobo doll experiment (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961), children who observed aggressive models
(adults displaying aggression) were more apt to demonstrate aggression in a similar circumstance.
Insofar as the observation of adult models displaying aggression communicates permissiveness for
aggressive behavior, such exposure may serve to weaken inhibitory responses, increasing the probability
of aggressive reactions to convert to subsequent frustrations. However, the fact that subjects expressed
their aggression in ways clearly resembling the patterns exhibited by adult role models provides striking
evidence for the occurrence of learning by imitation (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961).

Children learn to control aggression through rewards and punishments. The study by Bandura first
allowed children to engage in behaviors otherwise admonished and then provided a method
(observational learning) to be less aggressive. Observational (social) learning also provides an explanation
for other types of aggressive behavior such as group behavior.

PSY3010 Social Psychology

©2016 South University

Operational Definitions and the Bobo Doll Experiment


The Bobo Doll Experiment

Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1961) designed an experiment to study learned aggressive behavior. Bandura
used 36 boys and 36 girls with an average of age of four years. He requested one male and one female
candidate to act as adult role models.

The participants were divided into 8 experimental groups with 6 in each group and a control group of 24
children. The experimental groups were further divided into two groups. One group viewed aggressive
models and the other viewed nonaggressive models.

The children viewing adults being aggressive to the Bobo doll were much more likely to be aggressive
than those who did not view aggressive adults. Those viewing an adult of the same gender were also
more aggressive than those viewing an adult of the opposite gender.

PSY3010 Social Psychology

©2016 South University

Operational Definitions and the Bobo Doll Experiment



Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggression

models. Journal of Abnormal & SocialPsychology, 63(3), 575–582.

© 2016 South University

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