Aggression: Four Determining Factors

Aggression is a deep-rooted form of social interaction. However, sometimes it can appear, not solely due to anger triggers, but environmental reasons. This article talks about the relationship between aggression and temperature, overcrowding, and noise.
Aggression: Four Determining Factors

Last update: 17 May, 2021

Violence is a type of social interaction that’s based on aggression. Despite its negative connotations, the truth remains that it’s deeply rooted in our society. In fact, it’s been a vital cog in the development of civilization. Could this be a clue to the reason that people lash out?

We find aggression and violence to a lesser or greater extent in all humans. You only have to look at the huge audience figures for the extensive range of gory movies now on offer.

Furthermore, all populations need the services of the police and army. Perhaps this is because humans tend to be impulsive. However, generally, we seem to need these services more as a preventative measure. In other words, to stop situations from escalating into violence.

Types of aggression

Some experts define aggression as behavior that harms another living being. Leonard Berkowitz added intentionality to this definition. In other words, he considered aggression as behavior intended to do harm to another.

Aiming to assault another person might be considered an end in itself, where the goal is for the victim to suffer or for the aggressor to achieve something via their aggression. In fact, this is the most common form of aggression.

There are two types:

  • Affective aggression. The aggressor responds emotionally. Their main goal is to harm the other person. Their behavior is usually impulsive and not premeditated.
  • Instrumental aggression. A person carries out this kind of aggression to achieve other ends. These can be varied. For example, it might be due to self-defense, so the other person doesn’t hurt them. It can also be due to material gain, by getting the victim to hand over their money. Or, for symbolic reasons, since the aggressor’s social circle will view it as a sign of strength.


A couple arguing.

How is aggression produced?

Miller (1939) suggested that aggression is the result of frustration, instinct, or an inevitable discharge of energy. For this reason, there are going to be instances where people are more likely to be assaulted. Likewise, instances when people are more likely to assault.

These situations have nothing to do with the aggressors themselves or the people they confront. In fact, the reasons are environmental. For example, factors such as temperature or overcrowding can lead to people being increasingly aggressive. There are four of these determinants. We list them below:

Close situations and transfer of emotions

Zillman developed the excitation-transfer theory. He proposed that emotional activation prior to the moment that causes the aggression determines whether the person chooses to attack or not.

Zillman claimed that a person doesn’t simply attack because of nonspecific emotional activation and the cognitive processes generated in regard of the immediate experience. He suggested they might attack due to the effects of a past situation. In fact, his theory states that part of the activation of a previous emotion can be transferred to any new situation.

When a person leaves a situation that activated them emotionally, that activation decreases. Eventually, it seems to disappear completely. Nevertheless, although the person stops feeling that activation, they’re far more likely to attack again than a person who hasn’t been activated. In other words, there’s an echo of the previous situation. This means they return to their previous emotional state quite quickly. To give you an example, say that something makes you feel angry. This emotional activation will then be added to a previous activation of yours. Therefore, you’ll end up feeling angrier.

We should mention that the previous emotional activation doesn’t have to be negative. For instance, say you felt extremely happy moments before. That activation will transfer to your subsequent anger reaction. For this reason, you’ll feel angrier once again. Furthermore, research suggested that people even became activated through physical exercise.

Temperature: heat and aggression

We all know expressions like “having a heated discussion”. It’s easy to see how the relationship between heat and aggression has become socially ingrained. Anderson argued that heat is a source of aversive sensations. These increase the likelihood of an aggressive response.

However, Anderson also argued that this can equally be applied to low temperatures. On the other hand, Baron and Bell’s negative-affect escape model (1976) proposes that the discomfort generated by heat, rather than activation, explains why many people tend to be aggressive. This theory suggests that, if a person feels low to moderately negatively affected, they’ll attack. However, if they feel highly negatively affected, they’ll flee. Hence, this decreases the likelihood of aggression.

Finally, the cognitive neoassociation model of aggression argues that in unpleasant temperatures, people think negative thoughts and they’re aggressive. This happens, regardless of whether or not there are any apparent causes for the aggression.

Noise: a symptom of stress and aggression

Noise is another reason why people are aggressive. Indeed, experts link high noise levels to physical and psychological disorders, as well as stress and performance problems. Furthermore, noise tends to decrease helping behaviors. It also increases aggressive behaviors.

Authors like Geen and McCown (1984) conducted several experiments. They showed that people subjected to high levels of noise were more aggressive than those in quiet conditions.

Baron and Richardson (1993) mention another variable: control. They confirm that noise increases aggressive behavior. However, when people feel they can control the noise, they’re less aggressive than those who feel they can’t do anything about it.

A man screaming.

Overcrowding: control measures

Experts haven’t entirely proved the relationship between overcrowding and aggression. Ruback and Patnaik (1989) studied aggression in overcrowded contexts. They concluded that aggressive behaviors weren’t entirely motivated by an individual’s aversion to an overcrowded situation. They were actually aggressive because they felt a lack of control. In fact, these individuals tried to gain control by carrying out acts of vandalism.

Experts suggest that overcrowding might be related to psychological processes such as performance or mental health. However, they aren’t sure about its relationship to aggression. In fact, authors like Bagley (1970) argue that it isn’t overcrowding that causes the problem, but other elements of the situation.

It appears that there are several factors capable of influencing people to either attack or not. The four elements we’ve mentioned here don’t mean that aggression will take place. They only facilitate its appearance. Consequently, aggression doesn’t occur just because the temperature is 40 degrees. However, that temperature does pose a risk factor for aggression to occur.

There are other factors that encourage violence. These could be the behavior of people you interact with, cultural determinants like the culture of honor, or emotional management levels. Also relevant are the processes regarding the socialization of violence in your community.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Enright, R. D., Freedman, S., y Rique, J., “The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness”, en Enright, R. D. y North, J. (eds.), Exploring forgivenessMadison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, págs. 46-62.
  • McCullough, M. E. y Witvliet, C. V., “The psychology of forgiveness” en Snyder C. R. y Lopez S. J. (eds.), Handbook of positive psychologyLondon, Oxford University Press, 2002, págs. 446-458.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.