“Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.”
When was the last time you felt worried, frustrated, or resentful? Was it this morning? Yesterday? Last week? Last month? I’d wager that the odds are favorable in not having to look much further back than that in your own experience to answer this question. And when you find that moment, that singular point in time you can identify with the feeling of encountering a seemingly insurmountable obstacle blocking your path forward, do you really understand what you are staring at? Does it make sense to you in regard to why and how that moment allows this feeling to well up and pool inside of you? And if you think that it does make sense, or even if you think that it doesn’t, how can you be certain that either of those viewpoints is accurate?
Based on my own experience and observations, it has become my understanding that, as human beings, a point of commonality we all share is a tendency to distort the information we perceive from the world around us in order to allow it to occupy the predetermined models we develop individually to resolve that information with our own hopes, fears, and desires. We also have the ability, should we choose to exercise it, to allow the distortion of this information to create illusions in our mind to rationalize those things that would appear to be otherwise inexplicable. In accepting this supposition, how then can we best determine that what we believe we are observing can be proven accurate beyond doubt? Well, in order to declare our knowledge of any subject, we have start at the beginning and work our way forward; so let’s do that, with the understanding that what we eventually find may not end up being what we initially expect.
Yale University has long been regarded as one of the pillars of institutional education in the United States. Beyond the whispers of secret societies, conspiracy theories, and obvious class elitism, this fixture of the national educational landscape has contributed to many of the foundational elements of what we currently consider to be American society; not the least of which would be work that has contributed to developing some of the most widely accepted concepts in modern behavioral psychology. That is where today’s story begins.
To The Wayback Machine, Sherman!
In 1938, the research team of John Dollard, Neal Miller, Leonard Doob, Orval Mowrer, and Robert Sears began work on what would become known as the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis(FA-H), under the auspices of the Yale Institute of Human Resources. The hypothesis they created proposed that frustration, defined as “the condition which exists when a goal-response suffers interference,” is the direct antecedent to aggression, which they defined as ” an act whose goal-response is injury to an organism(or an organism surrogate.)” Stated plainly, they postulated that aggression is the direct result of thwarting an individual’s effort to attain a goal.
The hypothesis was a combination of philosophies that were already well established in the academic world, including Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, and Marxism. The core concepts that the team proposed for study were:
⦁ The greater the perceived reward of goal attainment by the individual, the more aggressive the reaction would be when blocked.
⦁ The intensity of the resultant reactive aggression would be directly proportional to any obtained partial attainment.
⦁ The negative affect of consistent interference would be cumulative, and lead to subsequently higher levels of reactive aggression; partially attributed to the actual source of interference, but also to residual unsettled prior interference.
The team of Dollard et al. devised and conducted studies to test this hypothesis, and published their findings in 1939 under the title Frustration and Aggression. As tends to occur with most new ideas in academia, the results of these studies were met with an abundance of criticism. In an effort to continue the understanding of the relationship between these phenomena, Neal Miller would incorporate the criticisms of, and feedback from, the original studies into a revised definition for the FA-H. In 1941, Miller published his revision of the hypothesis to include the clarification that frustration is a necessary foundational component of aggressive behavior, but that aggression is only one possible outcome. However, the hypothesis retained the concept that consistent interference has the potential to increase the probability of reactive aggression as a response.
The revised hypothesis was an attempt to account for other variables that could influence behavioral outcomes to explain situations where frustration does not immediately lead to observable reactive aggression, which was one of the major criticisms of the original study. This synthesis of the hypothesis and its criticisms led to the FA-H becoming more widely accepted and adopted in the psychology community. This, to me, is a classic example of the Hegelian dialectic at work, where a thesis and it’s antithesis ultimately combine to create a synthesis of both ideas. This moment in time could likely be designated as the true birth of the FA-H, which would later be renamed as the Frustration-Aggression-Displacement Theory; but for the sake of simplicity, I will continue to employ the FA-H acronym.
In a separate article in 1941, anthropologist Gregory Bateson identified cultural influence as a deterministic factor of the FA-H. He observed that Western cultures, which he identified as emphasizing the sense of gratification generated by goal attainment, appeared to be more disposed to demonstrable reactive aggression than their Eastern counterparts, which conversely direct attention to the steps required to attain that goal instead of the desired outcome. In making this observation, Bateson identified how looking beyond the steps necessary to attain a goal, and viewing the completion of the goal itself as most important, can create frustration with minimal external interference.
In 1955, Arthur R. Cohen would begin to explore the cultural aspect of the FA-H further. From his own studies, Cohen was able to conclude that demonstrations of reactive aggression(or what they called “acting out” when I was in public school) were dependent upon a perceived anticipation of punishment resulting from that behavior. In other words, the greater the perceived authority of the source of interference, the less likely it will be that the perceived source will be the direct target of any resulting demonstration of aggression. Social ostracization may be the most immediately accessible example of this for most of us, where the fear and uncertainty associated with being turned away from the group can cause us to submit to patterns of thought or behavior that stand in opposition to what we individually believe to be correct.
The perception of authority as the source of interference would become a theme of later studies, in an effort to measure the development of differing rationalizations of the perceived source of interference by the individual being thwarted. These studies identified attributions that would come to be separated into one of two categories: justified(or legitimate) interference vs. unjustified(or illegitimate) interference. Justified interference can be defined as the thwarting of the individual’s goal attainment primarily as a function of promoting the greater benefit of the collective over that of the individual, also referred to ubiquitously as the “common good.” Whereas unjustified interference can be interpreted as the intent to interfere with the individual’s goal attainment as a act of personally directed injury. Under these definitions, with data provided from yet more studies, it was eventually concluded that frustration perceived as originating from an “illegitimate” source was found to have a greater probability of being demonstrated as reactive aggression toward an unassociated third party. So now you know why some people kick dogs.
Some studies also attempted to take into account neurobiological factors that may amplify or mitigate demonstrations of reactive aggression resulting from interference. Chief among these is what we commonly refer to as the “fight or flight” response. Hardwired into animals of all shapes and sizes, this response typically occurs when the individual perceives an immediate threat to their survival, and a quick reaction is anticipated as a necessary component of survival from the perceived threat; up to and including aggression as a defense mechanism. The traditional thinking around this autonomic function is that the greater the danger an individual perceives themselves to be encountering, the greater the chances that the response to that danger will rely on instinct instead of more developed cognitive processes. Make a mental note of that; it may be important later.
The Golden Anniversary
In 1989, American behaviorist Leonard Berkowitz would propose that the FA-H was still insufficient to account for all possible major influences in his essay Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis: Examination and Reformulation, and would recommend further revisions to account for negative affect and individual attributions. Berkowitz identified additional contributing factors of reactive aggression, including anger, aggressive habits, and external stimuli. These additional points of focus allowed for the development of what Berkowitz termed the “aggressive cues” sub-hypothesis. His contention was that objects that communicate destruction, like a child’s toy tank for instance, could cause an enhanced predisposition toward aggressive behavior. He also proposed that reactive aggression responses could be a learned instrumental behavior, where the aggressor is deliberately directing the behavior toward an intended outcome(money, status, territory, etc.), instead of being the result of interference with goal attainment.
Pointing to several studies conducted during the decade of the 1970s, Berkowitz summarizes some additional components that may influence the severity of reactive aggression, including:
⦁ Informing the individual being thwarted that the frustration source is not of personally targeted origin can be shown to mitigate the severity of the reactive aggression response.
⦁ This is uniquely observable when the mitigating information is presented prior to provocation.
⦁ These mitigation attempts appear to have a neutral effect on the “extremely aroused”(i.e. individuals pre-disposed to negative affect from consistent interference).
Berkowitz also references the work of J.R. Averill who, in his own examination of some of the same studies in 1982, concluded “frustration, or the interruption of some ongoing or planned activity”, was the single most frequently mentioned anger-precipitating event and often involved the “violation of important personal expectations or wishes.”
Berkowitz reasons that frequent exposure to frustrating events could increase the probability of a reactive aggression response in a number of ways. For instance, it could potentially decrease the probability of a non-aggressive response. It could weaken the emotional restraint of the individual being thwarted. It could also increase the perceived intensity of the frustration by the individual. By further dissecting the mechanisms through which a reactive aggression response could be triggered, Berkowitz points out how Dollard et al. failed in their original hypothesis to acknowledge the role that cognitive functions play in determining and potentially mitigating an emotional reaction to provocation.
But as you may have observed in your own experience, not every act of interference to goal attainment is deliberate or even immediately discernable. Bad things do appear to randomly happen to otherwise good people. In these cases, Berkowitz argues, “a sudden failure to reach an anticipated goal has some of the characteristics of a punishment… and it is this negative feeling that generates the aggressive inclinations.” This, of course, would tie in to the autonomic neurological response commonly referred to as “fight or flight.” Sudden, unexpected interference, if met by an emotional reaction instead of a well-reasoned response, effectively forces a choice upon the individual(both of which can be demonstrated as a product of fear): escape/avoidance(flight) or anger(fight). However, Berkowitz posits that if the emotional response can be recognized when it is occurring, cognitive functions can then engage and begin to allow the individual to make sense of perceived events and motivations.
This approach would form the basis of what Berkowitz termed the Cognitive Neo-Association Model, which attempts to explain acts of reactive aggression that do not fit neatly within the FA-H. This model puts forth the concept that ideas, emotions, and memories all become linked together when they are stored in the memory center of the human brain, creating a synaptic network. Therefore, when one synapse is triggered by a stimulus, it also triggers the related synapses in response. One way to think of it is like when you hear a song that reminds you of a particular memory from your own life. The song, being the stimulus, triggers the memory that you associate with that song, which in turn triggers specific emotions that you also associate with that song, and perhaps many more associations. This appears to work both for pleasant memories as well as the ones we would prefer to not remember.
Berkowitz further identifies physical discomfort as a measurable factor in facilitating reactive aggression ideation. The logic here appears sound. If an individual is already feeling stress due to physical discomfort, it should make sense that this condition would have the potential of lowering any inhibition to reacting in an aggressive manner. I would add that this type of affect can also be observed when environmental conditions are regarded by the individual as being unpleasant. Such as when an agitated crowd, or even a perceived authority figure, attempts to coerce an individual to conform to an ideological structure that conflicts with the individual’s beliefs. My personal observations form the basis for this opinion; your results may vary.
Drawing from five decades of research and trials, Berkowitz concludes his study by offering a more clearly defined picture of the links between frustration and aggression as demonstrated in human behavior:
“Frustrations are averse events and generate aggressive inclinations only to the extent that they produce negative affect. An unanticipated failure to obtain an attractive goal is more unpleasant than an expected failure, and it is the greater displeasure in the former case that gives rise to the stronger instigation of aggression. Similarly, the thwarted person’s appraisals and attributions presumably determine how bad they feel at not getting what they had wanted so that they are most aggressively inclined when they experience strong negative affect.”
In other words, there appears to be accumulating evidence that reactive aggression may be more the product of the perception of the individual being interfered with than the actual interference that is thwarting goal attainment.
FA-H In The Information Age
Heading into the dawn of a new millennium, where digitized information began to outpace it’s analog counterparts and physical activity started ceding ground to online activity, the FA-H would continue to evolve through new research and larger data sets. Studies conducted during the early 2000s surmised that an increase in environmental stressors has the potential to create an increase in reactive aggression, especially in individuals that are determined to be pre-disposed to this type of response due to prior conditioning. Supporting neurological data collected from the participants during some of these studies would appear to support this conclusion.
A study published in 2009 by Kevin D. Williams, titled the Effects of Frustration, Violence, and Trait Hostility After Playing a Video Game, was one of many studies attempting to define a link between violent content in video games and a pre-disposition to reactive aggression. While many of the studies that I have personally consumed on this subject attempt to present correlation as if it were equal to causation, Williams’ study was primarily concerned with identifying any potential link between the consumption of violent media as an essential component in predicting a behavioral tendency toward reactive aggression. In my opinion, what he found was actually quite remarkable and highly contradictory to the work of many of his peers. Williams observed that the difficulty of the gameplay, regardless of whether the content could be defined as violent or non-violent, created the initial frustration in the player and thereby the potential for reactive aggression. The violence level of the content appeared to only facilitate in increasing that potential. Violent gameplay that was determined to be comparatively easy did not.
In 2014, the team of Jessica E. Shackman and Seth D. Pollak published their paper Impact of Physical Maltreatment on the Regulation of Negative Affect and Aggression, which marked the conclusion of their research into elements of the FA-H. For the purposes of expediency(and saving my fingers and your eyes), in discussing this study I will be largely replacing the words “physical maltreatment” with “abuse.” I tend to prefer terms that provide directly obvious meaning, and it’s shorter to type.
At this point in human history, I think it is safe to make the assumption that children who experience abuse from one or both parents are more likely to internalize that experience and eventually have it manifest as reactive aggression; or, as I believe it is currently be referred to, as “anti-social behavior and conduct problems.” Because of this conditioning, children of abuse become progressively disproportionately attuned to looking for visual and verbal cues of anger from their environment compared with non-abused children. These abused children also display a tendency to misinterpret social cues as a result of their dysfunctional childhood, and have difficulty processing the emotional responses of others. Shackman & Pollak hypothesized that children with a history of abuse would be quicker to anger from and react to provocation, and they would also have a more difficult time mitigating their anger, resulting in the prolonged duration of any reactive aggression response.
What they found after the study had concluded was not altogether out of line with their original hypothesis. Perhaps not completely surprising, race and/or ethnicity was not found to be a contributing factor. Abused children in the study demonstrated higher levels of aggression during recovery from provocation, compared to the control group of non-abused children, as well as during provocation. Negative affect, produced by provocation and sustained through recovery in the abused children, resulted in more aggressive behavior than the control group. A history of abuse did also appear to predict negative affect during provocation and recovery, but not during baseline observations. And, as the authors state so succinctly, “more than half of the impact of maltreatment on frustration-elicited negative affect was accounted for by variation in attention to social threat.”
As a possible explanation, the authors offer that poor self-regulation of reactive aggression may be amplified by an over-emphasis on negative social cues. They stated unequivocally “the degree of [abuse] children have experienced was predictive of both heightened attention toward cues of anger and greater negative affect during provocation.” Shackman & Pollak concluded that children adapted to patterns of abuse appear to be predisposed to higher levels of reactive aggression in response to a perceived threat, which can then lead to the distortion of their interpretation of social stimuli, and then lead to the reinforcement of negative affect. However, even though the data that they present seems to indicate that their original hypothesis was well constructed, the authors also state that their findings are insufficient to determine direct correlation. While I can appreciate the authors’ humility, I’m of the opinion that they are being far too modest.
But How Does All Of This Work In The Real World?
In the beginning of the month of August in 2011, riots were erupting all across Britain in response to the shooting death of Mark Duggan at the hands of local law enforcement in Tottenham Hale, London. Violent crowds emerged in cities all across the country and, as violent groups of people tend to do when they get together, inflicted hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage to businesses and property in the course of demonstrating their frustration with the injustice they believed they had observed. In a somewhat bizarre rebuttal to then U.K. prime minister David Cameron pondering if he should seek advice from the United States for how to handle the angry crowds, author Arthur Herman invoked the FA-H as an undeniable reason why that advice would lead to more destruction.
Writing for the National Review, Herman argues that while the FA-H does appear to work well enough when applied through simple studies with clearly defined points of clinical control, it begins to expose its true weaknesses when it is applied to explain reactive aggression in a wider social context. He states that trying to shoehorn a system as complex as an angry, violent mob into such a simple explanation effectively “infantilizes” human behavior, and ignores important concepts like individual morality and personal responsibility. Herman then points to the civil unrest that occurred in the United States in the 1960s as an example of the FA-H being used to both excuse and justify mob violence:
“So the formula was simple. If you were black and rioted, then it was the white man’s fault. If you were poor and smashed windows to steal TVs, then the ‘haves’ were to blame for not giving you the TV in the first place. If you were young and tore your college campus apart, it was your elder’s fault – just as the flash mob is Facebook and Twitter’s fault. The moral responsibility for crime and violence now shifted from the rioter to his or her victims, who stood for those who blocked gratification of their goals – worthy or unworthy, it didn’t matter.”
I almost didn’t include this article, but I think that it illustrates an important point. Herman gets some of the points of his argument completely right, but at the same time appears to be completely unaware of the work of Berkowitz and those that followed him. He also appears to completely ignore the fact that angry mobs don’t just spontaneously appear out of nowhere. Even the most chaotic crowd has to have elements capable of providing organization and direction, or else it is likely to quickly dissipate into its component parts.
Or maybe he just read the Wikipedia page linked above and decided that he had learned enough. Interestingly enough to me, the picture that Herman paints throughout the article shows that he was clearly targeting the obvious Marxist component of the FA-H; which endures even to the present time. The mob violence evident in the British riots of 2011 is far from the most obvious example of the FA-H at work in a broad social context. I think events such as these, when they inevitably occur, can actually be viewed more accurately as a symptom of a much larger dysfunction to which we may all be susceptible, to one degree or another.
Structural Violence And The FA-H
“Aggression only moves in one direction – it creates mores aggression.”
-Margaret J. Wheatley
If the ultimate act of aggression is expressed as war, then the ultimate source of frustration among a population would have to be expressed as a corrupt power structure designed to benefit the privileged few at the top to the intentional detriment of the many underneath. In many countries around the world, throughout the eras of history, nations have fallen when the frustration of the populace can no longer be mitigated by bread and circus. In a paper published by the Joint Special Operations University(JSOU) in 2018, University of South Florida professor of international studies Earl Conteh-Morgan uses the country of Sierra Leone to depict how the consistent frustration of the population of a nation can result in the ultimate act of reactive aggression. While the venerable Wikipedia would have us believe that the Sierra Leone civil war began in 1991, the reality is that 1991 was when the powder keg that had been steadily stoked for decades finally exploded.
Leaning heavily on the FA-H in the opening pages, Conteh-Morgan contends that “frustration and anger associated with institutional policies or governmental actions,” which he terms structural violence, “eventually contribute to the eruption of ethnic bloodletting.” He identifies terrorism, coups d’état, revolutions, and internal wars as observable phenomena that can be traced directly back to the structural violence of the affected territory. However, he neglects to acknowledge, anywhere in the paper, the documentation readily available of the participation of various intelligence services that may have been instrumental in these types of events during the 20th century and beyond. But let’s not distract ourselves.
Conteh-Morgan offers that one of the keys reasons behind the existence of structural violence “is governmental corruption in state institutions which satisfy the needs of some groups at the expense of the needs of other groups. Over time, corruption in public life becomes a way of life.” It would appear to me that this observation ties directly into the concept of legitimate vs illegitimate frustration, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. And we should also keep in mind that this paper was written for, and published by, the JSOU; which, according to Wikipedia, is the department responsible for providing “relevant, realistic, leading-edge education opportunities to military and civilian(emphasis mine) special operations forces around the world…” The irony of this is not at all lost on me. Most commonly, a reference to a civilian special operations force is just another way of saying intelligence agency.
Conteh-Morgan directly highlights food scarcity as a primary catalyst for frustration at a societal scale that can quickly escalate to civil unrest and eventually open revolt. He then proceeds to outline further social mechanisms that could coincide with each other to create an atmosphere of frustration among large populations. Although not explicitly stated by the author, a minimal amount of critical thinking applied to these concepts conveyed in the examination of the devolution of Sierra Leone reveals that they could be organic manifestations of poorly reasoned institutional processes, or they could also be engineered through systems of centralized control.
One of the manifestations of this structural violence is Progressive Relative Deprivation(PRD), which the author defines in his own words by stating “collective political violence is more likely to erupt when a prolonged period of actual economic and social development is followed by a short period of abrupt economic decline.” He breaks this idea down further by offering observable real-world events that might serve as a roadmap leading the way to societal level violence:
- The long improvement in an individual’s condition produces expectations of continued improvement.
- As reality begins to interact with and contradict those expectations, people become afraid that the value of what they have accumulated over the years will be lost overnight.
- Economic depression in a growing, booming economy can lead to perceptions of illegitimate frustration where the “haves” prosper at the expense of the “have-nots.”
- In a society experiencing modernization within the context of rigid political and economic structures, the perception of illegitimacy by the populace is reinforced by the behavior of the people benefiting from those structures.
Conteh-Morgan uses the bloody history of Sierra Leone to draw his own conclusions of how these processes can be observed from the perspective of hindsight. He states:
“By the 1970s the Siaka Stevens regime institutionalized these corrupt practices and introduced political co-optation of the opposition enhanced by an alliance of a one-party regime where the ruling party and the army were in active co-operation. At the same time there was a surge in the informal market economy due to smuggling, corruption, and embezzlement of state resources. This became the principal instrument for extracting resources, organizing production, and distributing access to politicians for economic opportunity. It became the perennial effort by the elite to maintain the loyalties of supporters and co=opt any opposition. The result was that formal state institutions that should be directly involved in development were starved of resources necessary for national development.”
“the pervasive corrupt practices in state and society contributed directly to the deterioration of state institutions like the judiciary, civil service, labor unions, chieftaincy, among other things.”
Conteh-Morgan then analyzes further the increasingly compounding factors that eventually plunged the country into widespread civil unrest, and then finally to open conflict in the streets in what is often referred to as one of the bloodiest “civil wars” of the 20th century. Traveling the path that he outlines to that historical outcome, it is difficult to imagine how it could have gone any other way. But as the author himself opines, bringing down the curtain on the story of Sierra Leone:
“Situations involving frustration, anger, and even intense deprivation, do not always follow with violence against the incumbent regime. In order for violence to be triggered, the frustration and anger has to be politicized and transformed into open rebellion. This therefore means that there should be political activists to spearhead the frustrated and angry citizens into rebellion against the incumbent regime.”
So What Did We Learn Today?
Flashing forward to the decade of the 2020s as we have experienced it so far, you don’t have to invest much time to uncover evidence of the FA-H at work. Many of the world’s so-called “developed” nations have provided their own displays of reactive aggression from the populace for what we are supposed to assume is a multitude of unrelated provocations. From the BLM riots that tore into major urban centers of the United States in the beginning of the summer of 2020, to the protests against government lockdowns and the erosion of civil liberties in response to an alleged pandemic in the majority of European nations, to the Chinese dissidents willing to sacrifice their own lives to expose to the world the brutal realities of technocratic authoritarianism. All of these examples are easily found, but sometimes difficult to understand through a conventional lens.
If we can make a few educated guesses based on a broader understanding of how the average human being interacts with the world around them, and how that perception can be manipulated and even directed, the picture begins to come a little more into focus. Frustration can be created in all of us when we encounter interference with our attainment of any goal. The FA-H demonstrates, theoretically, how the reactions of individuals and even groups can be influenced through the mechanism of goal interference. Unresolved interference can distort perception and increase the likelihood and severity of manifestations of reactive aggression, as can pressure applied through a variety of vectors from patterns of abuse to cultural imperatives to methodical systemic oppression. The lessons of Sierra Leone communicate very succinctly how entire populations can be manipulated into violence over time, either by accident or even by design.
I can report that in my own research into this subject, I uncovered far more instances in my own life than even I initially suspected where frustration has created a less than desirable outcome that at the time had the appearance of randomness. Having struggled myself for most of my life with anger that I perceived as uncontrollable at times, perhaps even genetic, I’m beginning to understand that what I had initially perceived as something deleterious being perpetrated against me was more likely my own distorted perception of events happening around me. Reframing these memories under the model of the FA-H, the random outcomes that I perceived from frustration created by interference suddenly became much more comprehensible. As did some of my own learned instrumental behavior.
Whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, we all have a deeply ingrained vulnerability to psychological manipulation. This is the overarching lesson of the FA-H, and one that we should all consider when encountering interference in our own lives. Now, I’m not suggesting that your spouse or friend or family member is deliberately trying to Jedi mind-trick you when they present themselves as an obstacle in your path. It seems more likely to me that they are trying to understand things from your point of view, and may be struggling to meet that goal themselves. Your own cognitive processes can assist in determining whether someone you perceive to be presenting interference is deliberately thwarting your progress, or just trying to understand how they can help. Knowing how to identify the distinctions between these two potential scenarios could be the difference between a positive interaction and an outcome much less desirable.
Unfortunately, this is a story that appears to still be in the process of being written. Attempting to wrap all this information up into an attractive package with a pretty little bow on top has created frustrations all on its own, and led me personally to additional questions that still need to be answered. Again, your results may vary. But I think that, ultimately, this brings us to the following question: who pulls your strings? And with the benefit of a greater understanding of your own perception, maybe the more important question is this: why do you let them?