Frustration-Aggression Theory – Psychology & Facts

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What is the frustration-aggression theory? How can the frustration-aggression affect reaching your goals and managing your anger? Find out more about this interesting psychological theory and what it can mean for your life.

Frustration aggression theory was proposed by John Dollard, Neal Miller, Leonard Doob, Orval Mowrer, and Robert Sears in 1939. This theory is also known as the frustration-aggression-displacement theory.

The central hypothesis of this theory suggests that aggression causes frustration and blockage of a person’s’ effort to attain a goal.

Nowadays, anger management is a serious issue, and a lot of discourse is developed on it.

It is fascinating to educate oneself about the repercussions of anger and how our achievements are dependent upon one of our strongest emotions i.e., aggression. Let us explore what Frustration-aggression theory implies by discussing its main postulates and understanding how it is relevant to our modern-day dynamics. 


10 Major Postulates of Frustration-Aggression Theory

1. Frustration precedes aggression

This suggests that aggression is a consequence of frustration. Frustration always creates a need to respond, and aggression can be one of its outcomes. It implies that frustration may or may not result in aggression, but aggression is possibly a result of frustration. Frustration is not sufficient but rather a necessary condition for aggression. 

Frustration-Aggression Theory

2. Scapegoating 

This theory explains that what are the possible reasons for scapegoating and causes of violence. It suggests that aggression is displaced to an innocent target when the source of frustration is unchallengeable.

For example, a man who is humiliated by his boss at work would yell at his family because he cannot respond to the source of his frustration i.e., his boss, so it is directed towards an innocent target, for example, his children. It also suggests that deprived sections of society cause revolutions and riots as a way of expressing their bottled-up frustrations through violent behavior. 

Aggression is situational

3. It is interdisciplinary 

This theory not only pertains to psychology but also to anthropology, sociology, Marxism, and behaviorism. It is not only applicable to human beings but also animals.  

4. It has a cultural angle 

According to Gregory Bateson, culture has a major significance in this hypothesis. He suggested that it is easier to fit this hypothesis to people who live in cultures that portray neutral or frustrating events leading to satisfying ends. It is especially relevant for European and Iatmul culture but not for Balinese culture. 

 5. Social norms are an important indicator 

According to Arthur R. Cohen, social models are determinants of whether aggression will be preceding frustration or not. His research indicated that people are less likely to profess aggression if their surrounding social standards are stressed.

Aggressive behavior is also dependent upon anticipation of punishment. He also suggested that people will not demonstrate aggression to the frustration agent if it is an authoritative figure. 

Tendency to aggression- Frustration aggression theory

6. Aggressive cues 

In 1964, Leonard Berkowitz reformulated the hypothesis by suggesting that aggression stimulus is necessary to make aggression take place. He implied that the extremely angry person would profess aggression even if the aggression cue is absent.

It stated that prior exposure to any violent object or event such as military weapon toys that are associated with destructive effects would act as aggressive cues for young children that will increase the chances of aggressive behavior. Aggression is originated from internal and external stimuli. 

Unjustified frustration

7. The neural system is responsible for aggression 

Apart from frustration, threatening events also generate feelings of aggression. The neural network is responsible for the execution of primary responses to threats, such as anger. When someone feels threatened or frustrated, it activates parts of our frontal cortex acting in tandem without a threat-response mechanism.

Threatening events generate more action potential. For example, in animals, when low levels of danger are perceived, a threat response induces a freezing reaction. When the source of the threat is closer and escaping is not possible, then the threat response system will cause reactive aggression in the animal.  

8. Reactive aggression 

Physical maltreatment of children can result in reactive aggression. Shackman and Pollak tested individual differences in the processing of social information. Children who are physically maltreated are more aggressive as compared to children who were not maltreated. 

Physical maltreatment and aggression

9. Frustration not always leads to overt aggression

If punishment is anticipated, outweighing all the potential incentives, then overt aggression would be inhibited. However, all frustrations result in some aggression, which implies that a lack of overt aggression should not be confused with non-aggression.

Being furious from the inside and not professing it outside is an example of non-overt aggression. 

10. A violent assault on frustration is cathartic 

If there is a violent assault on the source of frustration, then it is cathartic for the frustrated person. Expression of minor and subtle acts of aggression acts as an alternative and powerful way of bringing catharsis to overt aggression. Expression of annoyance is also cathartic even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. 


The speculation became severely criticized on the grounds of theoretical stress and overgeneralization, restricting the scope of the speculation to establish its validity.

For instance, the initial hypothesis failed to differentiate between different forms of aggression, wherein the actor’s goal is to inflict damage, and instrumental styles of aggression, in which aggression is clearly meant to acquire other goals (which includes manipulation or domination). This grievance can be dealt with as an alternative of confining the frustration-aggression speculation to instances of hostile aggression alone.

Critics additionally challenged the premise that any interference with ongoing aim-directed behavior would evoke frustration. According to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow and others, valid (or justified), interventions do not necessarily produce frustration. Only styles of interference that appear illegitimate (or arbitrary or in any other case unjustified), they argued, should result in frustration.

Research indicated that aggressive behavior is undoubtedly a regularly occurring reaction to what are viewed as planned and unfair efforts to intrude with a man or woman’s goal-attainment opportunities.

How is Frustration-Aggression Theory Relevant Today?

Mass media often portrays a different and often stereotypical image of minorities. The mainstream narrative seems to revolve around the aggressive and rioting tendencies of minorities. Black people are often associated with violent behavior and activities.

However, apart from its stereotypical agenda-setting, this particular instance makes one thing clear, and that is the association of aggression with minorities. The struggle of the working class can build frustrations up to the level of inciting revolution.

 Instigation of aggression grows with every frustration in disadvantaged minorities, which ultimately leads to violence. These frustrations can have long-lasting effects. Another such example can be quoted from the studies of Plack in 1969. He suggested that all evils of society, especially violence, result from an abundance of denial in childhood and teenage years. 

Relevance of frustration aggression theory today

 Frustration-aggression theory is very relevant, especially in this context. If we carefully analyze, it is easy to observe that the violence witnessed by minorities is often resulting from the oppression they face due to the status quo. This also pertains to the concept of anarchy.

When the minority group is unable to fight with their superiors, they profess violence within their community.

Ever heard of numerous stories revolving around mass media that suggest domestic violence is more prevalent in working-class and low-income households? It is because family is often an “innocent” target that becomes an outlet of channeling out frustrations through means of aggression. 

How Aggressive Behavior Harmful? 

Aggression has many disadvantages; some of the major ones are as below:

  • You will be disrespectful, and you will receive little respect as a result.
  • Your relationships are going to suffer. It can create family discord. 
  • Your self-esteem will decline. 
  • It inhibits your success. 
  • It will make you lonely because people will start avoiding you.

How to Control Your Aggression?

Here are some useful tips for dealing with aggression. They might help you to cope with it. 

  • Breathe deeply whenever you feel angry or out of control.
  • Walk around
  • Relax your muscles 
  • Stretch your shoulders 
  • Try to find a healthy distraction 
  • Listen to some soothing music 
  • Take a break 
  • Avoid talking while angry 
  • Imagine a stop sign. This has a psychological response.
  • Try to forgive the aggressor 
  • Try to be empathetic 
  • Find a creative outlet for channeling out your anger
Taking out anger-Frustration-aggression theory

FAQs on Frustration-Aggression Theory & Hypothesis:

What is frustration and aggression theory?

This theory was proposed by Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mower, and Sears in 1939. This theory states that frustration often leads to aggressive behavior.

Does frustration always lead to aggression?

Not always, but whenever we are frustrated and trying to hide our feelings due to the fear of social consequences or we might know that we are wrong that’s why we become aggressive.

What is the difference between frustration and aggression?

Well, frustration is a condition that exists when a goal response suffers interference. While aggression is an act whose goal-response is an injury to an organism. ~ Dollard and colleagues.

Is aggression inborn or it is a response to frustration?

Well, few theories reveal that it is not an inborn behavior but a response to frustration that every human being experienced almost from birth.

A Final Word On Frustration-Aggression Theory

Frustration-aggression theory suggests the mechanisms of how aggression is always rooted in frustration. The way of professing anger can differ based on context. It can be overt and covert as well.

Alternative methods of expressing aggression can prove to be cathartic. Frustration-aggression theory is very relevant in our modern society, especially when it comes to mass media representation of minorities. There are some practical ways of controlling aggression, as mentioned above.

These tips can somehow help you to reduce your anger if not curbing it down. We understand that aggression has much deeper roots and treatment than some simple ways. 

Further Readings: 

Why Am I Not Good Enough? -17 Ways to Stop This Feeling

Do You Have Regrets? Learn How to Deal With Regrets in 10 Effective Ways

Funny Things to Say to a Narcissist

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