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Theories of Emotion and Aggression: Understanding the Role of Learning and Culture

Updated: Mar 11

In 1899, Charles Darwin observed that many human emotions, including fear and rage, can also be seen in other animals. It has been widely believed since then that emotions evolved through natural selection. Positive and negative emotions are key to the survival of animals, including humans. Animals that react to dangerous stimuli with negative emotions will avoid them and survive, while those that react to helpful stimuli with positive emotions will approach them and be more likely to survive and reproduce.

Psychologists Watson, Tellegen, and Clark suggested that all emotional experiences arise from different combinations of positive and negative emotions. They proposed an emotional map that has two dimensions, each with two poles. Although positive and negative emotions are separate dimensions on the map, the specific emotions that are considered to be "opposites" are in opposite positions on the map. Love is not on the emotional map, and it is considered distinct from other emotions.

Fear and anger are close together on the emotional map because they are variants of the same emotion. Intense negative emotion prepares the individual to either run away in fear or fight in anger. The two emotions are essentially identical at the physiological level, but many factors determine whether the emotion will be experienced as fear or anger. The experience of romantic love involves many emotions that are all over the emotional map. What is emotion? The experience of emotion is composed of four key elements: a stimulus situation, a conscious experience (emotion), physiological arousal, and behavior. Psychologists have disagreed about the order of these elements since the founding of psychology. Three main theories have been proposed to explain the workings of emotions.

The first theory is the James-Lange theory, which suggests that the emotional stimulus is routed directly to the limbic system and activates the body to deal with the emergency, which then produces sensations that are sent back to the cortex and produce conscious feelings of emotion. Part of what you feel during an emotional experience is sensory feedback from your facial muscles. The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion provided an alternative theory that is very different from the James-Lange theory of emotion. According to this theory, information from the stimulus goes first to the thalamus, which simultaneously relays information to the cerebral cortex, where it produces the emotional experience, and to the hypothalamus and autonomic nervous system, where it produces the physiological arousal that prepares the animal to fight, run away, or react in some other way.

The third, more contemporary theory of emotion is the cognitive theory. The cognitive interpretation of emotional stimuli from both outside and inside the body is the key event in emotions. The cognitive theory of emotion suggests that the process of cognitive interpretation of emotions has two steps. The first step in cognitive theory is the interpretation of incoming stimuli. This interpretation of stimuli relevant to emotions from the external world is in line with the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, who said that people are not disturbed by things, but by their interpretation of things. The second step in the cognitive theory of emotion is the interpretation of stimuli from the body resulting from autonomic arousal and actions of the body. This step suggests that people use information about their physiological state to infer their emotional state.

All three theories of emotion have their own strengths and weaknesses. While the James-Lange theory of emotion puts the emphasis on physiological changes in the body as the basis for the experience of emotion, the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion posits that both physiological and cognitive processes occur independently and simultaneously. The cognitive theory of emotion places a greater emphasis on the cognitive interpretation of events. In summary, each theory offers a unique perspective on the experience of emotion and contributes to our understanding of what emotion is and how it works.

The role of learning and culture in emotions is a topic of interest among psychologists. While basic emotions such as rage, joy, and fear are believed to be innate, cultural learning influences the expression of emotions more than experience. For example, some cultures encourage free emotional expression, while others teach people to reveal little of their emotions in public. Cultural learning also influences the interpretation of emotional stimuli. People in different cultures tend to interpret situations that create emotional reactions differently. There are many more similarities than differences across cultures, but there are some differences. For example, African students are more likely to view their negative emotions as caused by the actions of others and to interpret the actions that caused their negative emotions as immoral and unjust, while Latin American students are less likely to see their negative emotions as caused by immoral behavior.

Aggression: Emotional and Motivational Aspects

Humans are known to be the most aggressive species towards members of their own species. Violence is a major cause of death. There are multiple theories regarding why humans are aggressive, including that it is an instinctual drive, a natural reaction to adverse events such as frustration and pain, a learned behavior, or a result of beliefs.

Freud's instinct theory suggests that all animals, including humans, are born with aggressive instincts that create a drive to commit aggressive acts that must be satisfied. His theory suggests that nonviolent ways of releasing aggressive energy, such as competing in sports or reading about violent crimes, can help curb violence. However, this suggestion has been debated as some believe that the ways Freud suggested for safe means of catharsis could increase aggression.

The frustration-aggression theory suggests that aggression is a natural reaction to the frustration of important motives. A child who takes a toy from another child may very well get a punch in the nose, or a nation that frustrates another nation's desire for oil or a seaport might become a target of war. Anything aversive, from pain to intense heat, is said to increase the likelihood of aggression. Violent crimes are also most common during periods of intense heat.

Social learning theory suggests that people are aggressive only if they have learned that it is to their benefit to be aggressive. Social learning theorists do not deny that aggression can be instinctual or that it can be a reaction to frustration or aversive events, but they believe that people learn to be aggressive from their environment. Observational learning is one way that people learn to be aggressive. Discovering the Cognitive Theory of Aggression What fuels violence and perpetual wars among nations? Cognitive theorists believe that our beliefs influence our likelihood to commit violent acts. Researchers have identified six key beliefs that foster violence, including superiority, victimhood, vulnerability, distrust, helplessness, and divine sanctions. From racial and religious prejudices to perceived injustices, these beliefs lead individuals to contemplate, retaliate, and engage in acts of aggression. The cognitive Theory of Aggression is a psychological framework that aims to explain the causes of violent behaviors, wars among nations, and acts of terrorism. The theory suggests that beliefs play a critical role in influencing the likelihood of an individual or a group committing violence or engaging in war. According to cognitive theorists, there are six beliefs that foster violence and wars: superiority, victims of injustice, vulnerability, distrust, helplessness, and sanctions from God. The belief in superiority leads individuals to view another group as inferior, making it easier to contemplate killing them. The perception of being victims of injustice justifies retaliation, leading to a cycle of aggression between groups. The belief in vulnerability is used to justify preemptive aggression, while distrust leads to painting the enemy as evil and justifying violence or war against them. A belief in helplessness leads individuals to feel that there is no peaceful way to solve their problems except through violence or war. Finally, when people firmly believe that God wants them to kill members of another group and will reward martyrdom in heaven, they are more likely to engage in violence. Overall, the Cognitive Theory of Aggression highlights the importance of understanding the role of beliefs in promoting violence and offers a framework to help prevent aggression and war.

Furthermore, the Cognitive Theory of Aggression has significant implications for understanding human behavior and preventing violence. By recognizing the importance of beliefs in promoting aggression, policymakers and leaders can work to counteract beliefs that foster violence and promote those that encourage peaceful coexistence. For example, efforts could be made to promote beliefs that emphasize the value of diversity and tolerance, rather than those that emphasize superiority or distrust. Additionally, education and social programs could be developed to help individuals learn peaceful conflict resolution and to promote empathy and understanding of others' perspectives. By taking these steps, it may be possible to reduce the incidence of violence and aggression and promote a more peaceful and harmonious world. Therefore, the Cognitive Theory of Aggression provides a useful framework for understanding the causes of violence and promoting effective strategies to prevent it. these theories shed light on the root causes of violence and aggression, which can help us develop effective strategies to prevent them from occurring. The next article is the last one in this introductory series to (BASIC PSYCHOLOGY) we will talk about personality in Understanding Personality: Theories and Importance of Measuring Personality Traits and after that, we will keep posting articles on general topics of psychology and it will be more in-depth and more interesting and we will do another set of series to other psychology sections like (Social Psychology).

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