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Evolution of Human Aggression

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Evolution of Human Aggression

Let us recap what is the definition of aggression in psychology?

Aggression is an innate trait that occurs in many different species, from dogs, cats, lions, hyenas, and humans.

So we have to ask ourselves why aggression exists at all and why it still exists in humans despite our evolutionary leaps.

We will therefore examine the evolutionary explanations for human aggression. Why is aggression useful? What is our evolutionary need in nature to act aggressively? This explanation will include examining the prevalence of intimate partner violence, male aggression, and bullying.

Evolution of Human Aggression Theory of human evolution StudySmarterThe theory of human evolution, Flaticon

The three types of aggression in psychology are:

1. Reactive-expressive (e.g., verbal/physical).

2. Reactive-inexpressive (e.g., hostility).

3. Proactive-relational aggression (aggression that damages human relationships).

Before we get started, here is a crucial term to familiarise yourself with.

Evolutionary explanation accounts for how a species changes over millions of years, acquiring characteristics that enhance survival and reproduction through natural selection.

Is aggression evolutionary?

Aggression characterises itself to cause physical and psychological harm to yourself or others or things within the environment. It is destructive behaviour, but does it have any benefits? For evolutionary explanations, the answer has to be yes.

Potential causes of aggression could be:

  • Defeating sexual rivals.

  • Attaining and maintaining relationships with mates (detering infidelity).

  • Sexual jealousy of rivals.

  • Dominance and social status.

  • Gaining resources.

  • Defending resources, the self, and mates.

Evolutionary explanation of sexual jealousy

Another key term to be aware of:

Cuckoldry refers to raising a child that is not your own. Males fear cuckoldry because any investment in offspring that is not their own is a waste of resources as the child will not have his genes.

Men experience paternity uncertainty because they can never be sure if they have fathered a child. The threat of cuckoldry makes them worry. In the past, men were more successful if they avoided cuckoldry, so psychological mechanisms have developed to increase anti-cuckoldry behaviours in males.

Males experience sexual jealousy more than females, driving them to aggressively stop their partners from ‘straying’ from their side.

Let us examine not two types of aggression in human evolution in regards to sexual jealousy.

Example of aggression in psychology: mate retention strategies

Retention strategies include:

  • Direct guarding male vigilance over a partner’s behaviour (e.g., checking who they’ve been seeing).

  • Negative inducements the use of threatening awful things for unfaithfulness or leaving (e.g., ‘I’ll kill myself if you leave me’).

Wilson and Daly (1996) identify mate retention strategies, which are highly violent. These strategies result from the potential loss of female mates, either through infidelity or unintentional paternal investments when the child is not their own. Infidelity in wives is one of the major causes of violent rage in males, regardless of societal views of such behaviour towards women (some view it as reprehensible, whilst others view it as restoring a man’s honour).

Wilson and Daly (1985) also found in a study on murders occurring in the Detroit area that the vast majority of killers and those killed were male (young men, specifically). A chunk of these cases was a result of escalated disputes concerning status.

Research shows that women who reported mate retention strategies in their partners were twice as likely to suffer physical violence from their partners (Margo et al., 1995).

Example of aggression in psychology: intimate partner violence

Shackelford et al. (2005) studied heterosexual couples through different questionnaires: the men’s was about mate retention behaviours, and the women’s was called the spouse influence report, which measured the extent of their partner’s violence in their relationship.

He found a strong positive correlation between male mate retention behaviours and women reporting physical violence. The researchers said that these retention behaviours reliably predicted husbands’ violence against their wives.

Differences between males and females in aggression

Considering the above information, it is evident that aggression and the source of the feelings differ in males and females. See research on testosterone for more information.

According to Griskevicius et al. (2009), for men, motives behind direct aggression such as face to face confrontation primarily revolved around status and was boosted by mating motives. Interestingly, mating motives were only boosted when other men were observing.

Women, however, had both status and mating motives, which only increased indirect aggression (social exclusion etc.), and they became more directly aggressive when resources were scarce. Typically, status and mating motives did not increase direct aggression in women.

Evolution of Human Aggression Male female differences in aggression StudySmarterMale and female figure, Flaticon

Buss et al. (1992) found sex differences in jealousy through a cross-cultural questionnaire study. They were given scenarios where their partners were suggested to be interested in other people. They were asked what would cause more distress: an emotional or sexual relationship with the other person.

More men than women found sexual infidelity more distressing than emotional infidelity (51% of men compared to 22% of women). It was suggested that jealousy in men results from paternal uncertainty, and jealousy in women is apparent more due to the emotional threat of a man leaving them for another woman. It was suggested this feeling is innate, not learned (as it was generalisable across cultures), but as it was hypothetical, it is not entirely valid.

Evolutionary explanation of bullying

Bullying occurs because of a power imbalance. A more powerful person uses deliberate, repeated aggression against a weaker person.

People often think bullying results from maladaptive behaviours, e.g., childhood abuse. But, our evolutionary ancestors may have used bullying to increase their survival by increasing their chances of reproduction.

Volk et al. (2012) argue that bullying characteristics are attractive to the opposite sex.

  • In males, this refers to dominance and strength. These characteristics can also help males fend off rivals. They, therefore, have the perfect combination of attracting females and warding off rivals, leading to greater reproductive opportunities.

  • In females, bullying often occurs within a relationship and is about control. Women bully to keep their partner’s fidelity, meaning he will provide her and their offspring with resources.

Simply put, both males and females that use bullying behaviours would be naturally selected because of enhanced reproductive success.

Evaluation of evolutionary explanations of human aggression

We need to assess the explanations and identify how reliable and valid they are.

Strengths

The strengths are the following:

Research support

Many studies, including that of Shackelford et al. (2005) mentioned earlier, show that mate retention strategies are linked to sexual jealousy and aggression. Shackelford’s study shows that the greater the perceived risk of infidelity/cuckoldry, the greater the aggression. This finding supports the idea that we can evolutionarily explain aggression.

Gender differences

Evolutionary theory explains gender differences, e.g., men engaging in aggressive acts more than women. Females are less likely to be physically aggressive as this could hurt them or their offspring (Anne Campbell 1999), but more likely to be verbally aggressive to keep their partner who provides resources for them. This ability to explain gender differences is a strength of the evolutionary theory.

Real-life applications

Evolutionary explanations show us that bullies bully because they could gain advantages. So it wouldn’t make any sense for them to stop bullying someone without getting something in return. Volk et al. argue that we need to increase the cost of bullying and increase the rewards of alternatives, e.g., by encouraging bullies to participate in aggressive sports, allowing them to show their strength without actually bullying anyone.

Weaknesses

Let us now explore the weaknesses of evolutionary explanations of human aggression.

Cultural differences

Cultural differences can play a significant role in aggression.

For example, the Kung San people of the Kalahari have very negative attitudes towards aggression and discourage it from childhood. In contrast, the Yanomamo of Venezuela and Brazil are called the ‘fierce people’ because they value and reward aggression.

Methodological issues

It is tough to test hypotheses about evolutionary behaviours to solve adaptation problems in our past. Most of our research is correlational, allowing us to draw cause-and-effect conclusions.


Evolution of Human Aggression - Key takeaways

  • The evolutionary explanation accounts for how a species changes over millions of years, acquiring characteristics that enhance survival and reproduction through natural selection.
  • Potential reasons behind aggression could be: Defeating sexual rivals, attaining and maintaining relationships with mates (detering infidelity), sexual jealousy of rivals, dominance and social status, gaining resources, defending resources, the self, and mates.
  • Men experience paternity uncertainty because they can never be sure if they have fathered a child. This is worrying for them because of the threat of cuckoldry. In the past, men were more successful if they avoided cuckoldry, so psychological mechanisms have developed to increase anti-cuckoldry behaviours in males.

  • Wilson and Daly (1985) found in a study on murders occurring in the Detroit area that the vast majority of killers and those killed were male (young men, specifically), and a chunk of these cases resulted from escalated disputes concerning status.

  • Retention strategies include:

    • Direct guarding - male vigilance over a partner’s behaviour (e.g., checking who they’ve been seeing).
    • Negative inducements - the use of threatening awful things for unfaithfulness or leaving (e.g., ‘I’ll kill myself if you leave me’).
  • According to Griskevicius et al. (2009), for men, motives behind direct aggression primarily revolved around status and was boosted by mating motives. Interestingly, mating motives were only boosted when other men were observing.

  • Women, however, had both status and mating motives, which only increased indirect aggression (social exclusion, etc.), and they became more directly aggressive when resources were scarce. Typically, status and mating motives did not increase direct aggression in women.

  • Bullying occurs because of a power imbalance. A more powerful person uses deliberate, repeated aggression against a weaker person.

Frequently Asked Questions about Evolution of Human Aggression

Evolutionary theory explains human aggression by identifying how it benefits us by improving survival chances. The main functions of human aggression are defeating sexual rivals and retaining mates.

Yes, if it increases our chances of survival. Aggression has evolutionary functions if it helps us find food, mates, shelter, or safety.

Human aggression is rooted in the need for survival and reproduction. The negative emotions that come from a lack of safety and the risk of not surviving (for example, fear, jealousy, anxiety) can lead to aggressive behaviour.

The three types of aggression are:

1. Reactive-expressive (e.g., verbal/physical).

2. Reactive-inexpressive (e.g., hostility).

3. Proactive-relational aggression (aggression that damages human relationships).

Yes. For example, humans have adapted to bullying to enhance their chances of reproduction. The male bullying characteristics of dominance and strength are attractive to females and help them fend off potential rivals. The female bullying characteristics of control help them retain their male partners.

Final Evolution of Human Aggression Quiz

Question

What is an ‘evolutionary explanation’?

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Answer

An evolutionary explanation accounts for the changes in species over millions of years; characteristics that enhance survival and reproduction are naturally selected.

Show question

Question

For evolutionary explanations, does aggression have any benefits?

Show answer

Answer

Aggression has benefits such as defeating sexual rivals and retaining mates.

Show question

Question

True or false: Females experience sexual jealousy more than males.


Show answer

Answer

False. Males experience sexual jealousy more than females.

Show question

Question

What is cuckoldry?

Show answer

Answer

Cuckoldry is when someone has to raise a child that is not their own.

Show question

Question

We discussed two examples of mate retention strategies. One of these is ‘direct guarding’, where a male acts with increased vigilance over his partner. What is the other example?

Show answer

Answer

The other example is negative inducements, such as threatening awful things for unfaithfulness (e.g.‘I’ll kill myself if you leave’).

Show question

Question

 In Todd Shackelford’s 2005 study, what did the ‘spouse influence report’ measure?

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Answer

The spouse influence report measured the extent of their partner’s violence in their relationship.

Show question

Question

Tony Volk argues that we could explain bullying in terms of evolution because bullying characteristics are attractive to the opposite sex. Select the statement that is true for males.

Show answer

Answer

Male bullying characteristics are dominance and strength. This is attractive to females and helps males fend off rivals.

Show question

Question

True or false: Evolutionary explanations can explain gender differences.

Show answer

Answer

True. This is one of the advantages of evolutionary explanations.

Show question

Question

What methodological issues could discredit evolutionary explanations of aggression?

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Answer

Most of our research is correlational, which allows us to draw cause-and-effect conclusions. It is tough to test hypotheses.

Show question

Question

Why have men developed psychological mechanisms to increase their anti-cuckoldry behaviours? 

Show answer

Answer

They do not want to invest time and resources in any child that wasn't their own, and they experience paternity uncertainty. In the past, men were more successful if they avoided cuckoldry.

Show question

Question

Give an example of how we could increase the cost of bullying and increase the rewards of alternatives, as argued by Volk et al.

Show answer

Answer

For example, we could encourage bullies to participate in aggressive sports, allowing them to show their strength without actually bullying anyone.

Show question

Question

What kind of differences could play a role in how we perceive aggression?

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Answer

Cultural differences. Some people grow up in cultures where aggression is highly valued, and some where it is criticised.

Show question

Question

Why are females less likely to be physically aggressive?

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Answer

Because it could hurt them or their offspring, damaging their chances of reproduction.

Show question

Question

True or false: Shackelford's 2005 study showed that the greater the perceived risk of infidelity, the greater the aggression.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

In what environment does bullying occur?

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Answer

In power imbalance, i.e., when a more powerful person uses deliberate, repeated aggression against a weaker person.

Show question

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