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Aggression Beyond Frustration

It's good to be back in Berlin and get yelled at.

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

Biste in de S-Bahn jebor’n oder wat?

The mother of all theories of aggression is the frustration-aggression hypothesis (Dollard, Miller, et al., 1939). The theory presumes that we know what aggression is, and, more intriguingly, that we know what frustration is. In experimental research, aggression is often measured as the intensity and duration of electric shocks, delivered (or thought to be delivered) after an insult or provocation. The mental state experienced after provocation is thought to be frustration, which in turn is thought to be the cause of aggression. In its strongest form, the frustration-aggression hypothesis states that frustration is a necessary and sufficient condition of aggression; aggression will occur if, and only if, there is frustration. Over the years, the hypothesis has undergone many refinements, chief of which is the idea that contextual factors can modulate the strength of aggression. In particular, if the context activates the concept of aggression (e.g. weapons being in plain view), aggression is more likely to occur and to be stronger, than if the context is neutral (Berkowitz, 2011).

The insult-and-shock paradigm of experimental aggression research is elegant. It has high internal validity. It leaves little doubt about what is going on and what leads to what. Its external validity may also be appreciable, but external validity does not only depend on the purity of method, but also on the nature of nature outside of the lab. External validity is about the generalizability of the results beyond the experimental situation. The degree to which frustrations and aggressions vary out there limits what can be learned from insult and shock.

The first time the fuzziness of aggression came to my mind in an academic way was when the eminent psychologist Richard “Dick” Lazarus gave a talk at the Free University in Berlin in 1989. Dick described his view that aggression always arises from a threat to the ego. Something must have happened to challenge or unsettle a person’s sense of self. Stated this way, ego-threat sounds quite like frustration. Arguably, Dick’s definition raises the question of how we should think about animal aggression if we don’t wish to grant nonhuman animals a sense of self. At any rate, my intuition at the time was that the ego-threat approach was too narrow. I asked Dick how he would explain aggression against violators of social norms. My example was a person getting upset and aggressing against someone who had cut in line – a line other than this observer’s. Dick insisted that if aggression had occurred, there must have been a threat to the self. The observer must have appraised the situation in an ego-relevant way. This response struck me as question-begging, with ego-threat being elevated to a state of certainty, not a hypothesis to be tested.

At the time, I did not realize that my response to Lazarus was a particularly German one. In my experience, Germans, more than many other nations, have an inclination to take the enforcement of social norms into their own hands. On the one hand, this willingness to act on behalf of the collective – irrespective of personal interests – contributes to social order and economic efficiency. On the other hand, the same willingness can create a stifling atmosphere and deliver displays of aggression that are unnecessarily hurtful and most unsettling to those who are not used to them. Meanwhile, in behavioral economics, the study of ‘moral outrage,’ ‘altruistic punishment,’ and ‘third-party punishment’ are all the rage (Fehr & Gächter, 2002). What I miss in this type of research is a healthy dose of ambivalence. Altruistic punishment is after all aggression, even if it is meant to be ‘for your own good.’

On occasion, I encounter another troubling kind of aggression in Germany, and hardly anywhere else. Mind you, these are not frequent experiences, but again, they are even less frequent elsewhere. This is the aggression that pretends to be authority that must not be questioned. Many cultures, from Austria to the American Pacific Northwest, prize indirect speech. People there often communicate by suggestion, trusting that others will understand because they know the code. This type of finesse is rather less developed in Germany. Indeed, many Germans will insist that directness brings advantages of clarity, and there may be something to be said for this argument. Nevertheless, when there is a difference in point of view, the same penchant for directness can degenerate into a kind of curtness and stubborn intransigence that takes the visitor aback. I have experienced this situation a number of times, including with individuals who I knew to be decent and caring. To many of us it is offensive to be confronted with a tactic that claims truth by assertion instead of argument and evidence. My father, who was not a stupid man, often resorted to this Germanic form of false rhetoric. When presented with a proposal or a question, an invitation to provide his assessment, he might simply say ”N!ä!” [I put an extra exclamation mark between the N and the ä to indicate the shortness of the vowel.] What does one say to that? Germanic directness of this kind seems designed to be cut conversation, and therein lies its aggressiveness. It denies the other the right to reason. My father, may god sanctify his bones – as Kazantzakis would say – was, when in the mood, able to top this. He would just shake his head and glower.

A third variant of aggression is cultivated in and around Berlin (and among certain wait staff [Köbes] in Köln. Here, the idea is that aggression is legitimate (and cool even) if it is delivered with a laugh or other signs of rough-boned joviality. This kind of licensing has never worked for me, perhaps because I did not master this rarefied art myself (not that I wanted to). The verbal kick in the pants, delivered with hilarity, puts this type of aggression in the neighborhood of passive aggression. It is not really passive, but it shares the feature of assumed deniability (Verstehen Sie keinen Spaß?]. Here is a small example: This morning (July 9, 2015), I went to the reception of my hotel and asked for change on a 100 euro bill. The receptionist asked if she was a bank before proceeding to give me two fifties. She thought it was funny; I thought it was rude and inappropriate for her role; particularly before breakfast.

All three of these variants of aggression are not easily reconciled with the frustration hypothesis. They are proactive rather than reactive. And in a way, that makes them more objectionable. I hasten to repeat that even in Germany, where I have observed these patterns, they are minority events. And hey, I keep coming back.

Let me also add, prodded by my friend M. R. from D., that the unique Berlinian blend of coarse-aggressive humor, known as Berliner Schnauze, or Berliner sass, can be both offensive and invigorating, depending on your mood and perspective. A commentator to the Berliner Sass post shared this experience, which I offer in full;

When I came to Berlin in the late Seventies, I used to buy my rolls at a bakery, where I got insulted each morning. The gruff older woman who handed me my “Schrippen” greeted me with sniding remarks about my haircut, my tired expression, my clothes, my un-Berlin accent every morning. She did so without a smile, without irony, it was in no way funny, not even mildly amusing. This went on for about three weeks (the walk to the next baker would have been much too long), than I had enough an returned the insult with something like: “Why don’t you just concentrate on seeling your stone-hard rolls, you frustrated old hag”. For the first time, a big smile lit up her face. She nodded as if she wanted to say “He finally learned it.” From then on, she greeted me warmly every morning. I had arrived in Berlin.

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

Und dann noch was

[1] I studied social stereotypes of some nations (Americans, English, Germans, Italians) 20 years ago with interesting results (Krueger, 1996). Were Germans rated as more aggressive than other nations?

[2] The introductory photo recalls a scence of agreeableness. These men, playing soccer in a park near Podbielskiallee invited me to join in as I was walking by. So nice.

[3] Being an immigrant, and returning to my country of origin as a rimmigrant, I realize that in der Zertreuung leben is an untranslable delicious double entendre. I drink Hassenröder to that.

Berkowitz, L. (2011). A cognitive-neoassociation theory of aggression. In A. W. Kruglanski, P. A. M. Van Lange, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.). The handbook of theories of social psychology (pp. 99-117). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage Publications.

Dollard, J., Miller, N. E., Doob, L. W., Mowrer, O. H., & Sears, R. (1939). Frustration and aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fehr, E., & Gächter, S. (2002). Altrutistic punishment in humans. Nature, 415, 137-140.

Krueger, J. (1996). Probabilistic national stereotypes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 961-980.