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What Is the Frustration Aggression Theory?

By Megan Shoop
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The frustration aggression theory attempts to explain how and why some people, or groups of people, become violent or aggressive during certain scenarios. The idea is that frustration, when it cannot be displaced or relieved, turns into aggression. This aggression may then turn into violence, resulting in the frustrated person lashing out. This lashing out may be directed at another person or at an inanimate object. Aggression does not always develop into violence because some people have discovered ways to prevent or control their aggression by using this energy constructively.

Frustration is generally defined as the tension that occurs when someone is being blocked from a goal. This tension, if it cannot be relieved, tends to build in a person. The adrenaline activated by the tension and aggression requires some kind of outlet. This pattern can be observed in adults and children, in individuals and groups. For instance, the pattern might occur within a child who is trying to get a piece of candy from a candy dish on a coffee table. If this child’s mother tells him “no” or pushes his hand away, this causes frustration. The child is being denied his goal, which causes tension.

The child may not lash out right away, instead, he may try to sneak a piece of candy. If his mother catches him and thwarts him again, he may throw a tantrum. The adrenaline caused by the anticipation of achieving his goal still requires an outlet. He may push his mother or throw himself on the ground, crying, and pounding the floor. When this aggression is spent, the child will probably return to his normal state. If the mother understands this process, she may simply let the child throw his tantrum before explaining why he can’t have the candy. People in midst of the pattern of frustration aggression theory are often beyond reason.

Adults caught up in patterns outlined by frustration aggression theory can react in ways that lead to far more damaging results. For instance, a young man attempting to make a difficult shot in basketball may become increasingly frustrated with himself, causing tension to build inside him. This tension often makes people irrational, which is dangerous when mixed with aggression. If his friends find him trying to make the shot and tease him, he may end up physically fighting with them, even if he is normally even-tempered. Frustrated tension often inhibits focus, which leads to more frustration, more tension, and a larger explosion of aggression.

Some people who regularly deal with issues described in frustration aggression theory must learn how to deal with their tension. For instance, a young woman frustrated and feeling herself start to become aggressive might go lift weights or jog for a while. This may relieve the tension and allow her to think clearly again. Therapists treating those suffering from the symptoms associated with frustration aggression theory often recommend some kind of physical activity or a type of breathing exercise designed to induce calm and prevent violence.

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Discussion Comments
By Markerrag — On Apr 08, 2014

@Logicfest -- and why is the workplace increasingly stressful? Check the stats and you'll see that the economy is still recovering and those who have jobs are asked to take on more responsibilities. Frustration is a common side effect of today's working world. That's just how it is.

And, please don't get frustrated and kick the dog. Not a great way to cope!

By Logicfest — On Apr 07, 2014

Any working adult knows very, very well how this works. As the old saying goes, your bosses boss yells at him, your boss takes that out on you and all you can do is go home and kick the dog. Dealing with frustration in an increasingly stressful environment is critical, but how many people have the tools they need to cope?

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