Aggression: a learned behaviour? | Sunday Observer

Aggression: a learned behaviour?

15 May, 2022

And I thought how sad it was that for all our sophisticated intellect, for all our noble aspirations, our aggressive behavior was not just similar in many ways to that of the Chimpanzees, it was even worse. Worse because human beings have the potential to rise above their baser instincts, whereas Chimpanzees probably do not.” – Jane Goodall

Sri Lankans displayed yet another sequence of violent and aggressive behaviour reminding the whole world that we have not learned anything new since 1948. It might even be hard for someone who has little knowledge about Buddhism to understand how people, a majority of whom claim to be Buddhists, can behave like that without even valuing human lives.

This was the beginning of the Vesak week during which people usually tend to get together with their neighbours and engage in meritorious acts such as distributing free food and clothing, preparing lanterns and pandols, singing Bhakthi Geetha and preparing all the decorations.

The tradition of the country, with over 74 percent of its population being self-declared Buddhists who also celebrate the New Years in April, has been to bring order and calm through religious activities during Vesak in May and Poson in June.

But this year people could hardly celebrate the New Year due to food shortages and extremely high prices of consumer goods and unemployment due to the unprecedented economic catastrophe the country is experiencing.

The Vesak week is spent confined to homes under an island wide curfew. Even if there were no curfew people would not have been able to go on pilgrimage due to the fuel shortages. The anger displayed through all the violenat acts could certainly be an indication that it has been brewing for a while and it was just a matter of time for a dangerous eruption and erupt it did.

Though we have experienced similar types of violent and aggressive behaviour at least once in each decade from the 50s, we have not focused on and/or spent enough resources in finding out the causal factors for such aggressive behavior, irrespective of the factors that supposedly triggered them.

Understanding such causal factors is essential for learning how to prevent negative aggression in the future. Aggression in general is considered as destructive and damaging and almost always is known to have a negative impact on the society.

Positive aggression

However, psychologists have categorised certain behaviours needed for self-protection, standing up in the face of negation and engaging in cooperative or competitive activities such as in sports, as well as self-assertive activities as positive aggression.

A certain amount of positive aggression is thought to be necessary and adaptive throughout childhood and adolescence in order to become an independent individual with self-confidence whereas any aggressive behaviour hurting others mentally or physically or destroying property is considered as negative aggression.

Some parents may have experienced early childhood aggressive behavior against parental control perhaps through some of their children. There is a tendency to have such behaviour directed towards their peers later, in terms of bullying and ragging, animal cruelty and even setting fire to things just for fun and/or as a mechanism of getting the anger out of the system.

If the aggressive behaviour continues unnoticed then towards later years in adolescence it can develop into cooperative stealing and other gang activities participating in a delinquent subculture which may advance into assault, robbery, rape and even to homicide in the adult world.

Among different theories behavioural and social scientists have about aggression, Freudians believe that it is an innate drive, and some others believe that it is a learned behaviour. The rest is comfortable in accepting that both biological and environmental factors may contribute, in different degrees, causing aggressive thoughts in one’s mind and making one behave aggressively.

Numerous studies

It has been well established that children who are exposed to violence in the family or in schools are more likely to grow up to be violent or aggressive adults themselves. There are numerous studies showing strong correlations between violence in media such as TV, movies and social media and violent behaviour in children as well as adults.

Reactive aggressive behaviour of some Sri Lankans we experienced last week is an angry retaliatory response, while being in a state of frustration, to a perceived provocation. Frustration, in this case generated by the hopelessness in their own future, and in the future of the country as well, has been building up over time to a level of explosion at any time.

Though there may have been people with different levels of formal educational achievements among those aggressors, it may not be an overestimation to assume that more than 95 percent of them have completed their primary/secondary education up to GCE O/L.

Most of these people may have even completed at least the primary levels of their Sunday School programs. However, not only did they not feel bad about hurting someone else but, they also did not understand that they are essentially hurting themselves further by setting fire to houses and vehicles irrespective of the ownership of the property.

Some have the wrong idea that if the property belongs to a private party, then damaging or destroying it hurts only the owner. Of course, it hurts the owner immediately but eventually it hurts the whole country since it is an asset within the country. Some had set fire to state-owned property not realising that they are essentially burning their own tax money.

Perhaps this is a wakeup call for the educators to start thinking about possible changes in the system and the curriculum so that children would at least understand the importance of safeguarding resources, not only just the natural resources, but all the resources including man-made structures and items that can still be put to good use.

Formal education

Currently formal education in most countries is a system designed to impart knowledge to a student, irrespective of whether the student is a willing participant or not, who memorises a mountain of information that doesn’t interest him in the least.

There must be something more to the educational process than just preparing a person to fill the gaps in the labour force or to cope with external facts and his arbitrary environment.

If the goal of education is knowledge, then knowledge for what? If it is power, then power to what end? If it is social adjustment, then what kind of adjustment defined by what ideals? The essential part of education is not information but understanding and it can only be achieved through creative thinking and application.

Information flows from outer world to the inner world of the being whereas understanding is a creative process in the opposite direction. That perhaps is why Bertrand Russell said that: “Education should not aim at a passive awareness of dead facts but at an activity directed towards the world that our efforts are to create.”

A creator would destroy something that is already created only if he can create something better and more useful by doing that. If only our education system had the ability to make the people who go through it understand the simple fact that “when you don’t have anything to eat and have no money to buy anything either, you do not burn down whatever else, you have.”

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fifteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]