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Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Dec 17, 2021


  • The frustration-aggression hypothesis is based on the psychodynamic approach. When people are frustrated, they experience a drive to be aggressive towards the object of their frustration, but this is often impossible or inappropriate, so the source of their aggression is displaced on something or someone else.
  • It uses the concepts of catharsis (relieving emotional tension) and displacement (unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind diverts emotions from their original source to a less threatening, dangerous or unacceptable one to avoid experiencing anxiety).
  • Frustration is a feeling of tension that occurs when our efforts to reach a goal are blocked. According to this theory, proposed by Dollard (1939) frustration often leads to aggression.

Background and assumptions

The frustration-aggression hypothesis states that aggression is a result of frustration. Frustration is any event or stimulus that prevents an individual from attaining a goal and it’s accompanying reinforcement quality (Dollard & Miller, 1939).

When our drive to reach a goal is blocked by external factors we experience frustration which, in turn, creates an aggressive drive and this can lead to aggressive behavior.

When we express this aggression physically, verbally or by fantasizing we experience catharsis, and our emotional tension is reduced.

However, our aggression is not always expressed towards the legitimate target because it could be too dangerous and we risk punishment, or because this target is not available so we displace our aggressive response towards a less dangerous target or one who just happens to be present. This is called displacement.

frustration-aggression hypothesis

The first to formulate the frustration-aggression hypothesis were the Yale University researchers John Dollard, Leonard Doob, Neal Miller, O. H. Mowrer, and Robert Sears (1939).

The group attempted to account for virtually all of human aggression with a few basic ideas in their book, Frustration and Aggression.

Dollard et al. define frustration as an event instead of an affective state (Breuer and Elson, 2017). John Dollard thought about frustration as an unexpected blockage of a goal that someone anticipated attaining.

This characterization of frustration through observable qualities of events and environmental characteristics allows the objective testing and description of its effects rather than relying on subjective self-reported experiences.

This is an important differentiation because this definition of frustration is also implied by modifications and reformulations of the frustration-aggression hypothesis.

A person who loudly insults an instruction manual after two hours of failure in constructing an IKEA wall closet or A toddler who throws a tantrum after noticing that her favorite toy has been placed out of reach on the kitchen table are everyday examples of the link between frustrating events and aggressive responses (Breuer and Elson, 2017).


Since the 1990s, several studies have either investigated frustration to explain the possible relationship between playing video games and aggression or set out to test the frustration-aggression hypothesis directly for video games.

In one such study, Breuer et al. (2015) investigated the effects of game outcome and “trash-talking” in a competitive multiplayer sports video game on aggressive behavior. The researchers showed that unfavorable outcomes (i.e. losing) increases postgame aggression, while trash-talking by the opponent has no such effect.

Testing the frustration-aggression hypothesis, the researchers found that the effect of losing on aggressive behavior is mediated by negative affect, suggesting that the frustration-aggression hypothesis can be applied to the use of video games (Breuer et al., 2015).

However, frustrations can also arise out of the video game in itself, without the presence of a human cosplayer or opponents. For example, a solo player playing a game where there is a mismatch between the skills of the player and demands of the game may experience frustration.

Additionally, Berkowitz (1989) hypothesized, albeit controversially, that aggressive cues such as violent media content can be a moderator for the relationship between frustration and aggression.

Whitaker et al. (2013) suggested that frustration can be a motivator for people to engage in violent video games, as they allow the player to act aggressively in a virtual environment.

Causes of Frustration

Goal significance and expectations

Historically, behaviorists in early psychology defined frustration as an event resulting from the termination of reinforcement that had previously maintained a behavior.

For example, if a pigeon who had previously received a pellet every time it pushes a lever suddenly ceases to receive a pellet, it would experience frustration (Breuer and Elson, 2017).

Typically this seizure in reinforcement results in people showing a sudden and temporary increase in the frequency of the behavior which had previously been reinforced, the so-called extinction burst.

However, the taking away of a reinforcement can also lead to new behaviors in an attempt to reobtain the reward through trial and error.

Amsel (1962) predicts that frustration occurs when the anticipated reward is reduced, and Hanratty et al. (1972) describe frustration as the withdrawal of an anticipated reinforcer (Breuer and Elson, 2017).

Brown and Farber (1951) identified two requirements for an event to be frustrating by Dollard et al.’s (1939) standard: firstly, that achieving the goal must be important or relevant to the individual, and secondly, that achieving the goal must be perceived as a likely outcome by the individual.

Researchers such as Haner and Brown (1955) have also found that the closer a person is to achieving a goal, the more intense the effects of a frustration will be on the subsequent aggressive behavior of the person (Harris, 1974; Breuer and Elson, 2017).

This is known as the goal gradient principle (Thompson and Kolstoe, 1974). Although the extent to which the frustration interferes with the attainment of a desired outcome matters (Berkowitz, 1989), experiencing frustrations while attempting to reach a goal can actually make it more attractive, intensifying the reaction to a following frustration (Filer, 1952).

Self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000) thinks of frustration as a thwarting of peoples’ basic psychological needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence.

According to this theory, the presence of aggression-facilitating cues are neither necessary nor sufficient for aggression to occur (Breuer and Elson, 2017).

Interpersonal causes

Competition between multiple people can also be a cause of frustration (Deutsch, 1949). Berkowitz (1989) noted that “competitive encounters are at least partly frustrating as the contestants block each other’s attempts to reach the disputed goal and threaten each other with a total loss.”

Incompetent or selfish cooperators can also cause frustrations as their detrimental behaviors can prevent individuals from attaining personal achievement or groups from reaching a common goal where successful cooperation is essential.

For example, the Robbers Cave experiment, where two groups of adolescents participated in a series of competitive activities for a group trophy and individual prizes, showed that teammates punished those who inhibited group achievement (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, and Sherif, 1961; Breuer and Elson, 2017).

Reformulation of the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

Dollard et al.’s original formulation of the frustration-aggression hypothesis has not been without great criticism. In response, Berkowitz (1989) reformulated the frustration-aggression hypothesis in a way that most recent research on the causes and effects of frustration use today.

Berkowitz argued that frustration causes negative affect, and this negative effect elicits aggression. Others have argued that frustration also has effects on cognition and physiological arousal (Anderson and Bushman, 2002; Breuer and Elson, 2017).

Unlike Dollard et al., who implied that aggression is the exclusive result of frustration (1939), Berkowitz reformulated that insults, anxiety (Hokanson, 1961), unpleasant environmental conditions, and aversive effects and circumstances can cause aggression (Breuer and Elson, 2017).

Berkowitz also calls the response to frustration “aggressive inclinations'' instead of aggression or aggressive behavior. These inclinations have both a cognitive and affective component. This has the implication that the negative affect that frustration causes may not necessarily lead to observable aggression.

A variety of factors can also mediate aggression, such as an individual’s reappraisal of a situation, strong incentives not to be aggressive or aversive consequences for doing so, or no opportunity to behave aggressively toward the source of the frustration.

In short, Berkowitz (1989) reformulated frustration-aggression theory so that it is more sophisticated but incorporates causes and consequences that are difficult to observe, making it difficult to falsify predictions derived from it.

For example, in a case where someone is frustrated but does not behave aggressively, it may not be easy to determine whether this was due to the absence of negative affect or because somebody did not act on their aggressive inclinations (Breuer and Elson, 2017).

In addition to reformulating the frustration-aggression hypothesis, Berkowitz (1990) created a cognitive neoassociation theory of aggression, and other psychologists, such as Anderson and Bushman (2002) have derived their own theories from the frustration-aggression hypothesis.

Breuer and Elson (2017) imagine the link between frustration and aggression as being a multistep model. After experiencing a frustrating event, the individual takes into account several factors such as the extent to which the frustration is justified, the desirability of the goal, and the extent to which they expected the frustration.

This may move on to negative affect, after which the individual may, depending on their tendency toward aggression, irritability, and emotional stability, develop aggressive inclinations.

Whether or not these aggressive inclinations lead to aggressive behavior depends on factors such as social norms, anonymity, visibility of consequences, and the instrumental value of the aggressive act.

Critical Evaluation

  • Although some have argued that the expression of aggression serves as a catharsis, Morlan (1949) argues that the expression of aggression sets up a vicious cycle that leads to further aggression, as aggressive acts rarely occur or exist in isolation and have consequences for future interactions (Breuer and Elson, 2017).
  • According to Berkowitz, frustration creates an inclination towards aggression but environmental cues may act as a trigger for aggressive behavior. This argument is used to advocate the concealment of weapons in countries such as the US where people can carry guns as this could act as a cue to use them. “The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger”.
  • The frustration-aggression hypothesis does not explain individual differences in the way people react to frustration. Some people may withdraw whereas others will become extremely physically or verbally abusive.
  • Brad and Bushman (2002) found that instead of being cathartic as the hypothesis predicts, venting anger makes people more angry and aggressive.
  • It explains reactive aggression which is a response to a threat or provocation but does not explain pro-active, instrumental (calculated) aggression where aggression is used as a means to an end.
  • It does not take into account free will and moral values for example a pacifist individual is unlikely to resort to aggression when experiencing frustration.

The use of aggression is influenced by various factors which were not predicted by the hypothesis:

  • Aggression is more likely if the goal is very close than if the achievement of the goal is less likely.
  • Aggression is more likely if its use is likely to remove the obstacle to achieving the goal.
  • Aggression is more likely is the frustration is justified (Dill & Anderson, 1995)

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Dec 17). Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis. Simply Psychology.


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