Childhood Studies Aggression across the Lifespan
Ann Farrell, Tracy Vaillancourt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0275


Aggression is behavior with the intent to cause harm to others who are motivated to avoid that harm. It is part of the human condition—evident for most early in life, and for some, persistent across the lifespan. Aggression can take a variety of forms, from the subtlety of shunning to the extremity of violence. Aggression creates physical and mental health problems in targets and is associated with impairment and competence in perpetrators, depending on the form it takes. Aggression also causes problems at the collective level. It can destroy families, communities, religions, and nations. There is a large body of research documenting the etiology, developmental course, and consequences of aggression, with particular focus on understanding key factors, mechanisms, and functions of various forms of aggression. This research highlights that aggression is ubiquitous, transcends culture, and represents a notable barrier to society. However, with quality evidence-based interventions, aggression can be effectively reduced.

General Overview

Several foundational theories have helped shape our understanding of aggression. Early theories reflected two broad camps of aggressive behavior. One camp proposed that aggression is an innate component of the human experience, whereas the second camp argued that aggression is a behavior learned through socialization. The influential work Freud 1946 highlighted the constant clash between an individual’s innate instincts for aggression and society’s laws and restrictions. Dollard, et al. 1939 expanded on the notion of humans’ natural tendencies with the frustration-aggression hypothesis, proposing that aggression is a natural response to frustration when goal pursuit is thwarted. In contrast, Bandura, et al. 1961 provided support for aggression as a learned response through the social learning theory. Since these early theories, the two viewpoints have combined to create more refined theories. For example, Dodge and Coie 1987 explained that an individual’s hostile attribution bias can be the source of some forms of aggression, with several individual and social factors affecting these processes. Anderson and Bushman 2002 further integrated, across several of these domains, specific theories to create a broader general aggression model that included both individual and situational factors. Archer 2004 found support for evolutionary theories of aggression. Specifically, sex differences in aggression were in line with sex differences in reproductive competition, parental investment, and social roles. Following these major theoretical perspectives, key evidence has shown how aggression can vary as a function of form, social and cognitive skills (Björkqvist 1994; Kaukiainen, et al. 1999), sex (Archer 2004) and gender (Kärnä, et al. 2011), and development (Moffitt 1993). These foundational theories and evidence have been applied to create more effective modern, evidence-based aggression prevention programs, with KiVa being one popular antibullying program that has been implemented in schools in the early twenty-first century (Kärnä, et al. 2011).

  • Anderson, Craig A., and Brad J. Bushman. “Human Aggression.” Annual Review of Psychology 53.1 (2002): 27–51.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135231

    Anderson and Bushman reviewed key domain-specific theories of aggression and integrated these theories into an updated, unified, and parsimonious general aggression model (GAM). This model was used to explain how individual and situational factors can lead to aggressive behavior through various mechanisms including a discussion on the development of aggressive personality. The GAM was used to provide recommendations for interventions to reduce aggression.

  • Archer, John. “Sex Differences in Aggression in Real-World Settings: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Review of General Psychology 8.4 (2004): 291–322.

    DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.8.4.291

    Physical aggression demonstrated the highest sex difference in the direction of boys and men. Higher indirect aggression was found among girls only during later childhood and adolescence. Findings supported evolutionary theories, including the sexual selection theory, which proposes that boys and men favor overt aggression due to greater reproductive competition than girls and women, and the social role theory, which proposes that boys and men favor strategies that show masculinity.

  • Bandura, Albert, Dorothea Ross, and Sheila A. Ross. “Transmission of Aggression through Imitation of Aggressive Models.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63.3 (1961): 575–582.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0045925

    This was one of the earliest studies that demonstrated children learn to use aggressive behavior from adult models who exhibit aggressive behavior. Children were able to recreate this behavior in new settings where the adult was absent. Results supported the social learning theory and was one of the foundational studies explaining aggressive behavior. This study is also classically referred to as the “bobo doll” study.

  • Björkqvist, Kaj. “Sex Differences in Physical, Verbal, and Indirect Aggression: A Review of Recent Research.” Sex Roles 30.3 (1994): 177–188.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01420988

    Björkqvist refuted the traditional view that aggression is only used by boys and men. Although boys and men may use more direct aggression (physical, verbal) than girls and women, girls and women are proposed to select less dangerous strategies such as indirect aggression (spreading rumors, excluding peers). Björkqvist explained that direct aggression is used early in childhood, whereas indirect aggression is used when sophisticated social and verbal skills are acquired.

  • Dodge, Kenneth A., and John D. Coie. “Social-Information-Processing Factors in Reactive and Proactive Aggression in Children’s Peer Groups.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53.6 (1987): 1146–1158.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.6.1146

    In this paper, social information processing mechanisms were empirically tested to explain the use of aggression among children. Across several studies, Dodge and Coie found that hostile attribution biases and intention-cue detection deficits were positively associated with use of reactive aggression (behavioral reaction to perceived threat or provocation), but not proactive aggression (instrumental, planned), among children.

  • Dollard, John, Leonard W. Doob, Neal E. Miller, O. H. Mowrer, and Robert R. Sears. Frustration and Aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1939.

    DOI: 10.1037/10022-000

    Dollard and colleagues proposed the frustration-aggression hypothesis, one of the earliest and influential theories on human aggression. In this theory, aggressive behavior is explained as a response to frustration when one’s goals are blocked. Dollard and colleagues proposed that aggression is always preceded by frustration, but humans learn to suppress and restrain overtly aggressive reactions through socialization.

  • Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. 3d ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1946.

    Freud argued that human beings constantly battle between pursuing individual instincts and following societal expectations. Individual instincts can be in direct conflict with societal laws, which can create feelings of discontent. The capacity for aggression and violence is considered one of these innate human instincts. When individual and societal goals build enough tension, violence can erupt that can catastrophically disrupt human civilization.

  • Kärnä, Antti, Marinus Voeten, Todd D. Little, Elisa Poskiparta, Anne Kaljonen, and Christina Salmivalli. “A Large‐Scale Evaluation of the KiVa Antibullying Program: Grades 4–6.” Child Development 82.1 (2011): 311–330.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01557.x

    Findings from this study supported the effectiveness of KiVa, a national antibullying program in Finland, in reducing bullying perpetration and victimization. The school program incorporated a theoretical understanding that bullying is perpetrated by youth to pursue a high social standing and therefore is rooted in a group process. The program encouraged bystanders to intervene in bullying so that social rewards to perpetrators are reduced.

  • Kaukiainen, Ari, Kaj Björkqvist, Kirsti Lagerspetz, et al. “The Relationships between Social Intelligence, Empathy, and Three Types of Aggression.” Aggressive Behavior 25.2 (1999): 81–89.

    DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2337(1999)25:2<81::AID-AB1>3.0.CO;2

    Findings from this study challenged the view that children who use aggressive behavior are maladjusted and lack social competence. The researchers found that indirect aggression, but not verbal and physical aggression, was related to higher social intelligence to strategically implement circuitous behavior, whereas all three forms were related to lower empathy.

  • Moffitt, Terrie E. “Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy.” Psychological Review 100.4 (1993): 674–701.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.4.674

    Moffitt demonstrated the importance of heterogeneity in the development of antisocial behavior, which can include aggressive behavior. A minority of individuals were proposed to follow a life-course-persistent pattern characterized by continuity in antisocial behavior due to cumulative impacts of adverse individual and environmental conditions. In contrast, most individuals were proposed to follow an adolescence-limited pattern characterized by a developmentally normative increase in antisocial behavior during adolescence that declines in adulthood.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.