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Transforming life event: The frustration-aggression hypothesis (FAH) vs. the cognitive behavioural theory.

The following essay looks at a major life event and its consequential changes on the subject in question. The major event is then analysed from a behavioural and a cognitive perspective to aid in understanding why the subject behaved in such meticulous ways. The approaches also aim to give light to how the individual found themselves in the position they did and moved forward after the event. 

Transforming life event: Subject ‘Ryan’.

Ryan had been a bright and aspiring child with ambitions of a career within the arts. Ryan began to experience moments of torment in his life at the age of 14 due to his appearance. Although of white British decent, his olive skin and dark hair gave the appearance that he was of Asian origin and faced racial prejudice on numerous occasions. Ryan became increasingly distressed by the verbal insults, although never acted in a defensive way. He came to hold illogical beliefs about his upbringing and adoption crossed his mind on numerous occasions which caused conflict with his parents. When Ryan was aged 19, he was riding his bike with a friend, when two males in their twenties racially abused from across the street. Ryan was of the understanding that they were going to come across the road and attack him; however witnesses stated that they had already turned their backs and proceeded with their walking away from Ryan. Ryan lost his composure and pre-emptively attacked one of the men. The attack was so fierce that Ryan was sentenced to 5 years in prison due to grievous bodily harm, despite positive probation reports.

Ryan changed drastically after the event and after his sentence in prison. He took part in an offender treatment programme for violent offenders, which was predominantly based upon cognitive behavioural therapy. Upon release, he became a mentor to victims of racial abuse and now works with socially vulnerable youths. He manages his own frustration levels (as he states he still falls victim to prejudice) with regular use of the gym, anger management workshops and his own work with youth victims, along with the tools he learnt during treatment.

Theory 1: The frustration-aggression hypothesis (FAH) – the behaviourist explanation for events.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis was first termed by Dollard et al. (1939) in response to earlier works by Freud and his interpretation of aggression stemming from his instinct theory (Freud, 1923). Dollard et al. (1939) translated some of the initial psychoanalytic concepts of aggression by Freud into learning theories. The FAH insight is that aggression is always the effect of frustration and that the mere existence of frustration will inevitably lead to some form of aggression. Further explanations of aggression come from the behaviourist aggressive cue theory, ACT (also known as cue-arousal) as proposed by Berkowitz (1966). In ACT it is suggested that frustration produces anger as opposed to aggression. According to ACT, anything that is frustrating results in psychological pain and it is from this pain, that aggression may be produced. For aggression to appear there needs to be cues linked to aggression or the frustrating entity or individual (Berkowitz and Harmon-Jones, 2004).

If we look at the case of Ryan, we are able to see clear links with the behavioural explanations of his behaviour. The FAH would suggest that Ryan after years of torment had increasing levels of frustration, which would have been exasperated to some level each time an attack on his appearance occurred. This increase in aggression would have led to the act of aggression (violence) that occurred when he was 19. If we incorporate the ACT component of the approach, it could be suggested that the cue in relation to the aggressive act was the ‘individual’ who was slanderous in his accusations against him. Ryan would have been likely to have been experiencing emotional pain with the ever increasing verbal abuse, and as such his frustration levels would have exceeded a level of manageability when the cue from the individual occurred. The difficulty here is that his act of aggression may have relieved some of the frustration as a catharsis, but was detrimental on his own life. Fiske (2004),reports that effects on indirect aggression (an act by which the third party is innocent and retaliation against the source of provocation is not possible) are more accountable for than those if direct aggression. However, if provocation is received from others, and there is no reason not to retaliate, this is likely to result in aggression (Chermack et al. 1997) To further this, Bandura (1973),suggested that not all frustrating incidents have an effect involving aggression. This suggests why over time, the indirect aggression may have caused increasing frustration levels which accumulated in the violent incident. Berkowitz (1993),also states that different individuals act in different ways to the same frustrating events. From a behavioural approach, Ryan could be seen therefore as acting in a personally abnormal way (usually mild mannered) within a ‘normal’ personal circumstances (the recurrent racial prejudice). However, the approach does little in explaining why Ryan did not retaliate on numerous occasions before, when there may have been equal levels of frustration. Further explanations  (Fiske 2004; Chermack et al. 1997; Bandura 1973) are needed to try and account for these issues not incorporated in the approach. The approach also lacks the insight of catharsis and how Ryan came to lower his own self worth. Some of these explanations may be found in the cognitive behavioural approach.

Theory 2: The cognitive behavioural theory – the cognitive explanation for events.

The cognitive behavioural approach, suggests that all behavioural deviancies, stem from a thought disorder, which in turn affects the individuals feelings (Meichenbaum, 1977).Over time, these belief disorders cause automatic thoughts through our construction and evaluation of the world we live in (Beck, 1987). The world will often become a negative place and harbour within the individuals, feelings of resentment and a loss of self worth. Although the individuals may feel as though they are victims, Beck would argue that they are a product of their own illogical self-judgements. In simple terms, the cognitive approach (and is used an explanatory method in cognitive behavioural therapy) suggests that it is our own interpretation of events, as opposed to what actually happened, that cause the negative emotional or behavioural consequence (Wilding and Milne, 2010).

 The cognitive approach looks at maladaptive behaviours through three stages.

  • A = Activating event (the trigger which leads to the irrational beliefs)
  • B = Belief about the event (usually an inaccurate assumption or evaluation of a situation or act)
  • C1 = Emotional Consequence (Resulting emotional state)
  • C2 = Behavioural Consequence (Our actions or reactions)

Looking at the case of Ryan, we can see how events in his life may have altered his own personal assessment of himself and the acts which followed. Although his thoughts about the racial assaults may not have been illogical in the sense that he was creating prejudice from normal interactions, it was his belief and the behavioural consequence which led to his own prosecution. The activating event (or trigger) in the case of Ryan, would have been the verbal racial assault. The belief about the event was that the individuals were not only being verbally abusive but that they were going to cross the road and attack him. This would have created a chain reaction in thought processes which led to his irrational decisions. He did not use coherent thought when he saw them retreating and walking away and therefore acted illogically and made his attack, which was his behavioural consequence, no doubt stemming from an intense emotional state. Although Ryan would have not normally acted in that way, the accumulation of irrational reasoning over recent years and the trigger, contributed to the level of violence which was seen.

The theory which provides most clarity:

In understanding the case of Ryan, the behavioural approach seems to be the most logical, in the sense that Ryan’s violent act appears to have stemmed from years of frustrating incidences.  Although the cognitive approach seems to have validity in analysing the actual incidence of violence, the FAH is able to create a picture of what Ryan may have felt over time in the weeks and years prior to the incident, along with the element of cue arousal (the perpetrator of racial slander). The cognitive approach is of course beneficial for treating repeat offenders of violent acts, allowing them the insight to evaluate their immediate thoughts which precede violent occurrences and reassess the way in which they deal with the cues/triggers that tend to result in retaliated hostility. This was used in therapy during Ryan’s custodial sentence and allowed him not only time of reflection, but gave him the psychological tools to use upon leaving prison, should a similar act occur. The years of racial torment for a teenage boy who was in fact not of the ethnicity to which he was accused and persecuted for, must have been a ‘frustrating’ period, which in no doubt was a major factor in the moments prior to and during the violent act. For Ryan, this retaliation may have been instinctual (Freud, 1923), after a long period of aggravation and a resulting FAH ‘act’ and thus, an explanation of the behaviour may be enhanced by combining both approaches.

In conclusion, we can see that major life events may be able to explained, by combining the behavioural and cognitive processes involved in individual approaches. In reality, human actions are the product of both cognitive-behavioural aspects and behavioural-cognitive aspects. It is far from unambiguous process and thus the combination of approaches may aid in clearing some of the indistinct developmental processes to particular thoughts and behaviours.


Bandura, A., 1973. Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. London: Prentice-Hall.

Beck, A. T. 1987. Cognitive models of depression. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly. 1, pp.5-37.

Berkowitz, L. 1966. On not being able to aggress. British Journal of Clinical & Social Psychology. 5, pp.130-139.

Berkowitz, L. 1993. Aggression: Its Causes, Consequences and Control. New York: McGraw-Hill

Berkowitz, L., & Harmon-Jones, E. 2004. Toward an Understanding of the Determinants of Anger. Emotion. 4 (2), pp.107-130.

Chermack, S.T., Berman, M., & Taylor, S.P. 1997. Effects of provocation on emotion and aggression in males. Aggressive Behaviour. 23, pp.1-10

Dollard, J., Doob, L.W., Mowrer, O.H., & Sears, R.R. 1939. Frustration and Aggression. New Haven: Harvard University Press.

Fiske, S. T. 2004. Social Beings: A Core Motives Approach to Social Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Freud, S. 1923. The Ego and the Id. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Meichenbaum, D. 1977. Cognitive Behaviour Modification: An Integrative Approach. New York: Plenum.

Wilding, C and Milne, A. 2010. Cognitive Behavioural Therpay. London: Hodder Education.