The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis: Coping With Frustration

Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault

Published 06/27/2022

Frustration is an inevitable experience. Starting in infancy, goals are thwarted and intentions lost, leading to feelings of frustration. Although frustration can be observed in virtually all ages, backgrounds, and aspects of life, its origins rarely seem quite as simple as having a single trigger. The frustration-aggression hypothesis was an important piece of research that sought to answer where aggression originates and how frustration is most commonly expressed.

Frustration And Aggression: A History

Frustration has long been researched, but it was not until 1939 that a group of psychologists sat down and hammered out definitive theories about the origin of frustration and the consequences of frustration. Rather than focusing on the emotional origins and consequences, the frustration-aggression theory focused on the linkage of frustration and aggression, suggesting that the two were inextricably linked from inception to expression. This was an important piece of research that has continued to inform and define research on frustration and aggression, as both are frequently featured in mental illnesses and require a thorough investigation to thoroughly understand human beings' motivations and practices as a whole.

Although aggression is typically regarded with fear or discomfort, aggression is a normal, human feeling and experience. Aggression can be observed in infancy; when children throw a food item, they do not want to eat or smack a sibling who is in some way irritating or bothering them. Because it is so ubiquitous to the human experience, it provides an interesting source of study. Aggression also inspires a great deal of research because it is frequently linked to crime and violence; violent acts are often preceded by a history of aggressive language or behaviors, and symptoms of aggression are frequently pointed to as predictors of criminal activity down the road.

Frustration is similarly interesting as a topic of study, as it is also frequently cited as a predecessor to aggressive or violent acts—though these acts may not always be grouped under a heading quite as strong as “aggression.” Instead, aggression is frequently studied for its influence on overall behavior and struggle. For instance, compound frustrations are often pinpointed as the source of overwhelming aggression. They may be identified as the catalyst for many mental health concerns, including anxiety, low self-esteem, and even depression.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis: The Positives

The frustration-aggression principle is useful, as it provides a basis for understanding both aggression and frustration. Understanding where the frustration comes from and how it relates (or even leads) to aggression can help people better understand their own impulses and deal with their potential shortcomings and difficulties more effectively. It also provided a starting point for beginning sorting through the potential causes of aggression and the most likely outcomes of constant and consistent frustration. Having a basis for understanding both is vital because frustration and aggression are unavoidable. While the experiences are unavoidable, negative responses and hazardous situations are absolutely avoidable, given that proper coping tools and a thorough understanding of triggers are in place.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis also paved the way for additional forays into aggression research. Psychologists still frequently use the aggression theory basics to begin their own investigation of aggression sources and outcomes, even if their results differ somewhat from the original conclusions of the theory of aggression.  Some research studies even cite portions of the study as correct or legitimate in their conclusions, suggesting that, while frustration is not the only precursor to aggression, aggression remains the most likely conclusion to repeated sources of frustration.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis: The Negatives

While the hypothesis may have provided an invaluable framework for studying aggression and frustration and how the two are related, it dramatically oversimplifies the many complexities involved in human emotions, including sources of aggression, reasons for frustration, and the possible outcomes of both—outcomes that do not necessarily include one another. Frustration, for instance, can absolutely lead to aggression but does not necessarily always lead to aggression; instead, frustration can lead to feelings of overwhelm, loss of motivation, and depression—all of which are not directly tied to aggression.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis can also be problematic for the conclusions drawn, as the conclusions could result in feelings of fear or shame regarding frustrated or aggressive impulses. Suggesting that frustration necessarily leads to aggression could create anxiety surrounding the possibility of experiencing frustration and can cause hypervigilance in avoiding feelings of frustration. While the theory is sound and provides interesting ideas regarding the intersection of frustration and aggression, it fails to account for the numerous causes of frustration and aggression and the countless potential outcomes of feeling frustrated or feeling aggressive impulses.

Follow-Up Research: Amendments To The Hypothesis

Because many of the frustration-aggression hypothesis's conclusions have been proven false, there have been many attempts to amend the theory to reflect a more inclusive and complex assessment of the relationship between aggression and frustration. Aggression examples include some amendments that target the idea of aggression as a narrow classification and propose that “aggression” should be taken to mean “negative effect.” In contrast, others have amended the original theory to suggest that aggression is not always preceded by frustration, but that frustration will always lead to some form of aggression. Both of these have been further rejected by others, who propose that the scope of human emotion and experience is too nuanced to narrow it down to a single cause-effect relationship. Changes to the hypothesis do not typically throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and discredit the entire hypothesis but usually introduce additional concepts and suggestions to increase nuance into the study of frustration and aggression.

Frustration: Inception And How To Cope 

Frustration is borne of many things—and causes many outcomes. Frustration is typically started by an inability to reach a desired goal or outcome. Still, it could also result from unmet expectations, realizing self-limitations, and meeting any type of opposition. For instance, children often experience frustration when they cannot get their way or complete the desired task. Frustration can result in aggression, such as throwing items or hitting a peer. Still, it can also result in crying, emotional overwhelm, and an overwhelming desire to be held and comforted.

Regardless of its source, frustration can elicit deeply uncomfortable feelings, many of which will seek an outlet. Rather than acting out aggressively, shouting, or doing something you may regret, there are healthy ways to handle frustration without resorting to aggression. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Utilize Calming Exercises. Meditation, controlled breathing, and yoga asana are all potential ways to cope with frustration in a healthy, effective way.
  • Get It Out. Rather than releasing frustration with physical acting-out or violence, get the frustration out in another way. Calling a friend, contacting a therapist, or writing in a journal are excellent ways to vent frustrations without resorting to problematic coping mechanisms.
  • Recalibrate Your Expectations. Frustrations are often the result of the failure to meet expectations. Whether those expectations were for yourself, for someone else, or for a situation, frustration can be managed by recalibrating expectations to produce a more realistic version of possible ending scenarios.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

As is typically the case with forays into psychology, the start of in-depth frustration research was promising. As the first dedicated study and subsequent published report regarding frustration, aggression, and how the two relate, it proposed important ideas about the cause and effect relationship leading to both frustration and aggression—both issues that can plague human beings and can cause a very real upset in an individual’s life. Finding a way to identify the cause of both experiences can provide tremendous insight into how to better avoid or cope with frustration and aggression, improving quality of life. Far from being a simple relationship, however, frustration and aggression can be related without being intrinsically related.

Having aggression is difficult and can present many problems in an individual’s life. Learning whether or not you have undue or excessive aggression can be as simple as taking an online assessment, but determining how to handle that aggression is far less certain. Aggression can be a direct result of frustration. Still, it can also come from a host of other sources: impotence, fear, betrayal, grief, and confusion can all act as precursors to aggressive feelings or behaviors, and none of them are undoubtedly linked to frustration. Nevertheless, the frustration-aggression hypothesis is a historically important piece of the aggression research puzzle because it tried to identify a definitive source of aggression. Even though it has since been debunked—or at the very least significantly modified—it presented an important concept to psychologists and researchers: cause and effect in managing mental health. Aggression was not simply a hysteria or insanity product but had very real, even tangible roots that could be identified and modified. Despite its eventual disproving, the hypothesis provided a framework for aggression research that provides important and valuable insights into any type of mental health study.