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Tantrums and road rage: A shared responsibility to manage aggression

Gina Anindyajati
Gina Anindyajati

Psychiatrist

Jakarta  /  Tue, February 12, 2019  /  01:50 pm
Tantrums and road rage: A shared responsibility to manage aggression

Frustrating traffic can be one of the factors contributing to aggression. (Shutterstock/iperion)

For the past week, footage of a young man destroying the motorbike he was has gone viral. People talk about it endlessly, online and offline, discussing rage as an expression of aggression.

Aggression is defined as hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward others; a readiness to attack or confront. Three types of aggression are reactive-expressive (physical and verbal), reactive-inexpressive (hostility) and proactive-relational (directed toward human relationships).

Aggressive behavior is a reactionary and impulsive behavior in an angry and violent way that often results in violating social boundaries. Not only directed to others, but aggressive behavior can also be directed toward oneself, known as self-harm behavior. Aggressive behavior is related to three factors, called the biopsychosocial factors.

The biological factors include brain structure and functioning, chemical nature (hormones and neurotransmitter) and substance use.

The amygdala is the part of the human brain that regulates perception and reaction related to aggression and fear. However, the control of aggressive behavior is located on the prefrontal cortex, through the orbitofrontal circuit. A dysfunctional, hyperactive amygdala and low activity in the orbitofrontal cortex may increase the propensity for aggressive behavior.

Aggressive behavior may be seen among individuals with mental disorders such as dementia, addiction, psychosis or personality disorders.

Another biological factor related to aggressive behavior is chemical in nature and works on the human brain. Higher levels of testosterone, a primary male hormone, could increase the tendency for aggression. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates various psychological processes. If available in low levels, it might increase aggressive behavior.

Substance use, for example, alcohol, may facilitate aggression by disrupting executive functions that inhibit behavioral tendencies. An individual could also exhibit aggressive behavior when they have low blood sugar levels, which means that people who are hungry tend to be aggressive.

There are various theories to explain the psychological factors of aggression. One of the most popular is the frustration-aggression hypothesis by John Dollard and his fellows. They hypothesized that frustration is a necessary condition for aggressive behavior. Frustration is an emotional response related to anger, irritation and annoyance when there are obstacles to our needs or achieving a goal.

Anger is characterized by antagonism toward someone or something that you feel will or has already deliberately harmed you. As an emotion, anger is not a choice. However, the way we express this feeling of anger is. When anger is expressed with more negativity by being ready for a fight all the time, we call this hostility.

Read also: Motorcyclist throws tantrum after being ticketed

Aggression can also be explained through the angle of psychodynamic as proposed by Freud. He described the process of the mind as flows of psychological energy (libido) in an organically complex brain. Freud argues that human behavior is motivated by sexual and instinctive drives known as libido. According to his theory, human behavior, including aggressive behavior, is produced by the interaction of the id, ego and superego. The id consists of all the inherited components of personality present at birth. The ego is the realistic part that mediates between the two instincts and the superego incorporates the values and morals of society. Aggression is a part of everyone, but not everyone behaves aggressively.

Socially learned behavior is known to be the most significant social cause of aggression. Bandura in 1977 proposed a social learning theory where new behaviors can be acquired by observing and imitating others. The more a child is exposed to an aggressive environment, the higher the chance that he could be desensitized and grow up not realizing what is appropriate and what is wrong. He would continue to exhibit aggressive behavior and wrongly shape assumptions about social reality. Therefore, an appropriate environment, including family, mass media and society — which are the learning resource for children — is important.

Deindividuation is another social factor related to aggression. It is a concept of the loss of self-awareness in groups. People tend to behave differently in a crowd than they would normally when they are on their own. In most cases, it leads to aggressive behavior, such as an outbreak of a riot. People who are normally very calm and docile surprisingly show greater signs of aggressiveness as part of a mob in such instances.

In addition to the observation of behavior, people also learn through vicarious reinforcement that are rewards and punishments. When punishment is given regularly to a specific behavior, the behavior will desist. Conversely, it will persist when a reward is given. Rewards by society apply as a type of social reinforcement that is a strong cause of aggressive behavior based on cultural rules.

In many cultures, boys are expected to show their strength and capacity through aggressive behavior. For example, a boy who wins a gang fight is cheered by his peers. Consequently, he will get involved in other gang fights to receive such appreciation. Therefore, the aggressiveness that comes with a reward will tend to be exhibited more often.

Managing aggression

Uncontrolled aggression may lead to distress and disability of an individual. They may have problems with people around their life. Children, for example, show aggressive outbursts such as temper tantrums or even hurting their siblings and peers to express their frustration, their anger. Adolescents may show aggression by vandalism or in extreme cases, by purse snatching and robbery, while adults express their emotion by beating others. Many cases of aggression were reported in the media with various settings, for example, domestic violence, gang fights, murder and road rage, like the incident that went viral last week.

In the case of road rage, one of the efforts to ensure the safety of road users is to enact policies for psychological tests during the driver’s license exam. In Indonesia, this rule was officially established last year, but the implementation is still limited (required in Riau and Banten, not yet in Jakarta).

In Germany, a medical-psychological assessment (MPA) is also required to revoke or reissue a driver’s license; the rule has been in place since 1955. A study conducted in 2012 proved the effectiveness of the method, with 92 percent of drink-drivers assessed not reoffending within three years. However, the MPA consists of a medical examination, psychological performance test and psychological interview, which is different from our 24-question psychological test. Therefore, in term of effectivity, our system may not be as effective as the MPA, but it is a good start to ensure the safety of road users.

Read also: Mean streets: Five worst road rage incidents in Jakarta

As individuals, we all have the responsibility to manage our aggression and control aggressive behavior. First, identify the factors. Start by talking to someone about experiences that trigger the aggressive response. The approach will be different depending on the biopsychosocial factors of aggression. If it is due to a biological factor, seek professional help for treatment and try other therapeutic strategies. The doctor, in some cases, may prescribe medication as a form of treatment. When aggression is triggered by psychological factors, a doctor may recommend psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or a psychodynamic approach. Psychotherapies can help develop a coping mechanism and work through negative feelings.

As part of the community, we have the responsibility to modify the social environment in order to have adaptive learning that is harmless for everyone. Decrease the exposure to violence at home, the community and through mass media. Adults, especially parents, should help their children learn to say “no” to others and how to settle differences with words instead of resorting to physical aggression. Also, try to praise children when they succeed in controlling their aggressive impulses.

Aggression is a complex condition and needs to be addressed thoroughly. Improving biological conditions will provide a better outcome if it is accompanied by an increase in a person's psychological capacity to deal with frustration. To be able to do that, an individual will need a safe and comfortable environment as a model of a world filled with peace and harmony. Therefore, managing aggression, which is part of our instincts as living things, is our shared responsibility. (kes)

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Gina Anindyajati is a general adult psychiatrist. Her time is well spent between the Cipto Mangunkusumo National General Hospital and Angsamerah. Her scope of work is closely related to community psychiatry, psychosocial rehabilitation and trauma. Besides delivering mental health services for patients, Gina is also working with stakeholders from the government and consumer organizations. During her leisure time, she loves to ease her mind by watching a good television series or go for a long walk.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.