How Is Aggression Learned? In addition to genetic and biological factors, it is clear that aggressive behavior is strongly affected by learning. Rewards obtained by aggres- sion today will increase its use tomorrow. Such rewards come in two flavors: positive reinforcement, when aggression produces desired outcomes, and nega- tive reinforcement, when aggression prevents or stops undesirable outcomes. The child who gets a toy by hitting the toy’s owner is likely to hit again. So, too, the child who can stop other children from teasing by shoving them has learned the fateful lesson that aggression pays. Children who see aggression producing more good outcomes, and fewer bad outcomes, are more aggressive than other children.
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Rewards are one part of the learning equation, but what about punishment? Punishment is often promoted as a way to reduce aggressive behavior. Research suggests that punishment is most likely to decrease aggression when it (1) imme- diately follows the aggressive behavior, (2) is strong enough to deter the aggres- sor, and (3) is consistently applied and perceived as fair and legitimate by the aggressor. However, such stringent conditions are seldom met, and when they are not met, punishment can backfire.