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Study Notes

Aggression: Dispositional Explanations


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Institutions are places where many people are often confined in cramped surroundings and as a result can become involved in violence and aggression. The main institutions that psychologists have studied are prisons where violence has been a historic problem. There are two competing theories that seek to explain this aggression. Social Psychologists investigating aggression in prisons have proposed one theory: that the social environment in the prison can cause aggression. This is called the situational explanation. An opposing theory is the dispositional explanation that proposes that the individuals disposition, the traits and characteristics that together create an individual's identity, are the main factors in any aggression displayed by that individual.

The most influential dispositional explanation has been put forward by Irwin and Cressey (1962) in the Importation Model. This model proposes that individuals import their characteristics and traits into the prison, when they enter the prison. Irwin and Cressey (1962) maintain that if an individual comes from a subculture where violence is the norm, then they will continue to be violent in the prison. Criminals often live in a culture of violence, where the norm is to use violence to settle disputes and this norm continues to determine their behaviour both inside and outside of prison. Irwin and Cressey 's (1962) model is useful in that it can explain the higher levels of aggression demonstrated by individuals with certain personal characteristics, such as gender, race and social class. The dispositional explanation proposes that these individuals would be more aggressive in any setting be it prison, work or in education.

Often it is the younger inmates that tend to behave violently, as they are more likely to find it harder to adjust to prison life, and may therefore engage in more conflicts with others, and are more likely to view aggression as an appropriate way of dealing with conflict. The importation model argues that it is not the situational pressures of the prison (or other institution) that causes aggression, but rather the disposition of the individuals within it.

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