Who gets aggressive at the late-night bar and why?

The exhaustive analysis in Steven Pinker’s latest book shows that we are living in the most peaceable age for thousands of years. To anyone who spends time in late-night bars, this might come as a surprise. In these temples to hedonism, spilled drinks and unwelcome gropes all too often provoke violent brawls.

Kathryn Graham and her colleagues trained 148 observers and sent them out to 118 bars in early-hours Toronto where they recorded 1,057 instances of aggression from 1,334 visits. Where the majority of psychology research on aggression is based on laboratory simulations (often involving participants zapping each other with loud noise or spiking each other’s food with chilli sauce), Graham’s team collected real-life observational data to find out who gets aggressive and why.

The researchers followed the Theory of Coercive Actions, according to which aggressive acts have one or more motives: compliance (getting someone to do something, or stop doing something); grievance; social identity (to prove one’s status and power); and thrill-seeking.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority (77.5 per cent) of aggressive acts were instigated by men. Men more than women were driven to aggression by identity and thrill-seeking motives; by contrast female aggression was more often motivated by compliance and grievance. This often had a defensive intent, as a reaction against unwanted sexual advances.

As well as being particularly severe, aggression that was ignited by patrons who felt threats to their identity was also particularly likely to escalate, “because,” the researchers said, “their strong identity motivation reflects a situation where the person is already invested in winning or besting the other person.” Aggressive acts motivated by grievance were also likely to escalate, because of people feeling their actions were justified.

The researchers found that greater intoxication led to more serious aggression in women, but not men – perhaps because the latter were emboldened enough already. Younger men and bigger men also tended to engage in more serious aggressive acts, replicating past research showing that larger, intoxicated men are more likely to get aggressive than their smaller counterparts.

Graham and her colleagues said their findings could help contribute to preventative policies in late-night bars. For example, given the incendiary role of identity motives in aggressive incidents, efforts could be made to challenge traditional cultural norms that say masculine identity is about power and strength. Because of the escalating effect of grievance motives, security staff could be trained to diffuse situations early – for example, by replacing spilled drinks free of charge. And because so much female aggression was provoked by sexual harassment, the researchers advised establishments to create an atmosphere that discourages “invasive and aggressive sexual overtures whilst still maintaining an exciting venue where young people can explore their sexuality and meet potential partners.”

These recommendations sound well-intentioned and supported by the new evidence, but are they really achievable? What do you think?

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Kathryn Graham, Sharon Bernards, D. Wayne Osgood, Michael Parks, Antonia Abbey, Richard B. Felson, Robert F. Saltz, and Samantha Wells (2012). Apparent motives for aggression in the social context of the bar. Psychology of Violence DOI: 10.1037/a0029677

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

13 thoughts on “Who gets aggressive at the late-night bar and why?”

  1. “research showing than larger, intoxicated men are more likely to get aggressive than their smaller counterparts.”

    They could have just asked me.

    “For example, given the incendiary role of identity motives in aggressive incidents, efforts could be made to challenge traditional cultural norms that say masculine identity is about power and strength.”

    This is the stupidest thing I've read all week. Given that aggression is pretty solidly linked to testosterone, the only effect that “challenging traditional cultural norms” (a common academic trope that is itself now a cultural norm) would have is to make men feel that their identity is under threat, and thus even more aggressive.

    I suspect that this was the first time many of the researchers had been in real pubs.

  2. Not sure Anon's argument is really valid. Why would aggression being linked to testosterone make challenging machismo more likely to threaten a man's identity? I don't think one follows from the other.

    I can see that challenging machismo might feel threatening to some men, but I guess it depends on how it is done! Surely there are ways of challenging macho stereotypes that won't make people defensive, for example highlighting the ways in which macho behaviour is destructive and damaging…

  3. “For example, given the incendiary role of identity motives in aggressive incidents, efforts could be made to challenge traditional cultural norms that say masculine identity is about power and strength.”

    I think the point of debate here is the word “challenge” – whether that means a) challenge aggressively, attack or b) modify and question. An aggressive challenge to aggressive behaviour would likely result in more aggression, as Anonymous 11:06 says. I'm assuming the researchers meant b). But given the context, they could have chosen a better word – which would also have helped them be more specific about how to modify or question trad cultural norms.

  4. I think in an environment where being macho is the cultural norm, then challenging someone's macho identity is threatening because there is social pressure on them to fulfill that role, but if having a macho identity was no longer the cultural norm, then men would be less likely to feel threatened by not being perceived as being macho.

  5. In the blog it says they had to train the observers. I was wondering how they went about training them and what they trained them on? It seems like to me they would of used operant conditioning to do this research. Operant conditioning explains how we acquire and maintain voluntary behaviors. In the research they are trying to figure out who gets aggressive at a bar and why. Operant conditioning is the best way to get the answers.

  6. Every male would act more aggressive in a bar since that sort of behavior is accepted and even rewarded. Men are also more likely to be competitive in bars by taking shots or even measuring certain body parts. If a person is drunk enough in this kind of setting, there will be a fight.

  7. The aggressive behavior among the young,large men could be caused by observational learning. This is when we learn by watching and imitating others' behaviors. The men could have observed other men who acted aggressive and won affection from women as being macho and manly therefore making them act aggressive to get the girls' attention. The men would be reinforced by the girls' attention. Although a reinforcement is not required for learning to occur, the thought of possibly attracting a girls' attention would help also. You need to possess 4 cognitive processes in order for the behavior to be imitated according to Albert Bandura. These include paying attention, remembering the action, being able to reproduce the action and be motivated to reproduce the action. I would believe that all of these things happened (or tried to) at a bar full of drunk people.

  8. Observational learning is where we learn through watching and imitating the behaviors of others. Albert Bandura is the psychologist who is strongly identified with observational learning. He believes that observational learning is the result of cognitive processes that are actively judgmental and constructive.I think that men are more aggressive and willing to fight in a bar because of observational learning. When you have a room full of people drinking, aggression is going to be portrayed whether it be from a woman who is getting hit on and not liking it or a man thinking he is stronger and better than the guy next to him, and is willing to fight. Therefore, when a fight starts, more people tend to chime in on it because they are imitating what they saw, which then creates the process of observational learning.

  9. For most, violence is acceptable behavior in bars and this can be explained through Observational Learning. Observational Learning is learning that occurs from observing the environment around them. Growing up how many bar scenes in movies didn't have some form of violence in it? Not many and these kinds of experiences contribute to what we believe to be acceptable behavior. So understandably people act violently because some time in their life they observed a situation where violence resulted in a desirable outcome, therefore they feel violence will solve their problems.

  10. If these “researchers” would stop living in a lab, and start going to bars and have a few drinks themselves, they'd realize their entire article is BS and any attempt at “changing” anyone will never work.

    It's been like this thru human history.

    And what is this talk of “security staff” or replacing spilled drinks for free? Even more proof they have no idea how a bar actually works.. from either side of the bar.

  11. Hmmmm. We are primates and other primate males act exactly the same way. Not that our behavior can't be recognized and altered, just that maybe the starting point has something to do with our evolution.

  12. TO: Kathryn Graham, Sharon Bernards, D. Wayne Osgood, Michael Parks, Antonia Abbey, Richard B. Felson, Robert F. Saltz, and Samantha Wells (2012).

    Well, this seems like a very outsider attempt to explain what appears to the observes as male dominated violence. From a safety, workers comp, emergency management professional’s and research student’s perspective (myself), and someone that has conducted security assessments based on behavior and all of the applicable cultural factors that you can imagine, gender has almost nothing to do with this area of social behavior. The climate of culture within the establishment determines how much if any violence the business will willing to put up with. As for the UK, I know that there needs to be licensed Door Staff on duty anytime a bar or nightclub even opens there doors for business and if I am not mistaken, they have the powers of arrest. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine the point at which anyone intervened in these so called aggressive behavior incidents and to what level the violence had attained.

    Training staff to pay attention to women that might be being harassed by men is a no brainier and if the door staff is not, they are not doing their job. As far as de-escalation skills go, the same applies. Simply stating that men are more prone to violence is a blanket statement that should only be taken at face value for which context or venue was being observed at that time. I have often had many nights where the women in the bar were more violent than the men at that time. Furthermore, the reasons why people get angry usually have nothing to do with whatever gender they may be. Education levels, cultural acceptance, venue acceptance (or not), family and peer influence, to an extent the level of intoxication, social setting, passion factors (girlfriend/boyfriend), territorial issues, etc.. Just observing without a follow-up discussion does not determine any causation factor whatsoever, regardless of who is observing or what their skill set is.

    Peter Prieto
    International Nightclub Safety Foundation

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