The reinforcing value of several types of aggressive behavior: A review

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Field observations of “surplus killing” and laboratory studies of operant performance rewarded by prey‐killing opportunities suggest that predatory behavior is positively reinforcing. Similarly, both repeated encounter and operant performance studies suggest that intraspecific aggression can be positively reinforcing for successful aggressors. While a few studies suggest that defensive aggression under aversive conditions may also be positively reinforcing, it appears that when appropriate response modes are available escape and/or avoidance are preferred to attack. Studies of the reinforcing properties of aggression‐eliciting brain stimulation are in general agreement with these conclusions, but methodological problems with these latter observations render them less compelling. The progressive escalation of aggression seen in “warm‐up effects” of birds and fish, “priming effects” of mice, and ecstatic violence of humans may be analogous processes based on the positively self‐reinforcing characteristics of some kinds of aggression. The transient reductions of aggression which appear as refractory periods and satiation effects in a variety of species may reflect temporary reductions in the reinforcing value of aggression. All these temporal effects must be considered in the evaluation of experiments on the reinforcing value of aggression. More generally, it is possible that these temporal fluctuations reflect the operation of common motivational processes (aggressive states) which regulate overt aggression by changing its reinforcing value.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)353-373
Number of pages21
JournalAggressive Behavior
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1979


  • aggression
  • predation
  • reinforcement
  • satiation
  • time course

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