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Taking aim at aggression

The University hosts a major international conference July 26-29 to examine one of humanity's more problematic traits

By Deane Morrison

July 21, 2006

Everybody gets aggressive, whether it's a toddler having a tantrum, a schoolyard bully demanding lunch money, or a miffed lover maliciously gossiping. The many faces of aggression and the human fascination with conflict ensure strong attendance at the International Society for Research on Aggression meeting, a major biennial conference to be held next Wednesday through Saturday (July 26-29) at Coffman Union on the Twin Cities campus. The conference will open a window on how we can understand and deal with one of the less savory aspects of human behavior. Organizer Michael Potegal, an assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Clinical Neuroscience, worked with his wife, meeting coordinator Kelli Clement, to bring to Minneapolis experts in virtually every conceivable aspect of aggression. Attendees must register for the meeting, but those who want a taste of the topic may hear a free public lecture by Adrian Raine of the University of Southern California, who will discuss violence, brain mechanisms, and moral responsibility. He speaks at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 27, in Coffman Union Theater.

"It's clear that exposure to [violent TV and video scenes] increases one's propensity to commit violence and to downplay its effects on victims," says Potegal.

Giving a forestate of the conference, Potegal sketches some of the more intriguing aspects of aggression research. One controversial subject has been the effect on children and adolescents who watch a lot of violent TV shows or who play violent video games. "It's clear that exposure to these things increases one's propensity to commit violence and to downplay its effects on victims," says Potegal. With video games in particular, "Those who are prone to violence are most interested in playing them in the first place and data point to them having an aggravating effect." Among researchers, there's an important distinction between different types of aggression, says Potegal. There seem to be two major forms: anger-related and non-anger-related. An example of anger-related aggression is the temper tantrum, to which some kids seem to be prone by virtue of being easily angered and apt to strike out. Non-anger-related aggression takes a more insidious form. "In my view, non-anger-related aggression is to establish dominance," says Potegal. For example, bullies use aggression to exert dominance, and this same tendency manifests itself in everything from bar fights, catcalls, and criminal violence (such as pistol-whipping somebody who's already been robbed), all the way up through torture, ethnic cleansing, and war. In his view, "War planners aren't angry," says Potegal. "It's an exercise in dominance. This is the opinion of many researchers on aggression. In my opinion, the emotion most closely related to this form of aggression is contempt." The prevalence of both types of aggression has sparked interest in the underlying causes. Several keynote speakers will talk about the biology of human aggression. From Laura Baker of the University of Southern California, who will discuss genetic risk factors for aggression, to Emil Cocarro of the University of Chicago, whose work includes studies of the neurotransmitter serotonin's role in aggression, speakers will dissect the biological reasons why aggressive tendencies exist. Yet the deep-rooted nature of aggression is not reason to despair. "That aggression has genetic roots doesn't mean homicide and war are inevitable, because equally deep in our genetic behavior are friendship behaviors and altruism. These are usually in balance," says Potegal. "Then there's a tremendous influence of culture and socialization." Potegal cited the work of a researcher named John Paddock on villages in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, whose residents made a deliberate decision to not engage in violence. A major element was not to reinforce kids' aggression and for the adults to use no physical punishments. The villages have become models of how to reduce aggressive behavior by peaceful means.

A specialist in the anatomy of temper trantrums, Potegal says aggression is responsible for a huge share of headlines, but you'd never know how important the field of aggression research is from the funding it receives. He hopes a grants workshop at the conference will help attendees compete better for funding and that the gathering will also elevate the profile of aggression research at the University and acknowledge and encourage people working on the problem. Among them are Nicki Crick, director of the University's Institute of Child Development, a prominent researcher in the area of indirect aggression such as rumormongering, backstabbing, and clique forming. To read more about the conference, view a complete schedule, or register, go to the conference Web site.