Aggression and Culture Research Paper

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This   research paper   conceptualizes    aggression   as   coercive forms of social control, perceived as being applied illegitimately.   Mundane   social   control   is   exercised through  role  prescriptions  and  is routinely  met  with compliance. Whenever social control is perceived to be exercised illegitimately, however, victims and their representatives   respond   to  restore  interpersonal   and social order. That response may be retaliatory coercion. The type of response elicited will be shaped by personal factors such  as the emotionality  of the victim and the hedonic  relevance  of the  anti-normative  action;  target factors such as the gender, status, and ethnicity  of the perpetrator; social factors such as the degree of interpersonal  support for retaliation or harmonizing; historical  factors  such  as the  strength  of antagonistic ideologies among ethnic groups; economic factors such as the degree of relative inequality between the actors and between their social groups; and cultural factors such as the presence of honor or restraint codes. For the purpose of understanding  aggression, culture may be understood as that complex set of external conditions  that sustains or retards the development of those social psychological conditions that predispose toward interpersonal violence. This research paper elaborates these societal conditions and their psychological imprints on social actors.


  1. Culture and Aggression: Contexts for Exercising Coercive Control
  2. Culture as Contexts for Influence
  3. Holocultural Studies of Aggression
  4. Culture and Studies of Aggression in Individuals

1. Culture and Aggression: Contexts For Exercising Coercive Control

Cultures may be construed as ecological–social contexts that promote  or restrain  acts of interpersonal  or intergroup  control.  These acts function  to influence  other persons   or  the   groups   they  constitute   to  provide resources desired by the influencing agent while minimizing the costs required for their acquisition. The party being influenced is also acting to maximize benefits and minimize costs while engaged in this dance of interdependencies. So long as this exchange of influence proceeds within normatively accepted guidelines, the process is regarded as an acceptable negotiation.  Once one of the parties violates the other’s norms of acceptable procedure  or outcome,  the  other’s influence  attempts may shift and become more coercive.

Coercion  in influence is characterized  by the use of punishments  or by the withholding of rewards from the target as a consequence of his or her behavior. It is these tactics of contingent  control that are closely monitored in society because their use may violate social norms for exercising social influence over another’s interests. Any escalation in the strength  of influence tactics will typically be construed  as intended  by the other  party but unethical,  illegitimate, unjustified,  savage, immoral,  or wrong and will typically be met with a counterattack. One party triumphs, at least in the short term, leaving the other party subjugated  and resentful, immobilized and hopeless, or dead and past harboring plans for revenge. Harmony or at least a working truce may be restored between these interdependent parties. If that harmony has not been restored in ways that satisfy the aggrieved parties,  however,  memories  of unrequited  abuse  will fester, motivating acts of revenge for past wrongdoings. These acts of retaliation may erupt if the social calculus shifts through changes in the balance of power, economic recession, environmental  degradation, and the like.

In  the  course  of  this  familiar  drama,   the  label ‘‘aggressive’’  will often be deployed  to describe  antinormative  tactics of influence  exercised by the other party. In general, such acts result in physical or material  harm  to  the  other  party,  such  as  wounding  or removal of possessions, but can also include symbolic impositions, such as insults or threats. However, these same acts are generally not construed  as aggressive by those who perform  them. Such dramatically different accounts  of hurtful  acts given by perpetrators  and by victims have been well documented.  Instead, if called to  account   by  an  accepted   authority,   ‘‘aggressors’’ will justify their  use of coercive control  in terms  of self-defense, doing their job, retaliating for past injustices—that is, getting even; serving their group, organization, or nation; protecting the social order; and the like.  Aggression, then,  is not  a characteristic  of the action  itself but  rather  a labeling process  arising out of the social context within which it occurs. That label constitutes a disapproving judgment passed on the process by which social influence over another person is exercised. Homicide, robbery, rape, and assault are universally regarded  as acts of aggression. Defending oneself against attack, performing painful surgery, executing  a convicted  rapist,  and spanking  a disobedient child are generally not so regarded because those acts are often socially approved.

Of course, the exercise of illegitimate tactics of control does not always result in retaliation by the aggrieved party. The target may instead undertake  proxy control, influencing  third  parties—be  they  friends,  family, or social  authorities—to  restrain,  distract,  or  attack  the ‘‘aggressor.’’ Or recipients of such resented manipulation may withdraw from the relationship if an exit option is possible and  if alternative  relationships  providing  the same desired goals are available. Alternatively, they may accept such ‘‘alter casting’’ into a subordinate status, thereby acceding to a relationship  in which the dominant party may exercise such tactics of control.

The use of any such response  to counternormative control depends on the skills and resources available to the target. The target must be aware of alternative responses because not everyone has the social training and intelligence to appreciate alternatives other than retaliation. The target must be willing to use the alternative responses because some may be proscribed by socialization  or normatively  sanctioned  by proximal  social groups. The target must be able to mobilize the personal resources and the social agents necessary to exercise that form of influence because not everyone commands the required   talents,  time,  energy,  resources,  and  social credits with others to motivate their intervention.

2. Culture As Contexts For Influence

Culture is a polysemous construct of kaleidoscopic richness,  variously defined by practitioners  of different social sciences. It may be defined for purposes of doing psychology as a set of ecological–social constraints  and affordances potentiating some behaviors, retarding others, or even rendering  them irrelevant. This general psychological definition culture was elaborated by Bond as a shared system of beliefs (what is true), values (what is important), expectations, especially about scripted behavioral sequences, and behavior meanings (what is implied by engaging in a given action) developed by a group over time  to  provide  the  requirements  of living (food  and water, protection  against the elements, security, belonging, social appreciation, and the exercise of one’s skills) in a  particular   geographical  niche.  This  shared  system enhances  communication  of meaning and coordination of actions among a culture’s members by reducing uncertainty and anxiety through making its members’ behavior predictable, understandable,  and valuable.

This definition focuses on the socialized psychological ‘‘software’’ constituting the operating system for functional membership  in a group setting. That group may be any social unit—a  family, a work  group,  an organization, a profession, a caste, a social class, a political  state, and the like. The preceding  definition is silent about the characteristics  of those social units that  predispose  toward  the  development  of different types and levels of the shared software called culture. Nor does this definition focus on the types and levels of behavior likely to characterize that social unit and its members. It is precisely those contexts and consequences of culture that need to be elaborated whenever one addresses the link between culture and any behavioral outcome such as aggression.

The cultural factors relevant for explaining differences in aggressive behavior  will depend  on how aggression has been conceptualized.  These factors would then  be linked  to  mediating  processes  responsible  for driving aggressive behaviors.  Given  the  preceding  discussion, relevant considerations  for a cultural analysis would include institutional  supports enforcing procedural norms for coordinating action and for dividing resources; norms about  the  legitimacy of claims  made  by outsiders  or different others on one’s resources, including ideologies of antagonism  and  social representations  of a group’s history, focused on specific out-groups  and their members;   direct   or   indirect   socialization   for   coercive responses to particular targets (e.g., women, the disabled, other  lower  status  persons);  training  provisions  and social  support  for  conflict  resolution  strategies  other than  retaliation;  the  goals that  social group  members hold about desirable material and social outcomes and the procedures  for achieving those outcomes (i.e., their instrumental and terminal values); attitudes held by citizens about the proper place of out-groups (i.e., social dominance orientation);  and beliefs about the efficacy of various influence tactics, citizen neuroticism,  and emotionality affecting impulse regulation. Each of these mediators is made salient in the issue of culture’s relation to aggression by its hypothesized  role in eliciting coercive tactics  of interpersonal  and  social control.  Whether  a person  or group  using such coercive violent means of social control  would  be perceived as behaving aggressively would depend on the position of the actor and the target in the social order of their culture.

3. Holocultural Studies Of Aggression

Dramatic and universally accepted acts of aggression, such as homicide and political violence, can be studied only at the level of larger social units, such as societies and nations,  because their  incidence  is either  rare or group encompassing. Such studies are called ‘‘holocultural’’ because they involve social units sampled from the  whole  range  of the  earth’s cultures.  Aggressionrelevant data on larger social units are easier to obtain than  are individual-level  data on cross-cultural  comparisons of coercive control. Perhaps this is one reason why there is so little comparative  psychological work on aggression despite its social importance.  The problem  with  holocultural  studies,  however,  is that  it  is more difficult to extract defensible social psychological explanations  for their results.

 3.1.  Waging War and Internal Political Violence

In 1994, Ember and Ember examined the ethnographic atlas for clues about the causes of war in 186 societies. They concluded  that societies wage war due to recurrent natural disasters that rendered them vulnerable to food shortages: ‘‘Fear of such unpredictable  shortages will motivate people to go to war to take resources from others in order to protect against resource uncertainty.’’ The societies they studied  were smaller than  current nation-states, which are enmeshed in relations of trade interdependence  and  protected   by  mutual   defense pacts.  These  state-level  connections   act  to  restrain war, although the driving force of resource acquisition remains a powerful incentive for waging war. Looming environmental  disasters, with their potential  for reducing current national resources such as arable land and potable water, argue for carefully coordinated  international  programs  of disaster  relief and  foreign aid. In their absence, pressures for waging war will mount  as some nations suffer reversals of fortune.

In  1988,  Rummel  assessed war making  during  the course of the 20th century. He concluded that the historical record shows that democratic political systems—that is, ‘‘those that maximize and guarantee individual  freedom’’—are less  likely  to  engage  in  war. Rummel argued that ‘‘there is a consistent  and significant, but low, negative correlation between democracies and  collective  violence’’  and  further  that  ‘‘when  two nations are stable democracies, no wars occur between them.’’  Rummel argued that this relationship  is causal and not merely correlational,  stating that a democracy ‘‘promotes a social field, cross-pressures,  and political responsibility;   it  promotes   pluralism,   diversity,  and groups that  have a stake in peace.’’ Institutional  pressures and supports in a democracy, from the opportunity to vote anonymously to legal supports for human rights, lead to the development of psychological processes, such as egalitarian  values and  trust  in others,  that  prevent political leaders from mobilizing the mass support required for waging war. The same argument applies to restraining internal political violence. In this regard, Rummel provided this sobering reminder:

War is not the most deadly form of violence. Indeed, while 36 million people have been killed in battle in all foreign and domestic wars in our century, at least 119 million  more have been killed by government  genocide, massacres, and other mass killing. And about 115 million  of these  were  killed  by  totalitarian  governments (as many as 95 million by communist ones).

He hastened to point out that during the 20th century ‘‘there is no case of democracies killing en masse their own citizens.’’

The preceding discussion suggests that if the big picture   on  aggression  is  considered,   concerted   efforts toward  educating  populaces  for  effective democratic citizenship  would  be the  most  powerful  prophylactic against violence and  investment  in social capital  that the leaders of a nation could make. Of course, the courage and insight required for nondemocratically installed leaders to commit the resources necessary for this task and imperil their own power basis will be hard to find without external political influence being engaged.

3.2.  Homicide

The most reliable data on levels of homicide in a social unit are provided by the standardized measures collected by the World Health Organization, although judgments of homicide levels in a society have also been taken from the anthropological record provided by the Human Relations Area Files. These homicide levels are typically correlated with societal factors to provide insights about characteristics  of social systems that  predispose  members of their citizenry toward lethal aggression against one another.  Such findings are springboards  for some social psychological explanation  of violence by citizens against fellow citizens. Occasionally, empirical data are provided to support such speculations about social psychological processes mediating these acts of violence.

3.2.1. Societal Factors

Most research in this area is bivariate, where one societal predictor, such as national wealth, is correlated with the rate  of  national  homicide.  Over  time,  a  number  of societal factors have been advanced as ‘‘causing’’ higher levels of internal  murder.  Theory is then  advanced to explain each variable’s avenue of influence. One problem with this piecemeal approach is that many of these factors are interrelated  and their  avenues of influence are overlapping or perhaps identical. Understanding the full range of societal relations to homicide rate requires multivariate  studies  where a host of potential  societal predictors is deployed, so that their separate influences may be assessed. Such studies could then confirm many of the past findings, integrating  theorizing  around  key processes  such  as social trust.  It could  also add  new predictors  to the  societal equation,  suggesting further lines of theoretical development.

It is possible to use these fewer multivariate studies to integrate the results from the various studies that have been conducted on homicide rates over the past 40 years. Using this approach, the following societal variables have been linked to homicide rate: a society’s recent history of waging war, its level of wealth (negatively), its degree of economic inequality, its percentage of male unemployment, its strength of human rights observance (negative), and a measure of male dominance themes in its national system (labeled ‘‘female purity’’). More studies have been conducted using the readily available economic indexes, so one  can  be more  confident  in  their  robustness  of impact, especially that of relative inequality. The other variables are new entrants in the predictive arena, emerging as more national indicators become available for use by social scientists during the 21st century.

3.2.2. Social Psychological Mechanisms

Investigators  of societal  variables related  to  homicide have often used their  empirical  results  to support  the probable operation  of certain social psychological processes in potentiating  homicide. So, for example, Wilkinson argued in 1996 that relative economic inequality predisposes the ‘‘have-nots’’ in a social system to feel routinely status deprived and inferior. The social stress so induced increases the likelihood of violent behavior in everyday social exchanges. Taking a complementary approach,  Fukuyama  argued in 1995 that the higher levels of incivility, including homicide, in poorer societies arise through lower levels of social trust held by citizens  in  such  polities.  This  higher  ambient  trust among a society’s members may be sustained by greater equality   in   resource   distribution   because   the   two features of a social system are highly correlated.

In their  1994 analysis, Ember and Ember did more than speculate on the social psychological processes involved  in  homicide;  they  empirically  demonstrated that the societal link between a recent history of warfare and a society’s internal homicide rate is mediated by the stronger  socialization  of males for aggression in such societies. This demonstration  is accomplished by using regression techniques that enable the interrelatedness  of societal and social psychological variables as predictors of homicide to be assessed within the same data set. The richness of the linkages so revealed, however, depends on the types of social psychological variables included in the data set and their overlap with the nations whose homicide rates are being studied. Because these data sets consist  of nation  scores,  considerable  data  collection must be undertaken  to provide  the necessary number of ‘‘citizen’’ averages on the social psychological predictors. This multicultural  database is becoming more and more  available with  the  increasing  activity  in  cross-cultural  psychology, so the  linking  of societal factors to psychological dispositions  of a citizenry to national rates of violent outcomes is becoming possible.

Using one such database, Lim and colleagues found that national rates of homicide across 56 nations were jointly predicted by a nation’s level of economic inequality,  its  gross  national  product  (GNP)  growth  over  a decade  (negative),  and  its emphasis  on female purity (Fig.  1).  This  finding  confirmed  the  results  of many previous studies of economic inequality and homicide but extended them to include additional societal predictors of internal violence. Lim and colleagues also found that  citizen  scores on  the  psychological constructs  of belief in fate control and the length of typical emotional experiences predicted national rates of homicide. Using regression techniques, they concluded that the effect of female purity was mediated by citizen endorsement  of fate control, that is, the belief that one’s outcomes were shaped by one’s predetermined  destiny. This linkage led to speculation  that  in societies characterized  by social divisions and rigidity of social structure,  parents  typically socialize their children for responsiveness to external  control   rather   than   for  internal   self-regulation. Lacking strategies for internally  generated  self-control, citizens in such societies are more likely to respond with homicide to the universal frustrations arising out of mundane interpersonal  interdependencies.

Aggression and Culture Research Paper

In nations  where citizens routinely  experience  emotions for longer periods of time, there would be a persistence of emotionality into more of one’s daily interactions with  others.  This  wider  reach  of emotionality  would amplify whatever dominant  tendencies  characterized  a particular exchange. It is easy to understand  how, if that exchange involved coercive control  or resistance to its imposition,  the frequency of homicide  as one extreme outcome would be higher in such countries.

Such conclusions  are speculative  because  they are drawn from correlations of national-level scores. In the case of homicide, however, there is little choice but to use data from large social units. The plausibility of the conclusions drawn will depend on their connectability to theory and empirical data derived from analyses of individual behaviors related to homicide. For example, a person’s capacity for self-regulation has been linked longitudinally to lower frequencies of antisocial acting out. So, it is plausible that belief in control  by fate is part  of  a  personality  constellation   related  to  poor impulse  control.  Psychological studies  of individuals differing in their beliefs about fate control will be necessary, however, to strengthen  the plausibility that citizen differences in fate control  link to national  homicide rates through the agency of impulse regulation.

4. Culture and Studies of Aggression in Individuals

The holocultural  studies discussed previously alert social scientists to the need for validated theories about the psychological mechanisms  involved in generating  violent behavior against others. These mechanisms must be measurable  across cultural  systems, and  their  role  in potentiating harm to others must be demonstrated empirically. This is the mandate for cross-cultural  psychology, but its offerings are remarkably scanty. In part, this  shortfall  arises  due  to  the  definitional  problems noted earlier (e.g., what behaviors other than homicide, rape, or physical assault constitute  aggression?) There are a plethora of American laboratory studies, for example,  that  use  paradigms  such  as  the  teacher–learner shock scenario to examine aggression. In such a setup, the participant-teacher trains her confederate-student under various experimental  conditions hypothesized to provoke higher levels of hostility (e.g., ambient temperature, expectation  of future interaction,  prior insult by the confederate-student). This procedure, however, fails to engage the dynamics of aggression as anti-normative behavior because the experimenter  has explicitly legitimized the delivery of noxious stimuli to the student as an educational  exercise. Other  experimental  scenarios for studying  aggression and  its facilitating  conditions likewise  encounter  the  same  problem  of its  implicit legitimation by the experimenter.

A related problem  for the cross-cultural  laboratory study  of aggression involves the  meaning  of the  exchange between the two parties created by the experimenter. In the teacher–learner scenario, one could imagine that in more hierarchical  cultures  with a tradition of corporal punishment  in classrooms, the legitimation of hurtful behavior by the experimenter  would appear   to  be  more   acceptable   to  the   participant teacher.  The confederate-student would  then  receive even higher levels of shock for a given set of experimental conditions.  One could not, however, conclude that  persons  of this  hierarchical  culture  were  more aggressive given that local understanding  of the shocking behavior is so different in the new culture.

Given these conceptual problems, two ways forward have been tried. One approach  across cultural  groups involves  the  use  of scenario  studies  where  cultural informants  are presented  with descriptions  of behavioral  exchanges  between  persons  and  are  asked  to make judgments  about  these exchanges and the persons involved. Knowledge about the cultures can then be used to predict  the outcomes  of these judgments. So, for example, Bond argued that in a more hierarchical culture,  a direct  coercive tactic  of influence  in a business meeting would be construed  differently than it would in an egalitarian culture, depending on its source. As predicted, a superior insulting a subordinate was   less   sanctioned   in   Chinese   culture   than   in American culture,  and a subordinate  in Chinese  culture was more strongly sanctioned  for insulting  a superior than was a subordinate  in American culture for insulting  a superior.  Similarly, knowledge about  cultural  dynamics can be used to predict  the  frequency and  judged  effectiveness of direct  coercive tactics of influence, depending on their source and their relationship with the target. In such studies, the behavior being judged is the same, and its different meaning is examined in light of different cultural  dynamics. The perceived aggressiveness of the behavior and the sanctions it receives vary as a function of these dynamics.

The second approach  involves observation of hostile behavior  in  common   settings  such  as  prisons   and schools. These observational studies are time-consuming and require  agreement  on what behaviors to measure. There has been considerable debate across participants in the European Union, for example, as to what behaviors constitute ‘‘bullying,’’ so that cross-national comparisons can proceed. Typically, a ‘‘least common denominator’’ position  that  includes  only  physical  or verbal provocation  between  perpetrator  and  victim is adopted. Other indirect forms of bullying, such as gossiping and cliquing  against others,  are excluded.  This happens in part because persons from different cultural traditions might not regard these behaviors as bullying, but  also because the  indirect  behaviors  are extremely difficult to measure reliably. Given all of these concerns, few cross-cultural  studies involving in situ measures of behavior have been conducted to date.

Less conceptual  and measurement  difficulty is encountered  when behaviors are measured  by asking knowledgeable observers, such as parents and teachers, to rate the frequency with which their charges engage in aggressive behaviors. Chang, for example, employed a 7-item scale measure of aggressive behaviors such as hitting, teasing, and shoving others. The scale forms a coherent  single measure  of aggressiveness, and  independent  observers  of a given pupil  rate  that  pupil’s aggressiveness  with  high  degrees  of  agreement.   It would be easy to examine this measure in other  cultural contexts for its equivalence, adding or subtracting behaviors until a comparable measure of pupil aggressiveness is achieved.  Cultural  groups  could  then  be compared for their levels of aggressiveness.

There  is  a  slowly growing  body  of cross-cultural research using the scenario and behavior-reporting approaches.  The problem  with this work is that  it is often  only  descriptive,  reporting  the  cultural  differences and perhaps speculating why they occur. There is little theory-driven work that measures the processes hypothesized  to drive the  aggressive behavior  in the cultural  groups  studied.  One  exception  is  a  recent study by Chow and colleagues using recollections  by cultural  informants  of upsetting  interpersonal  events. They argued  that  everyday aggressive behavior  often emerges out of social exchanges where one party harms another    party,   resulting   in   retaliation    from   the aggrieved party. Self-reports of behaviors undertaken by the victim after the harm doing indicated an equivalent  cluster  of assertive  or  aggressive behaviors  in both Japanese and American informants. This assertive counterattack  is driven by psychological factors uniting  to  generate  a  motive  to  retaliate  and  by  social factors relevant to the relationship  such as the gender of the two parties and their degree of familiarity.

Chow and colleagues found that both internal psychological and  external  social factors contributed  toward assertive counterattack  in both Japanese and American cultures  but  that  psychological  factors weighed  more heavily than  social factors for the Americans than  for the Japanese. This finding confirmed  theoretical  speculation  that  collectivists,  such  as Japanese,  are  more responsive  to  external  forces,  whereas  individualists, such  as  Americans,  are  more  responsive  to  internal forces. This reasoning was supported by personality measures of individualism  that predicted  the tendency to emphasize psychological factors more than social factors in directing  one’s retaliation  against the  harm doer. Controlling for the level of harm experienced, the investigators found that Americans were more likely to counterattack  assertively because their motivation to retaliate was greater than was the Japanese motivation.

The next step in such research on culture and aggression is to examine why the motivation  of any cultural group to counter  any harm with coercive retaliation  is greater than that of another cultural group. One strong possibility is the experience of harsh parenting. Punitive parents  model  coercive  strategies  of control  as  they manage their  children,  indirectly  teaching  children  to respond  to  interpersonal   frustration   with  confrontational assertiveness. This linkage between harsh parenting and children’s aggressiveness has been confirmed in other settings such as school. Such studies have provided  the  inspiration  for  successful  intervention  studies that reduce the level of child aggression through programs teaching parents to intervene nonviolently.

Chang  further  discovered  that  some  of the  linkage between harsh parenting and child aggression is mediated by lower levels of affect regulation  characterizing  those pupils  who act out.  Such internal  dispositions  may be higher in citizens of some cultural groups than in citizens of other cultural  groups due to differential socialization styles and procedures.  The different strengths  of these aggression-related attributes could then account for observed  cultural  differences in aggressive responding. Other  possible internal  mediators  include  well-studied psychological dispositions such as self-regulatory efficacy, sociopathy, and state anger. Social psychological factors varying across cultures could include orientation  toward confrontation,  honor sensitivity among males, degree of ethnic identification, social support for retributive as opposed to restorative procedures of justice, and socialization into ideologies of antagonism and indebtedness.

Higher cultural levels of these psychological and relational dispositions may be the legacy of cultural circumstances (e.g., a history of war, tribal conflict, or colonialism), a herding economy, slavery, or internal political  violence,  any  of which  may  lead  parents to socialize their children to inflict harm on others as a way of solving problems in interpersonal and intergroup coordination.  As indicated  earlier in the discussion of holocultural  studies,  psychologists  have  some  ideas  about what  these  cultural  circumstances  might  be. But they need to conduct the sort of theory-driven and empirically validated research necessary to substantiate their speculations  about  how  culture  operates  to  affect aggression. Psychologists must instrument  the hypothesized dispositions, measure them in persons, and then observe their behavior when dealing with interpersonal and intergroup relationships.  Who chooses cooperation and consensus? Who chooses confrontation  and conflict? How then can life be enhanced by encouraging social systems to socialize their citizens for the former rather than for the latter?


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