Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Robert R. Sears
Institute of Human Relations, Yale University

First published in Psychological Review, 48, 343-346.

In order to analyze the nature of the non-aggressive reactions to frustration it is necessary first to consider the systematic setting in which the concept of frustration lies. Any on-going activity derives from some kind of instigation. The activity itself represents a sequence of acts which are instrumental to putting the organism and its environment into such context with each other that the final consummatory act, or goal-response, can be made.

There are two possible consequences in this situation: First, the sequence of actions may be carried through to completion and the organism make its goal-response. In accordance with the law of effect, then, the instrumental act sequence is reinforced. Likewise the instigation to the performance of those acts and the goal-response itself is at least momentarily reduced. An alternative to this state of affairs is possible, however; the organism may not be able to make the necessary instrumental acts and there is interference with the occurrence of the final goal-response. This is frustration. As Miller [2] has emphasized, one (and only one) of the effects of this frustration is the production of a special secondary, frustration-induced instigation, the goal-response to which is aggression.

Such a statement says nothing about the effects on future behavior of the primary instigation, the goal-response to which has been frustrated. If one looks at this situation with reference to the instrumental acts and goal-responses concerned, it appears that there are at least three possible action sequences which may occur. [p. 344]

I. The organism may continue or repeat the same instrumental acts leading to the same goal response. This is the kind of behavior G. V. Hamilton [3] described as being persistent and non-adjustive; it was somewhat more characteristic of lower than of higher animals and of children than of adults.

2. A different set of instrumental acts may be adopted to put the organism in position to perform the same Goal-response. Thorndikian trial-and-error behavior appears to be largely of this kind, and various examples of what might be called instrumental act regression likewise represent simply a re-activation of earlier learned methods of reaching the goal. Children who are ill manifest this phenomenon quite frequently in their efforts to get attention and sympathy. Phantasy gratifications are occasionally of this order as well; in the Dembo problem subjects will frequently describe their imagined fantastic solutions with some defiance. If the experimenter tells them the proposed solution is absurd they may say, "Yes, but it would get the flower!"

3. A different set of instrumental acts may be instigated in order to put the organism in such position that it may perform a different goal-response from that which was originally frustrated. The Freudian concepts of regression and sublimation both represent this kind of reaction; regression total levels of gratification, for example, forces the adoption of different instrumental acts: in order that the shift may be made from genital to oral goal-responses. But perhaps the most frequent example of this consequence of frustration is the so-called substitute response, in which the new goal-response that is performed has certain of the properties of the original frustrated goal-response and in some degree reduces the strength of the primary instigation [4].

The relation of these substitute responses to the phenomenon called by Lewin 'going out of the field' requires comment on another consequence of frustration, namely, its inhibitory or extinctive influence. Under some circumstances, the conditions of which have not yet been determined, the frustration appears to inhibit further action toward the orig- [p. 345] inal goal-response and this inhibition generalizes to all the substitute responses. In such cases instigation to alternative responses unconnected with the original goal-response becomes relatively dominant and the organism either 'goes out of the field' or, if inhibition is complete, encysts itself. The degree to which these latter responses will occur appears to depend largely on the amount of generalized inhibition produced by frustration of the primary goal-response.

Examination of the clinical and theoretical literature will suggest many more varieties of response to frustration, of course, and, as anyone familiar with the work of Freud, Lewin, Murray and others is well aware, this systematic analysis of reactions to frustration in terms of instigation, instrumental acts and goal responses is not the only way in which they can be systematized. On the other hand, this analysis provides a behavioral and potentially experimentable basis for the understanding of such behavior.

From a research standpoint two problems become of im-mediate significance:

I. The exploratory problem of discovering the total repertory of frustration-reactions available to any individual. It is difficult to tell at present how much further the work in this direction must go before investigators can feel some confidence in the breadth of their perspective.

2. The determination of the specific factors which cause one kind of frustration-reaction rather than another to occur. Surprisingly few hypotheses have been suggested by psycho-analytic researchers to account for either individual differences in choice of reaction or the differences which occur from one occasion to another in the same person. Some little start has been made in this direction, however, by experimentalists. For example, Doob and Sears [5] have delimited certain of the conditions which differentiate between the occurrence of aggressive behavior and substitute responses; the factors which were shown to be of importance were the strength of instigation to the original (frustrated) goal response and the relative strength of anticipations of punishment for aggression. Dr. Helen Nowlis [6] has shown the influence of [p. 346] reinforcement on the frequency of occurrence of substitute responses, and Brown [7] has determined certain of the conditions eventuating in 'going out of the field.' The work of Barker, Dembo and Lewin [8] and of Mowrer [9] on regression likewise contribute to this problem. Various other studies might equally well be cited as examples.

The determination of these various principles is of primary importance for any predictive science that aims at an incorporation of the phenomena of frustration in its systematic structure. Insofar as a theoretical system promotes rather than hinders such an effort, the system is useful. At the present stage of investigation the analysis in terms of instigation, instrumental acts and goal-responses appears to be of definite assistance. But only by continued use in conjunction with laboratory experimentation and in the interpretation and prediction of actual social or individual behavioral events can it be decided whether this is the most useful way of collating and conceptualizing the data.


[1] Read at the 1940 meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in the Symposium on Effects of Frustration.

[2] Miller, N. E., Sears, R. R., Mowrer, O. H., Doob, L. W., & DOLLARD, J. The frustration-aggression hypothesis. Psychol. Rev., 1941, 48, 337-342.

[3] Hamilton, G. V. Objective psychopathology. St. Louis: C. V. Mosby, 1925. Pp. 249-259.

[4] Lewin, K. A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935. Pp. 180-193.

[5] Dobbs, L.W. & Sears, R. R. Factors determining substitute behavior and the overt expression of aggression. J. Abn. (soc) Psychol., 1939, 34, 293-313.

[6] Nowlis, H. H. The influence of success and failure on the resumption of an interrupted test. Ph.D. Thesis, 1939, deposited in Yale Univ. Library.

[7] Brown, J. S. Generalized approach and avoidance responses in relation to conflict behavior. Ph.D. Thesis, I940, deposited in Yale Univ. Library.

[8] Barker, R, G., Dembo, T., & Lewin, R. Studies in topological and vector psychology. No. 2. Experiments on regression and frustration. Iowa City: Iowa Univ. Publication, new series, 1941.

[9] Mowrer O. H. An experimental analogue of 'regression' with incidental observations on 'reaction-formation.' J. abn. (Soc.) Psychol., 1940, 35, 56-87.