It’s only recently that I had a talk with one of our experienced keepers who challenged my thoughts about aggression. She came with the point that aggression is not necessarily a learned behaviour, whilst my belief was that it is. Aggression has a lot of complex behaviours. When I asked her why, she responded with, “well if I pick up a new born animal they most likely will try to bite me, a sign of aggression”.

It is a huge debate if aggression is learned. But before we get deeper into this we have to understand what the definition of aggressive behaviour is. Aggression is described in the following source as:

“Social psychologists define aggression as behavior that is intended to harm another individual who does not wish to be harmed” (Baron & Richardson, 1994)

On the other hand, we have to understand what the described definition of behaviour is. Behaviour:

“Observable activity of an organism; anything an organism does that involves action and/or response to stimulation” (Wallace et al. 1991)

What would it mean if you combine the two? I found one very detailed explanation from Ethologists R. Abrantes, he describes aggressive behaviour as the following:

“Aggressive behaviour is behaviour directed toward the elimination of competition from an opponent, by injuring it, inflicting pain, or giving it a reliable warning of such impending consequences, if it takes no evasive action. It is distinguishable from dominant behaviour in as much as the latter does not include harmful behaviours though it may require some degree of forceful measures”

When I’m watching dolphins fight and one wins, it seems to me that this animal is being reinforced because the other gave up. It’s not that easy. Why did they fight to begin with? We have to discover the reason first, was this because one annoyed the other? Was it because one protects his flock? Was it due to sexual frustration?

Experimenters have found that many learned, social aggression responses come from three main sources: the mother, competition from litter-mate, and “play” with prey (Wolgin, 1982).

Doing further research, I came across a one minute podcast (Click HERE) about how testosterone can be the reason why aggression occurs. If this is true, it would mean that it’s an internal state that leads to an aggressive outcome, directly giving the answer that aggression is not a learned behaviour.

A brief understanding of the psychological process of aggression explains how the external stimuli travel to the brain via peripheral nervous system. This system then ultimately stimulates the endocrine glands which, in turn, produces adrenaline. In short – the process prepares the body for either aggression, or escape (activation syndrome) and it is at this point certain observable behaviours become evident. Source: Aggression: Exploring the Causes and Possible Reduction Techniques by Ted N. Turner and Chuck Tompkins

The problem I have with this topic is that aggression is extremely complex. I’ve spoken to many experienced trainers and all come with different views, formed from both experience and literature. When I was working with orcas we would see a lot of disagreements between the animals. They all had their own reasons which we then had to find reason for. We never truly know, but by observing the behaviour, and looking into its triggers and outcomes, we could say that there are plenty of scenarios that were learned aggression situations. Let me explain with the following example:

A short time time ago at Kolmårdens Wildlife Park I saw one of the dolphin babies (a little male about 1 year old) aggressing (jaw popping and biting) one of the other babies (a female of the age of about 9-10 months old). I’ve seen this happening with adults also. A while before this incident I’ve observed a 2,5 year old trying to swim with the 1 year old but its mother didn’t allow it, and she showed that clearly. Did the baby copy it’s mother? Given the fact he is now the biggest of all 3 babies here but still the smallest in the group of 11 dolphins. The only animals he can challenge are the smaller animals below him.

Finn – Bottlenose Dolphin at Kolmården Wildlife Park

From the Zoo perspective we have to let animals be animals whenever we can. Alongside that, within our training sessions, we want a cooperation with them to take better care of them. In these sessions we want our animals to be calm and attentive.

Going further in my research I learn more and more and came across Instrumental or cognitive aggression, this is aggression that is intentional and planned. Instrumental aggression is more cognitive than affective and may be completely cold and planned. Instrumental aggression is aimed at hurting someone to gain something—attention, monetary reward, or political power, for instance. If the aggressor believes that there is an easier way to obtain the goal, the aggression would probably not occur.

The 1 year old dolphin showed this behaviour whilst being with a trainer that was supposed to have all 3 babies in control. It seemed like thinking about this situation that this little guy wanted all the attention for himself and chased the other babies away. In this case he would try and hurt another to gain the complete focus of the trainer, showing clearly that aggression would be a learned behaviour.

But not so fast… 

Brainstorming about this topic and talking to some more people I came to the following conclusion. What it all seems to come down to, is that everything is constantly interlinked. In fact, its so extremely intertwined that ‘what starts what’ shouldn’t really matter. It is irrelevant if aggressive behaviour is a learned or inbuilt behaviour. As trainers we just have to look into what triggers the animal to show aggressive behaviour, and then how we will teach the animal to make different choices, eventually becoming more relaxed in its environment where aggressive behaviour ‘normally’ occurs. We can’t also forget that aggressive behaviour is not always a bad thing, it’s all about the degree of that aggressive behaviour. Like Konrad Lorenz stated…

“Aggressive behaviour is part of an animals normal repertoire to cope with it’s environment”.


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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