Cognitive Neoassociation Theory Explained


People can become angry for a variety of reasons. Sometimes that anger might seem righteous or justified. Then there are the times when anger is a symptom of frustrating circumstances, like having all the ketchup from a hot dog fall into your lap.

In the cognitive neoassociation theory, the connections between anger and aggression are explored. Also, referred to as the Negative Affect Theory, it is an idea that was first suggested by Leonard Berkowitz.

Berkowitz proposed that negative feelings and experiences are the primary cause of anger and aggression that is caused by anger in people. Events such as crowding, pain, a loud noise, or even hot weather could produce a negative effect that could cause anger to appear.

Even mental health issues, such as depression, could be a trigger for anger.

When those negative experiences settle into a person’s consciousness, then their automatic responses become stimulated. Some people may experience memories that had a shared negative event. Others may show expressed motor reactions or experience a physiological response. Each reaction is based on the person’s fight-or-flight tendency.

People who tend to flee will not be as aggressive when angry compared to people who tend to stay to fight.

Differences in Anger Within the Cognitive Neoassociation Theory

Berkowitz suggests that higher level cognitive processes are available to people, even if they have been triggered to be angry. This is different from other theories involving anger and aggression which suggest that cognitive functioning lowers as a negative emotion like anger begins to arise.

Cornell University, in their Therapeutic Crisis Intervention program, compares anger to an iceberg. What you see above the surface is only a small part of what the problem happens to be. Berkowitz suggests a different approach.

In his cognitive neoassociation theory, he suggests that if people are motivated to do so, they can think about how they feel at any given moment. This action allows the person to make attributions to the way they feel, which can then allow them to look at what may have triggered the feeling in the first place.

When that process can be initiated, it would then become possible to consider the consequences that would happen, either positive or negative, should a behavioral outburst occur that was inspired by anger. Then, by looking at the consequences, it would become possible to either suppress or enhance the actions that are associated with the specific feelings that are being experienced.

Aggression Can Take on Many Forms

When an individual becomes angry, their desire to act in an aggressive way doesn’t need to be outward physical violence. Some people may have aggression that reacts in a passive-aggressive way. Some people may choose to target the individual and attempt to conduct the same perceived negative action that they experienced.

Berkowitz suggests that a person, when triggered by anger, shows cognitive processes are working because they do not blindly step into an aggressive situation. If the characteristics of the targeted individual make it seem like an attack would not be successful, then choosing not to attack and be aggressive in a different way shows that higher-level cognitive thought is present at the same time as anger.

The context of an incident, such as the number of potential opponents, their overall strength, or the lack of a perceived escape route can influence the decision as well.

It is the combination of the trigger, emotion, and response that the cognitive neoassociation theory posits that creates emotional networks to develop over time in people. When a concept is activated simultaneously and frequently, then it is just like learning a new vocational skill. The response of the individual becomes predictable.

If a person hears a gunshot, they drop to the ground or seek cover to reduce the threat. If a driver cuts a person off, forcing them to slam on their brakes, the individual might begin yelling at the “offender” from inside their own vehicle.

Automatic responses can then evoke additional automatic responses. A trained police officer may seek cover when hearing a gunshot, but they’ll also pull their own weapon to seek out a target. The driver who cut off someone else sees the angry response, pulls to the side of the road, and confronts the other driver for their angry response to their driving.

When an initial anger response can be clarified, then it has the chance to be modified. This means the response can be enriched and potentially avoid the fight-or-flight reaction that is typically initiated. This is the foundation of the cognitive neoassociation theory.