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Frustration is a common emotional response to opposition. Related to anger and disappointment, it arises from the perceived resistance to the fulfillment of individual will. The greater the obstruction, and the greater the will, the more the frustration is likely to be. Causes of frustration may be internal or external. In people, internal frustration may arise from challenges in fulfilling personal goals and desires, instinctual drives and needs, or dealing with perceived deficiencies, such as a lack of confidence or fear of social situations. Conflict can also be an internal source of frustration; when one has competing goals that interfere with one another, it can create cognitive dissonance. External causes of frustration involve conditions outside an individual, such as a blocked road or a difficult task. While coping with frustration, some individuals may engage in passive-aggressive behavior, making it difficult to identify the original cause(s) of their frustration, as the responses are indirect. A more direct, and common response, is a propensity towards aggression.[1]



To the individual experiencing frustration, the emotion is usually attributed to external factors which are beyond their control. Although mild frustration due to internal factors (e.g. laziness, lack of effort) is often a positive force (inspiring motivation), it is more often than not a perceived uncontrolled problem that instigates more severe, and perhaps pathological, frustration. An individual suffering from pathological frustration will often feel powerless to change the situation they are in, leading to frustration and, if left uncontrolled, further anger.

Frustration can be a result of blocking motivated behavior. An individual may react in several different ways. He may respond with rational problem-solving methods to overcome the barrier. Failing in this, he may become frustrated and behave irrationally. An example of blockage of motivational energy would be the case of the worker who wants time off to go fishing but is denied permission by his supervisor. Another example would be the executive who wants a promotion but finds he lacks certain qualifications. If, in these cases, an appeal to reason does not succeed in reducing the barrier or in developing some reasonable alternative approach, the frustrated individual may resort to less adaptive methods of trying to reach his goal. He may, for example, attack the barrier physically or verbally or both.


Frustration can be considered a problem-response behavior, and can have a number of effects, depending on the mental health of the individual. In positive cases, this frustration will build until a level that is too great for the individual to contend with, and thus produce action directed at solving the inherent problem. In negative cases, however, the individual may perceive the source of frustration to be outside of their control, and thus the frustration will continue to build, leading eventually to further problematic behavior (e.g. violent reaction).

Stubborn refusal to respond to new conditions affecting the goal, such as removal or modification of the barrier, sometimes occurs. As pointed out by Brown, severe punishment may cause individuals to continue nonadaptive behavior blindly: “Either it may have an effect opposite to that of reward and as such, discourage the repetition of the act, or, by functioning as a frustrating agent, it may lead to fixation and the other symptoms of frustration as well. It follows that punishment is a dangerous tool, since it often has effects which are entirely the opposite of those desired” [2].


The worker who is refused time off to go fishing may "cuss out" his supervisor to his face or behind his back. If he is sufficiently aroused, he may strike out at him with his fists or with the nearest weapon. If the supervisor is not present or the worker's fear of the consequences of direct attack is stronger than his desire to attack, he may transfer his aggression to someone or something else. Taking his frustration out on his family or on some object like his car or his equipment are typical ways of transferring aggression. Another "solution" to frustration is regressive behavior — becoming childish or reverting to earlier and more primitive ways of coping with the goal barrier. Throwing a temper tantrum, bursting into tears, or sulking are examples of regression. Wearing a long face and a worried look are other signs of this method of dealing with frustration.

James Joyce's novel Dubliners depicts very accurately the dimensions of frustration and how it affects people. The adult characters in the book experience all stages of the emotion and the resulting "paralysis", the inability to actively change the situation. Joyce's characters are exemplary of how people usually deal with frustration.[citation needed]


  1. ^ The frustration-aggression hypothesis. Miller, N. E. Psychological Review. Vol 48(4), Jul 1941, 337-342.
  2. ^ J.A.C. Brown, The Social Psychology of Industry (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1954), pp. 253-54.


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