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How Do the Theories of Emotion, Motivation and Development Explain the Events and Public Response to the James Bulger Case of 1993?

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How do the Theories of Emotion, Motivation and Development explain the events and public response to the James Bulger case of 1993?

Theories allow people to see the world in a clear manner and allow them to perform actions based on what is rational. There are many theories that have evolved over the past century in Western cultures that attempt to explain how personalities develop, why people behave in certain ways, the type of environmental conditions that motivate them into acting in specific ways, and how these factors are interrelated. Some of the theories base their explanations on the social and emotional circumstances in the early years of an individual. This Essay aims to analyse the theories of emotion, motivation, and development and apply them to the events and public response to the James Bulger case of 1993.

“ ‘I can never forgive Thompson and Venables for the horrendous, calculated, cold blooded murder of James.’ Said Denise Fergus the mother of the boy.” (Day. 2008). In an act that shocked the world, two ten year old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson kidnapped and murdered James Bulger aged just two. The murder of James Patrick Bulger took place in Kirkby, Merseyside, England, on the 12 of February 1993. Bulger was a victim of abduction, torture and murder by two 10-year-old boys, named Robert Thompson (born 23rd August 1982) and the other one named Jon Venables (born 13th August 1982). It started with Bulger's disappearance on the 12 of February 1993 from the New Strand Shopping Centre, Bootle while he was accompanying his mother. Investigators subsequently found his mutilated body on a railway line in nearby Walton on the 14th February. Thompson and Venables received charges on the 20th February 1993 with the abduction and murder of Bulger. They were found guilty of the murder on 24th November 1993, making them the youngest convicted murderers in whole of modern English history. They received a custodial sentence until they turned 18, and were subject to release on lifelong license in June 2001.

The events of this case have prompted the widespread debate on the issue of how the law should handle young offenders when they receive sentencing or when they are released from custody. Some evidence supports the position of human beings being inherently emotional, that emotions and development influence the human behaviour in a wide variety of important ways. Aristotle gave his description of emotions as to entail all of those feelings that cause a change in people as to the effect of their judgement, and subject to attend by pain and pleasure (Schachter & Wheeler, 1962). The Schachter-Singer theory of emotion is based on two factors, psychological arousal and the cognitive label. In their theory, Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer provide their interpretation that once an emotion occurs, a physiological arousal takes place and the person ends up using the immediate environments in searching for the emotional cues in order to label the physiological arousal (Cotton, 1981). This theory of emotion could contribute to the conflicting views held by the public of the verdict of the case. The people are saddened and disgusted by the event, therefore the physiological arousal occurs, they mistakenly label this arousal as a fear and anger response.

The James-Lange theory provides the hypothesis upon the origin and the nature of emotions. The basic premise of the theory is that physiological arousal instigates the experience of the specific emotion, suggesting that the physiological events are the primary cause, while the emotions become subject to experience upon the brain reacting to the information received (Cannon, 1927). The physiological responses could be muscular tension, rise in heart rate and perspiration. According to Gross & Barrett (2011), people respond to life changing situations based on their own emotional attachments, hence leading to the the large public response to the Bulger case. This might also explain how Thompson and Venebles could dare to carry out such a murder, it is possible that they looked at Bulger as a symbol of their emotional attachments with their brothers or parents, which were famously bad, abusive and generally harming.

The attachment theory is the joint work of both John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth who drew upon the concepts of ethology, cybernetics, information processing, developmental psychology and psychology. These theorists were able to revolutionise peoples thinking on the how a child ties to its mother and the related disruptions through separation, deprivation, and bereavement (Bowlby et al., 1956). Ainsworth was able to provide her concept on the attachment figure as a secure base under which the infant has the ability of exploring the world. More so, she was able to formulate upon the concept of the maternal sensitivity to the infant’s signals and its role towards the development of infant-mother attachment patterns. This theory applies directly to how both Thompson and Venables were raised, both boys had parents who had separated and neither were described to have a strong connection with their mothers. Bowlby’s conclusion on the theory of attachment was that for a person to grow up in a mental and healthy state, the infants and young children need to experience the warm, intimate, and the continuous relationship with their mothers (Bowlby, 1958).

The moral development theory is another topic of major interest to the field of psychology and education. The theory was developed by Lawrence Kohlberg based on the modification and expansion of Jean Piaget’s work into forming the theory that was able to explain the development of moral reasoning. Piaget described only a four staged process of moral development (Sensorimotor, Pre-operational,Concrete-operational and Formal Operational), but Kohlberg’s theory of moral development was able to outline the six stages within three different levels. On expanding Piaget’s theory, Kohlberg proposed that moral development is the continuous process that occurs all through the life of an individual. The six stages of Kohlberg theory include stage 1: preconventional (level 1: obedience and punishment and level 2: naively egoistic orientation). Stage 2: conventional (level 3: ‘good boy’ orientation and level 4: respect for authority and social order) and finally stage 3: postconventional (level 5: contractual legalistic orientation and level 6: conscience or principled orientation) (Kohlberg, 1973). All of these stages contribute to the behaviour of the child. Kohlberg would possibly label Thompson and Venables as being in-between the pre conventional and conventional stages, there are many studies that link criminal behaviour with being low on Kohlberg’s scale, for example Thornton and Reid (1987) found a correlation between moral development and recordings of antisocial behaviour. Teachers and even their mothers described Thompson and Venables as being antisocial and disruptive. Kohlberg’s stages of moral development are based upon the assumptions that human beings are inherently communicative, capable of reasoning and they are capable of understanding others, and all that surround them. More so, morals are only prescriptive, nobody can be sure that Thompson and Venebles do know what is morally ‘right’ (Carpendale, 2000).

Social learning theory (SLT) considers learning to be a cognitive process that occurs based on the social context and can occur purely on the observation or direct instruction, even with the absence of direct experience. On top of behaviour observation, the learning process can occur through the mere observation of rewards and forms of punishments, a process known as vicarious reinforcement. Unlike the theories mentioned in the previous paragraphs SLT does not concentrate on the age-related changes that occur in behaviour and thinking, even though both pioneers, Sears and Bandura (1965) concentrated on development the main theories of SLT look at the procedures of behaviour acquisition and change. This theory helps to understand what was transpiring in the minds of Venables and Thompson. Using this theory, it could be suggested that even children have an awareness of their actions, even if it is a very basic moral knowledge such as ‘killing is wrong/not acceptable’ (Grusec, 1992). On the flip side however, it could also be said that witnessing violent arguments between parents and peers (which Thompson and Venables were known witnesses of) which did not have a negative consequence for those people and sometimes may have even had a positive result vicariously reinforced to Thomson and Venables that violence is acceptable and sometimes gives a reward.

There are some theories that specifically emphasise the age factor to be responsible for the way human beings think and make decisions. For example, the risk-taking theory occurs in the adolescent ages, where certain biological theories suggest the possibilities of evolutionary components playing a big part in the risk-taking behaviours (Levitt et al., 1991). The theory suggests that the brain undergoes biological changes with association to puberty and this plays a role in the increase and decrease of fear levels. There is ongoing research with intentions of determining whether the adolescent pubertal status has relations to the so often changing levels of high intensity pleasure, fear, and shyness (Graber & Brooks-Gunn, 1995). This theory may describe how Thompson and Venables went from socialising with the boy and playing with him to killing him. They took a risk, their biological system may have lowered the fear and increased the adrenaline. This may not be the case however as it is likely neither Thompson nor Venables were in puberty, at only ten they were still pre-teenagers.

Erikson (1968) also focused on Adolescence, calling the period between 13-19 a time of storm and stress. He believed that a concoction of biological changes, pressure from parents/peers and changes in roles and responsibility left teenagers with Identity Diffusion. Erikson identified four main components of this Identity Diffusion they are: Intimacy (fear of commitment), Diffusion of Time (fear of changes time will bring), Diffusion of Industry (inability to concentrate for long periods of time) and Negative Identity (a self built construct of role rejection, rather than accepting a role in society they are basing a sense of self on the ability to reject these roles). Erikson may label Thomson and Venables as experiencing Diffusion of Industry, after all the boys initially wanted to play with Bulger, as they do their brothers, after they got bored of this or lost concentration on the boy it was easy for them to treat him as an object something to throw around like a toy.

The cognitive dissonance theory refers to a situation that involves conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. It eventually produces the feelings of discomfort that leads to an alteration in attitudes, beliefs, or behaviours in order to reduce on discomfort and restore balance. Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that people have the inner drive of holding upon their attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoiding disharmony or any form of related dissonance. In explaining how attitude changes take place, the cognitive dissonance theory provides its interpretation that there is a tendency of individuals seeking consistency among their cognitions such as beliefs and opinions. In a situation where there are inconsistencies between attitudes or behaviours, it becomes necessary for something to change in order to eliminate dissonance (Brehm 1956,). In relation to the public surrounding Bulger’s case cognitive dissonance may have occurred because on one hand the boys were just ten years old, however they also killed another child. The public may have disregarded the fact that they were just ten in order to reduce the discomfort caused by conflicting beliefs. Therefore making it easier for them to judge and essentially put so much hatred onto two ten year old children.

Social construction theory emphasises that some occurrences that take place are directly related to social actions. This implies that things could not exist if they were not subjects of construction. Social constructions are the by-products of countless human actions, rather than considering them to be originating from human judgements. The major focus of social constructionist theory is for uncovering the manner under which individuals and groups become participants in the processes of constructing their perceived social reality (Andy & Strong, 2010). Therefore many conflicting and opposing reactions to the James Bulger case are likely to occur. Some people might argue that the two boys had already established plans of killing the young James Bulger, evident in the organised way that they led the victim to his death, others may say it was a spur of the moment response to being scared of getting in trouble for taking him. In merseyside many people gathered outside of the courts in something between protest and riots, because socially murder is wrong these groups of people all have the same social constructs. It is likely that many in the crowds of rioters knew nothing of Thompson or Venables but murder in any situation is socially accepted as a large wrong-doing, added to this the shock of the act being committed by young boys it could be easy for the public to go along with social constructs and shun the boys in a hateful and violent manner.

Having looked at several theories in relation to why humans perform actions, it becomes evident that the court and all people that are in capacity of providing judgemental views have their own grounds for argument. After all, all of the theories explored above each have an explanation for the behaviours of both Thompson and Venables and the public. It becomes clear that any judgement from the public occur from the general agreement of the masses, as opposed to the few. Were the masses right to be violent and hateful towards the boys? Even though hopefully to most, murder is wrong, so is screaming abuse at 10 year old boys, it depends who is asked, the public may either have been right or wrong to judge and be aggressive to Thompson and Venables. However what is important is that these behaviours can be explained using psychological theories especially surrounding emotion. It seems easier to explain something that occurs in many people, however when looking at the two boys it is hard to imagine what might of been the reason for the crime they committed, did they just do it because they could? This seems unlikely therefore these theories of Emotion, Motivation and Development go some way to explaining the behaviours. As it is impossible to really know what caused Thompson and Venables to do what they did it cannot be said which theory explains the behaviour outright and as mentioned each theory has its critique, no one theory is absolutely right and all have some weaknesses.

Andy L., & Strong, T., (2010). Social Constructionism: Sources and Stirrings in Theory and Practice. Cambridge University Press. 67.
Bowlby, J., (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho- Analysis, XXXIX, 1-23.
Bowlby, J., Ainsworth, M., Boston, M., & Rosenbluth, D., (1956) The effects of mother-child separation: A follow-up study. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 29, 2 11-247.
Brehm, J., (1956). Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384–389.
Cannon, W., (1927). The James-Lange Theory of Emotions: A Critical Examination and an Alternative Theory. The American Journal of Psychology 39: 106–124.
Carpendale, J., (2000). Kohlberg and Piaget on Stages and Moral Reasoning. Developmental Review 20 (2): 181–205
Cotton, J. L., (1981). A review of research on Schachter's theory of emotion and the misattribution of Arousal. European Journal of Social Psychology, 11, 365-397.
Day, E. (2008). James would be 18 now. Available: Last accessed 28/03/2014.
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
Festinger, L., (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Pp 56-76
Graber, J. A. & Brooks-Gunn, J., (1995). Models of development: Understanding risk in adolescence. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour, 25(1), 18-25.
Gross, J. J., Barrett, F. L., (2011). Emotion Generation and Emotion Regulation: One or Two Depends on Your Point of View. Emotion Review 3 (1): 8–16.
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Kohlberg, L., (1973) The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgment. Journal of Philosophy. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 70, No. 18) 70 (18): 630–646.
Levitt, M. Z., Selman, R. L., & Richmond, J. B., (1991). The psychosocial foundations of early adolescents’ high-risk behaviour: Implications for research and practice. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 1(4), 349-378.
Schachter, S. & Wheeler, L., (1962). Epinephrine, chlorpromazine, and amusement. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 65, 121-128
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Other Reading carried out: Bandura, A., (1965). Influence of models' reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1 (6): 589–595.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A., (1963). The influence of social reinforcement and the bahavior of models in shaping children’s moral judgements. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 274-281.
Kohlberg, L., (1974). Education, Moral Development and Faith. Journal of Moral Education 4 (1): 5–16.
Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J.M., (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203–210.
Ellis, L., (2002). Individual differences and adolescent psychosocial development. Dissertation Abstracts International, 63 (8-B), 3956.
Capaldi, D. M. & Rothbart, M. K., (1992). Development and validation of an early adolescent temperament measure. Journal of Early Adolescence, 12, 153-173.
Butt, T.W., (2001). Social action and personal constructs. Theory & Psychology, 11, 75–95.

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