In 1939 a group of Psychologists at Yale University proposed the Frustration-Aggression — Displacement Theory which suggested initially that frustration always precedes aggression and conversely, aggression is the sure consequence of frustration. Their book produced a flurry of responses and critiques which forced some of them to reformulate their position in a softer way two years later — frustration creates a need to respond and some form of aggression is one possible outcome, but frustration is a necessary condition for aggression.
And what is frustration? It is defined as the feeling of tension that occurs when our efforts to reach some goal are blocked. It manifests people and animals in almost every aspect of life. Most recently it emerged when I was stuck in traffic for hours and hours as I was trying to start my enjoyable weekend. My intended goal was disrupted by the thousands of other Israelis who had the same idea as I, which led to intense frustration on my part.
And what about aggression? Well, that’s a bit trickier. The Yale scholars were over-simplistic in their direct correlation between frustration and aggression and their original formulation needed to be rolled back due to the realization that different organisms process their frustration differently, choose to react at shorter and longer timespans, and react in a myriad of ways, some negative, some even positive. However, they firmly believed that aggression if expressed is always the result of some deep-seated buildup or immediate reaction to — frustration.
Sometimes if I am frustrated, I hold on to that feeling for a (way too) long time; other times I become distracted by my earlier frustration but if it reappears it compounds and I lash out even more. Either way for some (me) frustration is a very challenging aspect of life and leads to many uncomfortable experiences.
One more point to explain is the last word of the theory — Displacement. When there is a buildup of frustration it leads to aggression which then requires a cathartic release. Yale psychologist Dollard explained that if the individual is prevented from reaching that goal by an external factor, that leads to frustration and then aggression. But the aggression cannot always be directed at the source of that aggression for various reasons — too unattainable, too powerful, too high risk of punishment etc. The mechanism to deal with that aggression which cannot be properly addressed is to displace it, and take out one’s frustrations on someone or something else!
That someone could be yelling at my wife, my kids, or it could be the steering wheel of the car (which did nothing wrong to me!), or it could be a rock that someone might choose to hit, twice, instead of having a rational conversation with it!
And here is my chidush.
Perhaps Moshe is exhibiting frustration, something he had been feeling for a long time, something which he perceived subconsciously even before the hitting of the rock. His frustration might have been the eerie realization that after 40 years in the wilderness catering to not one but two generations of whiners, he sensed that his intended goal, his beloved dream, his one desire, was being blocked.
Perhaps Moshe hit the rock as a displacement of his pent-up aggression as a result of his frustration, at Israel for being so weak, at God for charging him with this impossible mission, or at himself for not living up to his expectations.
So, what did he do? Took out all his aggression on a poor rock and lo and behold, water came rushing out!