Albert Bandura is, perhaps, best known
for his role in developing social learning theory.
Social learning theory is an approach
to child development which states that children develop through
learning from other people around them.
In particular social learning theorists emphasise the role of
observation and imitation
of role models.
In general, social development is seen as a continuous
learning process, rather than as happening in stages.
The social learning approach has its
origins in the traditional theories of classical and operant
conditioning - the behaviourist perspective.
Behaviourists try to explain the causes of behaviour by
studying only those behaviours that can be directly observed and
behaviourists the study of private mental processes (cognitive
process like memory or perception) had no place in psychology.
Along with other behaviourist
psychologists, the social learning (SL) theorists believe that all
behaviour is learned.
Although SL theorists agree that we
should observe what is observable, they also believe that there are
important cognitive processes which need to be studied to explain
behaviour. These cognitive processes cannot be observed but can only
be inferred from observing actual behaviour.
It is important to note that although
SL theorists take cognitive factors into account it is still,
primarily, behaviour which is of interest.
The aim of Bandura's
study was to demonstrate that if children were passive witnesses to
an aggressive display by an adult they would imitate this aggressive
behaviour when given the opportunity.
The researchers made the following 4
"...subjects exposed to aggressive
models will reproduce aggressive acts resembling those of the
"...the observation of
non-aggressive models will have a generalised inhibiting effect on
the subject's subsequent behaviour..."
"...subjects will imitate the
behaviour of a same-sex model to a greater degree than a model of
the opposite sex..."
"...boys will be more predisposed
than girls towards imitating aggression..."
Bandura, Ross and Ross tested 36 boys
and 36 girls aged between 37 to 69 months (mean = 52 months).
The role models were one male adult and one female adult.
The method was a laboratory experiment.
The design of the experiment has three major conditions; the control
group, the group exposed to the aggressive model, and the group
exposed to the passive model.
The children who were exposed to the
adult models were further sub divided by their gender, and by the
gender of the model they were exposed to.
A summary of these groups is shown below.
Control group - 24 subjects
Eight experimental groups (each with 6
Aggressive model condition - 24 subjects
Non-aggressive model condition - 24 subjects
Aggressive Model Condition
6 boys with same sex model
6 boys with opposite sex model
6 girls with same sex model
6 girls with opposite sex model
Non-Aggressive Model Condition
6 boys with same sex model
6 boys with opposite sex model
6 girls with same sex model
6 girls with opposite sex model
complicated design therefore has three independent variables.
The condition the children were exposed to, the gender
of the role model and the gender of the child.
However, the number of children in each
group is quite small (six) and the results could be distorted if one
group contained say three children who are normally quite
aggressive. For example, if the researchers found that a particular
group, such as the 6 boys who were witness to an aggressive display
by a male, were the most aggressive this could have resulted because
this small group of 6 boys were already the most aggressive
The researchers attempted to reduce
this problem by pre-testing the children for how aggressive they
were. They did this by
observing the children in the nursery and judged their aggressive
behaviour on four 5-point rating scales.
It was then possible to match the children in each group so
that they had similar levels of aggression in their everyday
experiment is therefore an example of a matched
pairs design. The
observers were the experimenter (female), a nursery school teacher
(female), and the model for male aggression.
The two observers "were well acquainted with the
The rating scales were;
(a) physical aggression
(b) verbal aggression
(c) aggression towards inanimate
(d) aggressive inhibition
Each child’s score was obtained by
adding the result of the four ratings.
To test the inter-rater reliability of
the observers, 51 of the children were rated by two observers
independently and their ratings compared.
These ratings showed a very high reliability correlation (r =
0.89), which suggested that the observers had good agreement about
the behaviour of the children.
The children were tested individually
one of the experiment children were brought to the experimental
room by the experimenter, and the model, who was in the hallway
outside the room, was invited to come in and join in the game.
The room was set out for play and the activities were chosen
because they had been noted to have high interest for nursery school
children. One corner was arranged as the child's play area, where
there was a small table and chair, potato prints and picture
settling the child in its corner the adult model was escorted to the
opposite corner of the room where there was a small table, chair,
tinker-toy set, a mallet and a five foot inflatable Bobo
doll. After the model
was seated the experimenter left the experimental room.
In the non-aggressive condition, the
model ignored Bobo and assembled the tinker-toys in a quiet, gentle
In the aggressive condition the model
began by assembling the tinker-toys, but after one minute turned to
Bobo and was aggressive to the doll in a very stylised and
An example of physical aggression was
"raised the Bobo doll and pommeled it on the head with a
An example of verbal aggression was,
"Pow!" and "Sock him in the nose".
After ten minutes the experimenter
entered and took the child to a new room which the child was told
was another games room.
two the child was subjected to 'mild aggression arousal'.
The child was taken to a room with relatively attractive
toys. As soon as the
child started to play with the toys the experimenter told the child
that these were the experimenter's very best toys and she had
decided to reserve them for the other children.
Then the child was taken to the next
room for stage three of
the study where the child was told it could play with any of the
toys in there. The
experimenter stayed in the room "otherwise a number of children
would either refuse to stay alone, or would leave before termination
of the session".
In this room there was a variety of
both non-aggressive and aggressive toys.
The non-aggressive toys included a tea
set, crayons, three bears and plastic farm animals.
The aggressive toys included a mallet
and peg board, dart guns, and a 3 foot Bobo doll.
The child was kept in this room for 20
minutes during which time their behaviour was observed by judges
through a one-way mirror. Observations
were made at 5-second intervals therefore giving 240 response units
for each child.
Three measures of imitation were
obtained. The observers looked for responses from the child that
were very similar to the display by the adult model.
Imitation of physical aggression (for example, punching the doll in
2. Imitative verbal
aggression (for example, repeating the phrases "Pow!" or
"Sock him in the nose".
Imitative non-aggressive verbal responses (for example child repeats
“He keeps coming back for more”)
They also looked at two
types of behaviours that were not complete imitations of the adult
Mallet aggression (for example, child strikes toy with mallet rather
Sits on Bobo (for example, child sits on Bobo but is not aggressive
They also recorded three aggressive
behaviours that were not imitations of the adult model.
These were all aggressive behaviours which were not carried
out by the model.
Non-imitative physical and verbal aggression
Aggressive gun play
The results enabled the researchers to
(a) Which children imitate the models,
(b) Which models the children imitate
(c) Whether the children showed a
general increase in aggressive behaviour or a specific imitation of
the adult behaviours.
The main findings were.
children in the aggressive model condition made more aggressive
responses than the children in the non-aggressive model
made more aggressive responses than girls;
boys in the aggressive model conditions showed more aggressive
responses if the model was male than if the model was female;
girls in the aggressive model conditions also showed more physical
aggressive responses if the model was male but more verbal
aggressive responses if the model was female; (However, the exception to this general pattern was
the observation of how often they punched Bobo, and in this case
the effects of gender were reversed).
Interestingly Bandura reported that the
aggression of the female model had a confusing effect on the
children, perhaps because it did not fit in with their prior
learning about what is culturally appropriate behaviour.
For example, one of the children said, "Who is that
lady? That's not the
way for a lady to behave. Ladies are supposed to act like ladies...", and
another child said, "You should have seen what that girl did in
there. She was punching
and fighting but no swearing".
However the aggressive behaviour of the
male model fitted more comfortably into a cultural stereotype of
appropriate behaviour. For
example, one boy said, "Al's a good sucker, he beat up Bobo.
I want to sock like Al", and one of the girls said,
"That man is a strong fighter, he punched and punched and he
could hit Bobo right down to the floor and if Bobo got up he said,
'Punch your nose', He’s a good fighter like Daddy."
Explanation for Findings
The findings support Bandura's Social
Learning Theory. That
is, children learn social behaviour such as aggression through the
process of observation learning - through watching the behaviour of
Central to Social Learning Theory is
the identification of which types of models are more likely to be
of the model.
In the study it was found that
aggressive male models were more likely to be imitated than
aggressive female models. One probable reason for this is to do with
sex roles: perhaps it
is more acceptable in Western culture for men to be aggressive than
women, and even by three or four years of age children are learning
the dominant stereotypes that relate to sex-role differences.
So aggressive male models are more likely to be imitated
since this is seen by the child as more fitting or appropriate for
men (in general) than for women (in general).
Bandura found that boys were more
likely to imitate the aggressive male model than the female role
model. Perhaps the greater relevance of the male model's behaviour
for boys lies in the fact that boys perceive the similarity between
themselves and the model.
Similarity of the model
Bandura therefore found that similarity
between the model and the child is another important factor.
Perception of this similarity is based upon development of
the child's gender identity, i.e. the ability to classify itself
(and others) as a girl or boy, female or male.
The first stage of this ability is not usually reached until
two to two-and-a-half years of age.
Bandura has carried out many other
studies (not just on aggression) showing that a number of other
important characteristics are important for imitation.
For example nurturant (warm and friendly) adults are more
likely to be imitated than unfriendly ones.
That more powerful models are more readily imitated and that
adults who are seen to be rewarded for their behaviour are more
likely to be imitated.
Evaluation of Procedure
There are three main advantages
of the experimental method.
Experiments are the only means by which cause
and effect can be established.
Thus it could be demonstrated that the model did have an
effect on the child's subsequent behaviour because all variables
other than the independent variable are controlled.
It allows for precise control
of variables. Many
variables were controlled, such as the gender of the model, the time
the children observed the model, the behaviour of the model and so
Experiments can be replicated. Standardised procedures and instructions were used allowing
for replicability. In
fact the study has been replicated with slight changes, such as
using videos and similar results were found.
It is also worth noting that a further advantage which again
applies to experiments, and some non experimental methods, is that
the study yields quantitative data (numerical amounts of something)
which can be analysed using inferential statistical tests.
These tests permit statements to be made about how likely the
results are due to chance.
of the procedure
Many psychologists are
very critical of laboratory studies of imitation - in particular
because they are not ecologically
situation involves the child and an adult model, which is a very
limited social situation and there is no interaction between the
child and the model at any point; certainly the child has no chance
to influence the model in any way. Also the model and the child are strangers.
This, of course, is quite unlike 'normal' modelling which
often takes place within the family.
A further criticism of
the study is that the demonstrations are measured almost
immediately. With such snap shot studies we cannot discover if such a
single exposure can have long-term effects.
The study has also been
criticised for interpreting the behaviour towards the Bobo doll as
aggression. Perhaps the
children interpreted their own behaviour as play.
It is possible to argue
experiment was unethical.. For
example, there is the problem of whether or not the children
suffered any long-term consequences as a result of the study.
Although it is unlikely, we can never be certain.
As already noted Bandura
believed that his findings supported his Social Learning Theory.
Social Learning Theory
has been widely accepted as a useful theory in psychology.
Many complex behaviours
(e.g. language) could probably never be acquired unless children
were exposed to people who modelled them.
Observational learning allows the young child to acquire many
novel responses in a large number of settings where the models are
simply going about their own business and not trying to teach the
child anything. Language
again is a good example.
This is, of course, a
double-edged sword - often the modelled behaviour is not what the
parents (or society in general) would approve of (e.g. smoking,
swearing and aggression). Children
are continually learning a whole range of behaviours (desirable and
undesirable) through the basic processes of observation and
imitation. In support
of Social Learning Theory the best predictor of whether somebody is
likely to smoke is whether or not his or her parents smoke.
Experiments such as this
one by Bandura have tended to focus on aggression perhaps because
compared with, say, pro-social behaviour it is easier to objectively
measure. Or so the
researchers believe. Social
learning theory actually provides an optimistic theory of aggression
because it argues that pro-social behaviour can be learnt in the
same way as more negative behaviour such as aggression and since the
theory suggests that aggression is learned behaviour it is possible
to modify or change such behaviour.
The findings from this
and similar studies have been used in the argument that media
violence might be contributing in some degree to violence in
society. The obvious
criticism of this argument is that there are many other factors
influencing whether or not we are likely to imitate screen violence.
One of the major factors is perhaps the level of aggression
we already have, which might have been learned, in our family
relationships or elsewhere.
Social Learning Theory
has also been used to explain the so-called 'cycle of violence', or
more technically 'the inter-generational transmission of
aggression'. The basic idea is that if you have been the victim of
(physical) abuse as a child, you are more likely to be an abusing
parent than if you haven't. It
also increases the chances that you will be a wife - or a husband -
batterer. It is also
important to note that such early experiences make it more probable
that people will become more aggressive but it is never certain, or
punishments are often demonstrations of the very behaviour which
parents are trying to eliminate in their child - ironically, the
evidence suggests that the child is likely to become more, not less
The major criticism of
the Social Learning Approach to child development is its
oversimplified description of human behaviour.
Although it can explain some quite complex behaviour it
cannot adequately account for how we develop a whole range of
behaviour including thoughts and feelings.
We have a lot of cognitive control over our behaviour and
simply because we have had experiences of violence does not mean we
have to reproduce such behaviour.
It is also worth noting that the Social
Learning Approach has little room for the role of inherited factors
or for the role of maturation in development.