In 1961, the Canadian-American psychologist, Albert Bandura (1925-) conducted a controversial experiment examining the process by which new forms of behavior - and in particular, aggression - are learnt. The initial study, along with Bandura’s follow-up research, would later be known as the Bobo doll experiment. The experiment revealed that children imitate the aggressive behavior of adults. The findings support Bandura’s social learning theory, which emphasises the influence of observational learning on behavior.
Bandura also conducted a number of follow-up studies during the 1960s which examined how witnessing a third party being rewarded or punished for behaving in a particular manner can influence a bystander’s own actions. He concluded that vicarious reinforcement, as well as direct rewards and punishments, can impact on an observer’s behavior.
Prior to Bandura’s experiments, conditioning dominated the behaviorist view of learning. During the 1890s, the influential Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov had found that dogs would learn new behavior through classical conditioning. When a single stimulus was repeatedly paired with a particular event, such as the ringing of a bell with feeding time, salivation would begin to occur in response to the sound. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner further developed Pavlov’s theory, and proposed operant conditioning, whereby reinforcements lead to new forms of behavior being learnt.
Bandura viewed such conditioning as being reductionist in its understanding of human learning as a simple process of acquiring new ‘responses’ to stimuli. Instead, he turned his attention to the imitative behavior of children who watch, and then attempt to copy, the behavior of others.
Bandura et al (1961)
Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) devised an experiment in which participants would observe an adult behaving in a violent manner towards a Bobo doll toy. The toys, which were popular during the 1960s, feature an image of a clown and were designed to self-right when pushed over.
The experiment took place at Stanford University, where Bandura was then working in a teaching position as a professor. The participants - children who attended the Stanford University nursery - were divided into groups. Children in one of these groups were placed in a room in which they witnessed an adult hitting a Bobo doll in an aggressive manner. They were later given the opportunity to play with the dolls for themselves.
The researchers found that the group of children who had observed an adult behaving violently towards the toy were more likely to act aggressively towards it themselves when given the opportunity. These findings indicate that learning takes place not only when individuals are rewarded or punished for their own behavior, but also when they observe another person exhibiting violent behavior - a process called observational learning.
In 1963, Bandura conducted a second experiment which replicated many aspects of the previous study. However, instead of observing an adult’s violent behavior firsthand, they watched a video of the Bobo doll being struck. As in the 1961 experiment, those participants who watched the film of a person being aggressive were more likely to behave violently towards the toy than participants in a control group. The study indicates that indirect exposure to violent behavior through film or television may lead to actions being imitated in a similar way to behavior observed in person (Bandura et al, 1963).
In a third study, Bandura tested whether the types of reinforcement that Skinner had used to encourage and discourage behavior (operant conditioning) would influence the behavior of an observer who witnessed a third party being rewarded or punished for his or her actions.
Bandura shows a film to participants in which a person again beat the toy. One group watched as the person’s behavior was reinforced by way of a food reward, whilst a second group saw a video in which the person was criticised for their violent behavior. The researchers found that the children who watched the video in which positive reinforcements were given were more likely to subsequently behave violently themselves (Bandura, 1965). This process of vicarious reinforcement suggests that learning takes place not just through direct observation, but also through the media that a person consumes.
Social Learning Theory
In 1977, drawing on his previous experimental research, Bandura outlined his social learning theory, which attempts to explain the effect of social interactions on learning. According to Bandura's theory, a person may observe the behavior of people around them.
At an early age, such people primarily consist of the parents or primary caregiver, siblings and later, classmates. A child may also observe the behavior of fictional characters on television and in films. Bandura argues that through observational learning, an individual may imitate the behavior of others. Furthermore, when a person sees another individual being punished or rewarded for their actions, their evaluation of the behavior will be further influenced, even if their own behavior has not been reinforced directly.
One area of focus of the Bobo doll studies was the way in which children imitate the aggressive behavior of an adult. However, as the dolls were designed to be hit and pushed, and to rebound after being knocked over, some have suggested that the participants were not exhibiting aggressive behavior, but merely playing with the toy as it was intended to be used. This has led critics of the study to consider its experiment design to be flawed, as its participants were conforming to the demand characteristics of the situation.
Nonetheless, studies carried out in the decades since Bandura’s initial research have lent further support to his observation that violent behavior on-screen can influence the actions of those viewing it. Heuessman, Lagerspetz and Eron (1984) studied children’s behavior after they had watched television programs containing violence. The researchers found that the participants, and in particular males, were more likely to behave in an aggressive manner if they had seen such behavior on television.
The findings of Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments remain influential in the study of learning and aggression. His research furthered our understanding of how children learn from their parents, siblings and friends through imitation. It also provided early evidence that violence in films and other media can negatively influence viewers' behavior.
However, the Bobo doll studies have also drawn criticism for the methodology that Bandura and his colleagues used:
Selection bias: The sample that Bandura used in his studies attended the nursery school at Stanford University, and so the study has been criticised for its selection bias. Participants may be expected to be from a more privileged background in terms of family education and income than the general population. Therefore, it is difficult to generalise Bandura’s findings to individuals from more diverse backgrounds.
External validity: As the age of participants in Bandura’s experiments were in a narrow range (i.e. nursery school age), the findings lack high external validity. Whilst the observational learning that he identified may occur in children at an early age, it may be the case that the imitation of adults ceases as a person grows older. As a result, findings may not apply to the wider population.
Critics have also raised question regarding the ethics of the methodology used in the Bobo doll experiments. A sample of children observed an adult behaving aggressively towards an anthropomorphic toy, whilst the researchers would have been aware that this behavior might be imitated by at least a proportion of the participants.