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Social Learning Theory: Discussion points

Nature versus nurture, ethics, behavioural psychology - what are the key discussions surrounding Social Learning Theory? Get tips for your essays with our analysis here.

The Bobo Doll experiment

The original Bobo Doll experiment is regarded as a classic study demonstrating the strength of observational learning. As it was conducted as a highly controlled laboratory experiment it can be commended for its standardisation e.g. the inclusion of the aggression arousal condition and the matched design of conditions. This control also helped to increase the internal validity of the study and allow cause and effect relationships to be established i.e. the direct impact of the IV (aggressive vs. non-aggressive model) on the DV (aggression imitated by the children). However, the study has not escaped criticism, particularly regarding the artificial nature of the experiment. It was conducted in a laboratory environment, therefore is lacking in ecological validity and the findings cannot necessarily be generalised to how SLT operates in real life. Many have argued that the Bobo doll is not a suitable stimulus material to base the experiment around. This is because it has been designed to be hit and bounce back and thus when children display this behaviour is it really measuring their aggressive behaviour or just measuring expected play with this type of toy? Another limitation of the experiment concerns the behaviours of the models that were observed by the children. It would have been very difficult to completely standardise what the children witnessed and they may all have observed slightly different aggressive acts, thus becoming a confounding variable in the results. Further concerns include the fact that children are highly susceptible to demand characteristics and when placed in an unfamiliar environment would have looked for cues as to how to behave with the Bobo doll, perhaps increasing the likelihood that they would imitate the behaviour.

Ethics

Research into the SLT, particularly the role of observational learning in aggression, has been criticised for its possibly unethical approach. For example, in Bandura’s original experiment the children were deceived, when they were told that the good toys were being reserved for the other children. They were also possibly subjected to harm because witnessing an adult behave aggressively in an unknown situation could have been distressing for some of the children. There are also more long term implications of taking part in the study to consider. The children in the aggressive model condition may have created a mental representation that aggressive behaviour is acceptable and continue to display aggressive behaviour after the study.

As always, with research conducted on children, there are issues with informed consent. Despite parental consent, did the children fully understand what was going to occur during the study and understand their right to withdraw at any point from the research? Due to these ethical concerns it would be much more appropriate to conduct natural experiments investigating children that are already showing high levels of aggression and what environmental influences they have been exposed to. However, this approach to research also carries limitations, concerning the lack of control and the inability to establish cause and affect relationships.

Nature/nurture debate

This is a long-standing debate in psychology about the origins of behaviour. The nature side of the argument would argue that we are born with the innate ability to perform certain behaviours and these are inherited from out parents. Conversely, the nurture argument would argue we learn behaviour as we grow. The behaviourist approach and SLT are very strongly associated with the nurture side of the argument. With regards to the learning of aggressive or pro-social behaviours, children are exposed to role models in their environment at home or in the media and these are the strongest influences on what behaviour they exhibit themselves. Bearing this is mind, SLT can be used positively to change environmental influences and ultimately change the behaviours that children imitate. For example, if a child is exposed to a parent swearing or smoking it is likely they will copy this behaviour but if the parent engages in cooperative and helpful behaviour this is the behaviour the child will learn.

Practical applications of research

As mentioned above, the SLT has many practical applications that can reduce negative behaviours like aggression and the development of phobias. For example, Patterson et al. (1982) studied a group of children, aged between 3-12 years old, who had all exhibited social aggression and were all receiving specialist help for their problem behaviour. It was found that parents of these children had modelled aggressive behaviours e.g. by physically punishing their children and had also reinforced their children’s negative behaviours by rewarded them or giving it to them when they exhibited temper tantrums etc. The parents were taught how to be more positive role models and how to positively reinforce good behaviour rather than rewarding bad behaviour. The training the parents received was rated as highly effective by them and demonstrates the positive impact that appropriate parenting can have on children’s learnt behaviours. It also highlights how easily the environment can be manipulated to result in a more positive outcome. The highly popular TV programme ‘Supernanny’ bases itself on the same principles proposed by the SLT.

SLT also has implications for the effects of media violence on children. The introduction of the watershed and age restrictions on films and computer games can help to reduce children’s exposure to inappropriate and possibly violent content. As well as introducing more positive role models in children’s TV programmes helping to increase the likelihood of pro-social behaviours being imitated and being encoded as more suitable social behaviours.