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Social Learning Theory: Research studies

Aggression, phobias, the role of the media - what are the main findings from research into Social Learning Theory?

The Bobo Doll experiment

Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) conducted the original Bobo doll experiment to see if aggressive behaviour was learnt through imitation. The participants used were 36 boys and 36 girls aged between 3-6 years, who had previously been rated on their levels of aggression by a teacher (using a scale of 1-5). These children were then matched evenly into the 3 conditions of the experiment. All children were placed in a room where they observed either condition 1; a model behaving aggressively towards the Bobo doll (punching it, throwing it up in the air and shouting at it), condition 2; a model playing non-aggressively and ignoring the Bobo doll and condition 3; no model, which acted as the control group. After 10 minutes the children were taken into a second room where they were allowed to play with a number of attractive toys e.g. colourful spinning top but were then told by the experimenter that “these were his best toys and were being saved for the other children”. This was referred to as the aggression arousal stage and was included in order to standardise the levels of aggression that children in both conditions were feeling. The next stage of the experiment involved children being taken to a third room containing aggressive and non-aggressive toys that the children were allowed to play freely with for 20 minutes. The behaviour of the children was observed and rated through a one-way mirror.

The findings were:

— Children who observed an aggressive model produced the aggressive acts of the model. These aggressive acts were not seen in children who had observed non-aggressive models or who were not exposed to an aggressive model.

— Children who observed a non-aggressive model showed fewer aggressive acts

— Boys were generally more aggressive than girls

— Boys imitated more aggressive acts than girls, especially with same sex model

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 another person, especially if the model is identified with i.e. the same sex as the observer.

Variations of the original Bobo Doll experiment

There have been a number of variations of the original Bobo Doll experiment that offer support for other core aspects of SLT. Bandura and Walters (1963) showed children a film of an adult being aggressive towards a Bobo doll. The children were divided into three groups, each of whom saw different endings to the film: Group 1: saw the role model being rewarded for aggressive behaviour, Group 2: saw the role model being punished for aggressive behaviour, Group 3 : saw no consequences of the models behaviour. The children then had the opportunity to be aggressive towards a Bobo doll. The results showed that Group 1 were the most aggressive, then group 3, and then group 2. This supports the notion of vicarious reinforcement, as the likelihood of imitation was increased when the aggressive behaviour was positively reinforced (rewarded) and decreased when the aggressive behaviour was punished. Despite the stimulus for this experiment being a filmed model and not a live model, it still produces the same results as seen in the original experiment demonstrating the effect that watching violent media could have on children’s aggressive behaviours.

SLT, media and aggression

Other research has been conducted into the impact that aggressive media can have on our behaviour. Walter and Thomas (1963) replicated Milgram’s study whereby participants were allowed to set their own electric shock level to administer to another person. Prior to this they were shown one of two films- either a violent one or a non-violent one. Participants who saw the violent film set higher shock levels, supporting the notion that observing aggressive media can lead to an increase in general aggressive behaviour towards others.

Liebert and Baron (1972) also conducted an experiment to examine the effect that television violence could have on children’s behaviour. The participants (136 children) were randomly assigned to either the experimental condition, where they were shown an aggressive sequence involving a chase scene, 2 fist fights, 2 shootings and 1 knifing, or the control condition, which saw a highly active sports sequence. The children were then observed playing a game with another child where they could either “help” or “hurt” the other child. Those who had observed the aggressive film pushed the “hurt” button for longer, thus highlighting the detrimental effect that watching violence on TV may have on children’s general imitation of aggressive behaviours.

SLT, media and pro-social behaviour

Unfortunately most research into media influence on children’s behaviour has focused on the negative impact it can have. However, it has also been shown to have a positive effect on children’s pro-social behaviour e.g. cooperation, sympathy, helping. If children can be exposed to positive role-models that engage in pro-social acts, according to SLT it is likely that children will learn and imitate these positive behaviours. Sprafkin et al. (1975) conducted a study that involved one third of the children watching an episode of Lassie where a puppy was rescued, one third watched an episode that did not have a rescue scene and the other third watched an episode of The Brady Bunch. Later during a game, those participants who watched the episode including the puppy rescue spent more time comforting distressed puppies, even when it interfered with their chance of winning prizes, compared to the other 2 conditions. This can be seen as supportive of SLT because the children behaved more pro-socially when exposed to a helpful media role model.

SLT and phobias

Many psychologists argue that phobias can be learnt through the process of observation and vicarious reinforcement. Children will look to their parents for an appropriate response when exposed to novel objects/situations and will generally imitate their response. For example, if a child is exposed to a spider for the first time and their mother responds in a calm and collected fashion the child will not fear the spider in the future. However, if the mother responds to the spider by screaming and moving the child away, the child will learn that a spider is something to fear and will continue to avoid this object. This learnt response will be enhanced if the mother responds in the same way each time a spider is present and thus offers reinforcement for this fear, possibly leading to a phobia. This has been demonstrated in rhesus monkeys by Mineka et al. (1984). Offspring who observed their parents interacting fearfully with snakes began to show the same reactions to snakes themselves, and were imitating the response of their parents. This fearful reaction to snakes was still evident in the offspring monkeys 6 months after their initial observations.

SLT and intelligence

It has been observed in many animals that social learning can be beneficial to survival. Animals that observe their elders closely can create mental representations of behaviours and imitate these, if the consequences of the event have been positive and advantageous to them. It is an intelligent way to behave because it stops animals from engaging in risky behaviours because they can simply observe others and assess whether the behaviour was successful or unsuccessful, and thus whether it is useful to them to copy it. Kawai (1965) found that when one snow monkey from a troop spontaneously began to wash sand of their food by rinsing it in sea, a further 80% of the young monkeys in the troop began to exhibit the same behaviour after a very short period of time. This provides evidence that novel behaviours are replicated by young animals using observation and imitation, especially if the behaviour is beneficial to them, in this case sand was removed from the food and thus tasted better.