Discuss one or more social psychological explanations of aggression (8 + 16 marks)
According to the social learning theory, aggressive behaviour is learnt through the individual observing their role model. The individual is more likely to remember aggressive behaviour if the role model is being rewarded; this is known as vicarious reinforcement. Before the individual imitates the aggressive act, they first form mental representations in their mind of how they will enact it. Reproduction of this aggressive behaviour is more likely to be repeated for those individuals who have a higher self-efficacy in their ability to do this, because they have been successful at it in the past. When the individual receives a reward (such as praise, or money) for their aggressive behaviour, this acts a direct reinforcement and so will motivate the individual to behave aggressively in the future.
This theory has been supported by a large amount of empirical and controlled laboratory experiments. For example the 1963 bobo doll study by Bandura found that children who observed an adult model being rewarded with sweets for their aggressive behaviour showed higher levels of imitation compared to children who observed the model being punished for showing aggressive behaviour,( such as being told off.) Further research evidence strengthens the learning theory, increasing its validity and reliability. A longitudinal study by the commission on violence and youth found a significant relation between young boys of the age of 8 who watched violent television and criminal offences and domestic abuse 22 years later in their life. This suggests that there is a wider academic credibility for the important role played by parents and the media when developing certain behavioural characteristics in children. As such, the theory can be usefully applied in the real world for the media to try and reduce the violence shown on television, even in animated programmes.
Although the theory has been well supported using some degree of scientific techniques which should increase its credibility, there are problems concerning the artificiality of the setting as well as the participants behaving in a way to meet the demands of the study. For example, Bandura’s studies have been criticised for tending to focus the aggression of children towards a doll, rather than a real person. This raises problems with the SLT as it fails to present a real life situation of aggressive behaviour taking place, and so lacks ecological validity, questioning whether the study is valid enough to support the theory. Nonetheless responding to this criticism Bandura did vary her study, having children divert aggression towards a real life clown this time. Findings continued to show high levels of aggression (punching, kicking) from children which suggests that the SLT is very high in reliability. Despite this however, children were affected by demand characteristics and so significantly reduces the validity of the SLT as invalid behaviour was being measured. Noble et al reported a child arriving at the experiment saying “Look mummy, there’s the doll we have to hit” At the same time it’s difficult to trust whether children really do learn aggressive behaviour, or if they merely wanted to please the experimenter, or if they were just play fighting. Durkin said Bandura does not distinguish between play fighting and real aggression. The many problems associated with the studies of the SLT by Bandura therefore raise questions on whether observation of role models or rewards is the cause of aggression, or rather other factors, such as a natural tendency to aggression.