Investigating the Effects of Observing Aggression

Table of Content

This article discusses a laboratory experiment conducted by Albert Bandura, a key figure in the advancement of social learning theory. According to this theory, children learn skills and behaviors by observing and imitating others in their surroundings. The theory highlights the significance of role models in children’s development through observation and imitation. This perspective views social development as a continuous learning process instead of occurring in separate stages.

The social learning approach draws its roots from the classical and operant conditioning theories of behaviourism, which emphasize the analysis of observable and measurable behaviours. Behaviourists do not consider studying private cognitive processes like memory or perception. Conversely, social learning theorists highlight the significance of examining these cognitive processes to comprehend behaviour.

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Bandura’s study aimed to demonstrate that children would imitate aggressive behavior when they witnessed it being carried out by an adult, as these cognitive processes cannot be directly observed but can only be inferred through actual behavioral observation.


The researchers made four predictions:

  1. Children exposed to aggressive models will reproduce aggressive acts resembling those of the models.
  2. Children exposed to non-aggressive models will reproduce less aggressive acts.
  3. Children will imitate the behaviour of a same-sex model to a greater degree than a model of the opposite sex.
  4. Boys will be more predisposed than girls towards imitating aggression.

Bandura, Ross, and Ross carried out a laboratory experiment involving 72 children (36 boys and 36 girls) ranging in age from 37 to 69 months (mean = 52 months). The experiment consisted of three primary conditions: the control group, the group exposed to an aggressive model, and the group exposed to a passive model.

The text describes a study with two experimental groups of children exposed to adult role models. The groups were further divided based on the child’s sex and the model’s sex. Here is a summary of the different groups:
– Aggressive Model Condition
– Non-Aggressive Model Condition
The research design includes three independent variables: exposure condition, role model gender, and child’s gender. It is important to note that each group consists of only six children, which means if one group has three naturally aggressive children, it could potentially impact or bias the results.

The study aimed to identify the most aggressive group of children by focusing on a group of 6 boys who witnessed aggression from a male. It is possible that this particular group displayed higher levels of aggression because they already had a disposition towards it. To address this concern, the researchers evaluated the children’s behavior in the nursery and rated their aggression using four 5-point scales before conducting the study. By matching the children in each group based on similar levels of everyday aggression, the researchers attempted to minimize this potential bias.

The experiment demonstrates a matched pairs design. The rating scales assess physical aggression, verbal aggression, aggression towards inanimate objects, and aggressive inhibition. Each child’s score is determined by combining the four ratings. All children are tested individually. In stage one of the experiment, the experimenter escorts the children to the experimental room while the model waits in the hallway. The model is then invited to enter and join in the game.

The room was prepared for play and the activities were selected based on their popularity among nursery school children. One corner was dedicated to the child’s play area, featuring a small table and chair, potato prints, and picture stickers. Meanwhile, the adult model was guided to the opposite corner of the room which housed a small table, chair, tinker-toy set, a mallet, and a five foot inflatable Bobo doll. Once the model was seated, the experimenter departed from the experimental room.

The model displayed different behaviors in the non-aggressive and aggressive conditions. In the non-aggressive condition, the model peacefully assembled the tinker-toys while ignoring Bobo. However, in the aggressive condition, the model first focused on assembling the toys but then turned to Bobo and demonstrated a stylized and distinctive aggressive behavior. One example of physical aggression was hitting Bobo on the head with a mallet, while verbal aggression included phrases like “Pow!” and “Sock him in the nose.” After ten minutes, an experimenter entered and guided the child to another room that was presented as another games room.

In the second stage of the study, the child felt a sense of “mild aggression arousal” when they were placed in a room filled with attractive toys and encouraged to play with them. However, their enjoyment was interrupted when the experimenter told them that these toys were meant for other children. For the third stage of the study, the child was then taken to another room where they had complete freedom to select and play with any toy available. To make sure that the child remained engaged and didn’t leave prematurely, the experimenter stayed in this room as well.

The room contained both non-aggressive and aggressive toys. Non-aggressive toys consisted of a tea set, crayons, three bears, and plastic farm animals. Aggressive toys included a mallet and peg board, dart guns, and a 3 foot Bobo doll. The child remained in the room for 20 minutes while judges observed their behavior through a one-way mirror. Observations were made every 5 seconds, resulting in 240 response units for each child.

Response Measures

Three measures of imitation were acquired by observing responses from the child that closely resembled the adult model’s display. These measures include:

  1. Imitation of physical aggression (for example, punching the doll in the nose)
  2. Imitative verbal aggression (for example, repeating the phrases “Pow! ” or “Sock him in the nose”. 3. Imitative non-aggressive verbal responses (for example child repeats “He keeps coming back for more”)

In addition, they examined two types of behaviors that were not exact replicas of the behavior displayed by the adult model:

  1. Mallet aggression (for example, child strikes toy with mallet rather than Bobo. )
  2. Sits on Bobo (for example, child sits on Bobo but is not aggressive towards it)

They observed three aggressive behaviors that were unrelated to the adult model. These behaviors were all aggressive acts that the model did not perform.

  1. Punches Bobo
  2. Non-imitative physical and verbal aggression
  3. Aggressive gun play The results enabled the researchers to consider
  • Which children imitate the models,
  • Which models the children imitate
  • Whether the children showed a general increase in aggressive behaviour or a specific imitation of the adult behaviours.


The primary discoveries were.

  1. The children in the aggressive model condition made more aggressive responses than the children in the non-aggressive model condition
  2. Boys made more aggressive responses than girls;
  3. The boys in the aggressive model conditions showed more aggressive responses if the model was male than if the model was female;
  4. The 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 found that the female model’s aggression had a disorienting impact on the children, possibly because it contradicted their previous knowledge of culturally acceptable behavior. To illustrate, one child remarked, “Who is she? That’s not how a lady should behave. Ladies are expected to act differently…” Similarly, another child commented, “You should have witnessed what that girl did in there. She was hitting and fighting, but she didn’t swear.” In contrast, the aggressive actions of the male model aligned more closely with a cultural expectation of suitable conduct.

In this case, a boy remarked, “Al is skilled at fighting, he defeated Bobo. I aspire to fight like Al.” Additionally, one of the girls described, “That man possesses great strength as a fighter. He continuously punched and what’s more, he managed to knock Bobo to the ground. Even if Bobo got back up, he would say, ‘Punch your nose.’ He’s an exceptional fighter just like Daddy.” The results of the study support Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. This theory emphasizes that children acquire social behavior, including aggression, through observing others. A crucial aspect of Social Learning Theory is determining which models are more likely to be imitated.

According to research, aggressive male models are imitated more often than aggressive female models. This can be explained by the societal acceptance of aggression in men in Western society. Even at a young age, usually around three or four years old, children begin to adopt gender-related stereotypes. As a result, children tend to imitate aggressive male models more frequently because they perceive it as behavior appropriate for men rather than women.

Bandura conducted a study on the relevance of models and found that boys were more likely to imitate aggressive behavior when they observed a male model, rather than a female role model. This preference may be due to boys perceiving a greater similarity between themselves and the male model. Bandura also emphasized the importance of the child’s perception of similarity between themselves and the model. This perception is influenced by their development of gender identity, specifically their ability to classify themselves (and others) as either a girl or boy, female or male.

The ability to imitate typically develops between the ages of two to two-and-a-half years. Bandura’s research extends beyond aggression and demonstrates that various factors influence imitation. Friendly and warm adults are more likely to be imitated compared to unfriendly individuals. Furthermore, individuals who are perceived as powerful are more readily imitated and adults who receive rewards for their behavior are also more likely to be imitated.

Evaluation of Procedure

The experimental method has three primary benefits.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 on.

Experiments are able to be replicated.

The use of standardised procedures and instructions in the study allowed for replicability. Additionally, the study was replicated with slight variations, such as incorporating videos, which produced similar results. Another important advantage of this study, applicable to both experiments and certain non-experimental methods, is that it generates quantitative data, consisting of numerical measurements. This data can be analyzed using inferential statistical tests, which enable us to make statements about the likelihood of the results being attributed to chance.

Many psychologists strongly criticize laboratory studies of imitation due to their lack of ecological validity. These studies typically involve a limited social situation where a child and an adult model are present, with no interaction between the two. The child has no opportunity to influence the model, and they are also strangers to each other. Such conditions differ greatly from typical modeling scenarios, which often occur within a family setting.

The study has faced criticism on several fronts. One criticism is that the demonstrations were measured shortly after exposure, making it difficult to determine if there are any long-term effects. Additionally, the study has been questioned for classifying the behavior towards the Bobo doll as aggression, as the children may have perceived it as play. Another ethical concern is whether the children experienced any long-term consequences as a result of participating in the study.

Despite the unlikelihood, certainty is never guaranteed. An evaluation of the explanation has already highlighted that Bandura believed his findings were in line with his Social Learning Theory.

Social Learning Theory

Observational learning, widely accepted in psychology, is considered a useful theory. It is believed that many complex behaviors, such as language, would be impossible to acquire without children being exposed to individuals who serve as models. Through observational learning, young children can acquire numerous new responses in various settings, where the models are merely engaged in their own activities rather than intentionally trying to instruct the child.

Language serves as a prime illustration of this concept. It is both advantageous and disadvantageous since the behaviors children emulate may not align with parental or societal expectations, such as smoking, swearing, or aggression. Through the fundamental processes of observation and imitation, children consistently acquire a multitude of behaviors, both desirable and undesirable. Supporting Social Learning Theory, the most influential factor in determining an individual’s likelihood of smoking is whether or not their parents engage in the habit.

Bandura’s experiments, like this one, have primarily focused on aggression. This is likely because aggression is easier to measure compared to pro-social behavior. According to social learning theory, aggression can be learned, just like pro-social behavior. This theory offers hope, as it suggests that aggression can be modified or replaced with more positive behaviors.

The argument that media violence may contribute to violence in society is supported by findings from this study and others. However, there are also many other factors that influence whether or not individuals imitate screen violence. One major factor is the level of aggression individuals already possess, which may have been learned from family relationships or other sources. Social Learning Theory has been used to explain the ‘cycle of violence’ or the inter-generational transmission of aggression.

The main concept is that individuals who have experienced childhood abuse are more likely to become abusive parents and domestic abusers. This also heightens the likelihood of increased aggression in these individuals, although it is not guaranteed or inevitable. It is worth noting that physical punishments often reinforce the behavior they aim to eliminate in children, ironically resulting in increased aggression.

The Social Learning Approach to child development is criticized for oversimplifying human behavior. While it can explain some complex behavior, it fails to account for the development of various behaviors, including thoughts and feelings. Our cognitive control over our behavior means that experiencing violence does not automatically lead to reproducing violent behavior. Additionally, the approach does not consider the influence of inherited factors or maturation in development.

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Investigating the Effects of Observing Aggression. (2016, Aug 11). Retrieved from

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