The Bobo doll studies were a series of experiments testing the social learning theory. Researchers observed children’s interactions with Bobo dolls after the children observed adult aggression (with the Bobo dolls). Many of the children imitated the aggression without explicit direction, supporting social learning theory’s hypothesis that we learn through observation of others.
The Bobo Doll Experiment
Albert Bandura (1925-2021), internationally recognized as one of the most influential psychologists, was one of the pioneers of social learning theory. In a 1961, Bandura published one of his more famous studies, involving children observing adult aggression on an inflatable doll named Bobo (2022).
In Bandura’s experiments, a child would be playing in a room when an adult would enter the room and become aggressive with a blow-up Bobo doll. Later, when the child was left alone, he or she would generally imitate the aggressive behavior of the adult, aggressively attacking the doll (Graham & Arshad-Ayaz, 2016).
Bandura believed that once children learn that aggressive behavior is appropriate, and can also be rewarding, they are more likely to act aggressively during conflict (Drewes, 2008).
Bandura’s findings sought more complex answers than simple observational learning. By the time of Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments social learning had been well established. Bandura was digging a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of observational learning.
While Bandura’s findings challenged “established behavioral doctrine that human behavior was the result of conditioning through direct positive and negative reinforcement and trial and error” (2022). Basically, Bandura wanted show how observational learning was impacted by observing positive and negative reinforcements.
In another Bobo doll experiment published in 1965, Bandura showed preschoolers a video of an adult expressing aggression on a Bobo doll and using distinct words along with his aggression, such as “Pow! Right in the nose. Boom! Boom!”
In this experiment, “children observed a film-mediated model who exhibited novel physical and verbal aggressive responses.” Bandura then added consequences. “in one treatment condition the model was severely punished; in a second, the model was generously rewarded; while the third condition presented no response consequences to the model” (1965, p. 590).
As predicted, children that observed the model rewarded for aggression were far more likely to imitate the aggression than children who observed the model punished. However, children that observed no response consequence also reproduced the behavior at a high rate.
The words associated with the aggression were reproduced at a far diminished rate compared to the behaviors. Bandura explains that “the rate, amount, and complexity of stimuli presented to the observer may partly determine the degree of imitative learning” (p. 593).
Complex Stimuli and Subjective Conclusions
However, learning from complex stimuli requires interpretations, a higher order function. Bandura explains, “responses of higher order complexity are produced by combinations of previously learned components which may, in themselves, represent relatively complicated behavioral patterns.” Bandura continues, “a person who possess a very narrow repertoire of behavior, for example, will, in all probability, display only fragmentary imitation of a model’s behavior” (p. 594).
Perhaps, this partly explains why the preschoolers, with weaker verbal skills, were less likely to reproduce the language accompanying the aggression. Despite the ambiguity of meaning from the complexity, I find the conclusions intriguing.
Bobo Doll Experiment Implications
The Bobo doll studies imply violence is transmitted through observation. Children in abusive households may learn unintended lessons about the appropriateness of aggression, carrying on violent tendencies into adulthood. Others cite the Bobo doll experiment findings in concerns over the impact of violent media.
Albert Bandura theorized that, “virtually all learning resulting from direct experience can also occur on a vicarious basis by observing the behavior of others and its consequences.” He continues, “the capacity to learn by observation enables organisms to acquire large, integrated patterns of behavior without having to form them gradually by tedious trial and error” (1978).
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney commented on strict parenting, explaining that “researchers have found that severity seems to matter remarkably little and can even be counterproductive: Instead of encouraging virtue, harsh punishments teach the child that life is cruel and that aggression is appropriate” (Baumeister & Tierney, 2012, location 2910).
Research empirically supports social learning, suggesting it plays a significant role in child social development.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
In conclusion, no single theory sufficiently explains childhood development. Witnessing domestic violence as a child doesn’t condemn a child to violent adult relationships. Most children of violent homes move into adulthood without becoming an abuser or a victim themselves.
Vast majority of children that play violent video games or watch violence on television grow into normal functioning adults. While witnessing violence certainly has an impact on development, it is only one of many factors that influence and shape our lives.
Bandura, A. (1978). Social Learning Theory of Aggression. Journal of Communication, 28(3), 12-29.
Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1(6), 589-595.
Baumeister, R., Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books; Reprint edition
Drewes, A. (2008). Bobo Revisited: What the Research Says. International Journal of Play Therapy, 17(1), 52-65.
Graham, P., & Arshad-Ayaz, A. (2016). Learned Unsustainability: Bandura’s Bobo Doll Revisited. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 10(2), 262-273.
Ozer, E. (2022). Albert Bandura (1925–2021). American Psychologist, 77(3), 483-484.