Does the violence that children observe on television, movies, and video games lead them to behavior aggressively? This is a hot question today, but it was also of great interest 50 years ago when a psychologist led an experiment to determine how kids learn aggression through observation.
Aggression lies at the root of many social ills ranging from interpersonal violence to war. It is little wonder then that the subject is one of the most studied topics within psychology. Social psychology is the subfield devoted to the study of human interaction and group behavior, and it is the scientists working in this field who have provided much of the research on human aggression.
In a famous and influential experiment known as the Bobo doll experiment, Albert Bandura and his colleagues were able to demonstrate one of the ways in which children learn aggression. Bandura's social learning theory proposes that learning occurs through observation and interaction with other people.
The experiment involved exposing children to two different adult models; an aggressive model and a non-aggressive one. After witnessing the adult's behavior, the children would then be placed in a room without the model and were observed to see if they would imitate the behavior they had witnessed earlier.
Bandura made several predictions about what would occur:
- He predicted that children who observed an adult acting aggressively would be likely to act aggressively even when the adult model was not present.
- The children who observed the non-aggressive adult model would be less aggressive than the children who observed the aggressive model; the non-aggressive exposure group would also be less aggressive than the control group.
- Children would be more likely to imitate models of the same-sex rather than opposite-sex models.
- Boys would behave more aggressively than girls.
The participants for the experiment were 36 boys and 36 girls enrolled at the Stanford University Nursery School. The children ranged in age between 3 and almost 6 years, and the average participant age was 4 years 4 months.
There were a total of eight experimental groups. Out of these participants, 24 were assigned to a control group that received no treatment. The rest of the children were then divided into two groups of 24 participants each. One of the experimental groups was then exposed to aggressive models, while the other 24 children were exposed to non-aggressive models.
Finally, these groups were divided again into groups of boys and girls. Each of these groups was then divided so that half of the participants were exposed to a same-sex adult model and the other half was exposed to an opposite-sex adult model.
Before conducting the experiment, Bandura also assessed the children's existing levels of aggression. Groups were then matched equally so that they had an average level of aggression.
Each child was tested individually to ensure that behavior would not be influenced by others children. The child was first brought into a playroom where there were a number of different activities to engage in. The experimenter then invited an adult model into the playroom who was encouraged to sit at a table and join in the activities. Over a ten minute period, the adults then began to play with a set of tinker toys. In the non-aggressive condition, the adult model simply played with the toy and ignored the Bobo doll for the entire period. In the aggressive model condition, however, the adult model would violently attack the Bobo doll.
"The model laid the Bobo on its side, sat on it, and punched it repeatedly in the nose. The model then raised the Bobo doll, picked up the mallet, and struck the doll in the head. Following the mallet aggression, the model tossed the doll up in the air aggressively, and kicked it about the room. This sequence of physically aggressive acts was repeated three times, interspersed with verbally aggressive responses."
In addition to the physical aggression, the adult model also used verbally aggressive phrases such as "Kick him" and "Pow." The model also added two non-aggressive phrases: "He sure is a tough fella" and "He keeps coming back for more."
After the ten-minute exposure to the adult model, the child was then taken to another room that contained a number of appealing toys including a doll set, fire engine, and toy airplane. However, children were told that they were not allowed to play with any of these tempting toys. The purpose of this was to build up frustration levels among the children.
Finally, each child was taken to the last experimental room. This room contained a number of "aggressive" toys including a mallet, a tether ball with a face painted on it, dart guns, and, of course, a Bobo doll. The room also included several "non-aggressive" toys including crayons, paper, dolls, plastic animals, and trucks. The children were then allowed to play in this room for a period of 20 minutes while raters observed each child's behavior from behind a one-way mirror and judged each child levels of aggression.
The results of the experiment supported three of the four original predictions.
- Children exposed to the violet model tended to imitate the exact behavior they had observed when the adult was no longer present.
- Bandura and his colleagues had also predicted that children in the non-aggressive group would behave less aggressively than those in the control group. The results indicated that while children of both genders in the non-aggressive group did exhibit less aggression than the control group, boys who had observed an opposite-sex model behavior non-aggressively were more likely than those in the control group to engage in violence.
- There were important gender differences when it came to whether a same-sex or opposite-sex model was observed. Boy who observed an adult male behaving violently were more influenced than those who had observed a female model behavior aggressively. Interestingly, the experimenters found in the same-sex aggressive groups, boys were more likely to imitate physical acts of violence while girls were more likely to imitate verbal aggression.
- The researchers were also correct in their prediction that boys would behave more aggressively than girls. Boys engaged in more than twice as many acts of aggression than the girls.
The results of the Bobo doll experiment supported Bandura's social learning theory. Bandura and his colleagues believed that the experiment demonstrates how specific behaviors can be learned through observation and imitation. The authors also suggested that "social imitation may hasten or short-cut the acquisition of new behaviors without the necessity of reinforcing successive approximations as suggested by Skinner."
According to Bandura, the adult's violent behavior toward the doll led children to believe that such actions were acceptable. He also suggested that as a result, children may be more inclined to respond to frustration with aggression in the future. In a follow-up study conducted in 1965, Bandura found that while children were more likely to imitate aggressive behavior if the adult model was rewarded for his or her actions, they were far less likely to imitate if they saw the adult model being punished or reprimanded for their hostile behavior.
As with any experiment, the Bobo doll study is not without criticisms.
- Because the experiment took place in a lab setting, some critics suggest that results observed in this type of location may not be indicative of what takes place in the real world.
- The study might suffer from selection bias. All participants were drawn from a narrow pool of students who share the same racial and socioeconomic background. This makes it difficult to generalize the results to a larger, more diverse population.
- Since data was collected immediately, it is also difficult to know what the long-term impact might have been.
- Acting violently toward a doll is a lot different that displaying aggression or violence against another human being in a real world setting.
- It has also been suggested that children were not actually motivated to display aggression when they hit the Bobo doll; instead, they may have simply been trying to please the adults.
- Some critics argue that the study itself is unethical. By manipulating the children into behaving aggressively, they argue, the experimenters were essentially teaching the children to be aggressive.
Bandura's experiment remains one of the most well-known studies in psychology. Today, social psychologists continue to study the impact of observed violence on children's behavior. In the half-century since the Bobo doll experiment, there have been hundreds of studies on how observing violence impacts children's behavior. Today, researchers continue to ponder the question of whether the violence children witness on television in the movies translates to aggressive or violent behavior in the real-world.
More Famous Psychology Experiments
Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models' reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 589-595.
Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S.A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-82.
Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Blazing Angels or Resident Evil? Can Violent Video Games Be a Force for Good? Review of General Psychology, 14, 68-81.
Hart, K.E. (2006). Critical Analysis of an Original Writing on Social Learning Theory: Imitation of Film-Mediated Aggressive Models By: Albert Bandura, Dorothea Ross and Sheila A.Ross (1963). Retrieved from http://www.nationalforum.com/Electronic%20Journal%20Volumes/Hart,%20Karen%20E,%20Imitation%20of%20Film-Mediated%20Aggressive%20Models.pdf
Hock, R. R. (2002). Forty studies that changed psychology, Fourth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Worthman, C., & Loftus, E. (1992). Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.