Social Learning theory of aggression


Social Learning theory of aggression


  • Research support - Philips (1986): Homicide rates US increase week after boxing match. Shows role of imitation in behaviour.
  • Explain context-dependent aggression - People behave differently in different situations, rewarded for aggressive behaviour in some situations, not in others.  Able to predict whether aggressive behaviour is likely in a specific situation dependent on previous experiences.
  • Cultural differences -  E.G. Aggression in !Kung San people of Southern Africa is rare. According to SLT, this is because parents neither provide models for aggression (resulting in a lack of opportunities for observational learning), nor do they reward aggressive behaviour in children (resulting in a lack of direct reinforcement). As a result, their is no motivation for children in this culture to act aggressively.
  • If a child is rewarded for aggressive behaviour (e.g. by acquiring status or being praised by others), more likely to repeat action in similar situations in the future. Those successful when using aggressive behaviour develop self-efficacy: become more confident in ability to use aggression to achieve their end.
  • Supported from bullying; children with a successful history of bullying will value behaviour due to direct reinforcement. If never caught, they will have more confidence in their ability to behave this way without punishment. As applied to real life it confirms its validity.


  • Imposed etic - Bandura is a western researcher, and developed testing methods based off western ideals. Assumes process of learning is the same for all.
  • Behaviourally deterministic - says imitate behaviour without logical thought behind why. May be used as justification for violence, excuse people of crimes.
  • Studies lack ecological validity - conducted in an artificial laboratory where it is difficult to generalise the findings into real world situations. We cannot say for certain that the social learning effect that occurs in a laboratory could apply to the real world.
  • Demand characteristics - some children reported feeling like they were expected to behave aggressively towards the bobo doll.  Aggression observed may only be short-term + limited to the laboratory environment.
  • Nature vs Nurture - Whilst it is taken into account, mostly Ignores established importance of biological (e.g. brain neurotransmitters), genetic and evolutionary factors in aggressive behaviour.
  • Ethical concerns - deliberately subjected to behaviour causing distress + could psychologically harm them. Also concerns around psychological well being as promoting aggression argued to be wrong, may recreate this aggression in other forms or see this as a viable way to deal with problems in the future.


Social learning theory offers a strong explanation especially as it takes on a more holistic approach which allows for biology and cognitive explanations to also have a role, even if these are not the main focus. Note: Fits into social psychological theory explanations of aggression. Link to deindividuation.


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