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Bandura and Walters' `Social Learning Theory' suggests that we learn behaviour through observation.
Children learn aggressive responses through watching role models with whom they identify and
imitating their behaviour. They also learn about the consequences of this behaviour through vicarious
reinforcement, as they observe others being rewarded or punished as a consequence. This leads
them to learn about what is appropriate, effective and worth repeating.
This is supported by Phillips, who found that US daily homicide rates increase during the week
following a major boxing match. This suggests that viewers imitate the behaviour they have watched,
consequently becoming more aggressive, and that social learning is evident in adults as well as
The theory can also explain cultural differences. Aggression is rare among the !Kung San people as
children are neither rewarded nor punished for aggressive responses. The absence of direct
reinforcement and models means there is little opportunity for children to acquire aggression,
supporting social learning.
A key experiment which investigated social learning theory was Bandura et al.'s `Bobo Doll Study',
where children observed aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour to test for imitative learning. It
was found that those observing a role model who was violent to the toys were more likely to act
physically and verbally aggressive as well when left alone to play.
However, this study lacks ecological validity as participants were hitting an inflatable doll, not a real
person who might hit back. Therefore the results may not be generalisable to other settings where
children engage in aggression against humans. Because of this, we cannot be sure that social learning
theory and vicarious reinforcement can explain the performance of aggressive acts against others.
This study also shows certain ethical issues of psychological harm as exposing children to aggressive
behaviour means they could adopt it permanently. This means that experiments like this could not be
conducted in the modern day, making it difficult to validate the theory of social learning.
Finally, demand characteristics could have influenced Bandura's results as Noble reported that one
child arriving believed they were expected to hit the doll. This suggests that participants potentially
received cues about what researchers wanted from them, meaning social learning may not have
caused them to behave this way.
For a child to experience social learning they form a mental representation of events and
expectancies of future outcomes. This means they evaluate the possible rewards and punishments
they could receive from using aggression, and the child will then display the learned behaviour as
long as the expectation of reward is greater than that of punishment.
This is supported by Bandura, who repeated his study but offered aggressive participants a reward
after exposing them to their role model. He found that all three groups performed imitative acts,
suggesting social learning takes place regardless of reinforcements but is only reproduced if
The theory also explains context-dependent learning as children learn that aggression is only
appropriate for some contexts as it is only rewarded in specific situations. This supports social
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Aggression's production is determined by direct experience as if a child has been rewarded for
aggressive behaviour previously, they are more likely to repeat it in a similar situation. Their
self-efficacy expectancies (confidence in their ability to carry out the behaviour) also determine
whether the behaviour will be pursued. If they have used aggression unsuccessfully before they will
have less confidence in using it to resolve future conflicts, meaning they are less likely to repeat it.…read more