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Social learning theory

Social Learning Theory suggests we learn aggression through observation and watching the behavior of role of models and then imitating their behavior if we identify with them.Children will also observe and learn about the consequences of aggressive behavior by watching others being reinforced or punished for it.This is called indirect or vicarious reinforcement. By observing the consequences of aggressive behavior, a child may gradually come to learn what is considered effective and whether such behaviors are worth repeating. Behaviors that achieve the models outcomes may be more likely to be repeated through vicarious reinforcement, even if it is through aggression.

Bandura claimed for social learning to take place, the child must be able to form a mental representation of the events in their social environment.The child must also imagine possible rewards and punishments for their aggressive behavior in terms of expectancies of future outcomes. When appropriate opportunities arise in the future, the child will display the learned behavior as long as the expectation of reward outweighs any possible expectation of punishment.Children who are rewarded in some way for aggression - by getting what they want for example will come to attach value to aggression and thus repeat the behavior.Children who have had little success with aggression will be less confident in its use and thus use other means

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Social learning theory

The main supporting evidence for this study comes by Bandura himself in a study known as The Bobo Doll study.This involved children observing aggressive and nonaggressive adult models and then being tested to see whether they would imitate the behaviour. Children were aged 3-5 years old, both male and female. Half were exposed to aggressive adult models behaving aggressively towards a life-size Bobo doll and the other half were exposed to non-aggressive models. Following exposure to the model, children were “frustrated” by being shown toys that they were then not allowed to play with.Children in the “aggression” condition reproduced a good deal of physically and verbally aggressive behaviour similar to the model. Children in the non-aggressive group exhibited virtually no aggression towards the doll.This supports social learning theory and demonstrates how children may acquire aggressive acts by modeled behaviour by others.

Bandura & Walters conducted a separate study to try and identify why a child would be motivated to perform the same aggressivem behaviours in the absence of a model. Children were divided into 3 groups with each seeing a different ending to a film of an adult model behaving aggressively towards a bobo doll. Group 1 saw the model rewarded for showing aggressive behaviour, Group 2 saw the model punished for showing aggressive behaviour, Group 3 observed the model but there were no consequences for the aggressive behaviour. 

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Social learning theory

They found that the children’s subsequent behaviour was affected depending on which ending they had watched.Children in Group 1 who saw the model rewarded for aggression showed a higher level of aggression in their own play.Children in Group 2 who saw the model punished showed a low level of aggression in their play, while those with no reward (Group 3) were somewhere in between. Bandura claimed that this type of vicarious learning supported social learning theory as children were basing their behaviour on the likely consequences and shaping it accordingly.

In contrast,question regarding this study is whether punishment prevented learning or simply performance of the aggressive behaviour. Bandura conducted another study but on this occasion all children in the 3 groups were rewarded for performing aggressive acts after exposure to the model.The findings were all three groups performed similar levels of behaviour. This shows that learning does take place regardless of the reinforcements, but the reinforcements themselves are related in the behaviour actually being demonstrated.Despite this, the studies in this spread have involved children and a weakness here could be argued to be that such a theory may have little generalisation to the adult population due to the biased sample of young children. Therefore such a study may be better at explaining how children learn aggressive behaviour rather than adults.

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Social learning theory

On the other hand, a study by Phillips et al found that homicide rates in the US almost always increased in the following week after am major televised boxing match suggesting Social Learning theory may apply to adults as well. This suggests viewers may be imitating behaviour they watched in violent boxing matches, supporting social learning theories wider generalisation. However a criticism of this study is that we cannot be sure of cause and effect for certain and whether it was the exposure to aggression on television that caused this or whether other confounding unknown variables contributed also. We cannot also confidently be sure that those committing the acts of aggression were even exposed to the boxing matches.

Furthermore, it is also possible that in Bandura’s study, children were displaying behaviour they believed was expected of them and showing Demand Characteristics. This makes the behaviour observed lack realism and validity. Noble et al reports how one child was overheard telling his mother “Look mommy, there’s the doll we have to hit” supporting this possibility.

The fact that the study was measuring aggressive behaviour towards a “bobo doll” and not a real person who may be inclined to fight back. Children are aware that such a doll is not real, nor is there any fear of it fighting back hence the behaviour being demonstrated may also lack generalisation to real acts of aggression to real people. However Bandura did demonstrate how children would imitate aggression towards a real clown after being exposed to 

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Social learning theory

such modelled aggression towards a filmed clown, supporting the theory.

A Strength of social learning theory is that this theory can explain differences in aggression between and within individuals. Wolfgang et al proposed “The culture of violence theory” proposing that in large societies, some subcultures develop “norms” that sanction the use of violence to a greater degree than the dominant culture. On the other hand other cultures may also emphasise and model non-aggressive behaviour which in turn produces individuals with low levels of aggression. Differences within individuals can be explained due to selective reinforcement and context-dependent learning. Therefore people may respond differently in different situations because they have observed that aggression is rewarded in certain situations and not others. This can then effectively be used to support Social Learning theory and explain how cultural differences exist in aggression.

Issues, Debates and approaches: Reductionist – Portrays humans as simple creatures and stimulus re ignoring the role of cognitive factors or even biological factors. In truth many factors are involved such as emotional factors that Social learning theory ignores. There is also evidence of genes being involved pre-disposing some individuals to higher levels of aggression which social learning theory cannot account for.

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Social learning theory

Deterministic- This theory assumes that people are always likely to be aggressive when exposed to such behaviour and there being rewards for it. In truth this is not the case as people have free will and the ability for conscious thought that can override such. In Bandura’s study; it was noted that the children found to be most aggressive in the study were generally noted as being more aggressive outside the study as well; This suggests some children who were less aggressive and still exposed to aggression; exercised this choice of free will and displaying less aggressive acts or none.

Gender Bias – Studies have found women tend to be less aggressive than men – Crime statistics in males and females for violent offences vary greatly yet we assume both are exposed to similar levels through media, family models, etc – Why is this? – Social learning theory cannot explain this and this is therefore a weakness for this theory. 

Ethical Issues – Frustrating children like in Bandura’s bobo doll study is ethically wrong. Also encouraging acts of aggression in children through exposure – if there is a learning effect occurring with aggression could be deemed ethically wrong.

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