The Learning Approach

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Learning Approach - Key assumptions

Focus on the environment

  • Focus that nurture influences behaviour.
  • States behaviour is learnt through learning + looks at how and why we learn behaviours.
  • Says that environment experienced shapes people + their behaviours by reinforcements and punishments
  • Reinforcement: people will imitate behaviour if they get reward + therefore will continue with behaviour

----E.g. 2 sisters. Big sister eats correctly using knife + fork and mom praises her for that. Young sister will imitate her to get positive attention too.

  • Punishment: when people are punished, they are less likely to repeat behaviour

----E.g. Boy starts moaning. His mother speaks harshly to him. Unlikely he repeats it.

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Scientific Methodology

§  Difficult to draw scientific conclusions on behaviours + why they happen.

§  Approach looks at observable behaviour, which can be measured.

§  Approach tries to study an isolated behaviour and what triggers the behaviour being learnt

§  Measurable, reliable experiments used to ensure studies are scientific.

o   Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) conducted reliable scientific lab experiment to see if children imitated aggressive role models.

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Nature and Nurture debate

  • Focus of environmental influences on behaviour
  • Approach supports the nurture debate as it believes role + influence of environment is + important than our genes.
  • It states we should be only concerned about the environment we are brought in.
  • Classical conditioning-  we learn through association

o   E.g. Watson and Raymer (1920)- Each time a rat was presented to B.A, a loud noise made. B.A scared on loud noise but not of the rat. At the end, B.A scared of the rat as he paired it with loud noise.

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NandN Continued

  • Operant conditioning- we learn through consequence

o   E.g. Boy does not do the homework. When he does not do the homework, he has no computer. In order to get computer, he does homework. Learns behaviour in order to avoid something unpleasant.

  • Social learning theory- learning through observation

o   E.g. Young sister sees how her older sister studies and her parents gave her positive attention. Young sister will imitate older sister (her role model) in order to get positive attention.

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Observations= when watching is the main way of obtaining data + when there’s no manipulation of IV.

§  Observations usually include tallying

§  Tallying= quantitative data

If observations written down=qualitative data.

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Structured observations

  • Behaviour to be observed carried out in structured setting.
  • = situation repeated with different Ps + researchers observe what happens.
  • Manipulation of situation.


  • As there are many controls in place, cause + effect validity can be more easily drawn
  • As the environment is very controlled, they can be tested for reliability + replicability. Easier to repeat.
  • As setting is manipulated by researcher, lack of ecological validity. Tasks may be unnatural (no task validity)
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Naturalistic observation

§  No manipulation from researcher

§  Take place in Participants natural environment

§  E.g. Researcher goes to playground at a school and observes children’s behaviour.


ü  Ecological + task validity- observes natural behaviour.

ü  If procedure is fully documented + controlled, another researcher can repeat it.

û  Not reliable, take place in natural setting, uncontrolled environment- difficult to replicate as behaviour is not likely to be repeated.

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Non-participant observations

§  Researchers are not part of observation

§  Sit away from activity + are not involved.

§  E.g. Researcher sits down in job interview + observes candidates levels of stress.


ü  Observer can concentrate on observation + be partial and objective.

ü  Recording data is easier + more efficient, more data can be recorded.

ü  Able to carry out tallying + systematically.

Observer has to be nearby to observe, so it’s likely that his presence will affect the situation. It would lack validity= what is recorded is not ‘normal’

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Participant Observation

§  Researchers take part + are involved in activity/situation.

§  Observer is also a participant

§  E.g. Ps are given a set of instructions and researcher observes what they do.


ü  Ecological validity- observers don’t affect the situation + make it unnatural. They are not additional people which could affect the results.

ü  A participant observer gathers valid data as setting + task are natural to him.

û  The observer may be too involved to record all data as they cannot step back from situation.


They lack reliability as they are difficult to replicate because observer is part of group + therefore influences it.

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Overt observations

  • Ps know observation is taking place + know everything about the study.
  • E.g. In a class, researcher observes relationship between teacher and pupils, with both teacher and students knowing about this.


ü  Ethical as Ps give their consent to participate + have right of withdraw.

ü  Observers may ask Ps for help in getting data they may normally have no access to.

û  Unvalid- Ps may act differently because they are aware of the observation.

û  Difficult to carry out as Ps would be watching observers + what they are doing.

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Covert observations

  • Participants don’t know they are being observed.
  • It’s done secretly
  • E.g. Researcher observes behaviour of people at a shop and Ps don’t know.


ü  Valid as Ps don’t know they’re being observed therefore they will act as they do normally, usual behaviour.

ü  Observation is easier to carry out as Ps are not looking at what the observer is doing.


No informed consent

Distress could occur

Observers may find it difficult as they cannot be helped by Ps (E.g. where to observe better)

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Classical conditioning

Neutral stimulus (NS) = any environmental stimulus that does not naturally produce a behavioural response. E.g. a TV does not naturally make you feel scared.

Unconditioned stimulus (UCS) = any stimulus that produces a natural, unlearnt behavioural response (natural response). E.g. tasting a lemon and blinking because it’s sour.


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Classical Conditioning

Conditioned stimulus (CS) = a stimulus that has been associated with an unconditioned response + now produces the same response as the UCS on its own. E.g. you once got very ill with blue vodka, so now each time you see a blue drink you feel very ill.

Conditioned response (CR) = A learnt behaviour that is shown in response to a learnt stimulus E.g. you are scared of dogs because once one bit you.

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  • Learning through association

1) Associating a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus which produces an unconditional response (natural response)

2) If the association is maintained then the unconditioned response will be shown when just the neutral stimulus is present.

3) The neutral stimulus is now a learnt association and is known as the conditioned stimulus.

4) Result- we have the same response to the unconditioned and conditioned stimulus.

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Pavlov's Theory

Pavlov developed the theory of classical conditioning from his research on salivation.

  • He collected dogÂ’s saliva to see if bell could induce salivation by associating the noise with the food.
  • Dogs naturally salivate for food.
  • The food and the bell were paired on a number of occasions.
  • The bell was then presented alone and the dogs salivated.
  • After associating bell + food and making dogs salivate, buzzer was paired with bell many times.

-Bell + buzzer= salivation

-This further conditioning= high order conditioning



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Pavlov's Theory Continued

-Explains why behaviours can occur from abstract stimuli.

  • Dogs would salivate at any stimulus similar to conditioned stimulus.

E.g. Dogs which salivated at the sight of a circle would salivate at the sight of an oval.

This extended association= stimulus generalisation

  • Pavlov found he could weaken learnt behaviour by dissolving link between conditioned stimulus and conditioned response.

-Dogs trained with bell sound, presented bell with no food. Eventually, no salivation-

-Weakening of learnt behaviour= extinction

-If does not mean behaviour disappears, means it is dormant.

-If dog out of expt. + brought back, could salivate spontaneously with bell= Spontaneous recovery.

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Operant Conditioning

  • Learning through consequence.
  • ABC model of learning
  • A- antecedent- stimulus that triggers behaviour
  • B- behaviour- a response that can be measured as a result of the antecedent (stimulus)
  • C- consequence- a reward or punishment to continue or stop the behaviour.
  • Stimulus-response behaviour- If positive consequence, behaviour continues. If negative consequence, behaviour stops.
  • Positive reinforcement- being rewarded for a positive behaviour, being given something pleasurable for a desired behaviour so behaviour continues.
  • Negative reinforcement- rewarding by removing something unpleasant so behaviour continues.
  • E.g. You have been grounded for not doing your homework. When you start doing your homework, you can go out.
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Operant Conditioning continued

  • Punishment- giving something unpleasant so behaviour stops. If someone is punished for showing certain behaviour, that certain behaviour will not be repeated.
  • Primary reinforcers- basic need. E.g. food, sex, water.
  • Secondary reinforcers- linked by association with primary reinforcers e.g. money.
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The Skinner box

  • A rat in box with a lever that when pressed delivers food.

A= Stimulus to trigger behaviour- lights.

B= Behaviour by pressing the lever

C= a reward (food) or punishment (shock) after the behaviour.

Behaviour (pressing lever) was learnt in two different ways:

  • Positive reinforcement= when rat pressed lever and light was present, food was given.
  • Negative reinforcement= when rat pressed lever and light was present, no more electric shocks are given.
  • The punishment was electric shocks when rat did not press the lever.
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Shaping behaviour

To shape the desired behaviour (the outcome) the individual is directed with small reinforcing steps.

Shaping is when behaviour is learned by:

1.      Rewarding moves towards desired behaviour.

2.      Then you wait for an action which goes nearer to desired behaviour.

3.      Finally, wait for desired behaviour before giving reward.

E.g. Squirrel had to do a course. Whole course is difficult to do in one attempt, so squirrel was given reward for each small correct action.

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Social Learning Theory

  • Learning through observation
  • 3 main key ideas




  • Bandura’s (1977) 4 steps of modelling:

1.      Attention- to role model

2.      Retention- the capacity to remember it

3.      Reproduction- capability to reproduce the behaviour

4.      Motivation- reward we believe we will have as a result of imitating behaviour.

  • Role models (people we imitate and therefore learn behaviours from)
  • Effective role models- same sex, identifiable, admired, respected or powerful
  • Vicarious reinforcement- when we learn through others’ mistakes or successes
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Evaluation of operant conditioning and classical c

Evaluation of operant conditioning and classical conditioning as explanations of human behaviour


  • In both, objective + careful controls. Both studied scientifically. Some behaviour is isolated + a way of measuring it is planned. Behaviour is tested + because of careful controls, scientific conclusions are drawn. E.g. Skinner (Op. Condt.) varied the IV in such way differences introduced were clear. This allowed cause-and-effect conclusions to be drawn.
  • Applicable- both theories can be used in therapy- Aversion therapy and Token economy programmes- so theories have real-life applications as they help people.
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  • They are investigated mainly with animal experiments. Although they are scientific, there are many differences between animals and humans, so it is difficult to generalise findings from animal experiments to human behaviour.
  • Both operant and classical conditioning lack of validity. Experiments isolate a behaviour from a more complex and usual behaviour and repeat it in labs. There is a lack of ecological validity and task validity, as what is being studied is unnatural.
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Evaluation of social learning theory as an explana

Evaluation of social learning theory as an explanation of human behaviour


  • Many experimental evidence. Most comes from Bandura, but there is also from other researchers who have found that behaviour is observed and then imitated. Not difficult to set up an experiment to see how specific behaviour is modelled. This has been found in studies with animals and children.
  • Can be applied as a therapy- applicable as it has real-life purposes. Can be used for learning purposes, for example, using a role model to make a child interested in reading.
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  • They are investigated mainly with animal experiments. Although they are scientific, there are many differences between animals and humans, so it is difficult to generalise findings from animal experiments to human behaviour.
  • Both operant and classical conditioning lack of validity. Experiments isolate a behaviour from a more complex and usual behaviour and repeat it in labs. There is a lack of ecological validity and task validity, as what is being studied is unnatural.
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Evaluation of social learning theory as an explana

Evaluation of social learning theory as an explanation of human behaviour


  • Many experimental evidence. Most comes from Bandura, but there is also from other researchers who have found that behaviour is observed and then imitated. Not difficult to set up an experiment to see how specific behaviour is modelled. This has been found in studies with animals and children.
  • Can be applied as a therapy- applicable as it has real-life purposes. Can be used for learning purposes, for example, using a role model to make a child interested in reading.
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  • Behaviour may not be shown immediately, so we can say it is difficult to test for observational learning. Experiments only show a specific behaviour at a specific time, something not usual in real life, so there might be a lack of validity.
  • Some experiments are carried on animals. Although they are scientific, there are many differences between animals and humans, so it is difficult to generalise findings from animal experiments to human behaviour.
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Operant conditioning and social learning theory as

Operant conditioning and social learning theory as explanations for gender development

Operant conditioning as an explanation for gender development

  • Reward- girls are more likely to be rewarded for “girlish” behaviour (wearing pink and playing dolls) and boy for “boyish” behaviour (sports). E.g. Fathers praise their small son for being a “man” as he plays football really well.
  • Reward- even from babies, girls are rewarded for being “sweet” and boys for being “strong”
  • Punishment- children are punished, in terms of comments or reactions, for displaying opposite gender development. E.g. Boys playing dolls
  • Langlois and Downs found out that punishment for “girlish” boys was worse than for “boyish” girls.
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Social learning theory as an explanation for gender development

  • Children are + likely to copy same sex role model as the behaviour is seen as more relevant.
  • Children are more likely to identify with same sex parent as they are more similar to themselves.
  • Children observe + imitate stereotypical male/female activities. E.g. Men working in garage, women cooking dinner.
  • Observation can be based on significant others, not only parents. E.g. Grandparents, teachers, peers.
  • Also, media models usually display gender specific behaviour.
  • Gender specific toys are given to children. These toys also model gender specific behaviour + are rewarded.
  • Both room decoration + clothes model gender specific behaviour.
  • Craner + Skidd found that, when asked to tell a story, girls spoke about caring + friendship and boys about conflict.
  • Bandura Ross and Ross (1961) showed that when children were exposed to an aggressive role model, they imitated aggressive behaviour more when the role model was the same sex as them. Male child mean with male aggressive role model= 25.8 compared to 12.4 with female aggressive role model.
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Evaluation of operant conditioning and social lear

Evaluation of operant conditioning and social learning theory as explanations for gender development


  • Scientific observations have been done + show that girls copy mother and boys copy fathers and that this imitation is strong. Also show girls + boys play with different toys and that these toys are gender specific.
  • Observable behaviour is investigated with scientific + objective research methods.
  • Learning theories have been tested with animal expt. + similar behaviours have been found. Behaviour can be replicated in lab so there’s strong evidence for it happening.
  • Learning by observation found in animals + humans. Animal studies can be replicated + are reliable.
  • Credible- we can see everyday situations where children copy parents. Makes sense role models + reinforcement= gender appropriate behaviour.
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  • If observation was the only cause of gender behaviour, each culture would have totally different gender behaviours. As we can find many similarities in different societies, this suggests observation is not the only factor.
  • We can find different gender behaviours since birth.

E.g. Newborn baby girls maintain eye contact with speaking adult longer than newborn baby boy.

Girls maintain different eye contact with silent adult than with talking adult; boys do not show this difference.

These occur too early in life for learning to have taken place.

  • Reductionist- Learning explanation ignores biological evidence that gender is caused by chromosomes + determinant presence of Y chromosome.
  • A case study against theory- David Reimer was born male but his upbringing was female. He rebelled and acted as a male. When adult, he was told he was a male, he said he always felt male. Learning theory says that Reimer should have been satisfied with female gender. The fact he didn’t provides evidence against learning approach.
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Aversion Therapy

  • Treatment based on classical conditioning
  • Simplified, it is when someone has a behaviour you want to remove + you give something unpleasant so he associates it with behaviour + stops doing it.
  • Used for addictions
  • Replaces the pleasure response with an aversion response (pain or something unpleasant)
  • To stop the behaviour with an aversive stimulus, which produces an aversive response.
  • To treat alcoholism, an emetic drug (which makes you sick) is paired with alcohol. After a number of pairings, the alcohol alone will make the person feel sick.
  • It is necessary to give the patient non-alcoholic drinks without emetic drug during the treatment in order to prevent stimulus generalisation.
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Aversion therapy and homosexuality

  • Even until recently, this therapy has been used to “treat” homosexuality.
  • Homosexual men are given electric shocks when they are shown pictures of naked men and not when shown pictures of naked women.
  •  In 2006, the American Psychological Association stated that aversion therapy for homosexuality violates the codes of practice.
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Evaluation of Aversion Therapy


  • Some applicability- longitudinal studies have shown it worked better than other treatments in some cases, like for example token economy programmes.
  •  Credible- the treatment is based on the classical conditioning principals, a known clear theory. Also, it is logical + rational as the treatment is based on a person stop acting in a particular way because they are being punished.
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  •  Although Seligman’s (1966) case study stated that 50% of gay men who received therapy stopped homosexual practices, it was discovered later that most men studied were bisexual. When pure homosexuals were studies, treatment was much less successful. This may mean the treatment does not work, so it lacks validity.
  • Unethical- therapists have much more power than the patient. Patients may give permission but may feel they have no right to withdraw. Also, society seems to be the one to choose when it is appropriate to use the therapy e.g. in homosexuality was appropriate until 2006.
  • Another treatment has developed from this therapy, “covert sensitation”. This therapy includes association with unwanted behaviour. It seems more ethical because patient does not receive actual e.g. shocks, he imagines them. The existence of another treatment implies it is not completely valid.
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Systematic desensitisation

  • Based on classical conditioning principles
  • Used to treat phobias
  •  It is a step-by-step approach to get a person used to the phobic object or situation
  • The idea is that phobias are learnt by classical conditioning, so they can be unlearnt the same way.
  •  People are taught to relax their muscles + then introduced gradually to phobic object/situation.


  • Compared to other therapies, e.g. flooding a person into phobia until he is calm, it is fairly ethical.
  • Only useful for phobias, not for other mental illnesses e.g. psychoses.
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Token Economy

  • Based on operant conditioning principles.
  • Aim is to obtain desired behaviour through a system of rewards
  • ‘Tokens’ are used as points and when person achieves certain number of ‘tokens’ (given as a reward for desired behaviour) they can be used to purchase something desired.


  •  Programme can be suited to each individual. Rewards the tokens buy can be personal + goals can be set up individually. The therapy can be focused clearly, not a group therapy.
  • It is time-consuming. Although it works, it requires a lot of time input. E.g. In schools, only 30% of teachers use it.
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Watson and Rayner Evaluation


  •  The study was documented. Data come from more than one source (researchers and witnesses) so there was inter-rater reliability. Also, only 1 variable was changed at a time so experiment was easier to repeat- + reliability.
  •  The study gives evidence that classical conditioning occurs in humans. Until the date, the only proof was the findings of animal studies (e.g. Pavlov + dogs) but this was hard to generalise because of the complexity of mankind.
  •  Can be considered ethical- The experiment had no long term effects on BA. A month after the experiment, a test was carried and BA showed no fear to objects, only discomfort.


  •  BA was not protected from ethical guidelines. Although at the time it was though as acceptable, now it would be totally unethical to carry out an experiment inducing fear to a baby in order to prove a theory.
  • The study may lack validity as it was a lab experiment and both task and place were unknown for BA. The lab situation could have made BA scared in the first place.
  • Lack of generalisability- as the study was carried on using only 1 baby, the findings may be limited to Albert.
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Evaluation Bandura, Ross and Ross


  • The study is a controlled lab expt. It has controls + operationalisation of variables, so cause + effect conclusions can be drawn out. E.g. children had a similar emotional state at the start of expt.
  • Applicability- the study can be applied to real life situations, it helps to understand how children learn their behaviour by observing others + how aggression can be imitated. However, positively it shows how non-aggressive role models in media can encourage behaviour.
  • Reliable, as although it could be subjective because interpretation is needed of the behaviours, there were several observers so there was inter-rater reliability agreeing on the behaviour observed.


  • The study lacks validity. Although the setting was familiar to the children (similar to nursery room), the situation was not usual as there was a role model who punched and kicked the bobo doll. The children may have thought it was an order to copy his/her behaviour.
  • The study is not ethical as the children observed an adult being aggressive so there was modelling and they might have copied that behaviour outside the experiment. Therefore, maybe researchers were “teaching” violence to children.
  • The children were all from an American nursery, so it is difficult to generalise cross-culturally.
  • Cause + effect validity- children may have been showing obedience, not imitating.
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Key Issue: The influence of role models on anorexi


  • Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by being extremely underweight and refusing to eat properly if eating at all.
  • People suffering from anorexia tend to see themselves fat, even when they are extremely thin. Starts in teenage years
  • Consequences: girls stop menstruating, loose interest in socializing, tiredness, feeling cold + stomach pains.
  • Anorexia is self-induced, either by not eating or by doing too much exercise, or a combination of both.
  • Anorexia can last for years, without treatment, sufferers become ill + may die.
  • Boys also suffer anorexia, although less than girls, their rate of anorexia is increasing.
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Explaining the Issue

  • SLT- people have role models + imitate them. Celebrities + people with prestige are more likely to be imitated.
  • People are + likely to be imitated if they are seen as similar. Therefore girls are more likely to imitate female role models than male role models.
  • In 2000, ‘size zero’ is trend for catwalk models, so according to SLT wanting to be thin is no strange in young people. Anorexia helps to achieve desired thinness.
  • Operant condt- Rewards and negative reinforcement of being fat.

E.g. Peers tease fat children, they would stop eating to be thin + not being teased.

E.g. If peers have envy of thin children, they will stop eating to be thin too.

  • Media is also involved in rewards + reinforcements. If thin role models are successful, this can be seen as a reward so their behaviour is likely to be imitated.
  • Bandura Ross and Ross showed that children exposed to an aggressive role model will show imitative aggression acts, especially it was a same sex role model. Female children imitated their female aggressive role model in verbal aggression with a score of 21.3, compared to their aggressive male role model 8.4
  • This shows it is very likely children imitate role models, + if role models are thin celebrities, it is likely they will become anorexic to look like them.


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Evaluation of Issue


  • Cross cultural credibility- theory makes sense cross culturally as in cultures where there is less importance to be thin less people try to become thin. Gives evidence for SLT + role model imitation.
  • Studies of support- Bandura Ross and Ross showed, using children + aggression, that behaviour was copied from a role model, even when there was no reward.


  • Lack of validity of studies of support- Bandura Ross and Ross was a lab experiment carried out in an unnatural setting, using unnatural tasks so findings lack of validity.
  • Alternative theories- Psychodynamic approach suggests anorexia is a result of wanting to remain as a child + not wanting to grow up. Goes against SLT.
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