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Social Learning Theory Of Aggression Essays

Learning is a social process and we learn through interaction with others in our day to day life. Prior to 1960, theories of learning were heavily influenced by behaviorist and cognitivist theories. But Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory posits that people learn from one another – via observation, imitation,

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and modeling. The social learning theory has often been called a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories because it includes attention, memory, and motivation.

As a result it is sometimes called social cognitive learning. While rooted in many of the basic concepts of traditional learning theory, Bandura believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning. His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people known as observational learning (or modeling). The social learning theory emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes and emotional reactions of others. Thus it focuses on learning by observation and modeling. Social learning theory talks about how both environmental and cognitive factors interact to influence human learning and behavior. It focuses on the learning that occurs within a social context. It considers that people learn from one another.

In Social Context
Behavioral factors + Cognitive factors -> Social Learning

Meaning :
According to Albert Bandura (1977), “In social learning theory, behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning.” Social learning is the process in which individuals observe the behavior of others and its consequences, and modify their own behavior accordingly.

Bandura’s theory of social learning : Basic Social Learning Concepts There are three core concepts at the heart of social learning theory.
1) Learning through observation
2) Intrinsic Reinforcement
3) Change in behavior is not necessary for learning
1) Learning through Observation (Observational Learning) :

In 1961, Bandura demonstrated the now-famous Bobo doll experiments. The Bobo doll is a child-sized inflatable doll with a weighted bottom that causes it to pop back up after being knocked down. In the first stage of these studies, preschool-aged children were divided into

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three groups: one group that observed an adult (model) behaving aggressively towards the Bobo doll (punching, kicking, striking with a mallet, yelling), another group that observed the adult playing peacefully, and a control group. Each participant viewed their assigned scenario individually.

Later, the child was allowed to play independently in the play room which contained a variety of aggressive and non-aggressive toys, including the Bobo doll. Participants’ acts of verbal and physical aggression toward the Bobo doll were then recorded. Results revealed significant group differences, such that children exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to imitate what they had seen and behave aggressively toward the doll. Bandura argued that the results supported that children could rapidly acquire novel behaviors through the process of observation and imitation, and this occurred even in the absence of any kind of reinforcement.

In a 1963, Bandura demonstrated that children imitated aggressive behavior witnessed on video, in addition to live observation, and children also imitated aggressive behaviors enacted by a cartoon character. (In his famous Bobo doll experiment, Bandura demonstrated that children learn and imitate behaviors they have observed in other people.

The children in Bandura’s studies observed an adult acting violently toward a Bobo doll. When the children were later allowed to play in a room with the Bobo doll, they began to imitate the aggressive actions they had previously observed.)

Social learning theory draws heavily on the concept of modeling, Bandura identified three types of models:

1) Live model : An actual person is demonstrating the desired behavior.

2) Verbal instructional Model : An individual explains and describes the desired behavior in details.

3) Symbolic Model : Modeling occurs by means of the media including movies, television, Internet, literature and radio.

Stimuli can be either real or fictional characters. Mental States are important to learning (Intrinsic Reinforcement) An additional study, published in 1965, showed that witnessing the model being punished for the aggressive behavior decreased the likelihood that children would imitate the behavior, a process he referred to as vicarious reinforcement. At the same time, Bandura noted that internal rewards such as pride, satisfaction, sense of accomplishment also influence the learning which he described as intrinsic reinforcement.

Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behaviour : While behaviorist believed that learning led to a permanent change in behaviour, social learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviours.

Key Principles of social learning theory :
1) Learning is not purely behavioral; rather, it is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context.

2) Learning can occur by observing a behavior and by observing the consequences of the behavior (vicarious reinforcement).

3) Learning involves observation, extraction of information from those observations, and making decisions about the performance of the behavior (observational learning or modeling). Thus, learning can occur without an observable change in behavior.

4) Reinforcement plays a role in learning but is not entirely responsible for learning.

5) The learner is not a passive recipient of information. Cognition, environment, and behavior all mutually influence each other (reciprocal determinism).

The Modeling Process :
Not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Factors involving both the model and the learner can play a role in whether social learning is successful. Certain requirements and steps must also be followed. The following steps are involved in the observational learning and modeling process: 1) Attention: “I Never seen or thought this Before”

In order to learn, you need to be paying attention. Anything that detracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning. If the model interesting or there is a novel aspect to the situation, you are far more likely to dedicate your full attention to learning. 2)
Retention: “I Figured Out What I have to do”

The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning. 3) Reproduction: “Why Not Do It? It Worked Out Fine for others” Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement. 4) Motivation: “This action is giving me satisfaction”

Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled. Reinforcement and punishment play an important role in motivation. While experiencing these motivators can be highly effective, so can observing other experience some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for being to class on time, you might start to show up a few minutes early each day. Vicarious reinforcement – behavior is acceptable

Vicarious punishment – behavior is unacceptable
Learning by observation (models): students learn simply by observing other people. Modeling provides an alternative to shaping for teaching new behaviors. Instead of using shaping, which is operant conditioning, modeling can provide a faster, more efficient means for teaching new behavior. To promote effective modeling a teacher must make sure that the four essential conditions exist; attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation. Cognition plays a role in learning

Learning can occur without change in behavior
Teachers and parents must model appropriate behaviors and take care that they don’t model inappropriate ones. Teachers should expose students to a variety of other models. Students must believe that they are capable of accomplishing school tasks. Teachers should help students set realistic
expectations for their academic accomplishments. Self-regulation techniques provide effective methods for improving behavior. Describing the consequences of behavior increases appropriate behavior and decreases inappropriate ones. Examples

Advertisements/TV commercials are the most common examples of Social Learning Theory. We observe (watch) them, and then copy them. Commercials suggest that drinking a certain beverage or using a particular shampoo will make us popular and win the admiration of attractive people. Depending upon the component processes involved (such as attention or motivation), we may model the behavior shown in the commercial and buy the product being advertised. Language learning is another common example of Social Learning Theory. A student tries to imitate or mimic his/her teacher while the teacher demonstrates.

Conclusion :

In addition to influencing other psychologists, Bandura’s social learning theory has had important implication in the field of education. The social learning theory proposed by Albert Bandura (1925) has become perhaps the most influential theory of learning and development. Today, both teachers and parents recognize the importance of modeling appropriate behaviors. Other classroom strategies such as encouraging children and building self-efficacy are also rooted in social learning theory.

Social learning theory posits that knowledge acquisition is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement. In addition to the observation of behavior, learning also occurs through the observation of rewards and punishments, a process known as of vicarious reinforcement.

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Social Learning Theory Aggression Psya3

Bandura (1963) Social Learning Theory (AO1 theory)

Albert Bandura, creator of social learning theory

Social learning theory was created by Bandura and Walters (1963) to explain aggression and the acquiring of new behaviour. They felt aggression could not be explained solely through the use of behaviourism and learning theory principles with only direct experience and reinforcement accounting for new behaviour. Another process was believed to be at work and Bandura’s Social learning theory was created to explain how behaviour may be learnt through the observation of other models. Social learning theory proposes that we learn how to display aggression in different forms, when to display it (the situations) and the targets to display it towards through the observation of other peoples behaviours.

Observation & Vicarious Reinforcement Through Social Learning (AO1 theory)

Bandura proposed observation of behaviour is the primary mode for children to learn aggression through role models which is then subsequently imitated. This was more likely to occur when children were able to identify in some form with the actual model. Through observation children also learn about the consequences of aggression and see whether there is positive reinforcement (through the model achieving what they wanted) or whether its punished. This is known as direct or vicarious reinforcement. Aggression is observed by children at home, at school and through the media and the consequences of the behaviour are also learnt. Over time the child would come to learn what is appropriate conduct but also what is effective in achieving what they wanted and then repeat the behaviour when they feel the rewards outweigh the possible costs.

Bandura summarised this in the following statement:

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action”

Mental representation and production (AO1 theory)

Get A* Model Essay Answers For Psya3 Aggression

For Social learning to occur Bandura stated the child must be able to form a mental representation of the behaviour within their social environment and envisage the possible rewards and costs that can occur through its use. When opportunities arise that may fit in with the behaviours use and provided the perceived rewards of displaying the behaviour (aggressive or not) outweigh the perceived costs, the behaviour will be displayed. The individual must be capable of reproducing the observed behaviour themselves and possess the skills required to imitate it too. If aggression is successfully carried out and reinforced through achieving the desired goal, the children may gain confidence in its use increasing their self-efficacy. This would then result in them attaching greater value to using aggression in other situations to achieve desired outcomes. If children were unsuccessful in using aggression then they are likely to be less confident and have a lower sense of self-efficacy in using aggression in conflict situations. This may direct them into using other methods to solve problems encountered.

Social learning does not completely discount the role of biology influencing behaviour but rather see’s this as creating a potential for aggression and its actual expression is then learned through social learning and observed behaviour.

Key Social Learning Theory Studies For Aggression

Bandura et al (1961) conducted a study involving children who observed an adult model engaging in aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour towards a life sized inflatable bobo doll. The children were then tested to see whether their subsequent behaviour imitated aggression in the absence of the adult model.

  • The children were a mixture of male and female children which ranged from 3 to 5 years old. They were split between two conditions which saw one exposed to an adult model behaving aggressively towards the bobo doll and the other group behaving non-aggressively.
  • The aggression displayed in the aggressive condition involved striking the bobo doll with a mallet, kicking and even verbal aggression.
  • Children were then “frustrated” intentionally by being shown attractive toys which they were not allowed to touch or play with before being taken to a room full of other toys which had the bobo doll in it.
  • The children in the aggressive condition were seen to reproduce more physical and verbal aggression which imitated the adult model than the non-aggressive condition which saw almost no aggression displayed towards the bobo doll.
  • One third of the children from the aggressive condition group replicated the same verbal aggression as displayed by the adult model while none of the non-aggressive condition children displayed any verbal aggression. Males (boys) were seen to imitate more physical aggression but the level of verbal aggression was similar between children in the aggressive condition.

This study highlighted how aggression could be learnt through observed behaviour and this occurred even without any reinforcements. This study however does not explain why the behaviour was imitated without reinforcements.

Is hitting a bobo doll the same as a human?

Bandura, Ross & Ross (1963) conducted another study to see if aggression could be learnt through media such as watching a film. A similar setup to the previous study was used except this time children observed a short film where a model was aggressive towards the bobo doll both physically and verbally. This time however there were 3 conditional groups:

  • One group observed a model behave aggressively and then rewarded for this behaviour (reinforcement was given) through sweets, drinks and praise.
  • Another condition saw the model behave aggressively but then be punished (told off) for this aggression towards the doll.
  • The control condition saw no consequences for the aggressive behaviour.

After watching the video the children were again frustrated by being shown toys they could not play with before being let into a room where the bobo doll and other toys were present. The children were then offered a reward for imitating the models behaviour they had seen in the film clip.

  • Prior to the reward the children who had observed the model be punished for their aggression towards the doll were seen to be least aggressive compared to the other two conditions. The group who saw the model rewarded as well as the control group who saw no reinforcement displayed similar levels of aggression.
  • Once the reward was introduced however all three groups performed the same level of aggressive behaviours highlighting that the aggression had been learnt irrespective of reinforcement.

Conclusions drawn

  • Reinforcement is not needed for learning behaviour and observation appears to be enough for this. For behaviour to be imitated however there needs to be an expectation of reinforcement (or reward) for it to be displayed.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of Social Learning Theory


  • The fact that the children imitated aggressive behaviour matching that of the models showed that learning of aggression had taken place from the models supporting social learning as an explanation for acquiring aggressive acts. This is a major strength as it explains how behaviour may be learnt in the absence of any direct reinforcement which traditional learning theories could not fully account for. Vicarious learning can account for the absence of any reinforcement which suggests the explanation has validity.
  • Another major strength for social learning theory is that it can account for differences in aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour both between and within each individual. People learn that aggression is rewarded in some situations and not others and context-dependent learning takes place which explains differences within individuals. Social learning theory may also account for differences in aggression between cultures. The Kung San tribe of the kalahari desert are seen to have extremely low levels of aggression and violence among their people. Social learning can explain through their child rearing practices as they have been observed to not reinforce any aggressive behaviours in children instead opting to distract them. Also aggression is frowned upon in the culture further and with an absence of any role model for people to learn it, this may explain the low levels of aggression which is inline with social learning theory predictions.
  • Social learning theory is a more holistic approach which allows for biology and cognitive explanations to also have a role. Previous learning theory principles have been argued to be reductionist due to portraying humans as simple stimulus response machines however social learning theory helps explain the cognitive element more which is inline with the complexity of human thinking.


  • The studies into social learning theory lack ecological validity as they were 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.
  • The study could also be argued to lack external validity due to the setup as it involved punching a bobo doll which is not real and we cannot say for certain children may behave similarly towards real people who can respond back. Also the study only included children from one specific nursery so we cannot generalise the explanation to the wider population as the behaviour may be indicative of that group of children only. This tells us very little about how adults would behave from observing aggressive acts.
  • Demand characteristics may have also been possible as some children reported feeling like they were expected to behave aggressively towards the bobo doll. Therefore the aggression observed may only be short-term and limited to the laboratory environment.
  • The fact that the children were frustrated raises ethical concerns as they are deliberately subjected to behaviour that caused distress and could psychologically harm them. There is also ethical concerns around psychological well being as promoting aggression could be argued to be ethically wrong as they may recreate this aggression in other forms or see this as a viable way to deal with problems in the future.
  • The study and social learning explanation could be argued to lack internal validity as measuring how a child behaves towards a bobo doll is nothing like a real person and this may not be a valid measure of aggression. Some children were overheard saying “thats the doll we have to hit” suggesting researcher bias may have influenced the children to behave aggressively also further undermining the study.

To cite this article: Social Learning Theory: 

Loopa Psychology – http://www.loopa.co.uk/social-learning-theory-aggression-psya3/

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