The famous Bobo Doll experiment conducted by Albert Bandura in 1961 is still widely cited and highly relevant today. It lends support to Bandura’s social learning theory which claims that learning occurs through observation and imitation of others behaviours. It could have widespread implications regarding the effects of the media. If celebrities are seen as role models, this could lead to many dangerous behaviours being imitated, such as extreme diets, drugs, hard-core partying and even violence. Since magazines and television like to report scandalous conduct, this could affect the way youngsters and even adults choose to behave.
There were 72 participants that took part in Bandura, Ross and Ross’s (1961) experiment, half of which were girls and the other half boys. The participants were aged between 3 and 6 years old and attended Stanford University Nursery School. The children were pretested on levels of aggression and were placed in one of three groups: adult aggressive model, adult non-aggressive model and no model. They were matched on how aggressive they were to ensure that each group had an average level of aggression. Each group had 24 children which were divided into groups of boys and girls. Each of the groups of boys and girls was then divided so that half of the participants viewed a same-sex model whereas the other half viewed an opposite sex model. This would give insight into how the role-models gender affects children’s behaviour.
During the experiment, the child individually went into a room and played with toys for 10 minutes. There was either a male or female adult also present in the room. In the aggressive condition, the adult would act violently towards a toy called the Bobo Doll. He/she would throw and kick the doll and sometimes used a hammer to beat it up. The adult would shout things at the doll such as “pow,” “kick him” and phrases such as “he sure is a tough fella.” In the non-aggressive condition the adult played peacefully with a tinker toy set and ignored the doll for the full 10 minutes. Finally the control condition was not exposed to an adult model playing with the toys and the children were left to play alone.
After this part of the experiment, children were exposed to the Mild Aggression Arousal Stage. This is when the child went into a room where there were fun toys to play with. However, once the child started playing with them, the experimenter told the child to leave them alone and that they were for other children to play with. This stage was intended to stir aggression or annoyance in the child. There was then the Delayed Imitation Test whereby the children went into a room where there were sets of aggressive and non-aggressive toys such as a hammer, dart guns and a Bobo Doll and a tea set, crayons, bears and plastic animals respectively. Each child spent 20 minutes in the room. The researchers watched and rated their behaviour through a one-way mirror.
It was found that children in the adult aggressive model group acted more violently than their counterparts in the other conditions. There was also more non-imitative aggression in the aggressive group meaning that children acted in aggressive ways that they had not observed the adult doing. Furthermore, the gender of the adult had an effect whereby male participants would act more aggressively than females when exposed to an aggressive male model. Boys were also more physically aggressive in general, engaging in more than twice as many aggressive acts than girls. Girls exposed to the aggressive female model were more verbally aggressive than boys. Moreover, boys were more likely to imitate a same-sex model than girls were.
In conclusion, this study supports the idea that children learn how to act based on their observations and interactions with others. When children see adults behaving in a certain way, they believe that their actions are acceptable and even desirable and therefore imitate them. This is supported by the fact that in the absence of the models, children behaved in ways that resembled the adult’s behaviour. Young children navigating their way in the world look to adults for guidance and support. Primary caregivers have the important role of teaching children how to regulate their emotions and behave accordingly. If the caregiver is aggressive, the child will learn that the only way to deal with frustration and anger is to act aggressively.
The consequences of behaviours also have potential reinforcing or aversive value. In Bandura’s follow up study (1965) he found that children were much more likely to imitate an adult if they saw the adult being rewarded for their behaviour. They were unlikely to imitate the behaviour if the adult was punished for it.
While the current study has been extremely influential and insightful, it is not without limitations. It is low on ecological validity meaning that the results do not necessarily generalise to the outside world. The setting of the experiment was artificial; therefore, may not represent what occurs in the natural environment. Acting violently towards a doll is very different from acting violently in real life. Also it is unknown as to whether there were any long term effects regarding aggression. There was no follow up testing whether those who viewed the aggressive model were more aggressive later in life. Furthermore, the participants all came from the same nursery; therefore, they had similar backgrounds in terms of race, social economic status and such. This makes it difficult to generalise the results to a wider, more diverse population. Finally, if there were long term negative effects, the study could be considered unethical.
Despite these limitations, it has proven to be a very significant study in the field of psychology. It makes us wonder how much things like everyday television violence, inane celebrity gossip and interactive aggressive video games are influencing children’s behaviours and ideas about what constitutes right and wrong.
Cherry, K. (n.d.). Bobo Doll Experiment. About.com. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://psychology.about.com/od/classicpsychologystudies/a/bobo-doll-experiment.htm
McLeod, S. (2011). Bobo Doll Experiment. Simply Psychology. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/bobo-doll.html
thaLionheart (February 22, 2010). Bandura – bobo doll experiment. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHHdovKHDNU
Image credit: Everywhere Psychology (August 28, 2012). Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmBqwWlJg8U