Social Learning - Bobo Doll Experiment

Social Learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. It explains the behavioral learning that occurs in human beings purely through their sense of observation and retention, even in the absence of any facilitator or educator. It expands beyond traditional methods of learning where teaching reinforcements are employed to educate people. Social Learning also occurs in individuals through their interpretation of rewards and punishments with respect to actions.

Bobo Doll Experiment

Albert Bandura is a psychologist who is the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. For almost six decades now, he has been making significant contributions to the field of education and to many fields of psychology. He is often credited as being the originator of Social Learning Theory, and is also responsible for the influential 1961 Bobo doll experiment.

A Bobo doll is an inflatable plastic toy that has a heavy bottom. This helps to stabilize the doll when someone tries to knock it over. You could say a Bobo doll cannot be made to lie on its side. This doll often is painted to resemble a clown. It became a huge hit with the children when it was introduced first in the 60’s.

Albert bandura conducted a social experiment by taking 72 children and making them participate in a very interesting experiment that would later become a watershed moment in the world of Child Psychology.

The participants were 36 boys and 36 girls, all between the ages of 3-7 years. Out of these 72 children, 24 children were put into a Control Group, which means that no experiments will be conducted on them.

The rest 48 were organized into two groups

  • Aggressive − 24 children who would be exposed to an aggressive model.

  • Non-aggressive − 24 children who would be exposed to a non-aggressive model.

First Stage of the Experiment

To prevent any peer influence or distraction from other children, each child was subjected to the experiment individually. Each child, along with an adult model, was sent to a toy room named Toy Room-1 that had two sections. In one section, the child was left to play with a lot of interesting toys. In the other section, the adult model was left with a toy set, a Bobo doll, and a hammer. The adult model plays with the toy set and ignores the Bobo doll. Before leaving the room, the child was told that he won’t be allowed to play with the toys that the model played with. This process was followed with all the 48 children with the objective of creating frustration in the mind of the child.

Now one after the other, the children in the Group Aggressive were resent to the room with the adult model, and this time, the adult model will exhibit aggressive attitude towards the doll by hitting it with the hammer, kicking it, slapping it, shouting at it, and making punching sounds. This goes on for about ten minutes, and after that, the adult model will leave the room, and the child will be taken to a new toy room, Toy Room-2.

In the case of the Group Non-aggressive, the same sequence was repeated however, in this case, the adult model will keep playing with his toy set for ten minutes, and completely ignore the Bobo doll. After that, the child would be taken out of the room, after the model.

Second Stage of the Experiment

In the second stage of this experiment, the children from both the groups are taken one by one to Toy Room-2 that was filled with much more attractive toys than there were in Toy Room-1. The child was allowed to play with the toys for some minutes, and when it appeared that the child has really started to enjoy playing with the toys, he was told that he cannot spend any more time in Toy Room-2 as the other children are waiting, but he can go back and play in Toy Room-1. This was done to further build up the frustration in each child.

Once the child was in Toy Room-1, he was allowed to play for about half an hour there. This time they were told that they can play with the adult model’s toys too, if they want. It was found that the children who were in Group Aggression were more aggressive in venting their pent-up frustration. In fact, they had learnt to direct their anger towards the Bobo doll, and repeatedly punched it, hit with the hammer, and shouted at it.

The same experiment was also conducted with another set of 48 children who were divided into a group of 24 boys and another group of 24 girls. This was done to check the effect of aggression based on gender. It was found out that when the children were exposed to aggressive adult models of the same gender, they were more likely to follow their aggressive actions, as opposed to the model being from the opposite sex.

Outcome of the Experiment

Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon that was observed in this experiment was that lesser number of children from Group Non-aggressive expressed their displeasure in violent manner as compared to even the children in the Control Group, who were not exposed to any model.

This strongly supported Bandura’s theory that children model themselves by observing others and learn from their observation. A non-aggressive model had somehow impressed upon them a non-aggressive manner of expressing displeasure.

Lastly, it was also found out that boys were generally more aggressive than girls. When all instances of aggression were added up, it was found that male children exhibited 270 aggressive actions – like shouting at the Bobo doll, hitting it with hammer, kicking the doll, or slapping it – as compared to 128 aggressive actions exhibited by females.

The now-famous outcomes of this experiment caused a revolution in the way people understood the psyche’ of a child and brought a sea-change in the attitude of people towards education. This brought to prominence to a different kind of learning called Social Learning that has co-existed with our traditional methods of learning for years.

However nothing had drawn attention towards it in such a significant manner like the Bobo Doll experiment. In fact, this experiment stands as one of the most-often quoted experiments of all times, and has become so closely associated with Alfred Bandura that people now refer to Bandura as the Bobo Doll guy and the toys to as Bandura Doll.

Bobo Doll Experiment with Reward and Punishment

In 1961, Albert Bandura followed up his study with a different set of participants, but this time, he introduced the concept of reward and punishment for deeds. Children of the ages 3 to 7 were put into three separate groups −

  • Reward Group − the model was rewarded for his aggressive behavior.

  • Punishment Group − the model was punished for his aggressive behavior.

  • Control Group − the model wasn’t said anything for his aggressive behavior.

The participants in the Punishment Group were shown a video in which an adult model would be abusing, hitting, and screaming at a Bobo Doll. After that, the model would be reprimanded, punished, and given warnings of not to ever do it again.

The participants in the Reward Group were shown the same video, however there was a small change − the model was later rewarded with candies and was praised with pleasant-sounding sentences like “Well done!”, “Bravo!” etc.

The participants in the Control Group would be shown the same video, however the model would neither be rewarded nor reprimanded for his/her actions. The video cut after the abusive action against the Bobo doll was over.

After showing this video, the participants were left individually in a toy-room that had a Bobo doll. It was observed that the children from the Punishment Group exhibited lesser aggressive behavior towards the Bobo doll, as compared to the children from the Control Group and those in the Reward Group.

Would you like to guess which group had the most number of participants exhibiting aggressive behavior? Well, no points for guessing there − yes, it was the Reward Group. The results of the experiment shows that rewarding or punishing actions definitely influence if the corresponding behavior is imitated or not. This mode of learning was termed modelling.

What Modelling Tells Us?

Modelling indicates that children learn to model their behavior by imitating the actions of the people around them, and their learning about an action is highly influenced by the rewarding or punishing of that particular action. Their understanding of good action or bad action is based on first observing that action, and then, imitating it if the action is rewarded, and avoiding it if the action is punished.

There had been a hot debate for years now on the amount of influence media-depicted violence has on the psyche’ of the young adults. Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment was the first one to provide conclusive evidence that there is a significant link between what children observe and what they practice.

Of three groups of children, one group were made to watch a film where a human model was behaving aggressively to the Bobo doll. In the second group, the children were shown a film with a similar theme, however in this case, it was an animated film and there was a cartoon cat abusing the Bobo doll instead of a human being. All the children in both these groups were shown the film individually so that their behavior is not influenced by peer observation and analysis. The third group was the control group.

Children from the second group were individually taken to a toy-room where they were told things that increased their irritation levels, and then were left with a bobo doll. It was observed that the children from the first and second group were visibly more aggressive towards the bobo doll, when compared to those in the control room. They even had the same choice of weapons that their models had used, in their respective videos, on the bobo doll.

Outcome of the Experiment

This experiment provided irrefutable evidence that children exposed to violence, whether real-life, film, or cartoon, exhibit more aggressive behavior than children who haven’t been exposed to such acts of violence. The ongoing debates on how media influences the minds of people stems from this very real and practical experiment.

It proved that children became aware of actions through observation and imitated them based on their analysis of the results. For example, a child raised in an abusive household might see that his father silences his mother by hitting her repeatedly, so the next time he wants his mother to remain silent, he might imitate or endorse the same abusive action (modelling) towards his mother to make her quiet (reward).

Violence Ratings, MPAA ratings, and many other such ratings were initiated to restrict the exposure of children and young adults to potentially corrupting images and sights from movies, games, animated series, cartoons and other such forms of entertainment. Media censorship was given huge importance.