Observational learning and the Bobo doll experiment

by Marc Wilson / 03 November, 2012
Observational learning changes our behaviour – and not always in a good way.
The Bobo doll experiment


Despite my best intentions to have my column ready well ahead this week, it hasn’t happened, and I’m procrastinating. Again. So, when eight-year-old Isaac says, “Can I look up Gangnam Style on YouTube? It’s gone viral you know”, it sounds like the perfect way to waste a few minutes. And, boy, do I regret it now. For those who don’t know, Gangnam Style is a “song” (yes, I mean the scare marks); it’s this summer’s catchy Macarena-pretender by Korean rapper Psy, and it comes with a particularly silly dance routine – that Wikipedia tells me will burn up to 400 calories an hour. It’s not long before Isaac is chanting “Oppan Gangnam Style” and mimicking riding a “sexy horsey”. And much as I cringe at the knowledge that this will define the next few weeks, he’s doing exactly what he and the rest of us are good at – observational learning, an idea most associated with the name of Albert Bandura.

Now, the idea that people (and particularly children) learn through observation is a bit of a duh moment, but in 1961, when Bandura did this work, the dominant idea about how we learn was based on behaviourism. Among the behaviourist tenets was the fundamental idea that our environment controls our behaviour, and learning occurs through reinforcement – put simply, being rewarded for something makes us more likely to do it again. Bandura thought this oversimplified matters, because it wasn’t always apparent what the direct reinforcement might be in all situations. Ultimately, Bandura developed his own theory in which he claimed that for learning to occur, people need to attend to what’s going on around them, that reinforcement isn’t just external but can be internal (feeling pride, shame, etc) and therefore psychological states are important, and finally that learning need not always result in actual change to behaviour.

But it’s not so much the idea itself as the manner that Bandura demonstrated it that’s particularly cool. This is the famous Bobo doll experiment. In this simple experiment, children (boys and girls, but always on their own) were taken into a playroom by the experimenter, and another adult introduced. The adult confederate proceeded to either play non-aggressively with the toys or metaphorically beat the stuffing out of a “Bobo” doll (an inflatable doll that bounces back upright after being knocked down). With a hammer. Unsurprisingly, when the children were finally placed in a room with a bunch of toys they were allowed to play with, they were more likely to play non-aggressively if they’d observed a non-aggressive role model, or beat the stuffing out of Bobo if they’d seen that done.

It’s also worth noting that not only were boys more aggressive than girls, but children were more likely to behave aggressively if their role model was male (even if the male role model didn’t behave aggressively himself). Bandura and colleagues argued this reflects that aggression is a more typically male characteristic. One early critique was that we can’t conclude viewing violent behaviour towards a doll will translate into violent behaviour towards people. I feel for the researcher in the clown suit in a subsequent replication – sadly, watching a role model whack Bobo did translate into clown-directed violence. As people who’ve tried out a career as a party clown will no doubt attest.

This is a big deal, and it kicked off a bunch of studies investigating the effects of things like TV violence on behaviour. To boil down thousands of studies, the overall conclusion is that exposure to media-portrayed violence causes aggression in some (but not all) people. This is true, even after we take into account the obvious fact that people who tend towards aggression also tend to watch more violent TV. No Bobo dolls were harmed in the preparation of this column.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Trade Me bans sale of pugs, British and French bulldogs
86110 2018-01-20 10:49:32Z Business

Trade Me bans sale of pugs, British and French bul…

by Sally Blundell

As a result of growing concern over the welfare of pugs, British and French bulldogs, Trade Me has announced they're banning the sale of these breeds.

Read more
Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding shame
86056 2018-01-20 00:00:00Z Currently

Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding s…

by Sally Blundell

NZ has an unregulated puppy-breeding industry where unscrupulous operators can flourish, so why aren’t we following the lead of overseas governments?

Read more
The Crown has lost its way in season two
85715 2018-01-20 00:00:00Z Television

The Crown has lost its way in season two

by Greg Dixon

To read the gushing media reports, you’d have thought The Crown was a winning combination of the Second Coming, unicorns and sliced bread.

Read more
How your name influences who you become
85737 2018-01-20 00:00:00Z Psychology

How your name influences who you become

by Marc Wilson

Researchers say that 'Daisy' is more likely to dress and act in a feminine manner because the name has a stereotype of femininity.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and present lend their support
86105 2018-01-19 15:45:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and pres…

by RNZ

Politicians from at home and abroad are reaching out to offer congratulations to the Prime Minister mum-to-be.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND a mum
86091 2018-01-19 12:36:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND…

by Katie Parker

New Zealand’s newly minted PM and bizarrely cool and normal lady Jacinda Ardern has announced that she and partner Clarke Gayford are expecting a baby

Read more
Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy
86074 2018-01-19 11:11:36Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy

by RNZ

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that she is pregnant, with the baby due in June.

Read more
What the media silly season taught us
85933 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

What the media silly season taught us

by Graham Adams

To the eternal gratitude of media chiefs, each holiday period seems to throw up at least one minor scandal that runs in the absence of anything newsy.

Read more