What the Bobo Doll Experiment Reveals About Kids and Aggression

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The question of how children learn to engage in violent behavior has been of great interest to parents and researchers alike. In the 1960s, psychologist Albert Bandura and his colleagues conducted what is now known as the Bobo doll experiment, and they demonstrated that children may learn aggression through observation.

Aggression lies at the root of many social ills ranging from interpersonal violence to war. It is little wonder, then, that the subject is one of the most studied topics within psychology.

This article covers what the Bobo doll experiment is, its findings on childhood aggression, as well as its impact on psychology.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

The participants for the experiment were 36 boys and 36 girls enrolled at the Stanford University Nursery School. The children ranged in age between 3 and almost 6 years.

The experiment involved exposing one group of 24 children to an adult modeling aggressive behavior, and another group of 24 children to an adult modeling non-aggressive behavior. The final group of 24 children acted as the control group that was not exposed to adult models.

These groups were divided again into groups of boys and girls. Each of these subgroups was then divided so that half of the participants would be exposed to a same-sex adult model and the other half would be exposed to an opposite-sex adult model.

Each child was tested individually to ensure that their behavior would not be influenced by other children. The child was first brought into a playroom where there were a number of different activities to explore. The experimenter then invited the adult model into the playroom.

In the non-aggressive condition, the adult model simply played with the toys and ignored the Bobo doll for the entire period. In the aggressive model condition, however, the adult models would violently attack the Bobo doll.

The aggressive models would punch Bobo, strike Bobo with a mallet, toss the doll in the air, and kick it around the room. They would also use "verbally aggressive phrases" such as "Kick him" and "Pow." The models also added two non-aggressive phrases: "He sure is a tough fella" and "He keeps coming back for more."

After the ten-minute exposure to the adult model, each child was then taken to another room that contained a number of appealing toys including a doll set, fire engine, and toy airplane.

The children were permitted to play for a brief two minutes, then told they were no longer allowed to play with any of these tempting toys. The purpose of this was to build up frustration levels among the young participants.

Finally, each child was taken to the last experimental room. This room contained a number of "aggressive" toys including a mallet, a tether ball with a face painted on it, dart guns, and, of course, a Bobo doll. The room also included several "non-aggressive" toys including crayons, paper, dolls, plastic animals, and trucks.

Each child was then allowed to play in this room for a period of 20 minutes. During this time, researchers observed the child's behavior from behind a one-way mirror and judged each child's levels of aggression.


Bandura made several key predictions about what would occur during the Bobo doll experiment.

  • Boys would behave more aggressively than girls.
  • Children who observed an adult acting aggressively would be likely to act aggressively, even when the adult model was not present.
  • Children would be more likely to imitate models of the same sex rather than models of the opposite sex.
  • The children who observed the non-aggressive adult model would be less aggressive than the children who observed the aggressive model; the non-aggressive exposure group would also be less aggressive than the control group.


The results of the experiment supported some of the original predictions, but also included some unexpected findings:

  • Bandura and his colleagues had predicted that children in the non-aggressive group would behave less aggressively than those in the control group. The results indicated that while children of both genders in the non-aggressive group did tend to exhibit less aggression than the control group, boys who had observed a non-aggressive, opposite-sex model were more likely than those in the control group to engage in violence.
  • Children exposed to the violent model tended to imitate the exact behavior they had observed when the adult model was no longer present.
  • Researchers were correct in their prediction that boys would behave more aggressively than girls. Boys engaged in more than twice as many acts of physical aggression than the girls.
  • There were important gender differences when it came to whether a same-sex or opposite-sex model was observed. Boys who observed adult males behaving violently were more influenced than those who had observed female models behaving aggressively.
  • Interestingly, the experimenters found in same-sex aggressive groups, boys were more likely to imitate physical acts of violence while girls were more likely to imitate verbal aggression.

Impact of the Bobo Doll Experiment

Results of the experiment supported Bandura's social learning theory.

According to Bandura's social learning theory, learning occurs through observations and interactions with other people. Essentially, people learn by watching others and then imitating these actions.

Bandura and his colleagues believed that the Bobo doll experiment demonstrates how specific behaviors can be learned through observation and imitation.

According to Bandura, the violent behavior of the adult models toward the dolls led children to believe that such actions were acceptable.

Bandura also suggested that as a result, children may be more inclined to respond to frustration with aggression in the future.

In a follow-up study conducted in 1965, Bandura found that while children were more likely to imitate aggressive behavior if the adult model was rewarded for his or her actions, they were far less likely to imitate if they saw the adult model being punished or reprimanded for their hostile behavior.

The conclusions drawn from the Bobo doll experiment may help explain human behavior in many areas of life. For instance, the idea that children will imitate the abusive behavior that they witness may provide insight into domestic violence.

Adolescents who grow up witnessing abuse in their homes may be more likely to display violent behavior themselves, and view aggression as an appropriate response to solve interpersonal problems.

Research has found that the Bobo doll experiment and its follow-up study shed light on bullying. For instance, when leadership doesn't give negative consequences for workplace bullying, the bullying is more likely to persist.

Therefore, it's important that aggressive or violent behavior is not tolerated by those with power—whether it's at the workplace, in schools, or at home—or else the aggression is likely to continue and may influence young people who witness it.

Criticism of the Bobo Doll Experiment

Critics point out that acting violently toward a doll is a lot different than displaying aggression or violence against another human being in a real-world setting.

In other words, a child acting violently toward a doll doesn't necessarily indicate they'll act violently toward a person.

Because the experiment took place in a lab setting, some critics suggest that results observed in this type of location may not be indicative of what takes place in the real world.

It has also been suggested that children were not actually motivated to display aggression when they hit the Bobo doll; instead, they may have simply been trying to please the adults. It's worth noting that the children didn't actually hurt the Bobo doll, nor did they think they were hurting it.

In addition, by intentionally frustrating the children, some argue that the experimenters were essentially teaching the children to be aggressive.

It's also not known whether the children were actually aggressive or simply imitating the behavior without aggressive intent (most children will imitate behavior right after they see it, but they don't necessarily continue it in the long term).

Since data was collected immediately, it is also difficult to know what the long-term impact might have been.

Additional criticisms note the biases of the researchers. Since they knew that the children were already frustrated, they may have been more likely to interpret the children's actions as aggressive.

The study may also suffer from selection bias. All participants were drawn from a narrow pool of students who share the same racial and socioeconomic background. This makes it difficult to generalize the results to a larger, more diverse population.

A Word From Verywell

Bandura's experiment remains one of the most well-known studies in psychology. Today, social psychologists continue to study the impact of observed violence on children's behavior. In the decades since the Bobo doll experiment, there have been hundreds of studies on how observing violence impacts children's behavior.

Today, researchers continue to ponder the question of whether the violence children witness on television, in the movies, or through video games translates to aggressive or violent behavior in the real world.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bandura A. Influence of models' reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1965;1:589-595. doi:10.1037/h0022070

  2. Xia Y, Li S, Liu TH. The interrelationship between family violence, adolescent violence, and adolescent violent victimization: An application and extension of the cultural spillover theory in China. IJERPH. 2018;15(2):371. doi:10.3390/ijerph15020371

  3. Hollis LP. Lessons from Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments: Leadership’s deliberate indifference exacerbates workplace bullying in higher education. JSPTE. 2019;4:085-102. doi:10.28945/4426

  4. Altin D, Jablonski J, Lyke J, et al. Gender difference in perceiving aggression using the Bobo doll studies. Modern Psychological Studies. 2011;16:2.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.