What the Bobo Doll Experiment Reveals About Kids and Aggression

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Does the violence that children observe in television programs, movies, and video games lead them to behave aggressively? This is a hot question today, but it was also of great interest in the 1960s when a psychologist led an experiment known as the Bobo doll experiment to determine how kids learn aggression through observation.

Background

Are aggression and violence learned behaviors? In a famous and influential experiment known as the Bobo doll experiment, Albert Bandura and his colleagues demonstrated one way that children learn aggression.

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.

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. Social psychology is the subfield devoted to the study of human interaction and group behavior, and the scientists working in this field have provided much of the research on human aggression.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

The experiment involved exposing children to two different adult models; an aggressive model and a non-aggressive one. After witnessing the adult's behavior, the children would then be placed in a room without the model and were observed to see if they would imitate the behaviors they had witnessed earlier.

Predictions

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.

Methodology

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, and the average participant age was 4 years 4 months.

There were a total of eight experimental groups. Out of these participants, 24 were assigned to a control group that would not be exposed to adult models. The rest of the children were then divided into two groups of 24 participants each. One of the experimental groups would be exposed to aggressive models, while the other 24 children would be exposed to non-aggressive 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.

Before conducting the experiment, Bandura also assessed the children's existing levels of aggression. Groups were then matched equally so that they had average levels of aggression.

Procedures

Each child was tested individually to ensure that 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 an adult model into the playroom and encouraged the model to sit at a table across the room from the child that had similar activities.

Over a ten minute period, the adult models began to play with sets of tinker toys. 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 model laid the Bobo on its side, sat on it, and punched it repeatedly in the nose. The model then raised the Bobo doll, picked up the mallet, and struck the doll in the head. Following the mallet aggression, the model tossed the doll up in the air aggressively and kicked it about the room. This sequence of physically aggressive acts was repeated three times, interspersed with verbally aggressive responses."

In addition to physical aggression, the adult models also used 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 raters observed the child's behavior from behind a one-way mirror and judged each child's levels of aggression.

Results

The results of the experiment supported three of the four original predictions.

  • 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 an opposite-sex model behave non-aggressively 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 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 and Follow-Up

Results of the experiment supported Bandura's social learning theory. Bandura and his colleagues believed that the experiment demonstrates how specific behaviors can be learned through observation and imitation. The authors also suggested that "social imitation may hasten or short-cut the acquisition of new behaviors without the necessity of reinforcing successive approximations as suggested by Skinner."

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

Comments and Criticism

As with any experiment, the Bobo doll study is not without criticisms:

  • Acting violently toward a doll is a lot different than displaying aggression or violence against another human being in a real world setting.
  • 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.
  • Since data was collected immediately, it is also difficult to know what the long-term impact might have been.
  • Some critics argue that the study itself was unethical. By manipulating the children into behaving aggressively, they argue, the experimenters were essentially teaching the children to be aggressive.
  • The study might 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.

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  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

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