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Group Displays Of Aggression Essays

Social Learning Theory Aggression Psya3

Bandura (1963) Social Learning Theory (AO1 theory)

Albert Bandura, creator of social learning theory

Social learning theory was created by Bandura and Walters (1963) to explain aggression and the acquiring of new behaviour. They felt aggression could not be explained solely through the use of behaviourism and learning theory principles with only direct experience and reinforcement accounting for new behaviour. Another process was believed to be at work and Bandura’s Social learning theory was created to explain how behaviour may be learnt through the observation of other models. Social learning theory proposes that we learn how to display aggression in different forms, when to display it (the situations) and the targets to display it towards through the observation of other peoples behaviours.

Observation & Vicarious Reinforcement Through Social Learning (AO1 theory)

Bandura proposed observation of behaviour is the primary mode for children to learn aggression through role models which is then subsequently imitated. This was more likely to occur when children were able to identify in some form with the actual model. Through observation children also learn about the consequences of aggression and see whether there is positive reinforcement (through the model achieving what they wanted) or whether its punished. This is known as direct or vicarious reinforcement. Aggression is observed by children at home, at school and through the media and the consequences of the behaviour are also learnt. Over time the child would come to learn what is appropriate conduct but also what is effective in achieving what they wanted and then repeat the behaviour when they feel the rewards outweigh the possible costs.

Bandura summarised this in the following statement:

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action”

Mental representation and production (AO1 theory)

Get A* Model Essay Answers For Psya3 Aggression

For Social learning to occur Bandura stated the child must be able to form a mental representation of the behaviour within their social environment and envisage the possible rewards and costs that can occur through its use. When opportunities arise that may fit in with the behaviours use and provided the perceived rewards of displaying the behaviour (aggressive or not) outweigh the perceived costs, the behaviour will be displayed. The individual must be capable of reproducing the observed behaviour themselves and possess the skills required to imitate it too. If aggression is successfully carried out and reinforced through achieving the desired goal, the children may gain confidence in its use increasing their self-efficacy. This would then result in them attaching greater value to using aggression in other situations to achieve desired outcomes. If children were unsuccessful in using aggression then they are likely to be less confident and have a lower sense of self-efficacy in using aggression in conflict situations. This may direct them into using other methods to solve problems encountered.

Social learning does not completely discount the role of biology influencing behaviour but rather see’s this as creating a potential for aggression and its actual expression is then learned through social learning and observed behaviour.

Key Social Learning Theory Studies For Aggression

Bandura et al (1961) conducted a study involving children who observed an adult model engaging in aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour towards a life sized inflatable bobo doll. The children were then tested to see whether their subsequent behaviour imitated aggression in the absence of the adult model.

  • The children were a mixture of male and female children which ranged from 3 to 5 years old. They were split between two conditions which saw one exposed to an adult model behaving aggressively towards the bobo doll and the other group behaving non-aggressively.
  • The aggression displayed in the aggressive condition involved striking the bobo doll with a mallet, kicking and even verbal aggression.
  • Children were then “frustrated” intentionally by being shown attractive toys which they were not allowed to touch or play with before being taken to a room full of other toys which had the bobo doll in it.
  • The children in the aggressive condition were seen to reproduce more physical and verbal aggression which imitated the adult model than the non-aggressive condition which saw almost no aggression displayed towards the bobo doll.
  • One third of the children from the aggressive condition group replicated the same verbal aggression as displayed by the adult model while none of the non-aggressive condition children displayed any verbal aggression. Males (boys) were seen to imitate more physical aggression but the level of verbal aggression was similar between children in the aggressive condition.

This study highlighted how aggression could be learnt through observed behaviour and this occurred even without any reinforcements. This study however does not explain why the behaviour was imitated without reinforcements.

Is hitting a bobo doll the same as a human?

Bandura, Ross & Ross (1963) conducted another study to see if aggression could be learnt through media such as watching a film. A similar setup to the previous study was used except this time children observed a short film where a model was aggressive towards the bobo doll both physically and verbally. This time however there were 3 conditional groups:

  • One group observed a model behave aggressively and then rewarded for this behaviour (reinforcement was given) through sweets, drinks and praise.
  • Another condition saw the model behave aggressively but then be punished (told off) for this aggression towards the doll.
  • The control condition saw no consequences for the aggressive behaviour.

After watching the video the children were again frustrated by being shown toys they could not play with before being let into a room where the bobo doll and other toys were present. The children were then offered a reward for imitating the models behaviour they had seen in the film clip.

  • Prior to the reward the children who had observed the model be punished for their aggression towards the doll were seen to be least aggressive compared to the other two conditions. The group who saw the model rewarded as well as the control group who saw no reinforcement displayed similar levels of aggression.
  • Once the reward was introduced however all three groups performed the same level of aggressive behaviours highlighting that the aggression had been learnt irrespective of reinforcement.

Conclusions drawn

  • Reinforcement is not needed for learning behaviour and observation appears to be enough for this. For behaviour to be imitated however there needs to be an expectation of reinforcement (or reward) for it to be displayed.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of Social Learning Theory


  • The fact that the children imitated aggressive behaviour matching that of the models showed that learning of aggression had taken place from the models supporting social learning as an explanation for acquiring aggressive acts. This is a major strength as it explains how behaviour may be learnt in the absence of any direct reinforcement which traditional learning theories could not fully account for. Vicarious learning can account for the absence of any reinforcement which suggests the explanation has validity.
  • Another major strength for social learning theory is that it can account for differences in aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour both between and within each individual. People learn that aggression is rewarded in some situations and not others and context-dependent learning takes place which explains differences within individuals. Social learning theory may also account for differences in aggression between cultures. The Kung San tribe of the kalahari desert are seen to have extremely low levels of aggression and violence among their people. Social learning can explain through their child rearing practices as they have been observed to not reinforce any aggressive behaviours in children instead opting to distract them. Also aggression is frowned upon in the culture further and with an absence of any role model for people to learn it, this may explain the low levels of aggression which is inline with social learning theory predictions.
  • Social learning theory is a more holistic approach which allows for biology and cognitive explanations to also have a role. Previous learning theory principles have been argued to be reductionist due to portraying humans as simple stimulus response machines however social learning theory helps explain the cognitive element more which is inline with the complexity of human thinking.


  • The studies into social learning theory lack ecological validity as they were conducted in an artificial laboratory where it is difficult to generalise the findings into real world situations. We cannot say for certain that the social learning effect that occurs in a laboratory could apply to the real world.
  • The study could also be argued to lack external validity due to the setup as it involved punching a bobo doll which is not real and we cannot say for certain children may behave similarly towards real people who can respond back. Also the study only included children from one specific nursery so we cannot generalise the explanation to the wider population as the behaviour may be indicative of that group of children only. This tells us very little about how adults would behave from observing aggressive acts.
  • Demand characteristics may have also been possible as some children reported feeling like they were expected to behave aggressively towards the bobo doll. Therefore the aggression observed may only be short-term and limited to the laboratory environment.
  • The fact that the children were frustrated raises ethical concerns as they are deliberately subjected to behaviour that caused distress and could psychologically harm them. There is also ethical concerns around psychological well being as promoting aggression could be argued to be ethically wrong as they may recreate this aggression in other forms or see this as a viable way to deal with problems in the future.
  • The study and social learning explanation could be argued to lack internal validity as measuring how a child behaves towards a bobo doll is nothing like a real person and this may not be a valid measure of aggression. Some children were overheard saying “thats the doll we have to hit” suggesting researcher bias may have influenced the children to behave aggressively also further undermining the study.

To cite this article: Social Learning Theory: 

Loopa Psychology – http://www.loopa.co.uk/social-learning-theory-aggression-psya3/

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The evolution of human aggression
Why do some people behave aggressively when in a group situation? In the USA between 1882 and 1968 there were an estimated 4,742 lynchings in which mobs with up to 15,000 members tortured, castrated, mutilated, dismembered, burned alive, and hanged black victims. The lynchings were often organised and advertised in advance. The ‘crimes’ committed by the victims were often as ridiculous as ‘looking for work out of place’ or ‘insulting a white man.’

Explanations of group displays of aggression
Lynch Mobs, social transitions and the need for conformity:
In the 20th century lynching became an institutionalised way for white people to terrorise black people in the USA. Of 4,742 documented lynchings, nearly three quarters of the victims were black.

Myrdal (1944) argues that white people in the USA were scared of black people and turned to lynch law as a means of social control. Patterson (1999) claims that there was major social transition in the USA at the time following the collapse of slavery, and entire white communities felt at risk. When groups feel at risk, their survival becomes paramount, and the ingroup cooperates defensively at the same time as behaving antagonistically towards any outgroup. Boyd & Richerson (1990) found that groups who flourished were those in which cooperation thrived, providing evidence that group conformity is essential for group survival. Therefore when a group is threatened by social change it is more likely to act as a group rather than a collection of individuals.

The power-threat hypothesis:
A defence used for lynchings was that black men had a desire to rape white women. The power-threat hypothesis (Blalock, 1967) states that groups which pose a threat to the majority are more likely to be discriminated against and subjected to violent action. Lynching was an extreme form of violence in response to a perceived racial threat. This is, however, a difficult hypothesis to test as the nature of the social threat is often quite vague. Clark (2006) found a negative correlation between lynchings in Brazil and the number of Afro-Brazilians in the community.

Religious Rituals
Aggressive behaviour can be self-inflicted, for example as part of an initiation rite or religious ritual. For example in a Native American ritual people lie motionless while being bitten by hundreds of ants, and Shiite Muslims still practice self-flagellation.

Costly signaling theory:
Sosis (2004) believes that engaging in a painful religious ritual has been favoured by natural selection as it signals commitment to membership of a group and everything it stands for. The costs of religious rituals (pain and injury) promote and maintain religious cooperation within groups, and deter people from joining groups if they are not true believers in their teachings.

Sosis & Belster (2003) found that religious groups impose twice as many costly rituals on their members as non-religious groups, and that the number of costly rituals was positively correlated with the lifespan of the group.

Costly signaling theory says that the painful cost of religious rituals deters imposters from joining and invading the religious community, but if the rewards are far higher than the costs protesters may still invade. Therefore, to be a good deterrent, the costs of the ritual must be related to the size of the benefit. Chen (2003) found that as the Indonesian financial crisis in the 1990s worsened, Muslim families devoted far more of their remaining money to religious observance, suggesting that in times of crisis the higher costs have the reward of benefitting the most needy members of the community.

Sports events & xenophobia
Xenophobia – the hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers or of their politics or culture. Natural selection has favoured genes that cause group members to be altruistic towards members of the group and intolerant towards outsiders, leading to suspicion of strangers and avoiding attack by outsiders. Over exaggerating the stereotypes of outsiders helps survival as seeing an exaggerated threat is safer than under estimating a threat.

In Italy in the 1980s there was an increase in openly racist, anti-semitic, extreme right wing groups such as the Northern League. The racism was seen particularly openly and strongly among football crowds, with the effect that the open displays of zenophobia increased the cultural identity of supporters by highlighting the differences between Northern and Southern Italians (Podaliri & Balestri, 1998).

Foldesi (1996) found that violent displays among a small core of Hungarian football crowds led to an increase in violent and racist (against gypsies, Jews and Russians) outbursts by spectators.
However football violence may not be an act of naturally selected xenophobia, but more an organised behaviour by hooligans to gain peer acceptance and a sense of personal worth (Marsh, 1978).

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