Last Updated on August 2, 2021 by Karl Thompson
This classic example of a laboratory experiment suggests that children learn aggressive behaviour through observation – it is relevant to the Crime and Deviance module, and lends support to the idea that exposure to violence at home (or in the media) can increase aggressive and possibly violent behaviour in real life.
Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) aimed to find out if children learnt aggressive behaviour by observing adults acting in an aggressive manner.
Their sample consisted of 36 boys and 36 girls from the Stanford University Nursery School aged between 3 to 6 years old.
Stage one – making some of the children watch violence
In this stage of the experiment, children were divided into three groups of 24 (12 boys and 12 girls in each group), and then individually put through one of the following three processes.
- The first group of children watched an adult actor behaving aggressively towards a toy called a ‘Bobo doll’. The adults attacked the Bobo doll in a distinctive manner – they used a hammer in some cases, and in others threw the doll in the air and shouted “Pow, Boom”.
- The second group were exposed to a non-aggressive adult actor who played in a quiet and subdued manner for 10 minutes (playing with a tinker toy set and ignoring the bobo-doll).
- The final group were used as a control group and not exposed to any model at all.
Stage two – frustrating the children and observing their reactions
The children were then taken to a room full of nice of toys, but told that they were not allowed to play with them, in order to ‘frustrate them’, and then taken onto another room full of toys which consisted of a number of ‘ordinary toys’, as well as a ‘bobo doll’ and a hammer. Children were given a period of time to play with these toys while being observed through a two way mirror.
The idea here was to see if those children who had witnessed the aggressive behaviour towards the doll were more likely to behave aggressively towards it themselves.
To cut a long story short, the children who had previously seen the adults acting aggressively towards the bobo doll were more likely to behave aggressively towards to the bobo doll in stage two of the experiment.
A further interesting finding is that boys were more likely to act aggressively than girls.
The findings support Bandura’s ‘social learning theory’ – that is, children learn social behaviour such as aggression through the process of observation – through watching the behaviour of another person.
Strengths of the bobo-doll experiment
- Variables were well controlled, so it effectively established cause and effect relationships (see the link below for more details)
- It has good reliability – standardised procedures mean it is easy to repeat.
Limitations of this laboratory experiment
- This study has very low ecological validity – this is a very artificial form of ‘violence’ – an adult using a hammer on a doll (rather than a human) is nothing like the kind of real life aggressive behaviour a child might be exposed to, thus can we generalise these findings to wider social life?
- Cumberbatch (1990) found that children who had not played with a Bobo Doll before were five times as likely to imitate the aggressive behaviour than those who were familiar with it; he claims that the novelty value of the doll makes it more likely that children will imitate the behaviour.
- The effects of exposure to aggression were measured immediately, this experiment tells us nothing about the long-term effects of a single exposure to aggressive behaviour.
- There are ethical problems with the study – exposing the children to aggressive behaviour and ‘frustrating them’ may have resulted in long term harm to their well-being.
Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – is the other ‘classic’ psychology experiment which usually gets wheeled out for use in sociology.
This post from Simply Psychology offers a much more detailed account of Bandura’s Imitative Aggressive experiment – NB if you’re an A-level sociology student, you don’t really need to know that much detail for this experiment, this link is just for further reading.
You might also like this video which summarises the Bobo Doll Experiment – although bewarned, it’s a bit cringeworthy