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From the Bobo Doll Experiment to Modern Psychology

The Social Cognitive Theory, also known as the Social Learning Theory, was introduced by Albert Bandura in 1961. This theory suggests that much of human learning is acquired through the indirect observation of behaviors performed by role models and the consequences of these behaviors. Bandura laid the groundwork for the Social Learning Theory with his renowned Bobo Doll experiment. In this experiment, he categorized 72 children into three groups and closely observed their interactions with the Bobo Doll toy, which he subsequently named the experiment after. This groundbreaking study marked the transition from pure behaviorism to cognitive psychology, laying the foundations for modern psychology.

Over time, however, the Bobo Doll experiment and the Social Learning Theory faced criticism. As a result, Bandura emphasized the cognitive and personal aspects of behavior in his theory and shifted the focus from conditioning to learning through observation. Consequently, he renamed the theory to «Social Cognitive Theory». This shift highlighted the importance of cognitive processes and personal factors in the learning process, distinguishing it from traditional behaviorist perspectives. The following will delve into the fundamentals of learning theory, and how the Bobo Doll revolutionized behaviorism and observational learning.

Dr. Albert Bandura, shown here in 1999. (Cicero, L.A.,1999)
Figure 1: Dr. Albert Bandura, shown here in 1999 (Cicero,1999).

The Social Learning Theory is a learning theory that suggests learning occurs through interaction, observation, and imitation, involving processes of “operant conditioning“ and “modeling and imitation“. Within the Social Learning Theory, there are three core components (Cherry, 2021). Firstly, individuals can learn through observation. Secondly, the theory acknowledges the significance of internal mental states as an integral part of this process. Lastly, it is emphasized that the mere acquisition of knowledge does not always lead to changes in behavior.

The Bobo Doll experiment, conducted by Albert Bandura, is a seminal study within the framework of the Social Cognitive Theory. This research contributed to the literature on social learning theory and helped define its core elements. The study provided significant evidence that aggression is a learned behavior rather than an instinctual one.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

Snapshots from the Bobo Doll Experiment
Figure 2: Snapshots from the Bobo Doll Experiment (Sosale, 2016).

In this experiment, a sample of 72 children, aged 3 to 6 years, were selected, including both girls and boys in the preschool age group. These children were divided into three groups. The first experimental group was shown a video featuring adults engaging in aggressive behavior with the Bobo Doll plastic toy. The second experimental group also watched adults playing with the Bobo Doll toy, but this time, the adults did not display aggressive behavior. The third (control) group was not shown any videos and was thus not exposed to any models.

Additionally, within the first and the second group, half of the children observed same-sex adult models, while the other half observed opposite-sex adult models. After this phase of the experiment, the children's interactions with the Bobo Doll toy, in an environment without any models, were examined. Subsequently, the initial video was shown to the children again, but this time, the displayed aggressive behavior was either punished, rewarded for gentle behavior, or met with no feedback at all.

The research design and the experimental groups used in the Bobo Doll experiment
Figure 3: The research design of the Bobo Doll Experiment (Simply Psychology, 2023).

As a result, the group that witnessed the punishment of aggressive behavior showed changes in their own behavior. This study concluded that children in the developmental process tend to emulate models they encounter in their social environment (Tatlıoğlu, 2021).

Observational Learning, Memory and Motivation

In his Bobo Doll study, Bandura defined three essential models for learning through observation. According to Bandura (1965), observational learning can occur through three main models: a live model involving a real individual demonstrating or enacting a behavior, a verbal instructional model that provides descriptions and explanations of a behavior, and symbolic models that feature real or fictional characters exhibiting behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.

Additionally, Bandura emphasized that external reinforcement is not the sole factor influencing learning and behavior. He highlighted those internal mental states such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of achievement also play a role in this process, serving as internal reinforcement (Artino, 2007).

Illustration of behaviors shaped by social motivational factors
Figure 4: Illustration of behaviors shaped by social motivational factors (Sprouts, 2022).

However, not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. For effective learning through observation, factors involving both the model and the observer play a crucial role, and these factors entail specific requirements and steps. According to the Social Learning Theory, for observational learning to take place, the first requirement is that the observer must pay attention to the model. If the observer's attention is not focused on the model, it implies that the model has not entered their perceptual field, which can have a negative impact on learning. Therefore, if the model is interesting for various reasons or if there is a novel aspect to the situation, the observer is more likely to allocate their full attention to learning.

Furthermore, the ability to retain information and retrieve it from memory plays a significant role in the observational learning process. Remembering the correct information is vital for subsequently performing the correct behavior. The application of the learned behavior leads to the development of skills in that area.

Lastly, for observational learning to be successful, the observer must have the motivation to imitate the modeled behavior. Motivation is influenced by reinforcement and punishment, which are acquired through experience or observation (Cherry, 2021).

Illustration of behavioral observations in the Bobo Doll Experiment
Figure 5: Illustration of behavioral observations in the Bobo Doll Experiment (Sprouts, 2022).

Observational learning is driven by three types of motivators for one's performance. Firstly, when someone successfully imitates a behavior they observed, they are directly motivated by reinforcement. Secondly, when they witness others being rewarded for a behavior, they are indirectly motivated through reinforcement. Lastly, individuals shape their behavior based on their personal preferences, imitating behaviors they find rewarding and avoiding those they dislike.

Moreover, modeling behavior goes beyond mere imitation. People can create new behavior patterns by blending what they've seen with their own actions (Bandura, 1989). In essence, it involves more than straightforward copying (Bandura, 1977, as mentioned in Artino, 2007).

Illustration of reinforcemental motivational factors in the Bobo Doll Experiment
Figure 6: Illustration of reinforcemental motivational factors in the Bobo Doll Experiment (Sprouts, 2022).

The Influence of Social Factors on Behavior: Insights from Workplace Bullying

Social factors play a significant role in shaping behavior through modeling and motivation in our daily lives. Individuals often experience social pressure, which can motivate them to conform to this pressure. This motivation extends not only to themselves but also to others who, through social learning via observation and imitation, are influenced by the same social pressure. The Social Learning Theory is particularly crucial in understanding the acquisition of aggressive behaviors within the context of fundamental concepts related to the development and alteration of expectations and how individuals interpret the social world. It is also essential in explaining instrumental aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Hermann, 2019, as cited in Sevim, 2021). Social pressure can be observed across various ecological systems, for example, workplaces.

Within this environment, a hierarchical structure exists, with a supervisor or manager at the top, followed by subordinate employees. Drawing a parallel to the Bobo Doll experiment, children imitated aggressive behaviors they witnessed in adults, underlining the central role of models. Adult models influence children's actions, while in workplace bullying, leaders and colleagues can serve as models for aggressive or bullying behavior. Thus, employees may replicate hostile or aggressive conduct they observe within the workplace environment.

 Illustration of how behaviors shaped by modeling
Figure 7: Illustration of how behaviors are shaped by modeling (Sprouts, 2022).

As we examine the literature, workplace bullying is observed to occur among colleagues or across organizational levels, with its primary source often attributed to leaders displaying avoidance and indifferent styles (Glambek et al., 2018). From a social cognitive theory perspective, leaders who do not intervene in workplace bullying behaviors contribute to the observation and motivation for such behaviors in the work environment, even if these behaviors are not rewarded. Witnessing a colleague engage in aggressive behaviors without being cautioned or corrected is likely to lead to the repetition of aggressive behavior by other employees (Hollis, 2019).

Simultaneously, when a leader or supervisor in the workplace fails to address and rectify aggressive behaviors, they not only realize that the environment tolerates their aggressive conduct but also teach others within the organizational culture that such behaviors are acceptable. This is because people learn behavior standards through observation, and the observation and application of behavior are closely linked. Especially when leaders fail to intervene in verbal or physical aggressive behaviors, those behaviors become normalized (Bandura, 1961, as cited in Hollis, 2019).

 Illustration of behaviors shaped by modeling and motivation
Figure 8: Illustration of behaviors shaped by modeling and motivation (Sprouts, 2022).

In situations where leaders engage in aggressive behaviors, employees learn which behaviors and language are accepted or rejected by observing the norms. According to the results of a study conducted by Hollis (2019) among higher education faculty on workplace bullying, data collected between 2012 and 2018 revealed that two-thirds of participants claimed to have experienced workplace bullying. They alleged that leaders, human resources, and other individuals in positions of power deliberately remained indifferent and knowingly allowed bullying to persist at the expense of employees. The researcher speculated that long-standing managers and faculty members in higher education, such as a participant who said, “I have never had a healthy workplace experience throughout my career in higher education“. may have succumbed to an accepting indifference regarding the prevalence of bullying culture in higher education.

The researcher emphasized that the only way to curb workplace bullying is through leaders addressing these issues, punishing undesirable behaviors, reinforcing positive behaviors in line with the requirements of social cognitive theory, and potentially changing the culture and norms prevailing in the workplace (Hollis, 2019).

 Illustration of how to apply the Social Learning Theory in our lives
Figure 9: Illustration of how to apply the Social Learning Theory in our lives (Sprouts, 2022).

From the Social Learning Theory to the Social Cognitive Theory

The Bobo Doll experiment and the Social Cognitive Theory have significantly contributed to the evolution of modern psychology, marking a shift from pure behaviorism to cognitive psychology and fostering studies on subjects like communication, violence, and gender roles. However, it is essential to acknowledge the criticisms and debates surrounding both the Bobo Doll experiment and the Social Cognitive Theory in the literature.

One key criticism, as pointed out by Bilici (2017), revolves around the interpretation of children directing their anger towards the Bobo Doll in the experiment. It raises questions about whether this behavior should be seen as a means of venting anger or as a way of teaching aggression as a natural response. Furthermore, Cherry (2020) conducted a literature review regarding the Bobo Doll experiment and highlighted various criticisms. One significant argument is that applying violence to a toy differs substantially from displaying aggression or violence towards another human being in the real world. Critics contend that because the experiment occurs in a controlled laboratory setting, the results may not necessarily reflect real-world behaviors. It has also been suggested that when children hit the Bobo Doll, they may not necessarily be motivated by aggression; instead, they might simply be attempting to please the adults present. Additionally, due to the immediate data collection, it is challenging to predict the long-term effects. Some critics argue that the study itself is ethically questionable, as experimenters may manipulate children into behaving aggressively, essentially teaching them aggression. Finally, the fact that all participants were selected from a narrow student pool sharing the same race and socioeconomic background raises concerns about the generalizability of the results to a broader and more diverse population.

Snapshot from the test phase of the Bobo Doll Experiment
Figure 10: Snapshot from the test phase of the Bobo Doll Experiment (Stanford University, 1963).

In a study conducted by Evdokimov and Garfagnini (2020) that examined the effectiveness of individual learning alongside social learning, individuals in the group supported by social learning did not outperform those in the group where only individual learning took place. The researchers highlighted that the reason behind this could be the inadequacy of the Social Learning Theory in explaining the interaction between social and private information not captured by the model. They further emphasized that when individuals are given the choice to measure how much information they can derive from others' decisions, even in suboptimal situations, they tend to prefer observing social information over private information. This observation aligns with the structural approach, an extension of Grether's (1980) theory, which suggests that, in the presence of social information, private information is asymmetrically updated.

The study conducted by Evdokimov and Garfagnini underscores an interesting aspect of social learning and individual learning. It challenges the notion that social learning always enhances individual performance. Instead, it suggests that individuals may prioritize social information over private information in certain situations, even when it may not lead to optimal outcomes. This finding highlights the complexity of human learning and decision-making processes and how they can be influenced by various factors, including the availability of social and private information.

Moreover, it emphasizes the need for a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between social and individual learning, shedding light on scenarios where social learning might not necessarily result in improved performance. This research contributes to the ongoing discussion surrounding the Social Learning Theory and its applicability in explaining human behavior and learning, demonstrating the importance of considering the limitations and conditions under which social learning operates effectively.

Snapshot from the test phase of the Bobo Doll Experiment
Figure 11: Snapshot from the test phase of the Bobo Doll Experiment (Stanford University, 1963).


In conclusion, according to the Social Learning Theory, for an individual to learn through observation, they need attention, memory, the ability to apply behavior and motivation. Bandura emphasized motivation as the most crucial step in this process, highlighting the importance of identification with a particular model and possessing a quality the individual desires. Failure to intervene in aggressive behavior, as seen in the Bobo Doll experiment, can also pave the way for the normalization of aggression and social pressure in environments. When examining research in the literature, especially in the realms of social pressure and bullying, unaddressed behaviors determine what is deemed acceptable and correct. Consequently, aggressive behaviors grow like a snowball in social settings, gradually becoming socially accepted and leading most people to behave in that manner. Despite criticisms in the current literature regarding the Bobo Doll experiment and the limitations of the Social Cognitive Theory, Bandura's work still holds a significant place in modern research.

Bibliographical References

Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human aggression. Annual review of psychology, 53, 27-51. Artino, A. (2007). Bandura, Ross, and Ross: Observational Learning and the Bobo Doll, 1-16. Retrieved from Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models' reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 1(6), 589-595. Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs. NJ: Prentice Hall. Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of child development. Vol. 6. Six theories of child development (pp. 1-60). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press. Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(3), 575-582. Bilici, İ. E. (2017). İnformal Öğrenme, Çocuk ve Suç Olgusu. Selçuk Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi, 37, 21-31. Cherry, K. (2020). What the Bobo Doll Experiment Reveals About Kids and Aggression. Retrieved 18 May 2022, from Cherry, K. (2021). How Social Learning Theory Works. Retrieved 17 May 2022, from Evdokimov, P., & Garfagnini, U. (2020). Individual vs. Social Learning: An Experiment. SSRN Electronic Journal. Glambek, M., Skogstad, A., & Einarsen, S. (2018). Workplace bullying, the development of job insecurity and the role of laissez-faire leadership: A two-wave moderated mediation study. Work & Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health & Organizations, 32(3), 297-312. Grether, D. M. (1980). Bayes rule as a descriptive model: The representativeness heuristic.The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 95, 537-557. Hermann, H. R. (2019). İnsanlarda ve Hayvanlarda Baskınlık ve Saldırganlık Büyük Yaşam Mücadelesi. Görkem Bir (Çev.). İstanbul: The Kitap. Hollis, L. (2019). Lessons from Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiments: Leadership’s Deliberate Indifference Exacerbates Workplace Bullying in Higher Education. Journal For The Study Of Postsecondary And Tertiary Education, 4, 85- 102. Sevim, B. (2021). Erken dönem uyumsuz şemaların ve şema modlarının saldırganlık türleri üzerindeki etkilerinin incelenmesi. Yayınlanmış yüksek lisans tezi. İstanbul kent üni̇versi̇tesi̇. Tatlıoğlu, S. (2021). Öğrenmeye sosyal- bi̇li̇şsel bi̇r bakiş: albert bandura. Sosyoloji Notları, 5(1), 15-30.

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1 Comment

Oct 24, 2023

interesting read!

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Gökalp Boz

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