Social Learning Theory

Social norms are acceptable ways of behavior by our society, for example saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’s. Behaviorists have long believed that the elements which govern our way of learning and applying social norms are rooted from direct forms of learning which emphasize reinforcement, this is called operant conditioning. In other words, it has been believed that we learn from experiencing the consequences (punishment or praise) of an action we have made. However, Albert Bandura theorized that not only do we learn from direct experiences, but also indirect (vicarious) methods. Thus, forming the social learning theory. The social learning theory explains the way we learn from indirect means, it concentrates on overt behaviors of other people that can be observed and measured by ourselves. It illustrates the way in which we learn from observing one another. Consider a child learning table manners from his mother. His mother is the model in which he observes the actions of, then the child imitates the actions of the model and thereby learning the action. In this scenario, reinforcement of the environment (in terms of punishment) was completely unnecessary as the child had already learned the behavior of the model without the need for punishment.

Bandura’s Bobo doll study, clearly demonstrates the social learning theory in terms of learning aggression. This study was conducted in 1965 which consisted of young children (36 boys and 36 girls, aged between 3-6 from Stanford Nursery School) being shown a film of an adult aggressively punching the Bobo doll. The adult displayed violence such as kicking the Bobo doll to the other side of the room, throwing it around, and hitting it with hard objects. The children were split into 3 conditions: control condition where the film shown was just of the adult showing aggression to the Bobo doll without reinforcement, the model-reward condition where after the adult was seen to punch the Bobo doll and received positive reinforcement (sweets), and the model-punished condition in which after the adult performed violent acts, the adult received negative reinforcement (being scolded and spanked).

Having seen these films, the participants (children) were sent into a playroom with toys which included a Bobo doll, Bandura then observed the children’s behavior in that playroom for 10 minutes, especially towards the Bobo doll. He found that in the classic and model-reward condition, the children displayed equal amounts of violent acts, however in the model-punishment condition, the children displayed less violent acts.

Bandura extended this study so that after observing the children’s behavior, he then told all of them that they would be rewarded for each aggressive act performed to the Bobo doll and found that regardless of the condition the children were previously in, they all displayed equal amounts of aggression.

This study supported the vicarious learning methods of the social learning theory as the children learned from merely watching the film. It also supports that the unneeded reinforcement factor of the theory as the children themselves were not punished or rewarded and therefore reinforcement wasn’t necessary for learning as all the participants showed the same level of aggression towards the Bobo doll despite the condition they had been in before.

However, this study received criticism as many people doubt that hitting an inanimate object can be classified as an act of aggression. It was also criticized in terms of the ethical side effects as the children learned to be aggressive and violent which could negatively affect their behavior towards other inanimate or animate objects. The participants could also owe their behavior due to demand characteristics where the participants understood what the aim of the research was and that they had to act accordingly regardless of if it is  natural. Also the findings of this research can only be extended to the sample of participants i.e. children between 3-6 with the same culture as those in the Stanford Nursery School. Hence it cannot be generalized to show that the social learning theory applies to adults.


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