Exploring children's learning
Exploring children's learning

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Exploring children's learning

3.2 Observation and imitation of aggression

Bandura conducted a series of experimental studies into children's tendency to imitate. In these experiments pre-school children watched adult models act either non-aggressively or aggressively towards an inflatable doll called a Bobo doll. The children were subsequently observed to see to what extent they imitated what they had seen – one such study is presented in Research Summary 1.

Research Summary 1: Observing aggression

Bandura's study (1965) observed a group of 4-year-old children watching, on their own, a film of a man being aggressive towards the doll. The man laid the doll on its side, sat on it and punched it repeatedly on the nose. The man then raised the doll, picked up a mallet and struck the doll on the head. He then tossed the doll up in the air aggressively and kicked it about the room. This sequence of physically aggressive acts was repeated approximately three times, interspersed with aggressive comments such as, ‘Sock him in the nose …’, ‘Hit him down …’, ‘Throw him in the air…’, ‘Kick him …’, ‘Pow…’, and two non-aggressive comments, ‘He keeps coming back for more.’ and ‘He sure is a tough fella.’

There were three versions of the film which were shown to three different groups of children. These films were the same except for the endings. For the first version of the film one group of children saw the man receiving treats and praise from another adult for hitting the doll. For the second version another group saw the man being verbally and physically admonished for his behaviour and in the third version the group saw no consequences for the man's behaviour.

Having seen the film, the children went into a room containing a Bobo doll and some other toys. The children who had seen the film of the man being punished imitated much less aggression than did the children in the ‘no-consequences’ and the ‘rewarded’ groups. There was no difference in the amount of aggression produced by the ‘no-consequences’ and ‘rewarded’ groups. However, later when told that they would get a reward for doing what the man (the model) had done, all groups imitated equally. For Bandura the important point was that each group had learned the same behaviours through mere observation; observing the man being punished only affected the conditions in which they chose to perform the behaviour.

Figure 5: Examples of pre-school children imitating aggressive behaviour during one of Bandura's Bobo doll studies (from Bandura, 1965, p. 76)
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