Social Learning Theory was proposed by Bandura and it suggest that children learn specifics of aggressive behaviour by observing others. The children learn about the consequences of the aggressive behaviour that they observe by vicarious reinforcement, from this the child develops an internal model of what conduct is considered appropriate and what is not. Bandura also claimed that for social learning to take place, the child must form mental representations of event in their social environment and develop expectations of rewards and punishments for certain outcomes.
Bandura’s Bobo doll study supports how SLT can explain aggression. They showed children a video of a women being aggressive towards a Bobo doll. When children were placed in a room with the doll the children imitated the behaviour from the video showing that children had learnt the aggressive behaviour observed by adults. However, only those who saw aggressive behaviour being rewarded then repeated the behaviour which suggests that reinforcement and positive mental representations are necessary for an observed behaviour to be re-enacted.
Despite showing clear evidence for SLT, there were many methodological issues with Bandura’s research which in turn reduce the internal validity of findings. One main issue is the experiment was conducted in a lab environment. Therefore, behaviour may not be the same as it would in a natural setting thus is subjective to ecological validity reducing mundane realism which means it’s difficult to generalise the findings outside the lab setting.
However, it has been replicated to real life settings. Philips found homicide rates increase during the week following a major boxing match, suggesting that viewers are influenced by the behaviour that they have watched. This also suggests that not only the theory is valid for children, as in the Bobo study, but is also applicable to adults.
Similarly to Philips research, SLT supports the power of media leading to aggressive behaviour. Jamie Bulger was a young boy who was murdered by boys ages 10 and 11. The boys had watched Child’s Play 3 and wanted to imitate what they had seen in the film to Jamie Bulger which supports the idea that imitation within media is a cause of aggressive behaviour.
Nevertheless, SLT cannot explain why aggression is more likely to occur when an individual has a concealed identity. Deindividuation theory explains that where people are part of a group, they lose personal identity and their inhibitions of violence reduce. This can be explained by normative social influence, which is when an individual conforms in order to gain acceptance from others and this caused people to unquestioningly follow group norms rather than personal norms.
There has been a considerable amount of supporting evidence showing that being identifiable in a crowd can promote violence. Mullen found that the more people there were in a mob (the greater deindividuation) and the greater cruelty with which they killed their victims. This suggests there is a strong correlation between anonymity and aggression, supporting deindividuation theory.
Similarly, Zimbardo found that unidentifiable individuals were more likely to demonstrate aggressive behaviour. Individuals who wore a hood and had their identity disclosed, administered electric shocks to a learner for twice as long as an identifiable person.
However, it should be noted this study was controlled in a lab environment and therefore generalisability of these findings outside this setting are to be interpreted with caution.
However, not all evidence has shown anti-social consequences of deindividuation, which suggests that it doesn’t always lead to aggression. Spivey et al found that depending on situational factors, deindividuation could also lead to pro-social behaviour like religious gatherings. This suggests that there are external influences like arousal. Gergen found that individuals with lower inhibitions were likely to ‘get physical’. Half of participants left in a dark room cuddled and 80% felt aroused.
Overall to simply suggest that the cause of aggression is due to the lowering of inhibitions is somewhat narrow. Postmes et al found that there is no consistent research to support the argument between reduced inhibitions and anti-social behaviour, but instead that behaviour change in groups has more to do with group norms than anything else, contradicting deindividuation theory.
Social explanations to aggression are simplistic as it aims to explain complex human behaviour such as aggression by using simple models and suggests our behaviour is a product of mere stimulus and response. Therefore, it is deterministic as it doesn’t allow for external influences and ignores individual differences.
It can also be criticised for being reductionistic as it doesn’t consider any other approaches such as biological factors. The biological approach suggests aggression can occur due to genetic predispositions such as the XYY genotype or testosterone. As a result, a multimodal approach may be a more appropriate and holistic way to explain aggression as it considers both psychological and biological factors affecting aggression.