Aggression is a negative behaviour where the individual deliberately intends to inflict harm on another individual whether it be verbally, mentally or physically. There are many explanations of aggression; some believe aggression is part of evolution in order to enable us to survive. Others believe aggression is caused by a genetic imbalance of hormones i. e. whether you are aggressive depends on genetics, aggressive behaviour is innate. However others believe aggression arises from our social interactions and how our social environment influences our behaviour.
This is called Social Learning Theory and proposes that we learn aggressive behaviour through observing the act of others and deciding what the consequences of reproducing this behaviour would be. This is called vicarious reinforcement. If the individual is rewarded for this behaviour then they are more likely to imitate it in the future. This behaviour is then remembered by direct reinforcement. Similarly, if the individual is punished for this behaviour then they are less likely to reproduce it in the future.
Bandura (1962) derived Social Learning Theory and suggested that as we observe others carrying out aggressive behaviour we learn the forms it takes and the targets towards which it is directed therefore behaviour is learned. This behaviour is influenced more if we observe role models with whom we identify, also the level of confidence in our ability affects how and when we reproduce behaviour. This is called self efficacy. Much research has been carried out that supports the Social Learning Theory explanation of aggression. Bandura et al (1961) used male and female participants aged 3-5 years.
Half of the group were exposed to aggressive models interacting with a life-sized Bobo doll; these models would strike the doll over the head and use verbal aggression e. g. ‘POW’. The other half were exposed to non-aggressive models behaviour towards the doll. It was found that in the aggressive condition, children reproduced physical and verbal aggressive behaviour resembling the model. Children who were exposed to non aggressive models exhibited no aggression towards the Bobo doll. This was the same for the control group who had no experience of the Bobo doll.
This study shows how the level of exposure to aggression affects behaviour therefore supporting Social Learning Theory. However this experiment does not explain why children are motivated to perform the same behaviour when not exposed to the aggressive model. Bandura and Walters (1963) carried out another experiment where children were divided into 3 groups each seeing a different ending to a film of an adult behaving aggressively towards a Bobo doll. ‘… the model pummels it on the head with a mallet, hurls it down, sits on it and punches it on the nose repeatedly, kick it across the room, flings it in the air, and bombards it with balls…
‘ (Bandura, 1973) The 1st group, the model was rewarded for aggression. The 2nd group, the model was punished for aggression and in the 3rd group, children observed model but there were no consequences of model’s aggression. Afterwards, children were then placed into a room with the same Bobo doll. Children who saw model rewarded showed a high level of aggression. Children who saw model punished showed a low level of aggression. Children in group 3 produced behaviour that fell between these 2 levels of aggression. This study showed that subsequent behaviour is based on selective reinforcement.
Aggressive behaviour is encouraged by rewards and discouraged by punishment. This also showed that the filmed version of Bandura’s experiment is just as effective as the real-life model. However, it is unclear whether the children in group 2 showed low levels of aggression because the punishment prevented learning or whether the punishment prevented performance of the behaviour i. e. behaviour was learned but just not reproduced due to the observing of the punishment. The above studies have limitations. Children were only being aggressive with a play doll therefore this does not reflect real-life situations with other people.
Also these studies lack ecological validity because they were done in a laboratory, so findings cannot be generalised to other societies. Also, the children in the experiments did not evaluate their behaviour as being aggressive. When they were asked, many children said they were just ‘playing’. Bandura (1965) repeated this study but only rewards were given when children performed model’s behaviour. “In this case all groups performed a similar number of imitative acts. This shows that it was punishment itself, and not learning, that affected performance. ”
(Cardwell & Flanagan, 2004: p. 36. ) Hence, observation may lead to learning but performance is related to many other factors. i. e. self efficacy. Social influence also became a factor. If there were more children in the room, individuals are more likely to be aggressive to avoid social disapproval. Therefore this does not support the fact that behaviour is copied because it is seen, aggression may be a result of informational influence for fear of rejection from others. Another factor might have been individual differences. Johnston et al (1977) found that nursery children who behaved most violently to the doll were generally seen as the most violent beforehand.
This suggests that the model might not have influenced their behaviour and that it was the children’s aggressive traits that triggered the behaviour. However, Bandura did try to overcome this problem. Children were rated beforehand for aggressiveness and participants were matched to ensure groups had equal participant types. As mentioned before, there are methodological problems with Bandura’s studies, they lack ecological validity because the Bobo doll is not a living person, the child cannot interact with the model and the exposure is brief and done in artificial conditions therefore findings cannot be generalised to all settings.
Bandura tried to overcome this by showing children a video of a woman beating up a live clown. Afterwards children were exposed to the live clown and produced the same behaviour as shown on the video. This shows that children were aware of what they were doing as the person being hurt was ‘real’ and therefore were knowingly being aggressive and were not just ‘playing’.