Observational Learning: Defined Through Bandura’s Dolls

social experimentsocial experiment (Photo credit: louisa_catlover)

by Elizabeth Hall
Learning, defined as an experience that permanently affects and changes a person’s mental state and the way they perceive the world around them, is a joint effect of “techniques, procedures, and outcomes (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009)” that generate permanent modifications in our perception and behavior.  According to Siegel (n.d.), Albert Bandura believed that people do not come into the world with violent tendencies, but that they learn violence and aggression through their experiences and by observing other people’s behavior.  When they see a person rewarded for acting out aggression, children will mimic the violent behavior that they observe because they receive signals that the behavior is socially acceptable.  Mirror neurons exist in our brains that fire when we observe other people’s actions in the world around us.  Our mirror neurons are constantly firing when we perceive new actions and environments around us (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009).  Bandura’s experiments were an important part of psychological history because they paved the way to establish a pattern between observational learning and behavior, and provided a good path for future psychologists to establish links between social settings and drug use, and other troubling behaviors such as violence and aggression.
Learning and Observational Learning Defined
Albert BanduraAlbert Bandura (Photo credit: josemota)From the time we are born until we die, we as a species continue learning as long as our minds remain functional.  Learning is defined as any experience that changes our mental states and the way we perceive the world around us in a permanent or long lasting way.  There are over forty learning “techniques procedures and outcomes (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009)” derived from many different sources.  Albert Bandura is a pioneer in a learning technique called observational or social learning.  (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009)
Observational learning, defined as learning that has occurred because of watching others execute an action such as seeing your brother break his leg after jumping off the roof (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009).  The other siblings observing this would also learn not to jump off the roof by learning the consequences, a broken leg, and would avoid this behavior.  On the other hand, the brother makes the jump, and receives praise from friends for doing something cool, the siblings would see the reward, and might decide to jump off a roof as well.  Albert Bandura pioneered some convincing evidence with his BoBo doll experiment.
The Experiment- Author’s Theory
Siegel (n.d.) notes that Mr. Bandura held the idea that people were not predisposed to violent tendencies, but rather that they learn aggression through observing other people.  The system of rewards and punishments within the social circles teaches children through observation what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable.  He devised an experiment in which preschool children watched a video of adults playing with the BoBo doll.  They played quietly at first, and then began hitting the doll with a mallet, kicking the doll repeatedly, verbally reinforcing the behavior with shouts of “punch it” etc., and threw it down on the ground (Google Video, 2008).
English: Inside doll experiment|Bobo doll]. Fr...English: Inside doll experiment|Bobo doll]. Français : Composition d'une poupée Bobo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Some of the children watched portions of video in which the adults were admired for the aggressive treatment of the dolls.  The children, after receiving the positive reinforcement of the adult behavior rewarded in the video, perceive the aggression and violence as acceptable behavior.  After perceiving aggression as acceptable behavior, then the children feel free to replicate the behavior, and mimic the adults.  Bandura (Google Video, 2008) holds that exposure to aggressive modeling teaches children violence through observation, and proves that the control group, not exposed to the violence does not act aggressively while the experimental group exposed to aggressive modeling do with this experiment.  He also believes that in order for observational modeling to occur, one must present the behavior, reinforce the behavior by additional presentation, and the subject must have the motivation and physical ability to mimic the act (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009).  This is clearly defined in the results of the experiment, and the only part the author’s theory expands upon is the idea that it is the social acceptance, which allows the children to freely perceive and model the adult behavior.
The Physical and Motivational Factors- Social Growth and Mirror Neurons
The motor skills to follow the adult behavior are present naturally in a growing child, of preschool age, as are the social growth factors that preempt them to imitate what they see like small camcorders (Healthy Children, 2010) which allots for motivation.  Along with the physical changes taking place within the child’s natural growth periods, humans, monkeys and birds posses a mirror neuron system in their brains.  What happens when a child sees a video of adults, or anyone, performing acts of aggression, is that the mirror neurons fire in their brains the same as the person on the video’s mirror neurons are physically firing.  Scientists have discovered that the same area of the brain that processes observation of actions is the same area as performing an action yourself, the mirror neurons.  Add to this the social perception that the behavior is accepted, and the children have no reason to avoid mimicking the adults with the new behavior they have witnessed.  In any case, Bandura’s experiments have paved the way for new technology to explore with machines like the fMRI to observe brain function when learning observational behavior by gaining visualization into the brain while learning through observational techniques.  (Gilbert, Schacter, & Wegner, 2009)
Author’s Childhood Observational Behavior
  This is a simple example from childhood that I remember clearly.  I observed my aunts at my grandmother’s house cooking French fries using the bacon grease that my great grandmother kept on the counter.  She always knew when the grease was safe because she was the one that put it in the container.  My aunts however were in their late teen years, and early twenties and had not been cooking long.  I had to leave, and thankfully did not eat the fries.  Later that day, my aunts became very ill, and it was because of the unrefrigerated bacon grease.  I do not ever, neither does my mother, use any kind of recycled grease because of the observed experience that happened to my aunts.  Grease ends up straight in the trash, unless I ever own a car that will work with recycled food oils.
Bandura’s experiments were an important part of psychological history because they paved the way to establish a pattern between observational learning and behavior, and provided a good path for future psychologists to establish links between social settings and drug use, and other troubling behaviors such as violence and aggression.  While scientists have a lot of research left to do on observational behavior, the BoBo doll experiment provides important groundwork in the field of brain function, and discovering how humans learn.

Gilbert, D. T., Schacter, D.L. & Wegner, D. M. (2009).  Psychology.  New York: Worth Publishing.
Google Video, (2008).  Bandura BoBo Doll Experiment Retrieved from:
Healthy Children, (2010).  Preschool 3-5 yrs. Retrieved from: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/default.aspx                                     
Siegel, L. J. (n.d.) Criminology the Core.  Third Edition.  University of Massachusetts, Lowell: Thompson Wadsworth & Cengage Learning.

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