Humans learn in a wide variety of ways from a very young age. Is it possible that what we view as children, whether it be kindness or violence, can affect the way we develop and act in the future? A study in the 60s by Albert Bandura suggests that it could very well be.
Psychologists have long suggested that one of the major ways we learn is through observation and imitation. This could be the reason, they suggest, that boys grow up to be more aggressive and more interested in things that society considers fit for men. In the same way, girls grow up playing with baby dolls and trying to put on makeup. Psychologists say that this does not stem just from society as a whole, but from the role models that children look to. Young boys will often look up to and imitate their fathers or older brothers, while girls will look up to their mothers or older sisters. It is also relatively common for the figure to be the opposite gender of the observer, but in these cases the imitations are often of a different nature.
This ability for humans to observe and replicate what others do is part of what makes us so evolutionarily advantaged. Other animals have shown the ability to do the same thing, but humans are particularly in tune with one another. We even have the ability to feel others’ pain because of our empathy. This helps us to survive better than other species in many ways. For example, if we as a child see our older brother burn their hand on the stove, we will be able to learn from his mistake. It is unnecessary for each of us to experience the pain of burning our hands; we all automatically know that it is painful because of our ability to “feel” our bother’s pain. In what ways can this wonderful ability of mankind’s be harmful, though?
The Bobo Dolls Study
A Bobo Doll is a toy popular in the 60s shaped like a clown that was intended to be punched or kicked. The inflatable doll would then bounce back ready for more beating. In 1961, Psychologist Albert Bandura decided to test just how far children will be affected by a bad role model.
In the study, 36 boys and 36 girls ages ranging from 3 to 6 observed adults punching, kicking, sitting on, and hitting a Bobo doll with a hammer. The children were then taken to rooms with the choice to “play nice” with some toys or punch the Bobo doll. The study had some surprising results: not only did most of the children spend most of their time attacking the doll, but they attacked it in just the same ways that the adults did. The children were literally imitating the actions of violence that they had witnessed on the Bobo doll because the older parental figures had shown that it was okay. What was even more disturbing was that the children also devised new ways to “hurt” Bobo. Children pointed toy guns that were in the room at the doll and pretended to shoot and one girl even used a tether ball to pummel Bobo’s face.
Bandura found that children imitate role models, particularly ones that are the same gender as they are. In a group where models were shown being nice to Bobo, children were less likely to hurt him than even the group which was given no model.
Conclusion and Problems
This argument of observational learning is certainly still in debate today. Parents ask if their children playing violent video games will cause them to become more violent themselves. Bandura’s study certainly suggests that it may, though certainly not as much as having role models like parents behaving violently. The major flaw in this study that people have commented on is the very nature of the Bobo doll: it is designed to be attacked. Because of its design, it could be argued that children playing with the doll were simply showing knowledge of what to do with the doll more than aggression. But the fact that they so closely imitated the models certainly shows that children watch what you are doing and are learning even when you don’t think they are.