Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

What do you think? Can we learn only through direct experience, or also from studying others? To prove that children can learn by mere observation, american-canadian psychologist Albert Bandura came up with the Bobo Doll Experiments – a set of controversial studies, which involved preschool children, adult models and a stand-up punch doll. What did he find out?

“Best video so far on this topic.”

-Rubab Fatima
Bandura’s hypothesis
Intro to social learning theory

What do you think? Can we only  learn through direct experience, or also from studying others?

Psychologist Albert Bandura came up with an interesting experiment to answer that exact question and form a theory.

Bandura came up with the social learning theory in the 1960s, a time dominated by scholars who didn’t believe Bandura’s idea and argued that learning was always the result of classical and operational conditioning.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

To prove that children can learn by mere observation, Bandura came up with the Bobo Doll Experiments – a set of controversial studies, which involved preschool children, adult models and a stand-up punch doll.

In the first set of experiments, the children were seated alone in a corner of the room. From there they observed an adult actor aggressively kicking and scolding the Bobo doll for about 10 minutes.

Afterwards, the same child was put into a new playroom where another adult deliberately frustrated the child by taking away the toys the child played with. The frustrated child was then put back into the room with the Bobo doll where Bandura and his team made the following 3 observations: 

  • Children who initially saw the adult punching the doll, often copied the behavior.
  • Boys were three times more likely to do so.
  • Boys reproduced the behavior twice as often, if they observed a man do it compared to boys who observed a female actor. Girls were also more influenced by same-sex models.

Social learning effect through movie
Social Learning with Movie effect

To find out if movies would have the same effect, Bandura let some children watch the model live, and others watch it on video, or as a cartoon animation. As all three groups showed similar responses, Bandura concluded that children imitate others regardless of where they have seen the behavior.

In the last variation of the experiments, Bandura wanted to know if the children would act differently when the models were reinforced or punished for their behavior towards the doll. Now, the children first saw the actor hit the doll, and then observed another adult enter the room. This second adult would then react to the actor.

These last results showed that it did not make much of a difference to the children whether the aggressor was praised or not. However, the kids who saw that the model was punished, displayed much less aggression later, an effect which was especially true for girls. In other words, seeing others being rewarded does not necessarily motivate us to copy their behavior. Seeing others being punished, on the other hand, can significantly diminish our will to copy it.

Bandura’s impact
Bandura Impact

The fact that Bandura was able to prove that children also learn by observing others, was a breakthrough in psychology. As a consequence of his findings, scholars and government officials argued that we should ban violence in films and games. Others suggested that the Bobo Doll studies are not studies of aggression, but rather show that the children are simply motivated by the desire to please adults or act like them.

Tenets of social learning theory
Tenets of Social learning

Bandura and his co-author Richard Walters later defined five key tenets of the Social Learning Theory:

  • Learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social setting.
  • Learning can occur by observing a behavior AND the consequences of such 
  • Learning can happen without an observable change in behavior, because we may learn without displaying what we have learned. 
  • Reinforcements play a role but are not entirely responsible for learning.
  • Cognition, behavior, and environment all mutually influence each other — a process called reciprocal determinisms.
what do you think?
What do u think Social Learning

Bandura, who in college attended a psychology course only to kill time, soon became passionate about the topic and then one of most cited psychologists in history.

About reality, he said: “Most of the images of reality on which we base our actions are really based on vicarious experience.”

What do you think? How much of your learning comes from observing others? And if you learn socially, who are your greatest teachers?




Exercise 1: Experiment
  • Choose two activities for your class to do together (simple physical activities, like summersaults or yoga poses). 
  • For each activity select a student to demonstrate (demonstrate once yourself, then let the student demonstrate).
  • After each demonstration, let your students try to repeat the pose or activity once.
  • After each activity, discuss what they learned from the student demonstrating. At the end of the session, discuss if some demonstrators were better than others, and if so why.
  • You may increase the complexity of this learning exercise by giving deliberate positive or negative feedback to the demonstrators (always ask in advance if they are okay if you openly criticize their performance as part of the exercise). Does your feedback change the way the students learn from the demonstrators?
  • Vary the level of detail of explanation for more interesting results!
Exercise 2: Introspection
  • Ask your students to think about role models they’ve had in their lives. What makes them role models, and if they’ve influenced their behavior in any way. Let them take notes on that.
  • Let the class have a discussion on how they think they learn to behave. Is it through getting punished or rewarded for certain actions? Or is it because of role models that they are watching and following?
Exercise 3: Subtle influence
  • Start by learning a simple pen-spin movement. Here is a video that might help.
  • Once you have learned one, do it in front of your class frequently and when everyone can clearly see you spinning your pen.
  • After 30 to 60 days, check how many have learnt this or another pen-spin. Did they ask you for help or learn from watching you? Ask those who learnt to do the spin why they do it and when they noticed you doing it. If you watched the video we linked, did you realize that you learned from observing someone else as well?

Let us know the results in the comments section below.

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