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Children Can Learn Aggressive Behavior by Watching and Imitating It

·468 words·3 mins
Psyched for the Weekend

It’s no secret that children don’t just do what they’re told to. And instead, they learn a lot by watching and imitating others.

That’s where the whole ideal of a “role model” stems from. The term was originally coined by the late sociologist Robert Merton. (Incidentally, Merton also coined the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” and pioneered focus groups as a methodology. He was an innovative dude, truly.)

Anyway, a child learns a lot by watching people, whose actions teach them a lot about how the various roles in life are played out. And they learn a lot about what behavior should be imitated by watching what people actually do — rather than what they say.

Actions speak louder than words, after all.

I mentioned this concept in terms of a study that focused on the effects on children of parental lying in an earlier installment of this series. As I was writing that piece, I alluded to a classic one that’s foundational to our understanding of social psychology that looked at a study of how children can learn aggressive behavior by watching others.

In today’s post, I’d like to take a second to talk more about that study, which is sometimes known as the Bobo doll experiment.

Poor Bobo Can’t Get No Love

In 1961, a research team headed up by Albert Bandura set up an experiment in one group of children was shown an adult acting aggressively towards a toy called a Bobo doll. Another group was shown an adult playing quietly with the doll. And as a control, the final group of children was not shown an adult playing with the toy at all.

They were then led into the room with the toys, including poor Bobo.

(Bobo can’t get no love — although in the researcher’s defense, Bobo was a pretty freaky looking inflatable clown doll.)

Here are a few key findings:

  • Children who saw adults behaving aggressively to Bobo were much more likely to be aggressive to the doll when they were led in to play with it.
  • The children who were exposed to the aggressive role model and then attacked the doll were also more likely to imitate the exact mode of attack (whether with bare hands or with a toy hammer) that the adult role model had used.

While Bandura’s initial study focused on aggression, he would continue to study the phenomenon with other forms of social contagion, work that would lead to his groundbreaking work Social Learning Theory, as well as countless studies conducted by other researchers for decades following.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


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