Theorist -Albert Bandura

The Social Learning Theory

Margaret Delores Isom

November 30, 1998


The social learning theory is the behavior theory most relevant to criminology. Albert Bandura believed that aggression is learned through a process called behavior modeling. He believed that individuals do not actually inherit violent tendencies, but they modeled them after three principles (Bandura, 1976: p.204). Albert Bandura argued that individuals, especially children learn aggressive reponses from observing others, either personally or through the media and environment. He stated that many individuals believed that aggression will produce reinforcements. These reinforcements can formulate into reduction of tension, gaining financial rewards, or gaining the praise of others, or building self-esteem (Siegel, 1992: p.171). In the Bobo doll experiment, the children imitated the aggression of the adults because of the rewarded gained. Albert Bandura was interested in child development. If aggression was diagnosed early in children, Bandura believe that children would reframe from being adult criminals. "Albert Bandura argued that aggression in children is influenced by the reinforcement of family members, the media, and the environment"(Bandura, 1976: pp. 206-208).

Biographical  Information

Albert Bandura was born in Mundare, Canada in 1925. He was raised in a small farming community in Canada. Bandura received his B.A. degree from the University of the British Columbia in 1949. In 1952, he obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. During his studying at the University Iowa, he developed the social learning theory. While studying at the University of Iowa, Bandura believed that psychologists should "conceptualize clinical phenomena in ways that would make them amenable to experimental tests"(Evans, 1976: p.243). Bandura believed that psychological research should be conducted in a laboratory to control factors that determined behavior. In 1953, Albert Bandura accepted a position as a psychology professor at the University of Stanford and he is currently employed there today.

Albert Bandura has achieved many honors and awards from fellow psychologists. In 1972, he received a distinguished achievement award from the American Psychological Association and a Scientist Award from the California State Psychological Association. In 1974, Bandura was elected the president of the American Psychological Association. In 1977, he was known as the Father of the Cognitive Theory. In 1980, he was also elected the president of the Western Psychological Association. In 1989, he was also employed to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (Hilgard, 1989: pp.11).

During his lifetime, he has written several books and articles that have been widely used in psychological research. In 1959, Bandura wrote his first book in collaboration with Richard Walters called "Adolescent Aggression." In 1973, he wrote Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Four years later, he published one his most prominent books called the "Social Learning Theory." These books and articles are the most relevant psychological research in determining aggression and deviance. In 1941, Dollard and Miller published the book "Social Learning and Imitation. Albert Bandura stated that this book was one of the contributions to development of his modeling theory (Evans, 1989: p4). " I was attracted to Miller and Dollard’s work on the assumption that human development requires a much more powerful mode of transmitting competencies than does trail and error (Evans, 1989: p4). The Social Learning and Imitation theory suggested that people obtain competencies and new modes of behavior through response consequences. (Miller & Dollard, 1941: pp.26-42)

Albert Bandura believed aggression reinforced by family members was the most prominent source of behavior modeling. He reports that children use the same aggressive tactics that their parents illustrate when dealing with others (Bandura, 1976: p.206). While studying at Iowa, Bandura became strongly interested in aggression in children (Bandura, 1977). In order to control aggression, Bandura stated that the problem should be diagnosed and treated during one’s childhood. "We should not be subjecting people to treatments and then, some years later, trying to figure out what effects they have. We should test treatments before we embark on widespread applications (Evans,1989: p3.)." Children learn to act aggressive when they model their behavior after violent acts of adults, especially family members. For example, the boy who witness his father repeatedly strike his mother will more than likely become an abusive parent and husband (Siegel, 1992: p. 170)

Albert Bandura is most famous for the Bobo doll experiment. Albert Bandura believed that aggression must explain three aspects: First, how aggressive patterns of behavior are developed; second, what provokes people to behave aggressively, and third, what determines whether they are going to continue to resort to an aggressive behavior pattern on future occasions (Evans, 1989: p.22). In this experiment, he had children witness a model aggressively attacking a plastic clown called the Bobo doll. There children would watch a video where a model would aggressively hit a doll and " ‘...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: p.72). After the video, the children were placed in a room with attractive toys, but they could not touch them. The process of retention had occurred. Therefore, the children became angry and frustrated. Then the children were led to another room where there were identical toys used in the Bobo video. The motivation phase was in occurrence. Bandura and many other researchers founded that 88% of the children imitated the aggressive behavior. Eight months later, 40% of the same children reproduce the violent behavior observed in the Bobo doll experiment http://www.mhcollegeco/socscienc/comm/bandur-s.mhtml


Observational learning is also known as imitation or modeling. In this process, learning occurs when individuals observes and imitate others’ behavior. There are four component processes influenced by the observer’s behavior following exposure to models. These components include: attention; retention; motor reproduction; and motivation (Bandura, 1977: pp.24-28).

Attention is the first component of observational learning. Individuals cannot learn much by observation unless they perceive and attend to the significant features of the modeled behavior. For example, children must attend to what the aggressor is doing and saying in order to reproduce the model’s behavior (Allen & Santrock,1993: p.139) In the Bobo doll experiment, the children witnessed the Bobo doll being verbally and/or physically abused by live models and filmed models.

Retention is the next component. In order to reproduce the modeled behavior, the individuals must code the information into long-term memory. Therefore, the information will be retrieval. For example, a simple verbal description of what the model performed would be a known as retention (Allen & Santrock, 1993: p139). Memory is an important cognitive process that helps the observer code and retrieve information. In the Bobo doll experiment, the children imitated the aggression they witnessed in the video. They aggressively hit the Bobo doll because it was coded and store in their memory.

Motor reproduction is another process in observational learning. The observer must be able to reproduce the model’s behavior. The observer must learn and posses the physical capabilities of the modeled behavior. An example of motor reproduction would to be able to learn how to ski or ride a bike. Once a behavior is learned through attention and retention, the observer must posses the physically capabilities to produce the aggressive act. The children had the physically capabilities of hitting and pummeling the doll to the ground.

The final process in observational learning is motivation or reinforcements. In this process, the observer expects to receive positive reinforcements for the modeled behavior. In the Bobo doll experiment, the children witnessed the adults being rewarded for their aggression. Therefore, they performed the same act to achieve the rewards. For example, most children witnessed violence on television being rewarded by the media. Historically, bank robbers were heroes. Many people were highly upset about the death of Bonnie and Clyde. When individuals, especially children witness this type of media, they attend, code, retrieve, posses the motor capabilities and perform the modeled behavior because of the positive reinforcement determined by the media (Bootzin, Bowers, Crocker, 1991: 201-202). The Bobo doll experiment helped Bandura to theorized that "As children continue to age, the experience still effected their personality, turning them into violent adults http://www.mhcollegeco/socscienc/comm/bandur-s.mhtml

Environmental experiences is a second influence of the social learning of violence in children. Albert Bandura reported that individuals that live in high crime rates areas are more likely to act violently than those who dwell in low-crime areas (Bandura, 1976: p.207). This assumption is similar to Shaw and McKay’s theory of social disorganization. They believed that a neighborhood surrounded by culture conflict, decay and insufficient social organizations was a major cause of criminality (Bartollas, 1990: pp.145).

Albert Bandura believed television was a source of behavior modeling. Today, films and television shows illustrate violence graphically. Violence is often expressed as an acceptable behavior, especially for heroes who have never be punished. Since aggression is a prominent feature of many shows, children who have a high degree of exposure to the media may exhibit a relatively high incidence of hostility themselves in imitation of the aggression they have witnessed (Berkowitz, 1962: pp. 247). For example, David Phillips reported homicide rates increase tremendously after a heavy weight championship fight (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960). There have been a number of deaths linked to violence on television. For example, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagen after he watched the movie "Taxi Driver" fifteen times. In the movie "Born Innocent," a girl was raped with a bottle by four other girls. In 1974, a similar incident happened to a California’s girl. The girls who raped her testified in court that they had witness the same scene in "Born Innocent." In addition, Ronald Zamora brutally killed an elderly woman and pleaded the insanity defense. His attorney argued that Zamora’s was addicted to the violence on television. As a result, he could not differentiate between reality and fantasy. However, Zamora was founded guilty because the jury did not believe his defense (Siegel, 1992: p.172).

Contemporary Views

Today, many social learning theorists have indicated that crime is a product of learning the values and aggressive behaviors linked with criminality. Sutherland developed the differential association theory that suggests that individuals learn criminal behavior while in their adolescence from family members and peers (Sutherland, 1939, pp25). In "Deviant Behavior: A Social Learning Approach," Akers believed individuals learned aggressive acts through operant condition (Akers, 1977). In this process, the aggression was acquired after through direct conditioning and modeling others’ actions. He believed that positive rewards and the avoidance of punishment reinforced aggression (Akers, 1977). William Benson found that adolescents that watched excessive amounts of television during their childhood became adult criminals. They committed crimes, such as rape and assault, "at a rate 49% higher than teenage boys who had watched below average quantities of television violence (Centerwall, 1993: pp.70-71) Also, Bandura’s theory has made the public and political affairs realize that violence does cause aggression in children. He has spoken at a number of political conferences concerning the Bobo doll experiment and the effects television has on children. Several political candidates have indicated that violence on television does cause aggression. President Clinton has implemented policies that would deter violence on television.


The social learning theory advocates that individuals, especially children, imitate or copy modeled behavior from personally observing others, the environment, and the mass media. Biological theorists argue that the social learning theory completely ignores individuals biological state. Also, they state that the social learning theory rejects the differences of individuals due to genetic, brain, and learning differences (Jeffery, 1985: p.238). For example, if a person witnessed a hanging or a violent murder, he or she might respond in many different ways. "Biological theorists believed that the responses would be normal and come from the autonomic nervous system. In the autonomic nervous system, the heart rate, increase blood pressure, nausea, and fainting would be normal symptoms of the responses that individuals might expressed in this particular situation. Therefore, the symptoms and behavior are not learned, but partially inherited. In addition, the social learning theory rejects the classical and operant conditioning processes. The biological preparedness of the individual to learn as well as the role of the brain in processing information from the social environment, are critical to learning theory, but they are ignored by the social learning theory. Social reinforcement is conditioned reinforcement based on the relationship of the conditioned stimulus to an unconditioned stimulus" (Jeffery, 1985: p.239).

In the Bobo doll experiment, critics have argued that the children were manipulated into responded to the aggressive movie. The children were teased and became frustrated because they could not touch the toys. Many critics believed the experiment conducted was unethical and morally wrong because the children were trained to be aggressive. "How many more of the experiments finding a link between violence on television and aggressive behavior have ethical problems? It is not surprising that the children had long-term implications because of the methods imposed in this experiment"(Worthman and Loftus, p.45)

There have been many debates over whether or not violence on television causes aggressive behavior in children. Many studies have indicated that television does not lead to aggressive behavior. For instances, psychologists have found that some cartoons are very violent and cause children to illustrate aggressive behavior. However, the general public believes that children view cartoons such as Elmer Fudd shooting the rabbit as funny and humorous. It is the parents’ responsibility to inform their children that the cartoons are not real.

Feshbach and R.D. Singer believed that television actually decreases the amount of aggression in children (Feshbach: 1971). They conducted a study within a six-week study on juvenile boys who regularly watched television violence compared to juvenile boys who were exposed to non-violent shows. After the six-week period, Feshback and R.D. Singer found out that the juvenile boys that viewed the non-violent shows were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior than the juvenile boys that witnessed the violent shows. "The study show that the violence on television allows the viewer to relate with the characters involved in the violent act (Feshback & Singer, 1971: p.247). In doing so, the viewer is able to release all aggressive thoughts and feelings through relation, causing them to be less aggressive than they would have been without watching the violent television. This theory that viewing violence on television leads to a decrease in aggression is called the Catharsis effect (Gerbner,G., Gross,L., Melody,W.H., pg.40).

Cooke believed that individuals tend to support the theory that television violence causes aggression because the public needs to justify the aggression they see in others. He also believed television was a form of education and positive role models. "If violence in television causes people to be more aggressive, than shouldn’t the good-hearted qualities in television cause its audience to be kinder to others (Cooke,1993, p.L19)? Therefore, television can serve as deterrence if individuals focus on the positive qualities. Despite these criticisms, Albert Bandura’ s Social Learning Theory has maintained an important place in the study of aggression and criminal behavior. In order to control aggression, he believed family members and the mass media should provide positive role models for their children and the general public (Bandura, 1976).


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