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Understanding Social Learning Theory

Social Learning theory is one of the famous theories in psychology which includes cognitive learning as well as 'social learning' theories. One of the important points that this theory makes is that behaviour is learnt from the environment and the people in it, through observation, which is termed as observational learning.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

Albert Bandura, a famous psychologist, conducted an experiment called the 'Bobo Doll Experiment', through which he tried to prove that human behaviour is learnt through social imitation and copying, rather than other factors.

He conducted this experiment on children, as he wanted to show that aggression can be imitated or learnt by children, by just observing an adult. Bandura made the following predictions for this experiment -

1. Children who observed an adult behaving aggressively would be most likely to imitate the behaviour and act aggressively, even in the absence of the adult.

2. Children who observe non-aggressive adult behaviour would be less aggressive when compared to the children who observe aggressive models.

The methodology

Bandura chose a group of children and divided them into groups and all of them were left in a room with various toys.

Step 1 - Exposure to external behaviour

  1. The first set was left in a room with an aggressive adult. Here, they were made to watch the adult behave aggressively with a toy called the 'bobo doll'. The children observed the adult hit and verbally abuse the doll.

  2. The second set was left in a room with a non-aggressive adult. In this room, the adult behaved in a quiet and disciplined manner.

Step 2 - Observing the behaviour

The children were later taken separately to another room containing the same toys and were allowed to play freely with the toys. The children and their behaviour were carefully observed to see if they would show actions, similar to that of the role model they were previously exposed to.

The result

It was later observed that the children who were exposed to the aggressive adult imitated the adult by verbally and physically abusing the bobo doll, when compared to the ones exposed to the non-aggressive adult.

The findingss of this experiment matched Bandura's prediction of children imitating adults' behaviour and supported his Social Learning Theory. It supported the theory that social behaviour, especially in children, is learnt through the process of observation - through watching and observing the behaviour of another person.

The implications of the Social Learning Theory

This study has various implications. In the modern world, children are exposed to various things in the society, which shapes their personality and behaviour. Be it positive or negative, children tend to imitate what they see and watch, in their day-to-day lives. For example, if a child is exposed to a TV show that is violent or any person who is aggressive, the child is most likely to imitate the behaviour. Similarly, if the child is exposed to an adult being kind to people and animals, and is exposed to a positive body language, the child is sure to inculcate the same. If the behavior (positive or negative) is rewarded or encouraged, the child takes it as reinforcement and continues with it.

Children are surrounded by many influential models - parents, teachers, friends, TV characters and TV shows. These models are example of behaviours which they observe and imitate.

If children imitate a particular behaviour and the response to it is rewarding, they are more likely to continue with it. For example, if a child hits another child and sees an adult or a friend laughing at the situation, the child can consider it as reinforcement and is more likely to continue with the same behaviour. If the same behaviour is questioned and if the child is spoken to, about the behaviour being wrong, the child tends to reduce such behaviour.

Parents, teachers and peers can learn from this theory and can set examples for children as they are the first role models and it is from them that the children learn.


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