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Bandura and Social Learning Theory

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“Do as I say, not as I do.” The quote is one of the most famous adages of all time. After all, mom is always right. Then how is it that many professionals disagree with such a classic phrase? Scientific evidence. Through years of research, world-renowned psychologist Albert Bandura created an entirely new field of psychology based on a fairly simple idea: humans learn by observation.

Born on December 4, 1925, in the small town of Mundare in northern Alberta, Canada, Bandura was educated in a small elementary school and high school in one, with minimal resources, yet a remarkable success rate. He received his bachelors degree in Psychology from the University of British Columbia in 1949. He went on to the University of Iowa, where he received his Ph.D. in 1952. It was there that he came under the influence of the behaviorist tradition and learning theory. While at Iowa, he met Virginia Varns, an instructor in the nursing school. They married and later had two daughters. After graduating, he took a postdoctoral position at the Wichita Guidance Center in Wichita, Kansas. In 1953, he started teaching at Stanford University. By 1973, Bandura was president of the American Psychological Association, and received the APA’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions in 1980. This is a great honor, of course, but his greatest contribution to society is the Social Learning Theory (but he has recently renamed it “Social Cognitive Theory”) on which he also published a book in 1941 entitled “Social Learning Theory.” These books and articles are the most relevant psychological research in determining aggression and deviance (Isom, 1998). He began to look at personality as an interaction among three “things:” the environment, behavior, and the person’s psychological processes.

Of the hundreds of studies Bandura was responsible for, one group stands out above the others — the “bobo doll studies” (Boeree, 1998). He made of film of one of his students, a young woman, essentially beating up a bobo doll (an inflatable, egg-shaped balloon toy with a weight in the bottom that makes it bob back up when you knock him down). The woman punched the clown, shouting “sockeroo!” She kicked it, sat on it, hit with a little hammer, and so on, shouting various aggressive phrases. Bandura showed his film to groups of kindergartners. They then were let out to play. Observing the play room which consisted of hammers and bobo dolls, of course, were several researchers. The observers recorded: A lot of little kids beating the daylights out of the bobo doll (Isom, 1998). They punched it and shouted “sockeroo,” kicked it, sat on it, hit it with the little hammers, and so on.

In other words, they quite precisely imitated the young lady in the film. Dr. Bandura and his colleagues called the phenomenon observational learning or modeling, and his theory is usually called social learning theory. Bandura did a large number of variations on the study: The model was rewarded or punished in a variety of ways, the kids were rewarded for their imitations, the model was changed to be less attractive or less prestigious, and so on (see Figure 1.). Responding to criticism that bobo dolls were supposed to be hit, he even did a film of the young woman beating up a live clown. When the children went into the other room, they proceeded to punch him, kick him, hit him with little hammers. All these variations allowed Bandura to establish that there were certain steps involved in the social modeling process: Attention, retention, and reproduction.

The premise of the theory is applicable in nearly every aspect of our lives– including media communications. Studies that suggest children imitate violent behavior seen on television are consistent with social learning theory. Billions of people around the world spend at least 3-4 hours watching television a day. Billions of people are also affected by AIDS, overpopulation, illiteracy, and gender discrimination. Dr. Bandura’s research combines the power of television and the promise of psychological theory to address these social problems. Thus, Bandura’s research has positive implications– not just pointing out negative, violent behavior. Critics point out that some of the emotions displayed by the children were just “playfighting”, rather than authentic aggression anyway (Cumberbatch, 1990). One thing is clear, however, Dr. Bandura has certainly paved the way for future studies on this social learning phenomenon. There is no harm in exploring a subfield of psychology that has the potential to educate people, reveal serious and taboo issues in the world, and also to bring society
closer together with a better understanding of each other.

Works Cited

Boeree, George C., Ph.D. Albert Bandura. Http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/bandura.html.

Cumberbatch, G. (1989), A Measure of Uncertainty: The E ffects of Mass Media, Broad- casting Standards Council Research Monograph 1, London: John Libbey.

Isom, Margaret Delores. The Social Learning Theory. Http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/bandura.htm. November 30, 1998.

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