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Describe Social Learning Theory Aggression Essay

Behaviorism » Social Learning Theory

Bandura - Social Learning Theory

by Saul McLeod updated 2016

In social learning theory, Albert Bandura (1977) agrees with the behaviorist learning theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. However, he adds two important ideas:

  1. Mediating processes occur between stimuli & responses.
  2. Behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning.

Observational Learning

Children observe the people around them behaving in various ways. This is illustrated during the famous Bobo doll experiment (Bandura, 1961).

Individuals that are observed are called models. In society, children are surrounded by many influential models, such as parents within the family, characters on children’s TV, friends within their peer group and teachers at school.  These models provide examples of behavior to observe and imitate, e.g., masculine and feminine, pro and anti-social, etc.

Children pay attention to some of these people (models) and encode their behavior.  At a later time they may imitate (i.e., copy) the behavior they have observed.  They may do this regardless of whether the behavior is ‘gender appropriate’ or not, but there are a number of processes that make it more likely that a child will reproduce the behavior that its society deems appropriate for its gender.

First, the child is more likely to attend to and imitate those people it perceives as similar to itself. Consequently, it is more likely to imitate behavior modeled by people of the same gender.

Second, the people around the child will respond to the behavior it imitates with either reinforcement or punishment.  If a child imitates a model’s behavior and the consequences are rewarding, the child is likely to continue performing the behavior.  If a parent sees a little girl consoling her teddy bear and says “what a kind girl you are,” this is rewarding for the child and makes it more likely that she will repeat the behavior.  Her behavior has been reinforced (i.e., strengthened).

Reinforcement can be external or internal and can be positive or negative.  If a child wants approval from parents or peers, this approval is an external reinforcement, but feeling happy about being approved of is an internal reinforcement.  A child will behave in a way which it believes will earn approval because it desires approval. 

Positive (or negative) reinforcement will have little impact if the reinforcement offered externally does not match with an individual's needs.  Reinforcement can be positive or negative, but the important factor is that it will usually lead to a change in a person's behavior.

Third, the child will also take into account of what happens to other people when deciding whether or not to copy someone’s actions.  A person learns by observing the consequences of another person’s (i.e., models) behavior, e.g., a younger sister observing an older sister being rewarded for a particular behavior is more likely to repeat that behavior herself.  This is known as vicarious reinforcement.

This relates to an attachment to specific models that possess qualities seen as rewarding. Children will have a number of models with whom they identify. These may be people in their immediate world, such as parents or older siblings, or could be fantasy characters or people in the media. The motivation to identify with a particular model is that they have a quality which the individual would like to possess.

Identification occurs with another person (the model) and involves taking on (or adopting) observed behaviors, values, beliefs and attitudes of the person with whom you are identifying.

The term identification as used by Social Learning Theory is similar to the Freudian term related to the Oedipus complex.  For example, they both involve internalizing or adopting another person’s behavior.  However, during the Oedipus complex, the child can only identify with the same sex parent, whereas with Social Learning Theory the person (child or adult) can potentially identify with any other person.

Identification is different to imitation as it may involve a number of behaviors being adopted, whereas imitation usually involves copying a single behavior.

Mediational Processes

SLT is often described as the ‘bridge’ between traditional learning theory (i.e., behaviorism) and the cognitive approach. This is because it focuses on how mental (cognitive) factors are involved in learning.

Unlike Skinner, Bandura (1977) believes that humans are active information processors and think about the relationship between their behavior and its consequences. Observational learning could not occur unless cognitive processes were at work. These mental factors mediate (i.e., intervene) in the learning process to determine whether a new response is acquired.

Therefore, individuals do not automatically observe the behavior of a model and imitate it. There is some thought prior to imitation, and this consideration is called mediational processes. This occurs between observing the behavior (stimulus) and imitating it or not (response)

There are four mediational processes proposed by Bandura:

  1. Attention: The extent to which we are exposed/notice the behavior. For a behavior to be imitated, it has to grab our attention. We observe many behaviors on a daily basis, and many of these are not noteworthy. Attention is therefore extremely important in whether a behavior influences others imitating it.

  2. Retention: How well the behavior is remembered. The behavior may be noticed but is it not always remembered which obviously prevents imitation. It is important therefore that a memory of the behavior is formed to be performed later by the observer.

    Much of social learning is not immediate, so this process is especially vital in those cases. Even if the behavior is reproduced shortly after seeing it, there needs to be a memory to refer to.

  3. Reproduction: This is the ability to perform the behavior that the model has just demonstrated. We see much behavior on a daily basis that we would like to be able to imitate but that this not always possible. We are limited by our physical ability and for that reason, even if we wish to reproduce the behavior, we cannot.

    This influences our decisions whether to try and imitate it or not. Imagine the scenario of a 90-year-old-lady who struggles to walk watching Dancing on Ice. She may appreciate that the skill is a desirable one, but she will not attempt to imitate it because she physically cannot do it.

  4. Motivation: The will to perform the behavior. The rewards and punishment that follow a behavior will be considered by the observer. If the perceived rewards outweigh the perceived costs (if there are any), then the behavior will be more likely to be imitated by the observer. If the vicarious reinforcement is not seen to be important enough to the observer, then they will not imitate the behavior.

Critical Evaluation

The social learning approach takes thought processes into account and acknowledges the role that they play in deciding if a behavior is to be imitated or not. As such, SLT provides a more comprehensive explanation of human learning by recognizing the role of mediational processes.

However, although it can explain some quite complex behavior, it cannot adequately account for how we develop a whole range of behavior including thoughts and feelings. We have a lot of cognitive control over our behavior and just because we have had experiences of violence does not mean we have to reproduce such behavior.

It is for this reason that Bandura modified his theory and in 1986 renamed his Social Learning Theory, Social Cognitive Theory (SCT), as a better description of how we learn from our social experiences.

Some criticisms of social learning theory arise from their commitment to the environment as the chief influence on behavior. It is limiting to describe behavior solely in terms of either nature or nurture and attempts to do this underestimate the complexity of human behavior. It is more likely that behavior is due to an interaction between nature (biology) and nurture (environment).

Social learning theory is not a full explanation for all behavior. This is particularly the case when there is no apparent role model in the person’s life to imitate for a given behavior.

The discovery of mirror neurons has lent biological support to the theory of social learning. Although research is in its infancy the recent discovery of "mirror neurons" in primates may constitute a neurological basis for imitation. These are neurons which fire both if the animal does something itself, and if it observes the action being done by another.

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Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2016). Bandura - social learning theory. Retrieved from

Social Learning Theory Aggression Psya3

Bandura (1963) Social Learning Theory (AO1 theory)

Albert Bandura, creator of social learning theory

Social learning theory was created by Bandura and Walters (1963) to explain aggression and the acquiring of new behaviour. They felt aggression could not be explained solely through the use of behaviourism and learning theory principles with only direct experience and reinforcement accounting for new behaviour. Another process was believed to be at work and Bandura’s Social learning theory was created to explain how behaviour may be learnt through the observation of other models. Social learning theory proposes that we learn how to display aggression in different forms, when to display it (the situations) and the targets to display it towards through the observation of other peoples behaviours.

Observation & Vicarious Reinforcement Through Social Learning (AO1 theory)

Bandura proposed observation of behaviour is the primary mode for children to learn aggression through role models which is then subsequently imitated. This was more likely to occur when children were able to identify in some form with the actual model. Through observation children also learn about the consequences of aggression and see whether there is positive reinforcement (through the model achieving what they wanted) or whether its punished. This is known as direct or vicarious reinforcement. Aggression is observed by children at home, at school and through the media and the consequences of the behaviour are also learnt. Over time the child would come to learn what is appropriate conduct but also what is effective in achieving what they wanted and then repeat the behaviour when they feel the rewards outweigh the possible costs.

Bandura summarised this in the following statement:

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action”

Mental representation and production (AO1 theory)

Get A* Model Essay Answers For Psya3 Aggression

For Social learning to occur Bandura stated the child must be able to form a mental representation of the behaviour within their social environment and envisage the possible rewards and costs that can occur through its use. When opportunities arise that may fit in with the behaviours use and provided the perceived rewards of displaying the behaviour (aggressive or not) outweigh the perceived costs, the behaviour will be displayed. The individual must be capable of reproducing the observed behaviour themselves and possess the skills required to imitate it too. If aggression is successfully carried out and reinforced through achieving the desired goal, the children may gain confidence in its use increasing their self-efficacy. This would then result in them attaching greater value to using aggression in other situations to achieve desired outcomes. If children were unsuccessful in using aggression then they are likely to be less confident and have a lower sense of self-efficacy in using aggression in conflict situations. This may direct them into using other methods to solve problems encountered.

Social learning does not completely discount the role of biology influencing behaviour but rather see’s this as creating a potential for aggression and its actual expression is then learned through social learning and observed behaviour.

Key Social Learning Theory Studies For Aggression

Bandura et al (1961) conducted a study involving children who observed an adult model engaging in aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour towards a life sized inflatable bobo doll. The children were then tested to see whether their subsequent behaviour imitated aggression in the absence of the adult model.

  • The children were a mixture of male and female children which ranged from 3 to 5 years old. They were split between two conditions which saw one exposed to an adult model behaving aggressively towards the bobo doll and the other group behaving non-aggressively.
  • The aggression displayed in the aggressive condition involved striking the bobo doll with a mallet, kicking and even verbal aggression.
  • Children were then “frustrated” intentionally by being shown attractive toys which they were not allowed to touch or play with before being taken to a room full of other toys which had the bobo doll in it.
  • The children in the aggressive condition were seen to reproduce more physical and verbal aggression which imitated the adult model than the non-aggressive condition which saw almost no aggression displayed towards the bobo doll.
  • One third of the children from the aggressive condition group replicated the same verbal aggression as displayed by the adult model while none of the non-aggressive condition children displayed any verbal aggression. Males (boys) were seen to imitate more physical aggression but the level of verbal aggression was similar between children in the aggressive condition.

This study highlighted how aggression could be learnt through observed behaviour and this occurred even without any reinforcements. This study however does not explain why the behaviour was imitated without reinforcements.

Is hitting a bobo doll the same as a human?

Bandura, Ross & Ross (1963) conducted another study to see if aggression could be learnt through media such as watching a film. A similar setup to the previous study was used except this time children observed a short film where a model was aggressive towards the bobo doll both physically and verbally. This time however there were 3 conditional groups:

  • One group observed a model behave aggressively and then rewarded for this behaviour (reinforcement was given) through sweets, drinks and praise.
  • Another condition saw the model behave aggressively but then be punished (told off) for this aggression towards the doll.
  • The control condition saw no consequences for the aggressive behaviour.

After watching the video the children were again frustrated by being shown toys they could not play with before being let into a room where the bobo doll and other toys were present. The children were then offered a reward for imitating the models behaviour they had seen in the film clip.

  • Prior to the reward the children who had observed the model be punished for their aggression towards the doll were seen to be least aggressive compared to the other two conditions. The group who saw the model rewarded as well as the control group who saw no reinforcement displayed similar levels of aggression.
  • Once the reward was introduced however all three groups performed the same level of aggressive behaviours highlighting that the aggression had been learnt irrespective of reinforcement.

Conclusions drawn

  • Reinforcement is not needed for learning behaviour and observation appears to be enough for this. For behaviour to be imitated however there needs to be an expectation of reinforcement (or reward) for it to be displayed.

Strengths And Weaknesses Of Social Learning Theory


  • The fact that the children imitated aggressive behaviour matching that of the models showed that learning of aggression had taken place from the models supporting social learning as an explanation for acquiring aggressive acts. This is a major strength as it explains how behaviour may be learnt in the absence of any direct reinforcement which traditional learning theories could not fully account for. Vicarious learning can account for the absence of any reinforcement which suggests the explanation has validity.
  • Another major strength for social learning theory is that it can account for differences in aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour both between and within each individual. People learn that aggression is rewarded in some situations and not others and context-dependent learning takes place which explains differences within individuals. Social learning theory may also account for differences in aggression between cultures. The Kung San tribe of the kalahari desert are seen to have extremely low levels of aggression and violence among their people. Social learning can explain through their child rearing practices as they have been observed to not reinforce any aggressive behaviours in children instead opting to distract them. Also aggression is frowned upon in the culture further and with an absence of any role model for people to learn it, this may explain the low levels of aggression which is inline with social learning theory predictions.
  • Social learning theory is a more holistic approach which allows for biology and cognitive explanations to also have a role. Previous learning theory principles have been argued to be reductionist due to portraying humans as simple stimulus response machines however social learning theory helps explain the cognitive element more which is inline with the complexity of human thinking.


  • The studies into social learning theory lack ecological validity as they were conducted in an artificial laboratory where it is difficult to generalise the findings into real world situations. We cannot say for certain that the social learning effect that occurs in a laboratory could apply to the real world.
  • The study could also be argued to lack external validity due to the setup as it involved punching a bobo doll which is not real and we cannot say for certain children may behave similarly towards real people who can respond back. Also the study only included children from one specific nursery so we cannot generalise the explanation to the wider population as the behaviour may be indicative of that group of children only. This tells us very little about how adults would behave from observing aggressive acts.
  • Demand characteristics may have also been possible as some children reported feeling like they were expected to behave aggressively towards the bobo doll. Therefore the aggression observed may only be short-term and limited to the laboratory environment.
  • The fact that the children were frustrated raises ethical concerns as they are deliberately subjected to behaviour that caused distress and could psychologically harm them. There is also ethical concerns around psychological well being as promoting aggression could be argued to be ethically wrong as they may recreate this aggression in other forms or see this as a viable way to deal with problems in the future.
  • The study and social learning explanation could be argued to lack internal validity as measuring how a child behaves towards a bobo doll is nothing like a real person and this may not be a valid measure of aggression. Some children were overheard saying “thats the doll we have to hit” suggesting researcher bias may have influenced the children to behave aggressively also further undermining the study.

To cite this article: Social Learning Theory: 

Loopa Psychology –

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