The Bobo Doll Experiment was a study conducted by Albert Bandura to investigate is social behaviors can be learned by observing others in the action.
In the hit television show, Big Little Lies, tensions run high as an unknown child is accused of choking another student. Throughout the series (spoiler alert!) the child is revealed as Max. Max has an abusive father, and once Max’s mother realizes that her child is learning behaviors from her husband, she decides to take action.
This cycle of abuse is sad but extremely common. Many abusers were abused themselves or grew up in an abusive household. These ideas seem obvious, but in the mid-20th century, evidence that supports these ideas were just becoming known.
What is the Bobo Doll Experiment?
In 1961, Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura conducted this experiment at Stanford University. He placed children in a room with an adult, toys, and a five-foot Bobo Doll. (Bobo Dolls are the large inflatable clowns that are shaped like a bowling ball so they always roll upward if they are punched or knocked down.)
This experiment made Albert Bandura one of the most famous psychologists in the history of the world. To this day, he is listed in the ranks of Freud and B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who developed the theory of operant conditioning.
In this article, I’m going to explain the Bobo doll experiments, how they changed the world of psychology, and how they still have an impact today.
Let’s get started by talking about Bandura’s first Bobo doll experiment from 1961. Bandura conducted the experiment in three different parts: modeling, aggression arousal, and test for delayed imitation.
Stage 1: Modeling
The study was separated into three groups, including a control group. Two of the groups were in the room with a “model,” who was simply an adult. One group witnessed an adult punching the Bobo doll repeatedly and using harsh and aggressive language against the inflatable clown. Some models chose to hit the Bobo Doll over the head with a mallet.
The other group did not see this aggressive behavior - they simply observed the model playing with blocks or coloring or doing non-aggressive activities.
Stage 2: Aggression Arousal
After 10 minutes of being in the room with the model, the child was taken into another room. This room had attractive toys and briefly, the researchers allowed the children to play with the toys of their choice. Once the child was engaged in play, the researchers removed the toys from the child and took them into yet another room. It’s easy to guess that the children were frustrated, but the researchers wanted to see how they would release that frustration.
Stage 3: Test For Delayed Imitation
The third room contained a set of “aggressive” and “non aggressive toys.” The room also had a Bobo doll. Researchers watched and recorded each child’s behavior through a one-way mirror.
So what happened?
As you can probably guess, the children that observed the adults hitting the Bobo doll were more likely to take their frustration out on the Bobo doll. They kicked, yelled at, or even used the mallet to hit the doll. The children that observed the non aggressive adults were more likely to stay away from the Bobo doll and take their frustration out without aggression or violence.
The Second Bobo Doll Experiment
Albert Bandura did not stop with the 1961 Bobo doll experiment. Two years later, he conducted another experiment with a Bobo doll. This one combined the ideas of modeling with the idea of conditioning. Were people truly motivated by consequences, or was there something more to their behavior and attitudes?
In this experiment, Bandura showed children a video of a model acting aggressively toward the Bobo doll. Three groups of children individually observed a different final scene in the video. The children in the control group did not see any scene other than the model hitting the Bobo doll. In another group, the children observed the model getting a reward for their actions. The last group saw the model getting punished and warned not to act aggressively toward the Bobo doll.
All three groups of children were then individually moved to a room with toys and a Bobo doll. Bandura observed that the children who saw the model receiving a punishment were less likely to be aggressive toward the doll.
A second observation was especially interesting. When researchers asked the child to act aggressively toward the Bobo doll, like they did in the movie, the children did.
This doesn’t sound significant, but it does make an interesting point about learned behaviors. By watching the model and observing their actions, the children did learn the behavior. Learning (aka remembering) the model’s actions occurred simply because the children were there to observe them. Consequences simply influenced whether or not the children decided to perform the learned behaviors. The memory of the aggression was still present, whether or not the child saw that the aggression was rewarded or punished.
Bobo Doll Impact
There’s one more piece of the 1963 study that is worth mentioning. While some children in the experiment watched a movie, other children watched a live model. Did this make a huge difference in whether or not the child learned and displayed the aggressive behaviors?
The Bobo Doll experiment has come into conversation again and again as psychologists and researchers have debated the impact of violent media. When children play and watch video games with violence, are they more likely to commit violence? Or, like in the Bobo doll experiment, do the children simply learn the behaviors but still exhibit control over whether they perform those behaviors?
This conversation is still a big part of psychology today. It may not have been if observational learning and social learning theory were not introduced by Albert Bandura. The Bobo Doll Experiments continue to be one of the most important experiments in the world of psychology.