Vicarious Learning and Imitative Behavior in Children

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In Vicarious Reinforcement and Imitative Learning, Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1963) explore the extent by which imitative learning among children is influenced by their perception of the success or punishment of aggressive actors. More specifically, the study sought to establish whether or not imitation of aggression among children was a function of their preferred models being rewarded or punished. The authors used a sample size of n=80, composed of 40 boys and 40 girls from Stanford University Nursery School with a mean age of 51 months.

The children were assigned randomly to four different groups: (1) aggressive model-rewarded; (2) aggressive model-punished; (3) Control Group 1, with non-aggressive, highly expressive models; and (4), Control Group 2, with no exposure to the models. The first three groups were shown models corresponding to the intended design for each group. Each child was then observed for postexposure imitative and nonimitative responses in 20-minute sessions as a test for delayed imitation.

The study had three key findings. First, girls exhibited very low to zero imitation scores across groups, whereas boys under (1) and (3) were more likely to demonstrate imitative behavior than those under (2) and (4). Second, boys under (2) and (4) were more inclined to inhibit their aggression. Third, children identified with the model who was more capable of producing social and material rewards, even when they morally objected with their method.

The researchers concluded that the provision of models exhibiting prosocial behavior might be a useful tool to help children develop self-control. Also, they cautioned about children imitating aggressive behavior they see on TV, in which the trope of villains amassing power and wealth through aggression is common, and to which they are exposed for extended periods of time.

Potential Limitations and Further Study

The study highlights several significant facets of imitative behavior among children and sheds light on the nature of learned aggression through vicarious learning. However, the study also has several potential limitations, particularly in its methodology and sampling. These either weaken the conclusions drawn by the author or direct the findings toward another conclusion altogether.

First, the study filmed two male models engaged in different types of aggressive or non-aggressive interactions exclusively. The authors attributed the increased aggression of boys under (1) purely on the success of the model resorting to aggression. Later studies, however, like Keller and Murray (1972) suggest that the sex of the model potentially has an impact on the levels of aggression imitated. Specifically, female models engaged in the same aggressive actions tended to elicit less aggressive imitation among young boys, suggesting that female models have an inhibitory effect. In our opinion, the results would be more comprehensive if this dimension was added to the study.

Next, the authors failed to account for the presence of the experimenter on all its groupings and scenarios and its potential impact on subject/s. According to the methodology, the experimenter was always in the room with the child being tested. Note, the experimenter did not interact with the child at all during the experiment and kept to the back of the room pretending to busy herself with paperwork. However, this might have had some disinhibiting effect on the levels of aggression exhibited by the children, which might indicate slightly inflated results. The effects of an adult presence on aggressive behavior by children are well-documented in later studies like Hicks (1986) and Martin, Gelfand and Hartmann (1971), where children tend to display more aggressive imitation in the presence of adults, whether they are permissive or nonsanctioning. Hicks (1986) proposes that children tend to exercise fewer superego functions when adults are present but tend to keep to internalized standards of conduct when unsupervised. If the study should be redesigned, the presence of experimenters should be eliminated.

There is also the matter of the response measurements used by the study for delayed imitation testing, in particular, those used to measure nonimitative aggression. It included such metrics as for when a child “punches or slaps the Bobo dolls, crashes the automobiles, acts out physical attacks toward members of the doll family or toward the animals,” (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963, p. 603). These (A) did not have metrics for what qualified as aggressive behavior as defined as the measurements for imitative behavior, and as such, (B) might not necessarily be a direct response to the 5-minute film the children watched, if a particular behavior qualified as aggressive at all. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the study only used two raters as a measure of interscorer reliability, one of whom rated only 11 children as opposed to the 80 rated by the first. Results for nonimitative aggression were added to the total amount of aggression demonstrated by each child, and the potential inclusion of false flags might mean inflated results. If the study were to be redesigned, the inclusion of more raters ought to be imperative.

On another note, many studies like this one, including Hicks (1986) and Martin, Gelfand, and Hartmann (1971, p. 1271) tend to focus on boys’ imitation of physical aggression as a function of their biology, described by the latter as a sex-typed behavior. Likewise, Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1963) found that the girls from the sample exhibited little to no imitative response to aggressive models. Bandura (1965, p. 594) suggested that the acquisition indexes for boys and girls are generally equivalent, and the disparity between the rates of acquisition of aggressive behaviors between these groups ”may reflect primarily differences in willingness to exhibit aggressive responses.” What makes girls less willing than boys to imitate physically aggressive behavior? Also, since the study only measured imitation of physical aggression, is it possible that aggressive stimuli presented by models elicited some other kind of response among the girls? Studies exploring these questions would be an exciting follow-up to the findings of Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1963).

Further, the authors did not expand on the potential amplifying effects of peers on aggression imitation among children. Instead, each child was observed independently by neutral raters through a one-way mirror. Several studies, including Martin, Gelfand, and Hartmann (1971) and O’Carroll, O’Neal, McDonald, and Hori (1977) note that the presence of peers have a disinhibiting effect and facilitate for more aggressive responding among boys. Martin, Gelfand and Hartmann (1971) note that same-sex peers, in particular, act as useful reinforcing agents for aggressive behavior.

On more general matters, we felt that the sample size of n=80 is simply too small to draw any definite conclusions. Generalizability suffers even more when we consider that the children sampled all come from the same school, and likely from less diverse circumstances and lifestyles. For the study to be more conclusive, it needs to be more inclusive in its scope and broader regarding its sampling.

Implications & Connections

            Nevertheless, the study in question serves to be a vital foundation in our modern understanding of observational learning as laid out by Bandura and his peers. The Bobo doll experiment outlined in this study is one of Bandura’s first and most famous explorations of imitation learning in children, and his following works would serve as the foundation of what we now refer to as social cognitive learning theory.

The theory states that people learn from other people through a defined set of processes, namely observation, imitation, and modeling. It posits that we learn the behaviors of our preferred models, while our attitudes and the outcomes of the models’ behaviors determine our model preferences. The theory outlines the social nature of learning, as dynamic interaction between nature, nurture, and behavior.

            Bandura’s social learning theory does not fall neatly into either behaviorist or cognitivist camps. Behaviorists like B.F. Skinner claimed that the acquisition of or change in behaviors is associated with our human capacity to respond to stimulus. Cognitivists like Robert Gagne, however, argued that it is our ability to process information that leads to understanding and behavior formation. Bandura’s theory is compatibilist in a sense in that it recognizes that stimulus is essential to the development of behaviors, but does not fail to highlight the importance of motivation and information processing on the part of the learner.

            We see this in action in the research in question. Here, the models function as the providers of stimuli that would influence the behavior of children. The children observe the models, process the information, and then decide to imitate or inhibit the behaviors they were exposed to. In that regard, one of the more important findings of the study was that among children, at least, ”successful villainy may outweigh the viewer’s value systems” (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963, p. 605).

            On that note, it seems the research in question has not waned in significance, considering the importance of its findings and conclusions and how these remain relevant in light of modern issues. Certainly, Bandura, Ross, and Ross’ critique of children being exposed to less than ideal models on television. The authors note

”The present experiment involved only a single episode of aggression that was rewarded or punished. In most televised programs the ”bad guy” gains control over important resources and amasses considerable social and material rewards through a series of aggressive maneuvers, whereas his punishment is generally delayed until just before the last commercial” (p. 605).

In an era where YouTube is a household name and every child and its mother has a screen on their face or on their pockets, children are more vulnerable to be exposed to an aggressive stimulus that they can learn in turn. As helpful and entertaining it is, YouTube is not necessarily a safe space for kids, what with videos like ”Peppa Pig eating her father” or ”being tortured at the dentist” floating around the website. And yet, Brake (2017) reports how many children – from 0 to 8 years old – regularly browse the website looking for content they have previously seen on TV, only to find crass, upsetting, and downright offensive videos, usually featuring characters from their favorite shows. These could serve as impediments to their otherwise healthy development of prosocial attitudes, and may even traumatize them for life if things go wrong enough.

Bandura, Ross, and Ross’ findings highlight the importance of children’s environment, community, and preferred models in the development of behaviors, and later, values that they will carry as they mature. With this understanding, parents can be better prepared to address issues in their families relevant to the consumption of media, especially the potential learning that may happen when a child is in front of a screen.

Reference List

Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1(6), 589-595.

Bandura, A, Ross, D., & Ross, S.A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(6), 601-607.

Brake, D.R. (2017, December 22). Can you keep your kids safe watching YouTube? The Conversation. Retrieved from

Hicks, D.J. (1968). Effects of co-observer’s sanctions and adult presence on imitative aggression. Child Development, 39(1), 303-309.

Keller, P.A. & Murray, E.J. (1972). Imitative aggression with adult male and female models in father absent and father present Negro boys. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 121(2), 217-221.

Martin, M.F., Gelfand, D.M., & Hartmann, D.P. (1971). Effects of adult and peer observers on boys’ and girls’ responses to an aggressive model. Child Development, 42(4), 1271-1275.

O’Carroll, M., O’Neal, E., McDonald, P., & Hori, R. (1977). Influence upon imitative aggression of an imitating peer. The Journal of Social Psychology,

101, 313-314.

October 13, 2023
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