Friday, February 21, 2020

Bandura – Bridge between behaviourism and cognitive psychology... Bobo dolls and aggression

Albert Bandura is a Canadian psychologist who marked a sea change in psychology, towards cognitive investigation. Although steeped in, and influenced by, behaviourism, his theories transcend traditional behaviourism into what was called ‘Social Learning Theory’, although he now calls it ‘Social Cognitive Theory. The dropping of the word ‘learning’ is significant. Bandura’s awareness of the personal factors in learning, especially motivation, differentiates him from traditional behaviourism. He also forms a link to those theorists who emphasise social learning, such as Vygotsky.

Learn by observation

Bandura has often been seen as a bridge between behaviourism and cognitive psychology as he moves us beyond classical and operant conditioning, claiming that we also learn by observation. Bandura sees learning as the acquisition of behaviours. We see others and model our behaviour on this observation. Learning by watching involves the observation of a model, which is then duplicated. This may involve no teaching at all. Observational learning is influenced by:
1. Attention – you must be attentive to learn
2. Code, store and retain the patterns so they can be retrieved
3. Motor reproduction - kinaesthetic and neuromuscular patterns are practiced until the model's behaviour is learnt
4. Motivation and reinforcement – to push the learner to practice and retain knowledge and skills
Note that this is not to say that we learn violent behaviour from observation or exposure to violence, as we may acquire the behaviour but not perform that behaviour. We may not perform because we know the consequences.

Modeling theory

Modeling Theory operates in three steps:
1. Observe a model
2. Imitate the model's actions
3. Get a consequence
But there’s far more to the theory than this suggests. The content of the learner’s perceptions of the learning are also important. Learning may also involve the active coding of the learnt behaviour into words, diagrams or images. Learners are also more motivated to learn behaviours they admire and value.

Self-efficacy and feedback

Learners have views on their own competence and capability. It is important that learners adopt optimal strategies, based on judgments of effort, not ability, to acquire knowledge and skills. This is important and helped shape powerful recommendations on feedback from Black and Williams on effective strategies for both the learner and teacher. It could be summed up by saying, ‘Don’t praise the child, praise their effort’.

TV, video games & aggression

The Bobo-doll experiments, on child aggression, in 1961 and 1963 made his name. Children were exposed to adults being aggressive towards a Bobo-doll, then observed for learned aggressive behavior, physical and verbal, based on their observations. He concluded that aggression was a socially learned behavior, especially among males. The experiment has been extensively criticized for its weak methodology and the possibility that the subjects were reacting to expectations and the use of dolls that were clearly designed to be bashed. He also failed to factor out dispositions such as genetics.
However, this was to spark off experimentation into various hypotheses concerning media and aggression. Initially this was on exposure to TV but more recently, video games. The TV evidence produced inconclusive, similarly with video games, where some proved inconclusive, others claiming a cathartic effect and others a significant effect. Interestingly, if one does learn aggression from video games one could also conclude that one can learn other things.

Online learning, mirror neurons and video

Bandura’s work has also had a revival around the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ in monkeys in the early 1990s that seem to facilitate learning from others. Learning from expert models, either live or from video, works because we can imitate but also infer intention, even leading to mental simulation. However, an interesting debate exists around the flow of video and animation that may overload working memory, limiting encoding. In any case, it does suggest that video be limited in length. It has also been suggested that video and animation woks better for human movement i.e. surgery, procedures such as origami and sport. More speculatively, mirror neurons may play a role in cognitive tasks, such as maths, giving demonstrative videos, such as those used by the Khan Academy and Sebastian Thrun, some potency.


In training Bandura has been responsible for the emphasis on behaviour modeling and self-regulation in learning. This was widely used in video learning and training programmes but also in other training delivery channels. His theories go some way towards explaining violent behaviour and responses to advertising and Bandura has explored these experimentally. The theory is still essentially behaviourist, with some motivational and social dimensions, which means that it underplays other more participative forms of learning.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.
Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Bandura, A. & Walters, R. (1963). Social Learning and Personality Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Bandura, A. (1962). Social learning through imitation. In M. Jones (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation (pp. 211-269). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582.
Isom, M.D. (1998). Albert Bandura: The Social Learning Theory.
Van Gog, T., Paas, F., Marcus, N., Ayres, P., & Sweller, J. (2009) The Mirror-Neuron System and Observational Learning

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