What a Doll Can Tell Us About Learned Aggression

Have you ever heard of the Bobo doll experiment? This groundbreaking study in the field of psychology was orchestrated and led by Albert Bandura, a Canadian-American psychologist who was a professor at Stanford University. Bandura is best known for his study on learned aggression and the Bobo doll experiment. The purpose of his experiment was to demonstrate that it was possible for children to learn certain behaviors just by observing adults.

The study used inflatable plastic toys that were 3 and 5 feet tall, called the Bobo dolls. The dolls were painted to resemble cartoon clowns. The dolls were bottom-weighted, meaning that they would return to an upright position after being knocked down.

A team of researchers who were in charge of executing the experiment engaged in both physical and verbal abuse towards the inflatable doll. This was done in front of children of preschool age and as Bandura hypothesized, the children later demonstrated the same type of abusive behavior towards the doll, making it obvious that they were mimicking the behavior of adults, and therefore supporting his theory about learned aggression. (Nolen, 2022)

The Bobo Doll Experiment Summarized

The experiment took place in 1961 and was divided into three groups:

1. A group that observed aggressive adult behavior models

2. A group that observed non-aggressive adult behavior models

3. A group that was not exposed to any behavior models

All of the subjects used in the experiment were preschool children from Stanford’s nursery school. There were 48 boys and 48 girls, with a mean age of 52 months. The three groups were further divided into subgroups according to their gender. Half of the subgroup would observe a same-sex behavior model, and the other half would observe the opposite-sex model.

Phase 1: Modeling

During the first stage of the experiment, the children sat at a table individually in the experiment room. They were presented with activities considered interesting as a diversion, including pictures, stickers, various prints, etc. The diversion was supposed to discourage them from actively participating. Instead, they were supposed to only observe the behavior models. The behavior models were situated in the opposite corner of the room along with the Bobo doll and a few objects, including a mallet and tinker toys.

In the aggressive behavior model groups, the behavior models would then be told that they could play with the tinker toys but instead proceeded to abuse the Bobo doll in front of the subjects.

In the non-aggressive behavior model groups, the models would sit quietly and assemble the tinker toys. In both groups, the models would leave the room after 10 minutes.

Phase 2: Aggression Arousal

During the second stage of the experiment, each child was taken to a separate experimental room and they were presented with new appealing toys, including cable cars, trains, dolls, fire engines, and more. In order to test the experiment hypothesis that the observation of aggression would actually increase the likelihood of aggression in subjects, the children were told that they could no longer play with the appealing toys after 2 minutes, but that they could instead play with toys in a different room. These rooms contained a variety of both aggressive and non-aggressive toys, including the Bobo doll and mallets.

Phase 3: Test For Delayed Imitation

In the final stage of the experiment, the behavior of the children was closely monitored by the examiners during a period of 20 minutes and they were each rated according to the degree of both verbal and physical violence they engaged in. As hypothesized, the children that were exposed to the aggressive behavior models received a much higher score compared to the non-aggressive behavior model group and the control group. (Hollis, 2019)

The Second Bobo Doll Experiment

A second Bobo doll experiment was conducted two years later, but this one used video footage of abuse towards the Bobo doll instead of actual behavior models in person. There were three groups: those who watched models who received punishment after abusing the doll, those who got rewarded for it, and finally behavior models with no consequences following the abuse.

Once the children were moved to a room with the Bobo doll and other toys, it was noted that the children who watched models get punished were significantly less likely to exhibit aggressive behavior towards the doll. This experiment further proved not only that children are able to learn aggressive behavior by simply imitating the models, but that they can also learn not to act aggressively just by watching someone get punished for the aggressive behavior (Practical Psychology, 2021).

Connection To Forensic Psychology and Violent Crimes

This study has helped researchers in understanding violent behaviors and crimes. It established a clear connection between the children learning through imitation and future violent or criminal behavior, which can be defined as learned aggression. It’s important to note that a child’s environment in which they grow up has a significant impact on their future self. This is particularly true for those who grew up around abuse, consistent aggression, and criminal activity. It’s likely that the children who grow up to become problematic themselves are imitating their role models, which are their parents in most cases but can also be other caregivers or people who were around during their childhood (Practical Psychology, 2021).

This experiment also establishes a clear connection between media-violence and real-life criminal behavior, also known as imitation or copycat violence. Exposure to violent media can significantly alter an individual’s affect, arousal, and cognition, which we can describe as learned aggression. Exposure to violent media also teaches individuals different ways to express aggression, and it also influences their beliefs and attitudes towards it, often desensitizing them and leading to higher levels of physiological arousal. (Lansford, 2012)


To summarize, Bandura’s hypothesis about learned aggression through observation of aggressive model behavior was supported as the children who were exposed to the aggressive behavior models readily imitated the aggressive behavior in a new setting where the model was absent.

It may be assumed that exposure to aggressive behavior facilitates the learning of aggressive responses and also conveys a certain degree of permissiveness for it. Subjects, in this case the children, who were exposed to aggressive behavior models would react more aggressively when frustrated, as opposed to subjects who were equally as frustrated but did not witness aggressive behavior during the experiment (Bandura et al., 1963).

Reference List

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(1), 3–11. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0048687

Lansford, J. E. (2012). Aggression: Revisiting Bandura's Bobo doll studies. In A. M. Slater & P. C. Quinn (Eds.), Developmental psychology: Revisiting the classic studies (pp. 176–190). Sage Publications Ltd.

Nolen, J. L. (2022, March 9). Bobo doll experiment | Description, Methodology, Results, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Bobo-doll-experiment

P Hollis, L. (2019). Lessons from Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiments: Leadership’s Deliberate Indifference Exacerbates Workplace Bullying in Higher Education. Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education, 4, 085–102. https://doi.org/10.28945/4426

Practical Psychology. (2021, November 16). Albert Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://practicalpie.com/bobo-doll-experiment/

Authored by:

Nina M Benjamin Silber

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