Canadian-American psychologist, Albert Bandura, proposed that children learn best by observing others and then imitating what they’ve witnessed as they compile a working knowledge that informs what should be considered appropriate. As children mature cognitively, they learn to influence their environment, a world at least partially constructed by their influence. Especially over time, imitation is not necessarily a one-to-one cause-and-effect, but an ongoing working portrayal that continuously realigns and reinforces itself.
While newborns have limited experience, they quickly learn that crying brings relief to their physical discomfort. This knowledge perpetuates additional learning—infants can control others through cause-and-effect—these lessons encourage babies to start viewing themselves as competent individuals. As toddlers develop refined motor skills, they encounter more frequent and immersive experiences for observational learning. Bandura’s theory does not view the child as a passive receiver of knowledge, but as an individual who takes an active role in constructing knowledge by interpreting the implications of their own behavior and that of others within a given environment.
Consider the sport of basketball. Children may learn how to dribble, pass, and shoot. They may learn how to play defense against an opponent. Separately, yet intertwined, if children want to take their learning to the next level, they must learn the rules of the game. To then play, they must mentally integrate the specific skills while following required rules. Much of this learning takes place through the observation of older children or adults playing the game, but observing particular behaviors doesn’t ensure that children will perform them; they also need motivation.
Of all people in their lives, a mother is a child’s first love. When they observe mom modeling certain actions, we foster in them the desire to imitate us.
Bobo Doll Experiment
In 1961, Bandura conducted a controlled study to investigate if social behaviors (i.e., aggression) are more or less likely to be acquired by observation and imitation. The “Bobo doll” experiment comprised of three stages: modeling, aggression arousal, and observation. For context, a Bobo doll is a large, weighted doll that, if pushed, bobs back up to its upright position.
Three groups of 24 children (12 boys and 12 girls per group) watched a male or female adult model behave in one of three ways: One group of children observed adults attack a 3-foot tall Bobo doll in a distinctive manner; a hammer was used in some cases, sometimes the doll was thrown in the air while the adult shouted. The second group of children were exposed to a non-aggressive adult model who played in a quiet and subdued manner for ten minutes (playing with a tinker toy set and ignoring the bobo-doll). The final group of children were used as a control group and not exposed to any adult model.
All three groups were then subjected to “mild aggression arousal.” Each child was taken separately to a room with toys. When the child started to play with the toys, the experimenter told the child that these were the experimenter’s very best toys, but that they were reserved for other children. The children were then ushered into another room, which contained some normal toys, including a tea set, crayons, three bears, plastic farm animals, and some toys which may prompt aggressive behaviors, including a mallet, a peg board, dart guns, and a 3-foot Bobo doll.
Children who observed the aggressive model were far more aggressive than those who were in the non-aggressive or control groups. This study has important implications for the effects of media violence on children. The choice of TV programs watched by children informs their growth and development; children are inclined to imitate what they observe.
Bandura suggests that adults—especially parents—serve a crucial function as models of behavior. We are the primary source of instruction on how to accomplish what is needed to survive and thrive socially. While learning is behavioral, cognitive integration is needed to blend “doing the thing” and “doing the thing within the context with which the thing is to be done.”
Before behavior can be imitated, it must first capture an observer’s attention—not casually noticed—but cognitively retained in their memory. With attention, observation, repetition, and the capacity to reproduce a behavior, Bandura states that the final driver of behavior is motivation. Considerations for rewards and punishment are made; if the perceived rewards outweigh the perceived costs, the observer is likely to imitate the behavior.
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