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Outline and evaluate the social learning theory of aggression
Social Learning Theory (SLT) suggests we learn aggression through observing the behaviour of role models and then imitating their behaviour if we identify with them.
Children will also observe and learn about the consequences of aggressive behaviour by watching others being reinforced or punished for it. This is called vicarious reinforcement.
By observing these consequences, a child begins to learn which behaviours are effective and which are worth repeating, thereby causing certain behaviours to be repeated.
Furthermore, the child must also be able to imagine possible rewards and punishments for their aggressive behaviour in terms of expectancies of future outcomes. Consequently, when appropriate opportunities arise in the future, the child will display the learned behaviour as long as the expectation of reward outweighs any possible expectation of punishment. If continuously rewarded, a child will attach value to aggression and thus, repeat the behaviour.
SLT is supported by Bandura et al (1961). They found that children who observed a model behaving aggressively towards a Bobo doll were more likely to reproduce the same behaviours when they were later allowed to interact with the doll. Moreover, this was particularly the case when the children saw the adult being rewarded for their aggressive behaviour, thus supporting the claim that the expectation of reward influences the likelihood of a behaviour being portrayed.
However, this study lacks validity because the children may have been aware of what was expected of them (demand characteristics) when they were allowed to play with the doll. Furthermore, the study also lacks ecological validity as aggression towards a doll was being measured instead of real-life aggression, although subsequent studies with live clowns found similarly high levels of imitation amongst children.
Another strength of this theory is that it explains differences in aggressive and non-aggressive behaviour both between and within individuals. Everyone has had a different learning history and had different role models, which is what causes aggression levels to differ to greatly in society. This is supported by the ‘culture of violence’ theory (Wolfgang and Ferracute, 1967) as it proposes that in large societies, some subcultures develop norms that sanction violence to a greater degree than the dominant culture. Selective reinforcement and context-dependant learning on the other hand, describe how differences within individuals occur. People respond differently in different situations because they have observed that aggression is rewarded in some situations and not in others.
Furthermore, unlike the operant conditioning theory, SLT can explain aggressive behaviour in the absence of direct reinforcement. In Bandura’s study (1963) the participants behaved more aggressively after observing an aggressive model, but at no point where the children directly rewarded or punished for any action. Consequently, a different concept is needed to explain this phenomenon, which is the concept of vicarious learning.
However, this theory is reductionist. It portrays humans as simple creatures, and the stimulus presented in this theory ignores the role of cognitive factors as well as biological factors. Hereby, complex behaviours have become over simplified therefore causing the theory to lack validity as genes are ignored which may actually be what pre-dispose an individual to higher levels of aggression.
Another weakness of this theory is that it does not explain gender differences. Studies have found women to be less aggressive than men. This has been supported by crime statistics for males and females committing violent offences varying greatly. SLT suggests that both would be exposed to similar levels of aggression through media, and family models, but yet crime statistics vary immensely. This may be due to the fact that the theory is reductionist as biological aspects, such as the effect of testosterone, would be able to explain these gender differences thereby making SLT limited in its simplicity, which is explaining how long-term imitation will cause aggressive behaviour due to rewards.