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Albert BanduraObservational Learning (Albert Bandura)
  • The learning theory we look at today is called Social Learning or Social Cognitive Theory. It is an understanding of learning that is grounded in observation.
  • How a living organism responds to the world is influenced by observing or watching other similar organisms as they behave (whom we call "models")
    • The theory of learning links behavior with its consequences (as does operant conditioning theory). Thus, the witness learns about how the behavior and its results are connected.
  • Hence, experience that shapes behavior can be vicarious (that is, just by watching what happens) as well as through a direct experience.
  • Pioneered by Stanford University psychologist, Albert Bandura (see photo on right)

According to Bandura there are four basic elements that go into how we human beings learn by social observation.

Factors in Social Learning1. Attention. The learner must pay attention to what is going on in the environment, that is, what the model might be doing or showing.

  • There are different factors that influence whether the learner will pay attention. For example, is the model attractive or appealing? Is the learner him/herself alert or very tired? Are there many competing things going on in the environment which will distract or split the learner's attention?

2. Retention/Memory. The learner must be able to remember what they saw happening.

  • A very young child may not have the ability to remember what they saw compared to older brothers or sisters.
  • Someone whose mental functioning is under the influence of medications or drugs may not be able to retain what they saw

3. Imitation Ability. The learner must have the ability to be able actually to imitate what they observed.

  • A learner must have both the physical and cognitive abilities necessary to reproduce the act or behavior that they observed.
  • If the behavior is beyond the skill level of the learner, there will be relatively little that can be learned. For example, a young high school student might be allowed to watch a skilled surgeon perform an operation. But, there is little likelihood that student will have learned very much about how to do that operation.
  • If a learner realizes that the activity they are observing is not something they could actually do, they will usually stop trying to learn from what they see

4. Motivation. The learner must be interested in or want to do what it was they they observed.

Examples below show the types of situations in which one person observes another and may learn from it.


Parent & Child

Mother reads to her child

Husband beats his wife

Father responds with concern for child's illness

Car Buy
Buyer & Salesperson

Assertive buyer bargains and receives a good price for a product
Co-Workers & Boss

Co-worker complains to boss by screaming and is fired

Supervisor treats other employees respectfully and is promoted

Guy in group speaks easily with girls at a junior high school dance. Other guys watch what he says and how he acts.

Observational Learning and Media Violence


Bandura's "Bobo Doll" Experiments (1963; see images below taken from a film of children in experiment)
                  Doll & Film Excerpts
  • Nursery-aged children (3 to 6 years old) were shown adult models who were aggressive vs. non-aggressive vs. a control group of children which saw no model.
  • Afterwards, those children who had seen more aggressive models were themselves more aggressive with toys (such as a "Bobo doll")
National Television Violence Study (1994-1997)
        • 61% of TV shows violence
        • 44% of violent actors were the "good guys"
        • 75% of violent actions come without punishment or condemnation
        • 51% of violent actions were shown without resulting pain (i.e., they were sanitized)
Does TV violence promote violence among viewers? Many psychologists, particularly before 1990 said"yes" after examining
  • correlational studies (comparing violence witnessed on TV with violence acted in real life), and
  • longitudinal studies: children who saw more violence in the 1960s & 1970s were more violent as teenagers & young adults (though not necessarily vice versa)
  • Each night about 350 characters appear on prime time TV and 7 are murdered. At this rate (a death rate of 2% per day), the world's population would be reduced to zero within the course of about 3 years. So? This suggests that the violent world of TV is utterly different than reality.
HOWEVER, national trends are changing. Take a look at these line charts of the murder and violence rates (per 100,000 people) in the United States from 1960 to 2016:

US Murder Rate 1960-2016

US Violent Crime 1960-2016

Notice that there has been a significant drop in the murder rate in the US from 1990 until the present (yes, there has been a modest increase in the murder rate after 2015, but it is still far below the rate of 1990).  Indeed, the rate of murder today is roughly the same as it was in 1960-1965 and only half of what it was at its highest point.

Similarly, the overall rate of violent acts in the US has also dropped quite sharply since 1990 though not quite as sharply as it rose in the previously 30 years. The current rate is almost 2 1/2 times higher than what it was in the early 1960s.

However, this same period of time has seen the expansion of widespread violent computer- and Internet-based video games. Some psychologists who study media in the last five years have begun to question the relationship between media violence and actual violence in real life. They claim
  • The "violence" that younger children model tends to be rather mild and doesn't have a lasting effect, and
  • Research on actual viewing of violent video games has established little or no link to actual behaviors of viewers in real life. Indeed, some investigators claim that viewing video games may actually decrease actual violence by giving viewers a safe means of expressing tendencies toward aggressive behavior.

                Video Games & Youth Violence Rates

A clear expression of doubt can be seen in this summary abstract of a research article by Markey, Markey, & French (2014) in their article entitled, "Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric versus Data" (Psychology of Popular Media Culture).

Laboratory and correlational studies often find a link between violent video games and minor or benign forms of aggressive behaviors (e.g., exposing an opponent to an unpleasant noise). Based on these studies, the media, lawmakers, and researchers often imply a link between violent video games and violent criminal behavior. Using a similar methodology employed by researchers to examine predictors of severe violent behaviors (Anderson et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73: 12131223, 1997), 4 time-series analyses investigated the associations among violent crime (homicides and aggravated assaults), video game sales, Internet keyword searches for violent video game guides, and the release dates of popular violent video games (both annually and monthly). Contrary to the claims that violent video games are linked to aggressive assaults and homicides, no evidence was found to suggest that this medium was positively related to real-world violence in the United States. Unexpectedly, many of the results were suggestive of a decrease in violent crime in response to violent video games. Possible explanations for these unforeseen findings are discussed and researchers are cautioned about generalizing the results from laboratory and correlational studies to severe forms of violent behavior.


Markey, P. M., Markey, C. N, & French, J. E. (2015). Violent video games and real-world violence: Rhetoric versus data. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000030

This page originally posted on 10/14/09 and updated on Sept. 26, 2020