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Social Learning Theory


When you switch on the television to watch the latest episode of your favourite programme, follow an influencer’s tutorial on YouTube, listen to your friend’s essential playlist on Spotify, or scroll through a celebrity’s Instagram posts, you are critically observing the behaviour of other people. Once your mind processes that information, you might begin to imitate their actions and reactions, especially if you believe the behaviour will help you to achieve your individual needs and ambitions.

This process is called the social learning theory. Put simply, the theory proposes we learn how to behave by observing people and our environment.

Of course, we are most interested in the media’s influence on our behaviour, so our introduction to Albert Bandura’s social learning theory is designed to develop your understanding of this important concept in the audience effects debate.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

Created by the psychologist Albert Bandura, the famous Bobo doll experiment explored how we observe and learn from our environment and the behaviour of other people. 36 boys and 36 girls from the Stanford University Nursery School took part in the initial 1961 study.

Each child was invited into a playroom with lots of activities to enjoy. They were soon joined by an adult who was also asked to play with the toys.

Some adults ignored the Bobo doll. In the other group, however, the models verbally and physically attacked the doll. Bandura was then able to compare the children’s aggression levels after being exposed to either of these conditions.

If the child saw the adult being aggressive towards the doll, such as striking the doll with a mallet or tossing it up in the air, they were then more likely to act violently in the final part of the experiment. In this way, Bandura was able to conclude children learn specific behaviours by observing the actions of their role models.

Mediational Processes

Definitions of the media’s influence on the audience have moved from the passive descriptions of our consumption of texts, such as the hypodermic needle theory, to the active audience models which recognise we are not easily brainwashed by the backlit images we see in our black mirrors. Stuart Hall’s encoding / decoding model of communication is a great example of how audiences critically assess the representations of people and places and form our own reading of the media texts.

Bandura also argued we do not simply observe a model’s behaviour and then imitate their actions. We interpret the behaviour according to our own framework of knowledge, which the psychologist called the mediational process. He identified four categories of intervention:

  1. Attention: if we are going to learn from a model’s behaviour, their actions have to grab our attention for us to even consider some sort of imitation. We ignore behaviour if it is not relevant to our own needs, or we don’t value the model’s input.
  2. Retention: the behaviour has to be worth remembering for us to reproduce it.
  3. Reproduction: we also have to be able to actually perform the various features of the behaviour – we are limited by our physical abilities and our environment.
  4. Motivation: after considering the risks and rewards, we have to want to perform the behaviour.

If each of these steps is satisfied, we might begin to imitate the model’s behaviour.


The evidence from the experiment supported several conclusions. Most importantly, the study suggested children who are exposed to violent models are more likely to behave aggressively. The researchers also identified some interesting gender differences. For example, boys engaged in twice the number of physical aggressions compared to girls and, if the model was same-sex, girls were more likely to copy verbal aggressions.

Symbolic Modelling

In terms of media studies, Bandura called the behaviour we see in the cinema or on television symbolic modelling. The characters, or stimulus, can be real or fictional. Either way, the behaviour we see on the screen can shape our own identity.


Lots of politicians and social commentators are quick to connect violence in the media and violent behaviour in real life. Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments seems to provide some scientific backing to this widely-held opinion. George Gerbner’s cultivation theory also suggested there was a link between heavy users of television and their negative view of the world, which he called mean world syndrome.

However, these theories do not explain the full complexity of human behaviour. Just because we see violence on television does not mean we are going to commit violent acts in real life. Bandura acknowledged this limitation and renamed his concept the social cognitive theory in 1986.

There are also issues with the methodology of the experiment. For instance, the children came from a very narrow racial and socioeconomic group which makes it difficult to apply the conclusions to the wider population. Perhaps the children were fooled into believing such violent behaviour was acceptable. Were the participants manipulated into behaving aggressively because they thought they had to please the adults? Was the experiment on children even ethical?

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