Social Learning Theory of Aggression

Social Learning Theory

Direct and indirect learning: Bandura suggested that aggression can be learned directly, through operant conditioning- for example, a child may be rewarded for an aggressive act, so will learn that this is something to be repeated in the future. However, he also suggested that learning can be indirect, through observation.

Observational learning and vicarious reinforcement: Children (and adults as well, to an extent) learn the actions of aggressive behaviour by observing role models in their lives and in the media. They also observe the consequence of the aggressive acts- whether the role model is rewarded or punished for them. This is known as vicarious reinforcement (learning through watching someone else being rewarded or punished). If they observe an aggressive act being rewarded, they are more likely to repeat that aggressive act. Vicarious punishment would lead to aggressive behaviour being less likely, as the child observes the role model being punished for their action.

Social Learning Theory of Aggression, figure 1

Cognitive control of aggressive behaviour: Four cognitive processes are involved in the learning process of SLT:

  • Attention: watching a role model’s aggressive actions
  • Retention: being able to remember the action
  • Reproduction: being physically capable of performing the aggressive action
  • Motivation: a reason to imitate the behaviour, and the expectation that it will be successful

Self-efficacy: Linked to the idea of motivation, this is the belief/confidence that performing an action will lead to a desired reward. This is strengthened each time the aggressive action leads to a positive outcome, as the child gets more confident that they can use aggression successfully.

Bobo doll study: Bandura et al (1961) showed children an adult being aggressive towards a Bobo doll (punching and kicking it). They were then prevented from playing with toys, to create frustration and a readiness for aggression. When left alone in a room with the Bobo doll, the children copied the aggressive acts they had seen, including the language. Some used a toy gun to ‘threaten’ the doll (even though the adult hadn’t used any guns). In a control group, which did not observe aggressive behaviour, almost no aggression was shown towards the doll.


  • The Bobo doll study supports the theory, as does a variation (Bandura and Walters, 1963) where children either observed an adult being rewarded for the aggression, punished for it, or neither rewarded nor punished. Children in the first group performed lots of aggressive acts. The second group performed hardly any aggressive acts. The third group showed a level of aggression in between the first two. This supports the concept of vicarious reinforcement.
  • It is hard to explain reactive aggression using SLT. Reactive aggression is not premediated or planned, and occurs instantly in response to a trigger. This suggests some aggressive actions may be instinctual, and so are not learned, as the theory would predict.
  • Phillips (1986) found that murder rates in the US almost always increased in the days and weeks following a televised boxing match. This suggests that people observed the aggressive actions and then imitated them, supporting that the theory applies to adults and children.


De-individuation means to lose one’s sense of individuality and identity. This can occur in two main ways, by becoming part of a crowd, or identifying with a particular role (often aided by wearing a uniform or mask).

Crowd behaviour: Le Bon (1895) suggested that individuals are more likely to behave in an aggressive manner when part of a large anonymous group. A collective mind-set is created and the group can become a ‘mob’. This is because individuals feel less identifiable in a group, so the normal constraints that prevent aggressive behaviour may be lost. The shared responsibility for actions reduces individual guilt.

Social Learning Theory of Aggression, figure 1

De-individuation and aggression: Zimbardo (1969) Distinguished between individuated and de-individuated behaviour. Individuated is characterised by rationality, and conforms to social norms. De-individuated is emotional, impulsive, irrational and anti-normative. Aggressive behaviour particularly is promoted by darkness, the use of drugs and alcohol, wearing uniforms and masks. This creates a sense of anonymity, lessening the consequences of aggressive behaviour and making it more likely. The bigger the crowd, and the less chance of being identified generally, the greater the chance of aggression.

Self-awareness: Prentice-Dunn and Rogers (1982) suggest de-individuation occurs when self-awareness is blocked. The critical factors include a strong feeling of group membership, increased levels of arousal, a focus on external events, and the feeling of anonymity. There are two types of self-awareness:

  • Public self-awareness: concern over the impression of yourself you are presenting to others when you are aware of being judged
  • Private self-awareness: your internal sense of self, consisting of thoughts, feelings, values and internal standards of behaviour

Reduction in either can result in aggressive behaviour, but only a reduction in private self-awareness can lead to genuine de-individuation. As a result, the person is less concerned with how they are being perceived, and is less aware of their own values and morals, making it easier to commit aggressive acts.

Research: Dodd (1985) asked participants (psychology students) to imagine they were invisible for 24 hours and were completely assured that they would not be detected or held responsible for their actions during this time. 36% of the responses were anti-social (robbing a bank, murder, assault and so on). Only 9% were pro-social (helping someone else). This suggests there is a link between anonymity and anti-social behaviour, and perhaps aggression.


  • Ellison _et _al (1985) conducted a driving simulation experiment with 289 student participants, where aggressive driving (high speed, jumping red lights, collisions) was measured in a convertible car. More aggression was shown in the roof up condition, showing that the increased sense of anonymity may have contributed to more aggressive behaviour, supporting the theory.
  • Douglas and McGarty (2001) found that the most verbally aggressive messages on online messaging boards were sent by people who hid their identities by not using their real names. This supports the suggestion that a feeling of de-individuation can lead to aggressive behaviour.
  • Gergen et al (1973) found in their ‘deviance in the dark’ study that anonymity does not necessarily lead to aggression. Participants were taken to a pitch black room and were told that they could do whatever they wanted, and they would not be introduced to each other afterwards. They proceeded to kiss and touch each other intimately. This suggests that de-individuation does not always result in aggression.
Discuss one social psychological explanation of aggression. (16 marks- 6 outline- around 3 paragraphs; 10 evaluate- around 3-4 evaluation points)
Your answer should include: Frustration / Social / Learning / Theory / De-individuation / De / individuation

Institutional Aggression in the Context of Prisons

An institution is any mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given human community. Communities may include schools, clubs, sports teams, and prisons.

Dispositional explanations: the importation model: Dispositional explanations explain behaviour in terms of individual personality characteristics. According to the importation model, Irwin and Cressey (1962) claim that prisoners bring their own social histories and traits with them into prison, and this influences their adaptation to the prison environment. Irwin and Cressey argue that prisoners are not ‘blank slates’ when they enter prison- they import certain characteristics into the prison which encourage aggression. DeLisi et al (2011) found that juvenile delinquents who had a history of substance abuse, anger, childhood trauma and violent behaviour committed more acts of physical violence in institutions compared to a control group of inmates with fewer negative personality traits.

Social Learning Theory of Aggression, figure 1


  • Harer and Steffensmeier (2006) collected data from 58 US prisons and found that black inmates had significantly high rates of violent behaviour but lower rates of alcohol-related and drug-related misconduct than white inmates. These patterns parallel racial differences in these behaviours in US society, supporting the importation model
  • Camp and Gaes (2005) found no difference in aggressive misconduct levels amongst inmates with similar behavioural histories when they were placed either in a low security or higher security prison. This supports the importation model in that the personality of the prisoner was more important in causing aggression in prisons than the prison itself.
  • It has been suggested by Diulio (1991) that the administrative control model is a better explanation for prison violence. The model suggests that if a prison is poorly and inefficiently run, violence will be more likely. The importation model does not consider how well-run the prison is.

Situational explanations: the deprivation model: Situational explanations suggest that aggression in a prison would be due to the conditions of the prison itself, not the personality of the people within it. Clemmer (1958) argued that prisoner or patient aggression is the product of the stressful and oppressive conditions of the institution itself. These conditions include deprivation of freedom, deprivation of goods and services, overcrowding (which increases fear and frustration levels) and staff inexperience. Hodgkinson (1985) found that trainee nurses are more likely to suffer violent assault than experienced nurses.

  • McCorkle et al (1995) found that overcrowding, lack of privacy and lack of meaningful activity all significantly influence peer violence, supporting the predictions of the deprivation model.
  • Cunningham et al (2010) found that motivations for prison murders included arguments over drugs, possessions and relationships, supporting that the deprivations experienced by the prisoners led to the aggressive actions.
  • Hensley et al (2002) found that allowing conjugal visits (the prisoner’s partner visiting them to have sex) was not linked to a decreased likelihood of that prisoner being aggressive, weakening the explanation of the deprivation model.

The Effects of Computer Games

Social Learning Theory of Aggression, figure 1

‘Media’ can be any form of communication channel, such as television and other entertainment channels. One example of media is computer games, in which the player takes an active role in influencing what happens on the screen.

Experimental studies: Bartholow and Anderson (2002) had student participants playing a violent computer game (‘Mortal Kombat’) or a non-violent game (‘PGA Tournament Golf’). They then had the opportunity to blast white noise, an unpleasant, high-frequency sound, at a non-existent opponent, using the Taylor Competitive Reaction Time Task (TCRTT). Those who played Mortal Kombat selected significantly higher white noise levels.

Correlational studies: DeLisi et al (2013) looked at 227 juvenile offenders with histories of aggressive behaviours. They used structured interviews to gather data about their aggression and their computer game-playing habits. Aggressive behaviour was found to be significantly correlated with playing violent video games. The researchers concluded there is a significant link between violent computer game-playing and violent behaviour.

Meta-analyses: Anderson et al (2010) looked at 136 studies, with varying methods, and found that exposure to violent computer games was linked to increases in aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This was true across different types of culture, and was especially true in the better-controlled studies. This strongly suggests an association between the effects of computer games and aggressive actions.

Longitudinal studies: Robertson et al (2013) concentrated on TV rather than video games, but found that those who watched TV for the longest periods of time were more likely to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and have aggressive traits. This effect was seen over 26 years in the 1036 New Zealand-born participants. The amount of TV watched was the key factor, rather than if it had particularly violent content.

Social Learning Theory of Aggression, figure 2


  • Experiments help to establish a cause-effect link between video game-playing and aggression as they take place under controlled conditions, which is a strength. However, experiments cannot use ‘real’ violence. Instead, measures such as the TCRTT have to be used, so the validity of the findings can be challenged as they may not apply to ‘real-life’ aggression.
  • Correlations may show a relationship between video games and aggression, but they can’t determine a causal relationship, just an association. It could be that people with aggressive personalities choose to play violent games, rather than the games causing them to be violent. The direction of causality cannot be known in these studies.
  • Longitudinal studies represent the consumption of media in real-life over many years, so are strengthened by the fact that they are more realistic than, for example, lab experiments. However, longitudinal studies are very hard to control. Many other influences may have an effect on the participants, as the studies are not conducted in controlled conditions. It is therefore hard to know how much effect the media has had on aggressive behaviour.
  • Publication bias may affect meta-analyses, as studies with significant results are more likely to be published than ones which don’t show any relationships. This gives a false impression of the relationship between media and aggression. Although, in Anderson et al’s study, this is unlikely to have affected the results.

Desensitisation Disinhibition & Cognitive Priming

Desensitisation: When violent actions are witnessed, the natural response is one of increased anxiety and physiological arousal. Repeated exposure to violence reduces levels of arousal in response, so leading to less anxiety, so increasing likelihood of aggression. Less empathy is felt for the victims of aggression, and the negative effects of violence are more easily dismissed. Weisz and Earls (1995) found that male participants who watched the film Straw Dogs (which includes a graphic rape scene) were less sympathetic towards a rape victim when they were then shown a re-enactment of a rape trial.

Social Learning Theory of Aggression, figure 1

Disinhibition: This is where the social constraints against aggression are weakened. Normally aggression would be viewed as undesirable and anti-social. However, watching and consuming violent media may give the impression to the viewer that aggression is justifiable in some situations, and violent acts may be shown as being rewarded. Aggression becomes more ‘acceptable’, so the viewer is more likely to use it in real-life situations.

Cognitive priming: Repeated viewing of violence creates ‘scripts’ in the observer of how certain situations play out. These are triggered through aggressive cues, so responding in a violent/aggressive way is more likely, as the person is primed to be aggressive. Fischer and Greitemeyer (2006) found that when male participants listened to rap songs with aggressive, derogatory lyrics towards women, they then behaved more aggressively towards a female confederate. The aggression was shown in making the confederate eat more hot chilli sauce in a taste test (the confederate having expressed a dislike for hot sauce beforehand). The same was true for female participants with a male confederate.


  • Krahe et al (2011) found that participants who regularly viewed violent films showed lower levels of physiological arousal in a skin conductance test when shown violent film clips. They also reported less anxiety and more pleasure when watching the clips, and were more aggressive in a ‘white noise blast’ task. This supports that desensitisation is linked with aggression.
  • Berkowitz and Alioto (1973) found that participants who watched media presenting violent as vengeance (and therefore justified) gave more electric shocks to a confederate. The shocks were fake, but the participants were unaware of this. This supports that disinhibition leads to aggressive behaviours.
  • Bushman and Anderson (2002) suggest it is possible to alter the cognitive ‘scripts’ a person has by encouraging violent people to respond differently in situations that may trigger aggression. This gives the cognitive priming explanation a useful practical application.
What is the idea, in social learning theory, that aggression will be more likely if the child has the expectation and confidence that it will be successful?
Who found that sticklebacks attacked models with red areas?
According to Prentice-Dunn and Rogers, what has to be lowered to cause de-individuation?
Your answer should include: Public / Private / Self-awareness
In a driving experiment, Ellison found more aggression in which condition?
Your answer should include: Roof / Up
What causes prison aggression, according to the importation model?
Your answer should include: Prisoner's / Personalities
According to the frustration-aggression hypothesis, what happens if aggression cannot be directed against the source of frustration?
What does the Taylor Competitive Reaction Time Task involve blasting at an ‘opponent’?
Your answer should include: White / Noise
Which area, deep inside the brain, is linked with aggression?
Your answer should include: Limbic / System
Which protein has been linked with aggression?
What is the lessening of social constraints, making aggressive behaviour more likely?