Outline and evaluate one social psychological theory of aggression. (5 marks + 16 marks)

For this question I discussed social learning theory, but you could equally discuss deindividuation or another theory. Make sure you do not spend too much time on AO1: you only need 5 marks so it should not make up more than a quarter of your answer.

Social Learning Theory (SLT) suggests that children learn aggressive behaviour by observing others acting aggressively. They also learn under what situations people are likely to be rewarded for their aggressive behaviour (this is known as vicarious reinforcement) or punished. As a result, they learn how to perform aggressive acts when appropriate (i.e. when rewards will follow), and will learn not to perform aggressive acts when they will be punished for it.

For social learning to take place, the child must form a mental representation of the behaviour as well as an expectancy of any future outcome of them performing that behaviour. If opportunities for aggressive behaviour arise in the future, the child may display that behaviour provided the expectation of reward is greater than the expectation of punishment.

If a child is rewarded for aggressive behaviour (e.g. by acquiring status or being praised by others), they are more likely to repeat this action in similar situations in the future. Children who are successful when using aggressive behaviour also develop self-efficacy: they will become more confident in their ability to use aggression to achieve what they desire.

SLT is supported by Bandura et al., who 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; the children even improvised their own aggressive actions towards the doll. This was particularly the case when they saw the adult rewarded for their aggressive behaviour, thus supporting the claim that the expectation of reward influences the likelihood of a behaviour being performed.

However, this study lacks validity because the children may have been aware of what was expected of them, leading to them displaying demand characteristics when they were allowed to play with the doll. The study also focuses on aggression toward a doll rather than real-life aggression, meaning the same results may not apply to other settings. However, a subsequent study  using a live clown instead of a doll found similarly high levels of imitation among children, showing that SLT does apply to violence aggression towards other people.

A strength of this theory is that it can explain context-dependent aggression. People behave differently in different situations because they are rewarded for aggressive behaviour in some situations but not in others. This means that SLT is able to predict whether aggressive behaviour is likely in a specific situation dependent on previous experiences.

Another strength of SLT over simpler learning theories is that it can also explain aggressive behaviour in the absence of direct reinforcement. For example, in the children in the Bobo doll studies were never directly reinforced for their own aggressive behaviour; the concept of vicarious reinforcement is necessary to explain their actions.

There is research support for the idea of self-efficacy in the social learning of aggression. Perry et al. found that children who were described as highly aggressive by their peers also reported having greater confidence in their ability to use aggression to resolve conflicts than did children who were rated as less aggressive by their peers. This supports SLTs view that having self-efficacy relating to aggression increases the incidence of aggressive behaviour.

SLT's relevance can be demonstrated by its ability to explain aggression outside the context of the laboratory. Philips found that murder and assault rates in the US almost always increased in the week following a major televised boxing match, suggesting that viewers were imitating the aggressive behaviour they observed in the boxing.

A final strength of this theory of aggressive behaviour is that it can explain cultural differences in aggressive behaviour. For example, aggression among the !Kung San people of Southern Africa is rare. According to SLT, this is because parents neither provide models for aggression (resulting in a lack of opportunities for observational learning), nor do they reward aggressive behaviour in children (resulting in a lack of direct reinforcement). As a result, their is no motivation for children in this culture to act aggressively.

Ethical issues can make SLT difficult to test experimentally, as it is considered unethical to expose children to aggressive behaviour with the knowledge that they may then imitate those acts in their own behaviour. Thus, many of the hypotheses that form a part of this theory of aggression cannot be subjected to experimental validation.


  1. Thanks so much for the essay, it was wonderful (if you can call any essay that) It helped a bunch!

  2. you helped me so much thank you!