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The Secret Twist In the Bobo Doll Experiments That Turned Kids Mean

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The Bobo Doll experiments are famous for establishing that kids who watch violent behavior are more likely to display violent tendencies. But the original experiments had a twist that most people never hear about. Learn how the experimenters wound children up.

In 1961, Albert Bandura, a psychologist and professor at Stanford, made a name for himself. It's a name that many a gamer and tv show fan has cursed. Bandura did a series of experiments that indicated that when children observe violence, they tend to display violence themselves. The Bobo Doll experiments are cited whenever people talk about overly-violent cartoons or video games and their effect on Today's Youth. The original series of experiments, however, was sharply criticized, because the scientists didn't just watch to see what kids did - they primed the kids to do something aggressive.


The procedure for the 1961 series of experiments took place in three successive rooms. In the first room, which was filled with toys, the kids were told that the toys in one corner were for adults only. They might have worked that out for themselves, because an adult sat in the corner, wailing on a Bobo doll with a toy mallet. The adult also said things like "punch him," and "throw him up in the air." (At least, that's what happened half the time. The other half of the time, the adult just sat quietly, ignoring the doll and playing with the other toys in the corner.)

The kids were then taken to a second room, also filled with toys, where another adult invited them to play with the toys. The play lasted for two minutes. This is where a lot of the criticism for the experiment comes in. After two minutes, the adult told the child that they were no longer allowed to play with any of the toys. The toys were to be saved for other children who could play with them. The experimenters did this deliberately, to make the children frustrated and angry.


After that, the children were taken to a final room, with many toys and a Bobo doll, and told they could play with anything. The ones who had seen the adult aggressively playing with the Bobo doll in the first room were much more likely to aggressively play with it themselves.

We can all admit that what kids (and adults) read and consume probably does have some influence on their behavior. Maybe it influences us to the extent that we'd be better human beings in a better society if, instead of watching Game of Thrones, we watched something entitled Cooperative Farming With Dany and Her Friendly Dragons. Still, there is a difference between a kid imitating aggressive behavior spontaneously and a kid being deliberately provoked by adults, and then set loose on a toy that had been previously forbidden to them.

Two years later Bandura re-did the Bobo Doll experiment, this time having kids merely watch a Bobo doll being mistreated and then putting them in a room with one - without trying to make them mad first. Again, kids who saw aggressive treatment of the doll were more likely to get aggressive with the doll. Attach whatever meaning to that that you think is appropriate.

[Via Bandura and Bobo, Observational Learning and the Bobo Doll.]