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What Was the Bobo Doll Experiment?

Monkey see, monkey do is an American English idiom that says children learn by imitating what they see others do. Some etymologists trace the origin to an old African folk tale about a traveling hat salesman who took a nap under a tree. While he was sleeping, his entire inventory of hats was stolen by monkeys who then climbed up into the tree out of his reach. Upon waking and seeing the monkeys with his hats, the salesman gestured wildly and screamed angrily at the monkeys, only to have them imitate his gesturing and screaming. Finally he threw his own hat to the ground in frustration. The monkeys did the same.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

Many people think that the violence children observe in television programs, movies, and video games leads them to behave aggressively. Others disagree, always a good place from which to launch an experiment.

Nursery school kids were brought into a playroom that had several items and activities to explore

An adult was brought into the playroom and invited to sit at a table across the room from the child under observation. 

The adult would begin by playing with a set of Tinkertoysan assemble-the-pieces-as-you-wish Lego precursor. In the non-aggressive group, the adult ignored the Bobo doll. In the group with the aggressive model, the adult would suddenly drop the Tinkertoys and violently attack the Bobo doll. The adult kicked the Bobo doll around the room and repeatedly punched it in the nose before picking up a large wooden mallet and hitting the doll in the head with it. These physically aggressive acts were repeated three times, interspersed with verbally aggressive phrases.

After ten minutes of watching the adult, the child was taken alone to another room that held a large variety of toys. After playing with whatever toys they wanted for two minutes, the children were told they were no longer allowed to play with any of them. This was done to build the kids’ frustration levels.

In the final phase, the child was taken to a third room and left alone with an equal number of non-aggressive and aggressive toys, including dart guns, a mallet, and a Bobo doll. During the 20 minutes the children were allowed to play in this room, the observers watched from behind a one-way mirror and rated each child’s level of aggression.

Albert Bandura was the social psychologist who designed the Bobo Doll Experiment

He worked his way up in the Stanford University Psychology Department to become the chairman. Bandura was awarded the most prestigious scientific award in the United States, the National Medal of Science.

Bandura worked a lot with children

One of the things that interested him was the hotly-debated question about whether or not aggression and violence were learned behaviors. His experiment divided nursery school kids into three groups:

  • Group One watched as an adult behaved aggressively.
  • Group Two watched as an adult did only non-aggressive things. 
  • Group Three saw no adult at all. 

The last group was what is called a control group, study subjects who are kept separate from the rest of the experiment so they cannot be influenced by anyone else’s behavior. This technique is used to effectively rule out alternate explanations of experimental findings. You may be familiar with the use of this sort of control group in those medical tests where one group gets the real medicine and another is given a pill without knowing it is only a mock medicine with no therapeutic value. The differences in the results are assumed to be the effect of the medicine and nothing else. Doctors call this non-medical pill a placebo.

Albert Bandura designed the Bobo Doll Experiment to test his theory

Ever the scientist, before beginning the experiment, he put forth these hypotheses:

  • Children who had observed adults acting aggressively would be likely to act aggressively when the adults were not present.
  • Children who had observed non-aggressive adults would be less aggressive than those who observed aggressive adults.
  • Boys would behave more aggressively than girls.

Rather than settling the argument, the results inflamed people who argued the results were meaningless because

  • A lab setting is not the real world.
  • Inflatable dolls are not people.
  • Kids who hit the doll were not being aggressive, but merely trying to please the adults.
  • The study actually had the perverse effect of teaching the children to be aggressive.

Sixty years later the debate continues, each side trotting out their own studies to prove their point

  • The American Association of Family Physicians says there is a strong association between children being exposed to violence shown by television, movies, and video games and their likelihood to behave violently. 
  • The television, movie, and video game industries say there is no association at all. 
  • The National Rifle Association says violent television, movies, and video games are the primary causes of mass violence.
  • The U.S. Secret Service and the FBI say they are not.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court says violent video games may have benefits as well as risks – a mighty fine bit of fence-straddling.

The results of Bandura’s Bobo Experiment showed 

  • Children who observed aggressive adults were more aggressive afterwards.
  • Children who observed non-aggressive adults were less aggressive.
  • Boys behaved more aggressively than girls.

Researchers are still struggling to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to media violence and violent behavior. Based upon the evidence shown above, what do you think?


The Joe Palooka Bop Bag was a popular child’s toy in the early 1950’s. The tagline used to promote it said “The Joe Palooka Bop Bag takes a terrific beating and comes right back for more.” It is making enough of a comeback that reproductions are available here on Amazon.

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