What became known as the “Bobo doll study” (Bandura, 1965a) is arguably one of the most famous studies conducted under the guise of social learning theory. Through it, Bandura demonstrated that aggression could be learned by observing aggressive behavior in others (as cited in Mazur, 1994). This study also underscored the distinction between acquisition and performance of new behaviors. In this experiment, children watched a short film of an adult acting aggressively—punching, kicking, shouting, etc.—toward a large, inflatable rubber doll. The children were then assigned to three groups—the first group saw the model rewarded for his aggressive behavior, the second group saw the model punished, and the third group saw the model receive no consequences. When the children were then given an opportunity to play with a similar doll, the children who saw the model rewarded or the model who received no consequences exhibited the most aggressive behavior, while the children who saw the model punished exhibited the least. That the latter group showed the least aggressive behavior demonstrated the principle of vicarious punishment. In a second phase of the study, the same children were told they would be rewarded if they exhibited the behavior of the model; all the children were able to imitate the aggressive behavior, suggesting that all had originally learned the behavior, but not all had demonstrated it (depending on which type of consequence they observed).
As a result of the “Bobo doll study” and other similar studies, educators and parents became concerned about the influence of television and media. If children learned aggression by observing it in others firsthand, could they also learn it by watching TV characters, cartoon or otherwise? Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1963) believed the answer was “yes” (as cited in Ormrod, 1990, p. 177). They demonstrated that children who observed aggressive behavior by an adult or a cartoon character in a film exhibited just as much aggression as those who had witnessed the live model. As Ormrod (1990) concludes, “Even cartoons that display violent behaviors, including such classics as ‘Tom and Jerry’ and ‘Roadrunner,’ may not be as harmless as they appear” (p. 177). Others have criticized such conclusions, however, arguing that such studies show correlation between aggression and watching violent TV, but do not prove causation (Mazur, 1994). [. . .]