Ethical Dilemma: Bobo Doll Experiment

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Ethical Dilemma: Bobo Doll Experiment

The psychological experiments on people always present ethical dilemmas. Many of them might be avoided. However, in some cases, it is not possible. One of such examples is the Bobo doll experiment that was meant to study the development of aggression in children. Despite the fact that it has provided psychologists with invaluable data, the ethical concerns it has presented allow questioning its feasibility. Therefore, the following research focuses on providing insight into the Bobo doll experiment, defining its outcome and ethical issues, as well as the ways of solving them. Additionally, the work reviews the possibility of conducting the similar study in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Description of the Experiment

The outline of the experiment was as following. The children at the age of three to six with an average level of aggression were divided into groups. Each child was tested individually in order to eliminate the influence of other participants. Depending on the group they were in, the children were shown one of the two following scenes. In the first one, an adult was battering Bobo (an inflatable doll of about one meter in height), beating it with hands and a hammer, throwing and kicking it, as well as verbally assaulting it. In the second one, an adult ignored the doll completely (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2010).

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After watching the scene, the children were placed in a room where there were plenty of attractive toys. However, they were allowed to play with them only for a short time. Next, the upset kids were transferred to a room with the Bobo doll as well as both usual and aggressive toys, such as a hammer, rope, and guns. The children were allowed to play there for 20 minutes, while the experimenter watched their actions through a bilateral mirror, noting the level of aggression of every kid (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2010).

The original conductor of the experiment was Albert Bandura, i.e. a Canadian and American psychologist known for his work on the theory of social learning (social cognitivism). By doing the experiment, he was seeking to study the aggression in children, suggesting that its formation and development occurs through observation and interaction with other people. The test was executed in the United States in 1961, on the base of Stanford University in Stanford, California (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2010).

The importance of the study is supported by the fact that there is still no single opinion regarding the violence observed by children in movies, on television, and in video games as a trigger for the formation of their aggressive behavior. This question is hotly debated today since the aggression is at the root of most social evils, violence, and wars. Thus, it is not surprising that it has become one of the most profound studies of social psychology (Davies, 2010).

The research has confirmed most of the assumptions of Bandura. In particular, he agreed that with the theory of behaviorism, according to which learning happens through encouragement (e.g. dolphin did a trick and received a fish). However, he also proposed a hypothesis stating that the people, namely children, learn not only through the method of a carrot and stick. However, they can do this by using their ability to emulate and imitate the behavior of others. Indeed, the children that participated in the experiment demonstrated an ability to imitate a pattern of behavior of adults in their absence. Additionally, Bandura and his colleagues predicted that the children from a non-aggressive group would behave more calmly than the others. The results have also showed the importance of gender differences to the development of aggression. In particular, the boys demonstrated the desire to imitate the model of physical violence while the girls preferred verbal aggression. The researchers also proved to be right in their assumption that the boys would be much more insistent than girls. The boys showed two or more acts of aggression while the girls were confined to its single manifestation (Pastorino & Doyle-Portillo, 2015).

In general, the results of Bobo doll experiment have confirmed the theory of Bandura. The study has demonstrated how certain models of behavior may be learned by observation and imitation, as well as the fact that social imitation may accelerate the acquisition of new behaviors. According to the conclusions of Bandura, the aggressive behavior of adults towards the doll allowed children to assume that such action is acceptable. As a result, the children entrenched the aggressive pattern of behavior in response to any problem (Shaffer, 2009).

Ethical Concerns

The Bobo doll experiment had a significant impact both on children that took part in it and psychology, as a whole. In the first case, many kids demonstrated the ability to reproduce the aggressive behavior patterns several months after the end of the study. However, it has also made a revolution in psychology by demonstrating that the children can use the models of behavior as a means of acquiring new behaviors that would not have developed otherwise. For the scientific community of the time, which was dominated by behaviorism and did not consider modeling as something significant, such statement was a novelty. Theorists of the old school believed that children produced the new types of behavior only by chance and only in the case of encouragement that these types of behavior are memorized. The study has shown that kidscan learn new behavioral patterns by watching other people and are able to demonstrate them without any encouragement. Thus, the Bobo doll experiment has laid the foundations of the social learning theory (Shaffer, 2009).

As it has been mentioned before, one of the outcomes of the Bobo doll experiment was the children’s reproduction of aggressive behavior. As a result, it presents an ethical issue of permissibility of involving children in such study. The issue is exacerbated by the young age of participants (3-6 years).It means they are quite susceptible to both positive and negative external influence (Banyard & Flanagan, 2011). It should be noted that the frontal lobe of a human brain, which is often considered the source of morality and serves as a regulator of complex forms of human behavior. It is underdeveloped at this age. As a result, kids are unable to separate fiction from reality, meaning that they are likely to reproduce the aggressive patterns they have acquired during the experiment in the everyday life. Moreover, it is impossible to predict how long the aggressive tendencies acquired during the experiment will remain in the ranks of behavioral models of kids. They may disappear after several days, weeks or, as it has been mentioned before, months. However, there is no guarantee that the learned patterns of aggression will not last for the participant’s lifetime, thus making him/her potentially dangerous for the society (Kellett, 2010).

Considering the young age of the children that took part in the study, it is possible to say as follows. Such concepts as the informed consent are applicable not to them but rather to their parents or guardians. Given the fact that the first experiment was conducted on the basis of Stanford University nursery school, and, most importantly, had been carried out several times, it is possible to assume the following fact. The participation of children in it was a matter of personal choice of their parents and guardians. As a result, one may say that no cases of coercion, deception, or lack of the informed consent were taking place during the course of study (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2010).

The study has been replicated many times by Bandura, with changes in the looks of the doll, the outline of the experiment, etc. In particular, in 1963, Bandura repeated the experiment while making several adjustments. In this case, the children were shown not only the act of violence towards the Bobo doll but also its consequences (the adult model was either punished or encouraged for its actions). As a result, the kids received an additional motivation for their further actions. Those that watched the adult model being punished for beating the doll were less likely to show the aggressive behavior (Plotnik & Kouyoumdjian, 2010).


It is clear that the involvement of such highly perceptive participants as children in psychological studies such as the Bobo doll experiment is highly undesirable. It is due to various ethical concerns. As it has been mentioned above, the kids that were engaged in it demonstrated increased levels of aggression in a short-term period (i.e. several months). However, there is no denying that in order for people to understand and control the impact of potentially dangerous phenomena of the surrounding reality (i.e. aggression) on a person, it is required to conduct psychological experiments on people. As it has been mentioned before, the Bobo doll experiment had a significant impact on psychology in a long-term perspective, laying the foundations for the social learning theory. It is often perceived as the most significant trend in the study of development of kids. Indeed, according to the point of view that was dominant in psychology at that time, the behavior of an individual depended only on personal or situational factors, excluding cognitive structures and processes. However, a man is not completely free of his own nature, which has been demonstrated by the experiment (Shaffer, 2009). Therefore, it is possible to say that the value of the study conducted by Bandura makes the following fact clear. Despite all the ethical concerns presented it still should have taken place.

Any psychological experiment involving living people presents various ethical issues (especially the one that focuses on the research of aggression). Thus, it is clear that these concerns cannot be eliminated completely. However, it is possible to reduce their significance by minimizing the potential adverse effects of the study. In other words, in case there is a possibility of harming participants, the research activities should include the protection from the harmful effects. In case of the Bobo doll experiment, it is possible to change the age of the children, by raising it to 8-12 years. The primary reason for such a change is the fact that at this age, the kids are already capable of distinguishing reality from fiction. In turn, the risk of the long-term prevalence of aggressive behavioral patterns they have acquired during the study will be lower. It will, thus, reduce the described ethical concern (Martin, 2008).

The participation in the study similar to the Bobo doll experiment as a member of the research team presents a chance to observe the mechanism of social learning directly. Considering that nowadays, learning models are constantly provided by the media, the additional knowledge of this matter may allow mitigating their potential negative impact on oneself. Thus, the participation in such experiment is quite feasible. At the same time, the outline of study must be adjusted to provide the maximum level of comfort both for participants and observers. In particular, some replicas of the research involved female adult models performing the acts of violence. However, the presence of aggression in women is not expected. It may put the participants (especially children) in the state of shock. Therefore, it would be best if only the male models were used to imitate aggression (Kellett, 2010).

In case the similar study has been conducted in the UAE, the outline of the experiment and its outcomes will be different due to the cultural peculiarities regarding the process of upbringing of children. First of all, in this country, it is believed that one must pay for everything. This statement is applicable to any sphere of life, including the process of upbringing. Any event is perceived by the Arabs as a good opportunity to teach a lesson to their children. The same one can be said about the described study, meaning that it is unlikely that there will be any obstacles to its organization. However, its results will differ from the original ones in the terms of non-aggression. The reason for that is the indisputable authority of the head of the family in the UAE. This cultural relevance is important for the younger generation, especially boys. Moreover, the strict hierarchy between a son and a father requires no fewer efforts from the latter ones. The head of a family must ensure that every step of his offspring will bring him nothing but pride (Valassopoulos, 2013). Thus, it is unlikely that the male half of participants will resort to violence during the experiment and, therefore, dishonor their fathers.

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As a conclusion, it is possible to say that despite all the ethical issues it presents, the Bobo doll experiment has allowed to bring the study of the children’s development to a new level. Of course, it would be better to involve the older participants in it to reduce the concerns, as well as to refrain from the use of female models. Still, the fact that it was replicated many times contributes to its relevance for psychology. At the same time, the conduction of this research in the countries different from those of the Western world (e.g. the UAE) may lead to a significant change in its results due to cultural issues and peculiarities.