Social Learning Theory and Violence Essay

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Aggression and violence have been key concepts in the study of human behavior. Although the definition of aggression varies among authorities, definitions are generally divided into three different schools of thought. These schools form a continuum along which at one end violence is seen as innate psychic energy and at the other end, it is seen as a reaction to one or more external stimuli. Both of these schools of thought take a deterministic approach in explaining aggression and violence. One is biological determinism (human inborn or innate tendencies) and the other is cultural-environment determinism (forces external to individuals or stimuli-response). In other words, schools on one end of the continuum with Freud as the leader believe violence is a psychological drive in human nature, or what Freud called Thanatos (human innate death and destruction instinct). For Freud, nothing is important except the individual’s brain activities in general and the unconscious portion of the brain in particular. What stops an individual from aggression and violence is catharsis. Freud believed that watching or engaging in display of anger diminishes the aggressive and violence drives in human beings—that is, it has a cathartic effect.

At the other end of continuum, the chief proponent is Skinner, who took the position that the human brain is not much more complex than that of lower animals and essentially has nothing to do with human behavior. In this case, an external stimulus such as frustration is seen as a major cause of violence and aggressive behavior. Skinner argued that good and bad behavior are both learned the same way: through external stimuli and individual response (SÆR).

The social learning theory of aggression and violent behavior may be placed in the middle of the same continuum. Social learning theory closes the gap between the two previously discussed schools of thought. Social learning theory, whose major proponent was Bandura, argues that an act of violence in human behavior is neither innate nor based on stimulus and response. He believed that human beings have a tendency to think about and analyze their own reactions to cultural and environmental stimuli. For the social learning theorist, personality is the totality of thinking, feeling, and behaving that is all learned through imitation. Individuals can learn a behavior by simply watching a model. Individuals who are observing certain behaviors that are exhibited by others can be affected and learn from the consequences paid for the behavior. According to social learning theory, this is called vicarious learning. Individuals learn behaviors by just watching or observing others engaged in them. Therefore, for social learning theory, the relationship is expressed as external stimuli (S), individual observation (O), and then the individual response (R), or SÆOÆR.

Social Learning Theory And Family Violence

With regard to family violence, social learning theory states that people model behavior to which they were exposed to as children. Violence is learned through observing role models such as parents, siblings, or significant others in the family. Violent behavior is reinforced throughout childhood and continued in the adult lives of individuals as a coping mechanism for dealing with everyday stress. Children observe violence as well as emotional triggers for violence and the circumstances and consequences of violence. Whether the observed behavior is learned or not depends on both the observed consequences of the behavior and the expected outcome of using the behavior. Social learning theory states that children who grow up in violent environments use violence because they have observed more functionally positive than negative consequences of the observed behavior (e.g., an overpowered mother became submissive to the father’s wishes). As a result, they have formed a positive outcome expectation for such behavior. If a child observes more negative consequences for the violent behavior, then the child will not engage in the violent behavior. Moreover, generally speaking, children who grow up in families who do not have constructive strategies and who witness their family handling frustration with anger and aggression display the same behavior when they encounter the same situation. Of course, the same observed behavior may produce different consequences for different members of the same group as was mentioned above.

Additionally, children who are exposed to violence in their family of origin develop more tolerance for violent behavior and consider violence as the ultimate resource when a situation is perceived as calling for it. There are numerous studies that have found evidence for a multigenerational cycle of violence in which violent behavior in certain circumstances gets passed on from one generation to another through vicarious learning or being directly or indirectly subjected to the violent act in the family of origin. These children grow up to become more physically abusive toward their own children and their own spouses. These children can learn to be perpetrators as well as victims of violence. Furthermore, there are a number of studies suggesting that individuals do not just randomly select their intimate partners or friends. Individuals select partners and friends with whom they can be comfortable and who can meet their expectations. Therefore, if one is used to violence and sees violence as an ultimate resource to deal with anger, one may be more inclined to seek a partner whom one can victimize to fulfill that role.


  1. Bandura, A. (1978). Social learning theory of aggression. Journal of Communication, 28(3), 12–29.
  2. Foshee, V., Bauman, E., & Linder, F. (1999). Family violence and perpetration of adolescent dating violence: Examining social learning and social control processes. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 331–342.
  3. Mihalic, S., & Elliott, D. (1997). A social learning theory model of marital violence. Journal of Family Violence, 12, 21–47.

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