The bobo doll experiment was carried out in 1961 by Albert Bandura. He hoped to prove that human behaviour was learnt rather than inherited, and that the aggressive behaviour of children could be increased by exposing them to aggressive role models. While this study produced data that are still debated by psychologists and sociologists today, the design of the experiment brings up some important ethical concerns.
Three groups of children aged 3 to 6 were selected from a nursery school. These children were placed, one at a time, in a room filled with toys. These toys included a bobo doll, an inflatable doll that would return to an upright position when knocked down. One group of children was accompanied by an adult who spent several minutes striking the bobo doll with a mallet while using aggressive language, then left the children alone to play. The second group was exposed to an adult who sat and played with them in a quiet and nonaggressive manner for several minutes, then left the children alone. The third group was left to play in the room without any adults present. Their activities were monitored through one-way glass, and video recordings were made.
The primary ethical concern in performing psychological experiments on children is the issue of consent. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) Code of Ethics, subjects of psychological experimentation must give informed consent to participate in the experiment. Children are considered incapable of giving informed consent. While it is possible for parents or guardians to give consent on behalf of their children, Bandura's paper suggests that consent was obtained only from the teachers of the children involved.
All information regarding experimental subjects is considered confidential unless the subjects give their explicit consent to have it published. This includes names, photographs, videos and descriptions of how the subjects acted or responded during the study. Because the subjects in this case were all children, all this information should have remained confidential. Instead, videos of the children undertaking the experiment were published and widely circulated. This violates current ethical standards for both consent and privacy.
The most basic rule of ethics in human experimentation is to minimise possible harm to the subjects. If there is any possibility of physical, mental or emotional harm, the subjects must be fully informed of the risks and their consent obtained. Bandura's stated goal in the experiment was to increase the aggressive tendencies in young children by exposing them to aggressive role models. This sort of behavioural modification would be considered mental harm by modern ethical codes, especially if the subjects are young children.
- Experiment Resources: Bobo Doll Experiment
- Nelson Thomes: Social Psychological Theories of Aggression
- Simply Psychology; Practical and Ethical Issues in Planning Research; Martyn Barrett
- Psychology Information for Students; Kevin Brewer and Elizabeth Williams; March 2004
- American Psychological Association Code of Ethics