By Warren Blumenfeld
Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein reminded us in one of the songs, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” in their 1949 Broadway musical, South Pacific that:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught….
President Obama echoed this sentiment at the recent White House Countering Violent Extremism Summit when he said that “Children learn to hate.”
The developmental and educational psychologist, Albert Bandura, proposed that young people learn primarily through observation, and that one’s culture transmits social mores and what Bandura called “complex competencies” through social modeling. As he noted, the root meaning of the word “teach” is “to show.”
Society presents many role models along a continuum, from very positive and affirming to very negative, biased, aggressive, and destructive. Modeling, he asserted, encompasses more than concrete actions, which he referred to as “response mimicry,” but also involves abstract concepts, “abstract modeling,” such as following rules, taking on values and beliefs, making moral and ethical judgments.
As young people observe negative role modeling in their societies, at home, in the media, at school, and other social sites, this can result in them taking on prejudicial judgments and aggressive or violent behaviors. Youth can learn behaviors, like verbal and physical aggression, by observing and imitating others even in the absence of behavioral reinforcements.
Bandura found in his “Bobo Doll Experiments” that young people can be highly influenced by observing adult behavior, and perceive that such behavior is acceptable, while freeing their own aggressive inhibitions. They are then more likely to behave aggressively in future situations.
He devised this research experiment to determine whether adult modeling resulted in either aggressive or non-aggressive behaviors in young children. His participants included 36 boys and 36 girls, plus a “control group” of 24 members. The average age of the participants and control group members was 4-years-of-age.
An adult researcher took each individual participant into a room of “non-aggressive toys” (including crayons and tinker toys) and “aggressive toys” (wooden mallet and Bobo doll –a very large inflated figure in the form of a clown with sand at its base to keep it upright.) Once in the room, the children were each told that only the adult could play with the toys, and that the participants must watch.
For the control group, no adult was present, and the control group members could play with any toys of their choice.
For half of the participants, the adult played with tinker toys for one minute. Then for the next nine minutes, the adult attacked the Bobo doll with verbal insults, violently kicked and punched it, and whacked it over its head with the mallet. For the remaining half of the participants, the adult model played with tinker toys and ignored the Bobo doll for the entire 10-minute experiment.
Each participant was then taken individually into another playroom with toys: airplane, fire engine, doll set. To instill anger and frustration, the experimenter told each participant that they could play with toys in this room for short time only, and then the toys were reserved for other children.
Following this, the young participants were taken individually into a third room, and left alone for 20 minutes to play with aggressive toys (Bobo doll, wooden mallet, dart guns, tetherball with a face painted on it, and others) and non-aggressive toys (paper and crayons, tea set, dolls, a ball, cars, trucks, plastic farm animals). Experimenters observed each participant and control group member behind a one-way mirror, and they evaluated behaviors on measures of aggressive behavior.
Researchers discovered that participants who observed aggressive adult modeling were much more likely to exhibit physical and verbal aggressive behaviors when left alone in the third room, as opposed to children who were exposed to non-aggressive models or no model. The experiment proved that children can learn behaviors, like verbal and physical aggression, by observing and imitating others, even in absence of behavioral reinforcements.
I have learned many lessons in my studies of genocides perpetrated throughout the ages. Strong leaders whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups, while other citizens or entire nations either join in the attack, or condone the actions by often refusing to intervene. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a vital role in the genocides.
On a micro level, this is also apparent, for example, in episodes of schoolyard, community-based, as well as electronic forms of bullying. According to the American Medical Association definition:
“Bullying is a specific type of aggression in which the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one.”
When we talk about “violent extremism,” yes, we need to investigate groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boco Haram, Khorasan, al-Shabab, Hamas, Hesbollah, Aryan Brotherhood, Christian Identity, Ku Klux Klan, American Front, Aryan Republican Army, Citizens Councils, and the White Patriot Party among other. However, we need also to see violent extremism in other and less obvious guises in our own backyards.
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).