Social Learning Theory and Relational Aggression

I. Introduction

Social Learning Theory and Sibling Relational Aggression are related.  The study being examined uses social learning theory to look at the role of sibling relationships and parent-child relationships in sibling relational aggression.  The study is a short-term study that is done over time, and uses several aspects of social learning theory (to be discussed later) to understand the exact roles that different social situations have on relational aggression.

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II. Study Description and Findings

The main question in this study is to what extent is sibling relational aggression affected by other aspects of the sibling and parent-child relationship?  The study looked at many different dimensions of these relationships, including the amount of positive/negative interactions between siblings, how relational aggression played into this, parents’ effect on the siblings both directly and indirectly, and how the sibling relationship related to the peer relationships.  The researchers theorized that the younger children and girls would be more affected by relational aggression and other negativity than boys or older children because of the way that girls relate to others and that younger children tend to look up to older siblings more.

This study took place over three years, and included only families that had non-divorced two-parent households, two kids (the older in 8th – 10th grade, and the younger one to three years younger than the older).  Most of the participants were white, middle-income families.  Throughout the study, the researchers did yearly home visits and nightly telephone calls to the children (7 in a row following a home visit), some of which the parents participated in as well (4 nights).  These phone calls asked about what the kids did during the day, including how much time they spent on each activity, whether their sibling or parent was involved, and a number of surveys that related to relational aggression (i.e. “does your sibling say s/he won’t like you if you don’t do things his/her way?), parental favoritism (i.e. “who does your parent seem to like better?”), and parental time (i.e. “who does your parent spend more time with?”).  All of this data was carefully looked at to find patterns among siblings, relationships, and parent-child relationships.

Many of the results matched the predictions.  For example, if siblings had a high degree of relational aggression, there was a lower degree of intimacy in their relationship.  There was not, however, any difference in this finding depending on whether a boy or girl was the older sibling, and whether the sibling pairs were same or opposite sex.  Negativity and relational aggression were also found to be highly correlated.

As far as parental effects, greater parental warmth predicted a better relationship between the siblings.  Interestingly, maternal parental involvement had no effect on relational aggression, but paternal involvement predicted much lower levels of relational aggression.  As far as parental warmth, general scales predicted no difference in relational aggression.  However, younger siblings reported less aggression when they perceived equal treatment.  Also interesting, when the pair of siblings involved two girls, relational aggression was highest when the younger sister was favored, and lower for both equal treatment and the older being favored.  Relating to time that fathers spent with their children, the least aggression was found when the father favored the older sibling, and more was found for both equal treatment and the younger being favored.

For parents’ direct effects on aggression, parental coaching regarding social situations showed no effect on aggression.  However, maternal intervention caused an increase in sibling conflict.  Further research showed that this effect was true for girls, but not boys.  Paternal intervention was also more strongly correlated with girls than boys.

III. Use of Social Learning Theory

This study specifically looks at aspects of social learning theory.  That is, the researchers are looking at how different social aspects affected relational aggression.  One aspect of the theory is that “people can learn by observing the behavior of others,” as occurred in some sibling pairs. Another aspect is “people are reinforced for modeling the behavior of others.”  It is very likely that younger siblings in this study are modeling the behavior of the older siblings in relational situations.  In fact, this was one of the primary ideas the researchers had.

“Contemporary theory proposes that both reinforcement and punishment have indirect effects on learning. They are not the sole or main cause.”  This is shown in the result about the mother’s direct affect on relational aggression.  Coaching had no effect, but interference increased aggression.  Parental interference may be reinforcement or punishment, depending on which side of the argument the kids are on.  However, this did not show the most significant effect on learning, but only an indirect effect.

Because so many of the categories had little to no effect (or a surprising effect), it is important to note that in Bandura’s theory says that people can learn without showing any outward effects.  That is, their behavior does not have to change in order for them to have learned.  It is likely that a lot more learning went on in many of these situations, based on answers to questionnaires, but there was not as much shown upon observation.

IV. Appropriateness of Social Learning Theory

This theory is a good theory for this research project because it allows the researchers to look at behavior without needing to actually observe differences.  Self-reported data was good enough.  In contrast, strict behaviorists would say that any behavior that could not be directly observed could not be understood or theorized about.  Bandura’s theories provide internal motivations and explanations for behavior that do not require this direct observation.

Social learning theory also assesses how people learn through social interaction, which is the entire purpose of this experiment.  The initial research question looks at how sibling interactions are affected by several different dimensions of social interactions.  Social learning theory, therefore, is the most appropriate way to examine these questions.

V. Conclusion

In conclusion, there are several factors that influence relational aggression between siblings, especially the father’s influence.  Research suggests this is because fathers relate to children in a social or leisure way, rather than a nurturing way, like mothers.  This finding is very interesting, and shows how important a father-child relationship is to the children’s social development.  In general, positive familial relationships related to lower levels of sibling relational aggression.