Observation, Imitation, and Coping With Stress

Any parent knows that children learn a great deal by observing others, and then they show this learning by imitating what they observed. I (CB) will never forget a time when my daughter was playing with her Barbie Townhouse, and apparently Barbie did something that was against the rules. My daughter began scolding Barbie and I was stunned as I realized, “Good lord, that’s me!” Yep, I heard exactly what I say to my daughter when I’m scolding her. She had me down pat: same voice tone, same words, same articulation, same everything!

            In the 1970s, American society – and Congress – took notice of psychologist Albert Bandura’s research on social learning by observation, and began to question the appropriateness of violence in TV and movies, especially when likely to be viewed by children and teenagers. For instance, Bandura’s work showed that aggressive tendencies in children can increase after watching films of aggressive behavior in an adult.

            The relationship is not simple, however. Additional research showed that we cannot merely place children in front of a TV, let them watch violence, and turn them into bullies or worse. Whether or not a child imitates violent behavior on TV depends on a host of other factors: Did the child see the TV depiction as real, or enacted? (If real, imitation more likely.) Did the child identify with the aggressive characters, and see them as heroes to be admired? (If yes, imitation more likely.) Was the violence rewarded? (If yes, imitation more likely.) Was the child’s current home environment relatively cold, unloving, unsupportive, and rejecting, with harsh physical punishment used by parents? (If yes, imitation more likely). Similar findings occurred with adults. That is, adults were more likely to imitate violent portrayals in realistic settings like news and documentary programs; when the violence was justified; when it was graphic and realistic; and when the viewer closely identified with the perpetrator, and saw them as similar to the viewer.

            There are important lessons in these results that are relevant to coping with stress, and learning how to live a life with purpose and a social conscience. First, it’s clear that we’re not going to show a young person a violent movie, or give them a book about transgenders, or assign homework about racism, and produce a violent adult, or a person who will question their gender identity, or a racist. There are multiple other factors that must be present and, in fact, factors that provide teaching moments for supportive parents, mentors, teachers, coaches, etc. about the value of critical thinking. As we discussed earlier (2.3.2023), many parents bypass the teaching moment and decide to keep controversial material from their kids by banning books and controlling the local school board. Doing so, however, robs those youngsters of the chance to develop flexibility in their perceptions, attitudes, and behavior, flexibility that is essential to coping with the challenges that life inevitably presents. Restricting a child’s learning opportunities also makes it tough for enlightened parents to instill flexibility by grabbing onto those teaching moments provided by controversial material.

            Second, the data on social learning through observation show us the importance of empathy in understanding and interacting with others. If we can’t see things from another’s perspective, how can we hope to communicate with them in positive and productive ways? If a White, male, heterosexual high-school senior has never been exposed to the history of racism and misogyny in the US, or read about the dynamics of fluid sexual identity in a few individuals, or the inner conflicts driving bullies, how can he relate to individuals in those groups? Educational exposure to those other perspectives is not designed to make our senior student want to become a female, or a bully, or a racist, or a homosexual; it’s designed to increase understanding and empathy, so he can realize that those with other perspectives do not pose a threat to him, and may themselves suffer from emotional turmoil.

            The coping lessons here are clear: flexibility in your attitudes and actions is essential to coping successfully with stressors in your life; without that flexibility, you will have a difficult time relating to and interacting with others in productive ways. You will always be confronted with options when you are conflicted. If you are rigid and unbending in your beliefs about what’s going on around you, it will be impossible to choose the options that are best for you in the long run. Also, if you cannot understand others, you will be forced to limit your contacts to those who reinforce your rigid beliefs. Over the long run, that strategy will bring you discomfort, negative emotions, and self-sabotaging actions that can compromise your physical and emotional well-being.

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