Mechanisms in the Association Between Abuse and Violence: Learning

One mechanism in the association between abuse and violence is learning. Early learning theorists recognized the role of modeling in the learned aggressive behavior of children (e.g., Bandura, 1973). The principle of modeling was demonstrated most stunningly by Bandura in his Bobo doll experiments where children were shown a film of a woman hitting a blow-up clown doll and later imitated the woman by hitting the doll themselves during free play. Children may also learn to commit violence through the process of vicarious reinforcement. If an individual sees someone else performing a behavior and that individual is rewarded or punished, the viewer is more or less likely to attempt the behavior. Thus, parents who physically abuse their children and are seen as “winning” may be imitated. Children learn that physical aggression is normal and effective (Gershoff, 2002).

Another important line of research examines the learning of cognitive styles and social information processing. Children who are victimized or who witness violence are likely to develop complex cognitive scripts which include violent responses in particular situations (e.g., Huesmann, Dubow, & Boxer, 2011). Authors have envisioned a five-step cognitive process involving encoding social cues, interpreting those cues, searching for a response among a repertoire of possible responses, making a decision about how to respond and enacting the response (Perry et al., 1990).

Dodge’s (1993) social- information processing model of behavior is widely known, studied, and discussed in the published literature on childhood aggression. The learning of hostile attribution biases and other social cognitive processing biases are thought, by some, to be the reason why abused children (Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1990) or rejected children (Hodges et al., 2003) are more likely to be delinquent. The abused child learns to interpret hazy situations as threatening, ambiguous behavior as hostile. He also develops a set of aggressive scripts for responding to situations that normal children would rightly recognize as ambiguous. For these reasons, we might expect that physical abuse would have a greater association with violence than sexual abuse or neglect would.

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