Chelsea and the Bobo Doll
by Kristine Ong Muslim
Conducted in 1961 and 1963, the famous Bobo doll experiment of Albert Bandura was able to shed light on the nature of human aggression. The Bobo doll experiment showed that children readily “learn” aggression by imitating the aggressive behavior of others.
In the experiment, the Bobo doll, a plastic clown, was violently attacked by an adult “model.” A video of the aggressive behavior towards the doll was shown to each child involved in the test group. When the children were afterwards placed in a room filled with attractive toys, they had no interest to touch the toys. But when they were led inside a room that housed toys that looked like the Bobo doll, they imitated the violent behavior they saw on the video.
Divided into a test group and a control group, there were 36 children in all, ages 3 to 6 years. All of them were from the Stanford Nursery School. Around 88% of the children in the test group copied the aggressive behavior towards the Bobo doll. After eight months, approximately 40% of the same children were observed to have retained the same violent behavior towards the Bobo doll.[i] The experiment was still controversial to this day.
In 2008, a study conducted by Vanderbilt University’s Craig Kennedy and Maria Couppis showed that the brain treats aggression as a form of reward, thus showing insight into many people’s predilection towards violent sports.[ii]
Ninety-two years later, there was this case concerning Chelsea Benderfield of Brooklyn, New York.
Little redheaded Chelsea Benderfield, ten years old at the time of the experiment, hurt the Bobo doll so badly its innards spilled forth and did not grow into new Bobo dolls.
Dr. Russland and her six assistants were aghast. Aghast and triumphant. They barely contained their excitement. The non-PhD’d personnel cheered. It was the first time they had encountered a true aggressive.
The less aggressive kids were not able to replicate the kind of focused anger and strength which Chelsea Benderfield exhibited that day. When they participated in the “killing act,” or the disassembly of the plastic doll, their heart wasn’t really into the act; they were simply trying to please their handlers in order to get an imagined reward. They were then deemed unfit, shipped back to their parents with a red label indicating ineptness.
Dr. Russland gave Chelsea a glowing star and a two-day break to visit a marine conservatory and a bonsai emporium. She claimed to be very interested in bonsai cultivation, babbled about bonsai wire-training practices that resulted in beautifully stunted branching in miniature trees. She said suffering could breed grace, could lead to discipline. She was chaperoned by two attendants who reported no untoward incidents.
Then the battery of tests began.
“How angry are you feeling right now, Chelsea,” the experimenter asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, brushing a strand of her hair off her face. “I’m not angry. I just want to hurt it.” She referred to the Bobo doll that was now reduced to shreds.
The experimenter did not react.
“I’m supposed to hurt it, right? Like on the video?” Chelsea persisted. Her tone said that she already knew that it was the case. “Hurt it so that it won’t grow back. Hurt it so it won’t replicate. Hurt it so we remain safe. Like how we treat our enemies, correct?”
“But were you angry while you were hurting it?”
“I suppose I am now. I don’t know why. I just want to get my star.”
Dr. Russland’s “glowing star” was famous in North America. It was the stuff that fulfilled every child’s dreams.
The questioning was stopped after exactly ten minutes, the maximum time allotted in the manual for interrogating a child.
Little redheaded Chelsea Benderfield, ten years old at the time of the experiment, was given a glass of real milk between questionings. Real milk was expensive and could be considered an unnecessary expense, but the lab would not scrimp on a child who would soon become the president.
The redheaded child slurped the expensive white stuff sourced from real cows in Outerbridge, the only remaining farmland in America where plants were still grown in soil.
Chelsea ignored the cameras in the room. She concentrated on the milk. She found it incredibly delicious and unlike any other milk she had tasted before.
The recording of Chelsea Benderfield’s eighteenth and last interrogation that week commenced at 0100 hours.
Subject description: Subject is dressed in a plain white dress and patent leather shoes. She appeared alert and well-rested. With Dr. Russland’s approval, she was given a meal of hypoallergenic protein mix and cereal, artificial celery, and an organic apple thirty minutes before she entered the interrogation room.
Interrogator is Anne Fender (designated as AF in the following transcript), accorded secondary status by Dr. Russland.
AF: Hello, Chelsea. How are you feeling today?
AF: Glad to hear that. So, what are your thoughts about the unstable man, the smiling Bobo?
CB: Haven’t thought of him at all. But I know that he’s the enemy. Anyone who does not look and talk like us is the enemy. They gave me milk last night, and I want more. Can I have some?
AF: True. Anyone who wobbles and anyone who hesitates can and will infect us. We have to hurt them enough so that they won’t grow back into little Bobos.
CB: I promise I will hurt them as best as I can. Can I have some milk?
AF: You’ll get one in a few minutes. Now, when we hurt them, we also need to put our hearts and minds into hurting them. It is very important that you feel anger towards them.
AF: So they won’t come back. So we remain safe forever.
CB: Uh, okay.
AF: Remember, anger is what you should feel. Now—
CB: I promise. I’ll be good at getting angry. Can I have milk now?
AF: Of course. In a few minutes, you can have all the milk that you want.
CB: What do we do now, I mean, I know I’m supposed to be angry. And I can be angry at will. You’ll see. No little Bobos will ever come back after I’m through hurting them.
AF: I believe you. Soon. For now, we just wait.
CB: I want my milk. I really want it now.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
[i] Bandura, A., Ross, D., and Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582
[ii] Couppis, Maria H. and Kennedy, Craig H. (2008). The rewarding effect of aggression is reduced by nucleus accumbens dopamine receptor antagonism in mice. Psychopharmacology, 197(3):449-56
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of three books, most recently Grim Series (Popcorn Press, 2012) and We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012). Her stories appeared in Ellipsis, Hobart, Sou’wester, and The State. Her online home is http://kristinemuslim.weebly.com/