There are many ways to learn, but one of the most common involves observing what other people are doing. Consider how often you watch others, whether it’s a family member, a teacher, or your favorite YouTuber.
This article explores the theory of observational learning, the steps that are involved, and some of the factors that can influence this process.
The Meaning of Observational Learning
Observational learning is a way of acquiring skills and knowledge by observing and imitating others. People watch others perform a skill, remember what they have observed, and later replicate this knowledge through their own behaviors. This type of learning is often associated with psychologist Albert Bandura and his social learning theory.
Observational learning is a form of social learning. It takes place by watching the behavior of others. It is sometimes also known as:
- Vicarious reinforcement
It can occur in several different ways and does not require reinforcement to be successful. This type of learning often involves observing the behavior of a parent, friend, teacher, sibling, or another person who has a perceived authority or status in a given area.
The 4 Stages of Observational Learning
Humans are naturally inclined to observe others and then try to imitate those actions. However, this process itself involves several key steps. Factors such as attention and memory can affect how well an observed behavior is learned and remembered.
The four key processes in observational learning are:
To learn a behavior, people must first pay attention to it. If a person wants to learn something, they must first pay attention to what is happening. This often means that the action needs to stand out in some way.
For example, you might pay attention to someone who is engaging in an activity that you find interesting in some way. If you love basketball, for example, you might pay closer attention to how another player throws the ball toward the hoop.
In some cases, this might involve directly watching someone perform an action. It can also involve watching someone do something asynchronously, such as watching it on television, in a movie, or a video game.
The types of things people are likely to attend to can influence what and how much they learn. For example, researchers have shown that people are more likely to pay attention to people they think are attractive or important.
Once a person has observed an action, they must retain it in memory. How well the observed behavior is remembered may depend on how much attention the person paid to the behavior in the first place.
Other factors that might influence retention include interference, time, interest, and motivation.
- Interference: If other things in the environment compete for attention, they may interfere with how well the observed learning is retained.
- Time: If a great deal of time lapses between the observation and the performance of the behavior, memory of the action may also be weak.
- Motivation: Interest and motivation can significantly influence how well observational learning is retained. If it is something the person is greatly interested in or if he or she is highly motivated to imitate the observed actions, retention will likely be much more significant.
The next step in the observational learning process is reproducing the observed behavior. To try to copy the observed behavior, the learner must possess both the physical ability and resources to attempt the action.
For example, a beginner basketball player might not yet be capable of producing the actions of a much more skilled player. They need first to bridge the gap between their existing skill level and the observed moves before they try to replicate them.
Motivation to engage in the observed behavior is perhaps the most important to the process. Even if a person attends to, retains, and is capable of reproducing the behavior, they will not have a reason to do so unless they are properly motivated.
Bandura identified a number of factors that can influence motivation in observational learning.
You are more likely to imitate:
- If the observed model was rewarded for their actions
- When the model is the same age and sex as you, or if you share similar interests
- If you are unsure of your own knowledge and skill
- When you see the model as being more knowledgeable and skilled
- People who have a higher status
- Authoritative people
- If the situation is ambiguous and you are unsure what to do
How Observational Learning Happens in the Brain
Researchers from MIT have identified some of the neural networks that are involved in observational learning. Using brain imaging, they found that a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) transmits socially derived information to the basolateral amygdala (BLA).
“The ability to learn it through observation is extremely adaptive, and gives a major advantage for survival,” explained Kay Tye, PhD, an MIT associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, in a press release for MIT News.
History of Observational Learning
How did observational learning become such an important part of the field of psychology? Bandura championed the idea that learning through observation was one of the critical ways people acquire new knowledge.
People are constantly learning new things, and we can learn in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes we learn through our own direct experiences, but in other instances, we can obtain a great deal of knowledge about the world simply by watching other people.
Psychologist Albert Bandura suggested that people often learn through observation, modeling, and imitation.
At the time, behaviorism was the most prominent perspective in psychology. The behavioral school of thought suggested that all human behaviors and learning could be accounted for by conditioning processes. However, Bandura believed these theories did not provide the whole picture.
While Bandura felt reinforcement and punishment played an important role in the learning process, he felt that this didn’t adequately tell the whole story. There were a few reasons that Bandura felt behaviorism could not fully explain how people learn.
Learning Can Occur Without Reinforcement
Even without being rewarded or punished for behavior, learning can still take place. People can learn things without actually experiencing the consequences of an action. For example, most people know that shoplifting can lead to serious legal consequences and even jail time, but we don’t actually have to experience being arrested, tried, and imprisoned to learn this lesson.
Learning Is Not Always Immediately Obvious
Not only did learning occur without direct reinforcement, but he believed that people could also learn things without displaying immediate changes in behavior.
Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment
Bandura demonstrated just how powerful this observational learning can be in his classic Bobo doll experiment. The experiment involved children watching video clips of an adult model interacting with a large, inflatable Bobo doll. In some clips, the model ignored the doll, but the adult would beat up and yell at the toy in other variations.
When the children were later allowed to play in a room that included the same Bobo doll, kids who had viewed the video clip with the violent adult model were more likely to imitate the same aggressive actions. The experiment demonstrated that kids could learn simply by observation and helped inspire further research on how violence in television, movies, and video games affects kids.
It’s like the old phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ People watch as others model certain behaviors and then imitate these same actions.
Examples of Observational Learning
It can be helpful to look at some examples of how this observational learning process works.
Observational Learning at School
The modeling process can be a great way to help kids develop good behaviors. Modeling can be a powerful teaching tool often used by teachers, parents, and therapists to help children learn appropriate behaviors.
A child with a behavioral issue, such as acting out and hitting others might learn more appropriate ways of dealing with anger simply by watching a parent, psychotherapist, or other adults model more suitable responses.
Observational Learning at Home
Imagine that a little girl watches her mother put on makeup, do her hair, and paint her fingernails. Later, the child tries to imitate her mother’s actions, smearing makeup all over her face, getting a brush tangled in her hair, and spilling nail polish all over the coffee table. The mother has modeled the behaviors, and the child observed these actions and then attempted to imitate her mother—with varying results.
One thing that every parent quickly learns is that children are always watching. While it might seem like your daughter is playing peacefully by herself and not paying attention to your conversation, the moment you let a curse word slip, she is guaranteed to repeat it—most likely at the worst possible moment.
So be aware of what you say and do around your kids, and remember that they are observing and always learning.
Factors That Impact Observational Learning
Bandura also suggested that several conditions affect whether or not people end up reproducing the behaviors they observe. In general, people are more likely to imitate someone who is:
- Warm and likable
- Rewarded for their behavior
- An authority figure
- Similar to us
Bandura also suggested that people are more likely to imitate others in situations where they feel unsure or if the expectations are ambiguous.
How Observational Learning Differs From Conditioning
Theories of conditioning suggest that learning is a response to learned associations that occur through repeated pairings or reinforcement.
Behaviorism was the school of thought that introduced two main types of conditioning:
- Classical conditioning involves pairing a neutral stimulus with something that naturally and automatically produces a response. After repeated pairings, the previously neutral stimulus begins to evoke the response all on its own.
- Operant conditioning is a learning process that depends on an action’s consequences. Favorable consequences make a behavior more likely to occur.
In both types of learning, a person must have direct experience. Bandura noted, however, that this could not explain all learning. People sometimes learn indirectly or without ever having experienced something themselves.
Observational learning helps fill in this gap. It explains how people can learn without having direct experience or without having to immediately reproduce what they have learned.
Observational learning relies on vicarious reinforcement rather than direct reinforcement. According to Bandura’s theory, people can also learn by observing the consequences of other people’s actions. With this information, they can decide if they want to reproduce those same actions.
The Effects of Observational Learning
Observational learning has the potential to have both positive and negative effects.
On the plus side, this type of learning can help people learn quickly. It also reduces the need to directly experience the consequences of behaviors, which can reduce the personal risk and costs associated with learning.
The downside of this type of learning is that it can also contribute to learning negative behaviors. When people watch those they admire engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or using other substances, they might be more likely to engage in those behaviors themselves.
Some researchers have also suggested that observing aggressive or violent behaviors in media, such as when playing video games, might increase violent behaviors. However, other researchers have not shown a link between observed violence and an increase in aggressive behavior.
Key Points to Remember
Observational learning is an important form of learning that occurs by watching the actions of others. The work of psychologist Albert Bandura, including his famous Bobo doll experiment, generated increased interest in the power of this type of learning.
To learn through observation, people must pay attention to the behavior, retain what they observed, be able to reproduce it, and have the motivation to engage in that action. Observational learning can play an important part in educational settings, but it is also an essential form of social learning outside of the classroom.
Bandura A, Ross D, Ross SA. Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 1961;63(3):575-582. doi:10.1037/h0045925
Bandura A. Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall; 1977.
Fryling MJ, Johnston C, Hayes LJ. Understanding observational learning: an interbehavioral approach. Analysis Verbal Behav. 2011;27(1):191-203. doi:10.1007/BF03393102
Kühn S, Kugler DT, Schmalen K, Weichenberger M, Witt C, Gallinat J. Does playing violent video games cause aggression? A longitudinal intervention study. Mol Psychiatry. 2019;24(8):1220-1234. doi:10.1038/s41380-018-0031-7
Kendra Cherry, MS.Ed., is an author, educator, and founder of Explore Psychology, an online psychology resource. She is a health writer and editor specializing in psychology, mental health, and wellness. She also writes for Verywell Mind and is the author of the Everything Psychology book (Adams Media).
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