What Is Observational Learning?

(Last Updated On: November 12, 2021)

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.

What Is Observational Learning?

Observational learning is sometimes also known as:

  • Shaping
  • Modeling
  • Vicarious reinforcement

Observational learning is a form of social learning. It takes place by watching the behavior of others.

It can occur in a number of different ways and does not require reinforcement in order 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.

How Observational Learning Works

Humans are naturally inclined to observe others and then try to imitate those actions. However, this process itself involves a number of key steps. Factors such as attention and memory can play a role in how well an observed behavior is learned and remembered.

In the observational learning process:


In order to learn a behavior, people must first pay attention to it. If a person wants to learn something, the first thing they need to do is 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 action that you find interesting in some way. If you happen to 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 in an asynchronous format, such as watching it on television, in a movie, or in 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 such things as interference, time, interest, and motivation.

  • Interference: If there are other things in the environment competing 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 play a major role in 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 greater.


The next step in the observational learning process is to actually reproduce the observed behavior. In order 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 to first bridge the gap between their existing skill level and the observed moves before they tries 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 his or her 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
  • People who are authoritative
  • If the situation is ambiguous and you are unsure what to do

History of Observational Learning

How did observational learning come to be such an important part of the field of psychology? It was Bandura who championed the idea that learning through observation was one of the critical ways that people acquire new knowledge.

People are constantly learning new things and we are capable of learning in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes we learn through our own direct experiences, but in other instances, we are able to 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, but Bandura believed that 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 why Bandura felt that behaviorism could not fully explain how people learn.

  • Learning can occur without reinforcement. Even without being rewarded or punished for a behavior, learning can still take place. People are capable of learning 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, he believed that people are also capable of learning things without displaying immediate changes in behavior.

Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment

Bandura was able to demonstrate just how powerful this observational learning can be in his classic Bobo doll experiment.  The experiment involved having children watch video clips of an adult model interacting with a large, inflatable Bobo doll. In some clips, the model simply ignored the doll, but in other variations, the adult would beat up and yell at the toy.

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 affect 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.

Educational Settings

The modeling process can be a great way to help kids develop good behaviors. Modeling can be a powerful teaching tool and is 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.

Home Settings

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, 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.


Fryling MJ, Johnston C, Hayes LJ. Understanding observational learning: An interbehavioral approach. Anal Verbal Behav. 27(1): 191-203; 2011.