Observational learning

Observational learning

Observational learning (also known as vicarious learning, social learning, or modeling) is a type of learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining and replicating novel behavior executed by others. It is argued that reinforcement has the effect of influencing which responses one will partake in, more than it influences the actual acquisition of the new response.

Although observational learning can take place at any stage in life, it is thought to be of greater importance during childhood, particularly as authority becomes important. The best role models are those a year or two older for observational learning. Because of this, social learning theory has influenced debates on the effect of television violence and parental role models.


Required conditions

Albert Bandura called the process of social learning modeling and gave four conditions required for a person to successfully model the behavior of someone else:

  • Attention to the model –
In order for the behavior to be learned, the observer must see the modeled behavior.
  • Retention of details –
The observer must be able to recall the modeled behavior.
  • Motor reproduction –
The observer must have the motor skills to reproduce the action, the observer must also have the motivation to carry out the action.
  • Motivation and opportunity –
The observer must be motivated to carry out the action they have observed and remembered, and must have the opportunity to do so. Motivations may include past reinforcement, promised incentives, and vicarious reinforcement. Punishment may discourage repetition of the behavior.[1]

Effect on behavior

Social learning may affect behavior in the following ways:

  • Teaches new behaviors
  • Increases or decreases the frequency with which previously learned behaviors are carried out
  • Can encourage previously forbidden behaviors
  • Can increase or decrease similar behaviors. For example, observing a model excelling in piano playing may encourage an observer to excel in playing the saxophone.

Compared to imitation

Imitation is very different from observational learning in that the latter leads to a change in behavior due to observing a model. Observational learning does not require that the behavior exhibited by the model is duplicated. For example, the learner may observe an unwanted behavior and the subsequent consequences, and would therefore learn to refrain from that behavior.

Bobo doll experiment

Albert Bandura's Bobo doll experiment is widely cited in psychology as a demonstration of observational learning and demonstrated that children are more likely to engage in violent play with a life size rebounding doll after watching an adult do the same. However, it may be that children will only reproduce a model's behavior if it has been reinforced. This may be the problem with television because it was found, by Otto Larson and his coworkers (1968), that 56% of the time children's television characters achieve their goals through violent acts.

It is said that observational learning allows for learning without any change in behavior, therefore it has been used as an argument against strict behaviorism which argues that behavior must be reinforced for new behaviors to be acquired. Bandura noted that "social imitation may hasten or short-cut the acquisition of new behaviors without the necessity of reinforcing successive approximations as suggested by Skinner (1953)."[2] However, the argument does not dispute claims made by behaviorism because if an individual's behavior does not contact reinforcement following the imitation of the modeled behavior, the behavior will not maintain and therefore is not truly learned. It would remain an individual occurrence of imitation unless reinforcement was contacted.

See also


  1. ^ Bandura, Albert. (1986) Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US: Prentice-Hall, Inc
  2. ^ Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S.A. (1961). Transmission of aggressions through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575–582. Full text

Further reading on animal social learning

  • Galef, B.G. & Laland, K.N. (2005). Social learning in animals: Empirical studies and theoretical models. Bioscience, 55, 489-499. Abstract
  • Zentall, T.R. (2006). Imitation: Definitions, evidence, and mechanisms. Animal Cognition, 9, 335-353. (A thorough review of different types of social learning) Full text

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