How Observational Learning Affects Behavior

Observational learning describes the process of learning by watching others, retaining the information, and then later replicating the behaviors that were observed. There are a number of learning theories, such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning, that emphasize how direct experience, reinforcement, or punishment can lead to learning. However, a great deal of learning happens indirectly.

For example, think about how a child may watch adults waving at one another and then imitates these actions later on. A tremendous amount of learning happens through this process. In psychology, this is referred to as observational learning.

Observational learning is sometimes called shaping, modeling, and vicarious reinforcement. While it can take place at any point in life, it tends to be the most common during childhood.

It also plays an important role in the socialization process. Children learn how to behave and respond to others by observing how their parent(s) and/or caregivers interact with other people.

Woman teaching another woman how to use chopsticks.

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

History

Psychologist Albert Bandura is the researcher most often associated with learning through observation. He and others have demonstrated that we are naturally inclined to engage in observational learning.

Studies suggest that imitation with social understanding tends to begin around 2 years old, but will vary depending on the specific child. In the past, research has claimed that newborns are capable of imitation, but this likely isn't true, as newborns often react to stimuli in a way that may seem like imitation, but isn't.

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Basic Principles of Social Learning Theory

If you've ever made faces at a toddler and watched them try to mimic your movements, then you may have witnessed how observational learning can be such an influential force. Bandura's social learning theory stresses the power of observational learning.

Bobo Doll Experiment

In the Bobo doll experiment, Bandura demonstrated that young children may imitate the aggressive actions of an adult model. Children observed a film where an adult repeatedly hit a large, inflatable balloon doll and then had the opportunity to play with the same doll later on.

Children were more likely to imitate the adult's violent actions when the adult either received no consequences or when the adult was rewarded. Children who saw the adult being punished for this aggressive behavior were less likely to imitate them.

Observational Learning Examples

The following are instances that demonstrate observational learning has occurred.

  • A child watches their parent folding the laundry. They later pick up some clothing and imitate folding the clothes.
  • A young couple goes on a date to an Asian restaurant. They watch other diners in the restaurant eating with chopsticks and copy their actions to learn how to use these utensils.
  • A child watches a classmate get in trouble for hitting another child. They learn from observing this interaction that they should not hit others.
  • A group of children play hide-and-seek. One child joins the group and is not sure what to do. After observing the other children play, they quickly learn the basic rules and join in.

Stages of Observational Learning

There are four stages of observational learning that need to occur for meaningful learning to take place. Keep in mind, this is different than simply copying someone else's behavior. Instead, observational learning may incorporate a social and/or motivational component that influences whether the observer will choose to engage in or avoid a certain behavior.

Attention

For an observer to learn, they must be in the right mindset to do so. This means having the energy to learn, remaining focused on what the model is engaging in, and being able to observe the model for enough time to grasp what they are doing.

How the model is perceived can impact the observer's level of attention. Models who are seen being rewarded for their behavior, models who are attractive, and models who are viewed as similar to the observer tend to command more focus from the observer.

Retention

If the observer was able to focus on the model's behavior, the next step is being able to remember what was viewed. If the observer is not able to recall the model's behavior, they may need to go back to the first stage again.

Reproduction

If the observer is able to focus and retains the information, the next stage in observational learning is trying to replicate it. It's important to note that every individual will have their own unique capacity when it comes to imitating certain behaviors, meaning that even with perfect focus and recall, some behaviors may not be easily copied.

Motivation

In order for the observer to engage in this new behavior, they will need some sort of motivation. Even if the observer is able to imitate the model, if they lack the drive to do so, they will likely not follow through with this new learned behavior.

Motivation may increase if the observer watched the model receive a reward for engaging in a certain behavior and the observer believes they will also receive some reward if they imitate said behavior. Motivation may decrease if the observer had knowledge of or witnessed the model being punished for a certain behavior.

Influences on Observational Learning

According to Bandura's research, there are a number of factors that increase the likelihood that a behavior will be imitated. We are more likely to imitate:

  • People we perceive as warm and nurturing
  • People who receive rewards for their behavior
  • People who are in an authoritative position in our lives
  • People who are similar to us in age, sex, and interests
  • People we admire or who are of a higher social status
  • When we have been rewarded for imitating the behavior in the past
  • When we lack confidence in our own knowledge or abilities
  • When the situation is confusing, ambiguous, or unfamiliar

Positive and Negative Outcomes

Observational learning has the potential to teach and reinforce or decrease certain behaviors based on a variety of factors. Particularly prevalent in childhood, observational learning can be a key part of how we learn new skills and learn to avoid consequences. However, there has also been concern about how this type of learning can lead to negative outcomes and behaviors. Some studies, inspired by Bandura's research, focused on the effects observational learning may have on children and teenagers.

For example, previous research drew a direct connection between playing certain violent video games and an increase in aggression in the short term. However, later research that focused on the short- and long-term impact video games may have on players has shown no direct connections between video game playing and violent behavior.

Similarly, research looking at sexual media exposure and teenagers' sexual behavior found that, in general, there wasn't a connection between watching explicit content and having sex within the following year.

Another study indicated that if teenagers ages 14 and 15 of the same sex consumed sexual media together and/or if parents restricted the amount of sexual content watched, the likelihood of having sex was lower. The likelihood of sexual intercourse increased when opposite-sex peers consumed sexual content together.

Research indicates that when it comes to observational learning, individuals don't just imitate what they see and that context matters. This may include who the model is, who the observer is with, and parental involvement.

A Word From Verywell

Observational learning can be a powerful learning tool. When we think about the concept of learning, we often talk about direct instruction or methods that rely on reinforcement and punishment. But, a great deal of learning takes place much more subtly and relies on watching the people around us and modeling their actions. This learning method can be applied in a wide range of settings including job training, education, counseling, and psychotherapy.

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  3. 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

  4. Gottfried JA, Vaala SE, Bleakley A, Hennessy M, Jordan A. Does the effect of exposure to TV sex on adolescent sexual behavior vary by genre? Communication Research. 2013;40(1):73-95. doi:10.1177/0093650211415399

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