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What is Observational Learning?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Observational learning, also known as social learning or modeling, is a form of learning in which people acquire new behavior by watching someone else perform that behavior. The person performing the behavior is known as the model, and the learner is known as the observer. The pioneer of observational learning research is Albert Bandura, who published an important study on it in which he demonstrated that children could learn violent play behaviors by watching a demonstration of violent play.

It is important to note that observational learning is not the same thing as imitation. In imitation, an observer mimics a modeled behavior. In observational learning, behavioral changes are acquired, which means that the observer may take up a new behavior or stop a behavior, depending on how the behavior is presented by the model, and the change is retained.

The new behavior is more likely to be demonstrated if the model is someone who is viewed as an authority figure. For example, children seeing behavior modeled by a child of the same age may not acquire it, but if it is modeled by an older child or an adult, especially one who is seen as a role model in some way, the children will be more likely to pick up the new behavior.

Several components are involved in observational learning. The first is paying attention; the observer has to focus on the model to learn. Next is the ability to retain the information acquired, and to reproduce it. Finally, there must be a motivation for a behavioral change, either in the form of a motivation demonstrated by the model, or in the environment.

For example, if a child sees an older child praised for doing something, that child may replicate the behavior, or if a child sees another child being punished for displaying a particular behavior, the likelihood of reproducing that behavior declines. Likewise, if a child is in an environment where new behaviors tend to be punished, the child will be less likely to reproduce modeled behavior, fearing punishment, while children in an environment where new behaviors are praised will be more likely to reproduce modeled behavior.

Observational learning research has shown that reinforcement and punishment can moderate not necessarily the demonstration of behavior, but the likelihood of reproducing modeled behavior. This may sound like a small distinction, but it can actually be important, because it demonstrates that people can acquire behavior and information without directly being rewarded for specific behaviors. Observational learning appears to be especially common in early childhood, and may be a natural response to learning to navigate in a world which contains a huge volume of new information.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By sunshine31 — On Feb 26, 2011

Suntan12 - That is so true. This is why we need to know what is going on in our children’s lives and get to know their friends really well because their friends have a lot of influence.

I do know that if you have a good relationship with your children and they have healthy self esteem they will tend to seek out like minded friends. It is only when they suffer from a self esteem issue that they seek friends that are toxic.

By suntan12 — On Feb 24, 2011

Oasis11 - I agree with you. I also think that this is how kids get hooked on smoking and drugs and become promiscuous when they are young because they are modeling behavior of kids that they aspire to be like.

They usually do not have any positive role models which is why the peer group is so influential. This is also why groups like Big Brothers and Big Sisters are so important because they help kids at risk model positive behavior and see alternatives to the negativity that they may see.

It has been reported that girls that come from a home with an absentee father seek love from boys and may become promiscuous.

Boys that grow up without a father figure also develop identity issues and may channel their anger in illegal activity that leads to jail because no one is around to point them in the right direction.

Dr. Phil recently stated that the same sex parent has the biggest influence on the child of the same sex. This is why if we do not offer positive role models and limit television programming our children will find their own role models through vicarious observational learning and end up with a troubled life.

By oasis11 — On Feb 22, 2011

Afterall - I agree that a young child learns a lot from play.

I wanted to add that my concern involves social observational learning of negative behavior. I think that children particularly preteen and teens are most susceptible to peer pressure and can be very impressionable when they observe kids their age engaging in activities that are inappropriate but are portrayed as cool on television or in schools.

For example, we see that young girls are dressing very provocatively which is inappropriate for their age. I recently went to an Abercrombie and Fitch kids store and was appalled at a pair of denim shorts that was merchandised on a table.

They looked like underwear which is sad because these young girls are modeling the behavior of older girls by wearing provocative attire because they wanted to be accepted as cool. The store is clearly sending this message with its merchandise.

By afterall — On Feb 22, 2011

Many believe that children begin observational learning very shortly after birth. While they can learn in classrooms, it is also suggested that a child should not go to preschool because he or she can learn at least as much through play, either outside, with parents, or with other children.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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