Observational Learning: its theory, process & important questions

observational learning theory

In this lesson, you will learn about observational learning which is learning that takes place by watching or observing others. As you are well aware, people and animals learn many things from watching others. You will learn about the research of Albert Bandura. The lesson will end with a look at the pro-social (positive) and anti-social (negative) effects of observational learning and a look at the effects of exposure to violence in the media.

Albert Bandura and Observational Learning

observational learning theory

Observational learning is learning that takes place by watching others. It is different from the other two types of learning presented in this module in that another person (the model) actually repeats behaviour that the learner observes and imitates. This process is called modeling. Using the hot stove example from the last lesson, a child who sees his sister burn her hand on the hot stove learns not to touch the stove by observational learning.

It appears that the brain has neurons called mirror neurons that fire when we perform certain actions or observe others performing actions. For example, in a study with monkeys, when the monkey grasped and held a branch, the neurons would fire or become active. They also became active when the monkey observed another monkey performing the same task. The same thing happens in humans. This helps to explain why we have the ability to pick up on clues as to how others are feeling.

Children see, children, do. The imitation of models shapes even very young children’s behaviour. Developmental psychologists have shown that, shortly after birth, a baby may imitate an adult who sticks out his tongue. By nine months of age, infants imitate new behaviours and by fourteen months of age, children imitate what they see on television. We will discuss the effects of television later in the lesson.

The pioneering researcher of observational learning was Albert Bandura. In one of his experiments, the researchers arranged for a young child to be playing in a room that also had an adult in it who was behaving aggressively toward an inflatable doll. At the same time, the adult was shouting out comments.
The next step of the experiment was to see what the child who observed the adult would do if left alone with the doll. Can you guess what happened? That child exhibited more aggression than children who had not observed an aggressive adult model—the control group. Bandura also found that the children imitated the exact words and behaviours of the adults that they observed.

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Bandura was also interested in the effects that seeing consequences delivered to the model would have on the children. We know that good and bad consequences affect how and what we learn. But, what impact does watch someone else receive the consequence have on our behaviour?

observational learning theory

In another of Bandura’s experiments, he showed video clips to children of an aggressive adult hitting a doll. The endings of the videos, however, were different. Some children saw the adult rewarded with praise, some saw the adult spanked, and some saw the adult receive neither a reward nor a punishment.

Once again, the children were left alone with the doll. The children who saw the model rewarded for aggression behaved more aggressively than the other two groups of children. Bandura called this vicarious learning. This is learning by seeing the consequences of another person’s behaviour.

Albert Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment Video

Four Processes of Observational Learning

Bandura’s research leads us to make some conclusions about learning from watching others. In order for learning to take place, the following four conditions must be met.

steps in social learning theory
  1. Attention: To learn you must be aware of the behaviours of those around you.
  2. Retention: You must remember the behaviour that you observed.
  3. Reproduction: You have to have the ability to reproduce the behaviour.
  4. Motivation: You have to feel motivated to learn the behaviour.

We observe the models in our everyday life—our family, friends, teachers, and neighbours, as well as people we see on television—and we learn from them. Whether we like it or not, it is impossible to choose not to be a role model. You have no control over this. You do, however, have control over the type of role model that you are.

The good and bad news is that role models can have pro-social (positive) effects or anti-social (negative) effects.

Pro-social Effects

Models who are positive and helpful—in other words, they engage in pro-social behaviour—can prompt similar behaviour in others.

For example, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. both modeled non-violence. Similarly, charity campaigns in schools are effective when even a few students spearhead projects to help those in need.

Anti-social Effects

Models who are negative, destructive, and unhelpful, in other words, they engage in anti-social behaviour, can also prompt similar behaviour in others.

Typical teenagers spend more time watching television, playing video games, and surfing the Internet than they do in school. With all of the violence portrayed in these forms of media, we wonder whether being exposed to this violence affects children.

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Key terms of observational learning theory

Observational learning theory, also known as social learning theory, contains several key terms, including:

Role model
  1. Model: The person or entity being observed and imitated
  2. Reinforcement: The positive or negative consequences that follow a behavior, which can influence future behavior
  3. Vicarious reinforcement: The influence of observing the consequences of others’ behavior on one’s own behavior
  4. Discrimination: The ability of the observer to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior to imitate in different situations.
  5. Generalization: The ability of the observer to apply learned behaviors to new situations.
  6. Latent learning: The process of acquiring knowledge through observation but not demonstrating it until there is motivation to do so.
  7. Shaping: The gradual process of modifying behavior through reinforcement of successive approximations.
  8. Self-efficacy: The observer’s belief in their own ability to perform a behavior successfully.
  9. Observational set: The observer’s preconceptions and expectations about the behavior being observed.
  10. Social cognitive theory: A branch of social learning theory that emphasizes the role of cognitive processes, such as attention, memory, and reasoning, in shaping behavior.
  11. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory: A specific framework developed by Albert Bandura that highlights the role of reciprocal determinism, in which behavior, personal factors, and environmental factors all interact and influence each other.

Questions still remain about whether or not

  1. there was an increase in the homicide rates in Canada and the United States when television was first introduced in the late 1950s
  2. elementary school children who are heavily exposed to watching violence in the media also tend to get into more fights
  3. the more children watch violence, the more accepting they are of aggressive attitudes and behaviours
  4. our concept of how we believe others live is affected by being exposed to violence in the media
  5. there has been an increase in the violence against women and against ethnic minorities in the media

We are all exposed to the media—television, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, video games, and movies—as a means of observing others. These media forms have role models demonstrating both pro-social and anti-social behaviours.

We also observe and imitate the role models that are not in the media. Remember that you are a role model for others. What kind of role model are you to others and what kind of role model are you choosing to imitate?

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, you learned about observational learning (learning that takes place from watching others). The research of Albert Bandura involving the inflatable doll was presented. The lesson ended with a look at the pro-social (positive) and anti-social (negative) effects of observational learning with a focus on what is learned by exposure to violence in the media.