What Is Observational Learning?

Child learning through observation
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Observational learning describes the process of learning through watching others, retaining the information, and then later replicating the behaviors that were observed.

What is Observational Learning?

There are a number of learning theories, such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning, that emphasize how direct experience, reinforcement, or punishment lead to learning. However, a great deal of learning happens indirectly.

For example, think of how a child watches his parents wave at one another and then imitates these actions himself. A tremendous amount of learning happens through this process of watching and imitating others. In psychology, this is known as observational learning.

Observational learning is sometimes also referred to as shaping, modeling, and vicarious reinforcement. While it can take place at any point in life, it tends to be the most common during childhood as children learn from the authority figures and peers in their lives.

It also plays an important role in the socialization process, as children learn how to behave and respond to others by observing how their parents and other caregivers interact with each other and with other people.

How Does Observational Learning Work?

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

In fact, children as young as 21 days old have been shown to imitate facial expressions and mouth movements.

If you've ever made faces at an infant and watched them try to mimic your funny expressions, then you certainly understand how observational learning can be such a powerful force even from a very young age.

Bandura's social learning theory stresses the importance of observational learning.

In his famous Bobo doll experiment, Bandura demonstrated that young children would imitate the violent and aggressive actions of an adult model. In the experiment, children observed a film in which an adult repeatedly hit a large, inflatable balloon doll. After viewing the film clip, children were allowed to play in a room with a real Bobo doll just like the one they saw in the film.

What Bandura found was that children were more likely to imitate the adult's violent actions when the adult either received no consequences or when the adult was actually rewarded for their violent actions. Children who saw film clips in which the adult was punished for this aggressive behavior were less likely to repeat the behaviors later on.

Examples of Observational Learning in Action

  • A child watches his mother folding the laundry. He later picks up some clothing and imitates folding the clothes.
  • A young couple goes on a date to a Chinese restaurant. They watch other diners in the restaurant eating with chopsticks and copy their actions in order to learn out to use these utensils.
  • A boy watches another boy on the playground get in trouble for hitting another child. He learns from observing this interaction that he should not hit others.
  • A group of children plays hide-and-seek at recess. One child joins the group, but has never played before and is not sure what to do. After observing the other children play, she quickly learns the basic rules of the game and joins in.

Factors That Influence 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​.
  • When you have been rewarded for imitating the behavior in the past​.
  • When we lack confidence in our own knowledge or abilities​.
  • People who are in an authoritative position over our lives​.
  • People who are similar to us in age, sex, and interests​.
  • People who we admire or who are of a higher social status​.
  • When the situation is confusing, ambiguous, or unfamiliar.

Real-World Applications for Observational Learning

Bandura's research on observational learning raises an important question: If children were likely to imitate aggressive actions viewed on a film clip in a lab setting, doesn't it also stand to reason that they will imitate the violence they observe in popular films, television programs, and video games?

The debate over this topic has raged on for years, with parents, educators, politicians, and movie and video game makers weighing in with their opinions on the effects of media violence on child behavior. But what does the psychological research suggest?

The Impact of Observed Violence

Psychologists Craig Anderson and Karen Dill investigated the link between video game violence and aggressive behavior and found that in lab studies, students who played a violent video game behaved more aggressively than those who had not played a violent game. In 2005, the American Psychological Association issued a report concluding that exposure to violent interactive video games increased aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Researchers have found that it is not just observed violence that can influence behavior; depictions of sexual behavior may also lead to imitation as well. A study conducted in 2004 by psychologist Rebecca Collins and her colleagues found that teens who watched large quantities of television containing sexual content were two times as likely to begin having sex within the next year as teens who did not view such programming.

"Of course, most people who consume high levels of violent media, adults or youth, do not end up in prison for violent crimes," Anderson explained in testimony offered before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. "The more relevant question is whether many (or most) people become more angry, aggressive, and violent as a result of being exposed to high levels of media violence…. The answer is a clear 'yes.'"

Observational Learning as a Positive Force

Observational learning is often linked to negative or undesirable behaviors, but it can also be used to inspire positive behaviors.

Television programming has been used to promote a range of healthy behaviors in areas throughout the world including Latin America, Brazil, India, and Africa. For example, non-profit organizations have produced programming aimed at preventing HIV/AIDS transmission, reducing pollution, and promoting family planning.

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.

Sources

Anderson, C. A. & Dill, K. E. Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2000;78, 772-790.

Anderson, C. A. Violent video games increase aggression and violence. U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on "The Impact of Interactive Violence on Children." Retrieved from http://www.psychology.iastate.edu/faculty/caa/abstracts/2000-2004/00senate.pdf. 2000.

Bandura, A. Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; 1977.

Collins, R. L., Elliott, M. N., Berry, S. H., Kanouse, D. E., Kunkel, D., Hunter, S. B. & Miu, A. Watching sex on television predicts adolescent initiation of sexual behavior. Pediatrics. 2004;114, 280-289.

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