Observational Learning

Not all forms of learning are accounted for entirely by classical and operant conditioning. Imagine a child walking up to a group of children playing a game on the playground. The game looks fun, but it is new and unfamiliar. Rather than joining the game immediately, the child opts to sit back and watch the other children play a round or two. Observing the others, the child takes note of the ways in which they behave while playing the game. By watching the behavior of the other kids, the child can figure out the rules of the game and even some strategies for doing well at the game. This is called observational learning.



Children observing a social model (an experienced chess player) to learn the rules and strategies of the game of chess. [Image: David R. Tribble, https://goo.gl/nWsgxI, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://goo.gl/ uhHola]

Observational learning is a component of Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977), which posits that individuals can learn novel responses via observation of key others’ behaviors. Observational learning does not necessarily require reinforcement, but instead hinges on the presence of others, referred to as social models. Social models are typically of higher status or authority compared to the observer, examples of which include parents, teachers, and police officers. In the example above, the children who already know how to play the game could be thought of as being authorities—and are therefore social models—even though they are the same age as the observer. By observing how the social models behave, an individual is able to learn how to act in a certain situation. Other examples of observational learning might include a child learning to place her napkin in her lap by watching her parents at the dinner table, or a customer learning where to find the ketchup and mustard after observing other customers at a hot dog stand.

Bandura theorizes that the observational learning process consists of four parts. The first is attention—as, quite simply, one must pay attention to what s/he is observing in order to learn. The second part is retention: to learn one must be able to retain the behavior s/he is observing in memory.The third part of observational learning, initiation, acknowledges that the learner must be able to execute (or initiate) the learned behavior. Lastly, the observer must possess the motivation to engage in observational learning. In our vignette, the child must want to learn how to play the game in order to properly engage in observational learning.

Researchers have conducted countless experiments designed to explore observational learning, the most famous of which is Albert Bandura’s “Bobo doll experiment.”

In this experiment (Bandura, Ross & Ross 1961), Bandura had children individually observe an adult social model interact with a clown doll (“Bobo”). For one group of children, the adult interacted aggressively with Bobo: punching it, kicking it, throwing it, and even hitting it in the face with a toy mallet. Another group of children watched the adult interact with other toys, displaying no aggression toward Bobo. In both instances the adult left and the children were allowed to interact with Bobo on their own. Bandura found that children exposed to the aggressive social model were significantly more likely to behave aggressively toward Bobo, hitting and kicking him, compared to those exposed to the non-aggressive model. The researchers concluded that the children in the aggressive group used their observations of the adult social model’s behavior to determine that aggressive behavior toward Bobo was acceptable.

While reinforcement was not required to elicit the children’s behavior in Bandura’s first experiment, it is important to acknowledge that consequences do play a role within observational learning. A future adaptation of this study (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963) demonstrated that children in the aggression group showed less aggressive behavior if they witnessed the adult model receive punishment for aggressing against Bobo. Bandura referred to this process as vicarious reinforcement, as the children did not experience the reinforcement or punishment directly, yet were still influenced by observing it.


Bobo [Image: © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (or Free Art License), https://goo.gl/uhHola]


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Observational Learning by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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