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Module 8: Observational Learning


Module Overview

In Module 8, and the only one of Part IV, we will tackle the final learning model – observational learning. Outside of describing it and determining factors on making imitation stronger, we will also see how it links to operant conditioning and can be used in behavior modification.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Clarify how we learn by observing others.
  • Describe Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment.
  • Clarify why we do not model everything we see.
  • Describe how observational learning could be applied to behavior modification.


8.1. What is Observational Learning?


Section Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate observational and enactive learning.
  • Describe Bandura’s social learning theory.
  • Define vicarious reinforcement and punishment.
  • Define imitation.


8.1.1. Defining Observational Learning

There are times when we learn by simply watching others. This is called observational learning, and is contrasted with enactive learning, which is learning by doing. There is no firsthand experience by the learner in observational learning, unlike enactive.

As you can learn desirable behaviors such as watching how your father bags groceries at the grocery store (I did this and still bag the same way today), you can learn undesirable ones too. If your parents resort to alcohol consumption to deal with the stressors life presents, then you too might do the same. What is critical is what happens to the model in all of these cases. If my father seems genuinely happy and pleased with himself after bagging groceries his way, then I will be more likely to adopt this behavior. If my mother or father consumes alcohol to feel better when things are tough, and it works, then I might do the same. On the other hand, if we see a sibling constantly getting in trouble with the law then we may not model this behavior due to the negative consequences.


8.1.2. Social Learning Theory

Observational learning can, in fact, be referred to as social learning, and Bandura (1986) proposed a social learning theory, which is composed of observational learning and operant conditioning. How so? Consider that you may learn not to rob the local convenience store because you saw your brother get arrested, prosecuted, and is now spending 10 years in prison. You observed his actions and the consequences of those actions. Remember, there is no firsthand experience. This is called vicarious punishment. If we see a coworker praised by our supervisor for a job well done (and likely going way above and beyond), we will want to behave this way in the future so that we can receive the praise, plaque, extra time off, or monetary award. According to Bandura, this is called vicarious reinforcement and notice that there are both positive and negative reinforcers in the list.

The gist of social learning theory is this: we learn by observing how other people behave and seeing the consequences of their behavior. Later we visualize the consequences (we remember what we saw before) of a particular behavior we would like to make, and decide whether or not to behave in that way. Most likely, if the consequence of the similar behavior was positive then we will make the behavior, but if negative then we will not, in keeping with the principles of operant conditioning.


8.1.3. Imitation

When we use the word imitation, we are implying that we behave in a way that resembles or duplicates the behavior of another person, and that our behavior is novel or not the way we usually act. For instance, in the Avenger’s: Infinity War (2018), Star-Lord imitates Thor’s Asgardian accent and mannerisms out of jealousy. He is jealous for how well-received Thor is when he is first retrieved from outer space, and how much manlier Thor is. In fact, Rocket even asks Star-Lord, “Are you making your voice deeper?” to which he replies, “No” (in Thor-voice). Mantis then points out that he “just did it again.” Star-Lord replies, “This is my voice.” The interaction is comical, but an excellent example of true imitation. Star-Lord does not actually talk like an Asgardian, and so the behavior is novel. In fact, Drax even says that he is “imitating the godman.”

Sometimes we imitate not only a behavior that is reinforced, but any behavior. This tendency is called generalized imitation and is based on the work of Baer and Sherman (1964). In their study, a puppet was used to provide reinforcement in the form of approving comments when children imitated three behaviors that it made — mouthing, head nodding, and speaking nonsense. The puppet did not reinforce level-pressing, a fourth behavior. The more the children imitated the behaviors that were reinforced, the more they imitated the behavior that was not reinforced too. Eventually, the researchers discontinued reinforcing the three behaviors, and the children stopped making them. But the children also stopped pressing the lever. Once reinforcement was re-established for mouthing, head nodding, and speaking nonsense, their frequency increased in the children, as well as the frequency of pressing the lever. The authors concluded that the children had developed a generalized tendency to imitate the model.

8.2. Bandura’s Classic Experiment


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe Bandura’s classic experiment.


Albert Bandura (1965) conducted the pivotal research on observational learning, and you likely already know all about it. In Bandura’s experiment, 66 children (33 boys, 33 girls) aged 42 to 71 months, were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, each with 11 boys and 11 girls. The experiment started with an exposure procedure. Children were brought individually into a room and watched a film of about 5 minutes. It began with a model (an adult male) walking up to an adult-sized plastic Bobo doll and ordered it to clear the way. After glaring for a bit at the non-compliant doll, the model made one of four novel aggressive responses followed by a distinct verbalization.

First, the model laid the Bobo doll on its side, sat on it, and punched it in the nose. While doing this he said, “Pow, right in the nose, boom, boom.” The model then stood it up and pommeled it on the head with a mallet. This response was accompanied by, “Sockeroo…stay down.” The model then kicked the doll around the room and said, “Fly away.” Finally, rubber balls were thrown at the Bobo doll and “Bang” was uttered with each hit. The sequence included both physical and verbal aggression and was repeated twice.

Remember that children were assigned to one of three conditions. In the model-rewarded condition, a second adult male appeared with candies and soft drinks. He told the model that he was a “strong champion” and that his aggressive behavior deserved a generous treat. He poured the model a glass of 7-Up and gave him chocolate bars, Cracker Jack popcorn, and candy. The model ate the treats while being showered with additional positive social reinforcement.

In the model-punished condition, the second adult male appeared on the scene “shaking his finger menacingly and commenting reprovingly, “Hey there, you big bully. You quit picking on that clown. I won’t tolerate it.” The model moved back, tripped and fell, and the other adult sat on him and spanked him with a rolled-up magazine while reminding him that his aggressive behavior was wrong. The model ran off and the other man yelled, “If I catch you doing that again, you big bully, I’ll give you a hard spanking. You quit acting that way” (pg. 591).

Finally, children in the no-consequences condition just viewed the film the children in the other two groups did. There was no reinforcement ending though.

Once the exposure session ended, children were taken to an experimental room which had in it a “Bobo doll, three balls, a mallet and pegboard, dart guns, cars, plastic farm animals, and a dollhouse equipped with furniture and a doll family” (pg. 591). The variety of objects allowed the children to make imitative or nonimitative behaviors. The experimenter told the children they could play with the toys freely and left the room to obtain additional toys. Children were left in the room for 10 minutes, though the experimenter returned about halfway through to tell the children she was still looking for the toys. Two observers recorded the children’s behavior every 5 seconds using predetermined imitative response categories.

The experimenter than returned to the room with an assortment of fruit juices in a colorful juice-dispensing fountain. She also had booklets of sticker-pictures. After a brief juice treat, the children were told that for each imitative response they reproduced, they would receive a pretty sticker-picture to place on a pastoral scene on the wall and the experimenter wanted to see how many stickers they might be able to get. They were also offered additional juice treats. The children were asked to demonstrate what Rocky did in the TV program and to say what he said. Rewards were delivered immediately for correct, matching responses.

Results showed that children who witnessed a model behave aggressively to the Bobo doll tended to do so themselves. The consequences of that action were important too. When the children saw the model get punished for his aggressive behavior, they were less likely to make the same response. If the model was reinforced, they were more likely to engage in aggressive behavior of their own. When children were offered incentives to act in an aggressive manner, they did so.

The authors note though, “Exposing a person to a complex sequence of stimulation is no guarantee that he will attend to the entire range of cues, that he will necessarily select from a total stimulus complex only the most relevant stimuli, or that he will even perceive accurately the cues to which is attention is directed. Motivational variables, prior training in discriminative observation, and the anticipation of positive or negative reinforcements contingent on the emission of matching responses may be highly influential in channeling, augmenting, or reducing observing responses, which is a necessary precondition for imitative learning” (pg. 593; see also Bandura & Walters, 1963 and Bandura, 1962). Let’s further examine factors affecting observational learning.

8.3. Do We Imitate Everything We See?


Section Learning Objectives

  • Outline factors on observational learning.
  • Define stimulus enhancement.
  • Define and describe amnesia.


So, do we model everything we see? The answer is no. Why is that? First, we cannot pay attention to everything going on around us. We are more likely to model behaviors by someone who commands our attention. Consider the phenomena of stimulus enhancement which says that we will focus our attention on a stimulus if others are paying attention to it. I was walking through Walmart one day in May 2019 and suddenly I noticed that there was a large group of people standing around the jewelry counter and other people were looking that way and walking over to it. I stopped and started to move in that direction, like my fellow shoppers, to see what was going on. My behavior was changed because of the behavior of others. I soon realized Walmart was just giving out “free” jewelry and so I returned to my business of going to the register to check out. Likewise, have you ever noticed a large group of people looking up at the sky? If you altered your behavior to look up to (as what happens in many disaster movies), then you encountered stimulus enhancement.

In terms of the model him or herself, any guess as to whether an attractive or unattractive model will catch our attention? If you said attractive, you are correct (Baker & Churchill, 1977).

We also pay attention to models when trying to gain a new skill. If we want to learn the skill and determine what we need to do to obtain positive results, we can use a skilled model. The advantage of using an unskilled model, sometimes called a learning model, is that he/she will make mistakes maybe as often as they have success, and we can learn from both mistakes and success. If we are learning how to hit a baseball, we could watch a Major League Baseball player take batting practice. Of course, very few balls will be missed and the sound of the crack of the bat will be reinforcing for the model and observer. Alternatively, we might have our father take us out to practice hitting at the batting cage. Unless he is an MLB player, he will likely hit some and miss many more. We can observe which stance works best for him, how high he holds the bat, the timing of when he swings, etc. He will hit the ball sometimes and not on other occasions. In a way, we learn more from success than failure, and you might say that his pattern of success will be more like ours than compared to the MLB player.

Second, we must remember what a model does in order to imitate it. If a behavior is not memorable, it will not be imitated. But what if we have a medical condition that makes remembering information difficult, such as anterograde amnesia? According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, when we experience difficulty learning new information since the onset of amnesia, or the loss of memories, such as facts, information, and experiences; we are experiencing a specific form called anterograde amnesia (not to be confused with retrograde amnesia or when we cannot remember past events and previous familiar information).

We must try to convert what we see into action. Consider the phenomena of deferred imitation, or when we observe a model but do not show such learning until a later time. A child observes her mother set the dinner table one night but does not go into the kitchen to try and set the table until days later. When she does go in to try, the parent thanks the child for trying to set the table but tells her that she does not know how. The child says, ‘Yes I do,’ and proceeds to do just that — set the table. The parent is impressed, and the child has shown that she learned by observing the parent either a few nights before or possibly over a few days.

Hopefully, the parent praises the child so that she will be motivated to set the table again in the future. If we are not motivated to perform an observed behavior, we probably will not show what we have learned and may not acquire the behavior at all or will not remember to do it later.

8.4. Observational Learning and Behavior Modification


Section Learning Objectives

  • Clarify how observational learning can be used in behavior modification.


Bandura said if all behaviors are learned by observing others and we model our behavior on their behavior, then undesirable behaviors can be altered or relearned in the same way. Modeling techniques are used to change behavior by having subjects observe a model in a situation that usually causes them some anxiety.  By seeing the model interact nicely with the fear evoking stimulus, their fear should subside. This form of behavior therapy is widely used in clinical, business, and classroom situations. In the classroom, we might use modeling to demonstrate how to do a math problem for a student. Then through a prompt delay, we encourage the student to try the problem for him/herself. If the student can solve the problem, no further action is needed, but if the student struggles we can use any of the four types of prompts — verbal, gestural, modeling, or physical to help them solve it. In fact, in many college classrooms this is exactly what the instructor does.

In the business setting, a model or trainer demonstrates how to use a computer program or run a register for a new employee. Like in the example above, prompt delays and prompts can be used to test the level of learning the employee has gained. Through social support, reinforcers can be delivered.

See Module 6 and 7 for a discussion of behavior modification as it relates to operant conditioning. Keep in mind what you learned about observational learning and how it intersects with operant conditioning through social learning theory. Examples in the clinical setting are given in Module 6 as they relate to learning and unlearning fears.


Module Recap

In Module 8 we discussed the last of the three major learning models called observational learning. We discussed what observational learning was and how it differed from enactive learning, outlined how it intersects with operant conditioning through social learning theory, described imitation, outlined Bandura’s classic experiment, explored factors on how likely we are to model/imitate another person, and briefly discussed the application of observational learning to behavior modification.

Part IV consisted of this one module and now with it complete, we can Take a Pause and explore how the three models of how we learn are complementary with one another, and not in competition.

2nd edition


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Module 8: Observational Learning by Washington State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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