How Does Observational Learning Actually Work? (2023)

Social Learning Theory:

Social learning theory, introduced by psychologist AlbertBandura, proposed that learning occurs through observation, imitation, and modeling and is influenced by factors such as attention, motivation, attitudes, and emotions. The theory accounts for the interaction of environmental and cognitive elements that affect how people learn.

The theory suggests that learning occurs because people observe the consequences of other people's behaviors. Bandura's theory moves beyond behavioral theories, which suggest that all behaviors are learned through conditioning, and cognitive theories, which consider psychological influences such as attention and memory.

According to Bandura, people observe behavior either directly through social interactions with others or indirectly by observing behaviors through media. Actions that are rewarded are more likely to be imitated, while those that are punished are avoided.


(Video) Bandura's Observational Learning Explained!

Basic Principles of Social Learning Theory

What Is Social Learning Theory?

During the first half of the 20th-century, the behavioral school of psychology became a dominant force. The behaviorists proposed that all learning was a result of direct experience with the environment through the processes of association and reinforcement. Bandura's theory believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning.

For example, children and adults often exhibit learning for things with which they have no direct experience. Even if you have never swung a baseball bat in your life, you would probably know what to do if someone handed you a bat and told you to try to hit a baseball. This is because you have seen others perform this action either in person or on television.

While the behavioral theories of learning suggested that all learning was the result of associations formed by conditioning, reinforcement, and punishment, Bandura's social learning theory proposed that learning can also occur simply by observing the actions of others.

His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people. Known asobservational learning, this type of learning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors, including those that often cannot be accounted for by other learning theories.

What Is Observational Learning?

Core Concepts of Social Learning Theory

There are three core concepts at the heart of social learning theory.First is the idea that people can learn through observation.Next is the notion that internal mental states are an essential part of this process.Finally, this theory recognizes that just because something has been learned, it does not mean that it will result in a change in behavior.

(Video) Albert Bandura's Observational Learning Theory (See link below for "What is Psychology?")

"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do," Bandura explained in his 1977 book Social Learning Theory.

Bandura goes on to explain that "Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action."

Let's explore each of these concepts in greater depth.

How Does Observational Learning Actually Work? (1)

PeopleCan Learn Through Observation

One of the best-known experiments in the history of psychology involved a doll named Bobo. Bandura demonstrated that children learn and imitate behaviors they have observed in other people.

The children in Bandura’s studies observed an adult acting violently toward a Bobo doll. When the children were later allowed to play in a room with the Bobo doll, they began to imitate the aggressive actions they had previously observed.

(Video) The Bobo Beatdown: Crash Course Psychology #12

Bandura identified three basic models of observational learning:

  • A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior.
  • A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.
  • A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior.

As you can see, observational learning does not even necessarily require watching another person to engage in an activity. Hearing verbal instructions, such as listening to a podcast, can lead to learning. We can also learn by reading, hearing, or watching the actions of characters in books and films.

It is this type of observational learning that has become a lightning rod for controversy as parents and psychologists debate the impact that pop culture media has on kids. Many worry that kids can learn bad behaviors such as aggression from violent video games, movies, television programs, and online videos.

Mental States Are Important to Learning

Bandura noted that external, environmentalreinforcementwas not the only factor to influence learning and behavior. And he realized that reinforcement does not always come from outside sources.Your own mental state and motivation play an important role in determining whether a behavior is learned or not.

He describedintrinsic reinforcementas a form of internal rewards, such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment. This emphasis on internal thoughts and cognitions helps connect learning theories to cognitive developmental theories. While many textbooks place social learning theory with behavioral theories, Bandura himself describes his approach as a 'social cognitive theory.'

Learning Does Not Necessarily Lead to Change

So how do we determine when something has been learned? In many cases, learning can be seen immediately when the new behavior is displayed. When you teach a child to ride a bicycle, you can quickly determine if learning has occurred by having the child ride his or her bike unassisted.

(Video) Observational learning

But sometimes we are able to learn things even though that learning might not be immediately obvious. While behaviorists believed that learning led to a permanent change in behavior, observational learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviors.

Key Factors for Social Learning Success

It is important to note that not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Why not? Factors involving both the model and the learner can play a role in whether social learning is successful. Certain requirements and steps must also be followed.

The following steps are involved in the observational learning and modeling process:

  • Attention: In order to learn, you need to be payingattention. Anything that distracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning. If the model is interesting or there is a novel aspect of the situation, you are far more likely to dedicate your full attention to learning.
  • Retention: The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning.
  • Reproduction: Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement.
  • Motivation: Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled.Reinforcementandpunishmentplay an important role in motivation.
    While experiencing these motivators can be highly effective, so can observing others experiencing some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for being to class on time, you might start to show up a few minutes early each day.

Real-World Applications for Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory can have a number of real-world applications. For example, it can be used to help researchers understand how aggression and violence might be transmitted through observational learning. By studying media violence, researchers can gain a better understanding of the factors that might lead children to act out the aggressive actions they see portrayed on television and in the movies.

But social learning can also be utilized to teach people positive behaviors. Researchers can use social learning theory to investigate and understand ways that positive role models can be used to encourage desirable behaviors and to facilitate social change.

A Word From Verywell

In addition to influencing other psychologists, Bandura's social learning theory has had important implications in the field of education. Today, both teachers and parents recognize how important it is to model appropriate behaviors. Other classroom strategies such as encouraging children and buildingself-efficacyare also rooted in social learning theory.

As Bandura observed, life would be incredibly difficult and even dangerous if you had to learn everything youknow from personal experience. Observing others plays a vital role in acquiring new knowledge and skills. By understanding how social learning theory works, you can gain a greater appreciation for the powerful role that observation plays in shaping the things we know and the things we do.


How does observational learning works? ›

Observational learning is the process of learning by watching the behaviors of others. The targeted behavior is watched, memorized, and then mimicked. Also known as shaping and modeling, observational learning is most common in children as they imitate behaviors of adults.

What is a real life example of observational learning? ›

Learning new skills: Children and adults can learn new skills through observational learning. A child can learn how to paint her nails by watching their mom, or an adult may learn to lift weights by watching others on videos.

What are the 4 processes of observational learning? ›

Observational learning is a major component of Bandura's social learning theory. He also emphasized that four conditions were necessary in any form of observing and modeling behavior: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

Why is observational learning so powerful? ›

Observational learning has the potential to teach and reinforce or decrease certain behaviors based on a variety of factors. Particularly prevalent in childhood, observational learning can be a key part of how we learn new skills and learn to avoid consequences.

What is observation technique and how does it work? ›

Observational research is a research technique where you observe participants and phenomena in their most natural settings. This enables researchers to see their subjects make choices and react to situations in their natural setting, as opposed to structured settings like research labs or focus groups.

How does observational learning work quizlet? ›

when one learns by watching the behaviour demonstrated by another (model) whilst noting the positive and negative consequences of their actions and using this as a guide for one's own future actions.

What is the most famous example of 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”).

What is the best example of an observation study? ›

In an observational study, researchers study how participants perform certain behaviors or activities without telling them what methods or behaviors to choose. For example, if a scientist wants to study how the amount of water humans drink affects their diets, they might choose an observational study.

Why do we use observational learning? ›

The importance of observational learning lies in helping individuals, especially children, acquire new responses by observing others' behavior. Albert Bandura states that people's behavior could be determined by their environment. Observational learning occurs through observing negative and positive behaviors.

What are the 5 most important steps in observational learning? ›

– Albert Bandura As the creator of the concept of social learning theory, Bandura proposes five essential steps in order for the learning to take place: observation, attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

What are the key elements of observational learning? ›

Learning by observation involves four separate processes: attention, retention, production and motivation.

What are the basic principles of observation? ›

Observation learning engages four main ideas for it to be most effective. These ideas include; attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. A learner ought to engage all of his/her undivided attention to the process of observation.

Why observation is the best method? ›

What are the advantages of observation? Collect data where and when an event or activity is occurring. Does not rely on people's willingness or ability to provide information. Allows you to directly see what people do rather than relying on what people say they did.

What are the weakness of an observational study? ›

Strengths and Weaknesses of Observational Research

Some of the weaknesses are human bias since the observer is a human with their own bias. Also, one cannot know what the subject is thinking, their mid-set or decision-making process.

What is the biggest disadvantage of an observational study? ›

Disadvantages of Observational Research

Unlike structured focus groups (i.e. even “spontaneous and informal” focus groups are structured, just in a different way!), the inherent organic nature of observational research means that researchers have little control over the environment.

What is observation method in simple words? ›

The observation method involves human or mechanical observation of what people actually do or what events take place during a buying or consumption situation. “ Information is collected by observing process at work. ”

What are the strategies used in observation studies? ›

When it comes to observational research, you have three different types of methodologies: controlled observations, naturalistic observations, and participant observations.

How do you conduct an observational study? ›

Observational study example
  1. Step 1: Identify your research topic and objectives. ...
  2. Step 2: Choose your observation type and technique. ...
  3. Step 3: Set up your observational study. ...
  4. Step 4: Conduct your observation. ...
  5. Step 5: Analyze your data. ...
  6. Step 6: Discuss avenues for future research.
Mar 31, 2022

What is the strongest type of observational study? ›

Because exposure is identified before the outcome, cohort studies have a temporal framework to assess causality and thus have the potential to provide the strongest scientific evidence.

What is the first process that must occur in observational learning? ›

First, you must be focused on what the model is doing—you have to pay attention. Next, you must be able to retain, or remember, what you observed; this is retention. Then, you must be able to perform the behavior that you observed and committed to memory; this is reproduction. Finally, you must have motivation.

What observation techniques are most commonly used? ›

In marketing research, the most frequently used types of observational techniques are:
  • Personal observation. observing products in use to detect usage patterns and problems. ...
  • Mechanical observation. eye-tracking analysis while subjects watch advertisements. ...
  • Audits. ...
  • Trace Analysis. ...
  • Content analysis.

What are the pros and cons of observation? ›

Comparison Table for Advantages and Disadvantages of Observation Method
The observation method provides high accuracy since the observer directly interacts with the observed.Observation is a costly method since it requires a lot of things.
3 more rows
Jan 5, 2022

What are 2 advantages of observation? ›

Not only does observation skills help an individual to avoid conflicts from taking place, but it also improves overall efficiency, productivity & positive output. This is because the more keenly you observe yourself and your surroundings, the more you understand where gaps exist and how those gaps need to be filled.

Can you please give me an example of observation? ›

For example, watching an apple fall from a tree could be an observation. Noticing that fish only come to a particular part of the river in the early morning is also an observation. Smelling garbage decomposing is another example of observation.

What is the core of observational learning? ›

The core of observational learning is modeling. Learning through modeling involves adding and subtracting from the observed behavior and generalizing from one observation to another. First, the characteristics of the model are important. Second, the characteristics of the observer affect the likelihood of modeling.

What is the conclusion of observational learning? ›

The important conclusion of these studies is that behavior change can and does occur through observation, even when such observation is incidental, occurring in the context of other activities. While this finding seems rather simple, it has significant implications for how we conceptualize learning.

What are effective techniques to improve observational skills? ›

8 Ways to Sharpen Your Observational Skills
  • Know Your Subject. No matter what you're observing, you're going to do it most effectively when you know your subject. ...
  • Slow Down and Look Outwards. ...
  • Try Something New. ...
  • Cut Out Distractions. ...
  • Play Games. ...
  • Test Your Recall. ...
  • Keep a Journal. ...
  • Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills.

What are the factors influencing observational learning? ›

Factors That Influence Observational Learning

Behaviors observed from people who are warm and nurturing towards the observer. If the behavior is rewarded. When imitating behaviors has been rewarding in the past. Lack of confidence in one's own abilities or knowledge.

What are the main characteristics of observational studies? ›

Observational studies are ones where researchers observe the effect of a risk factor, diagnostic test, treatment or other intervention without trying to change who is or isn't exposed to it. Cohort studies and case control studies are two types of observational studies.

What is the correct sequence of observational learning? ›

Hence, it could be concluded that Attention → Retention → Reproduction → Motivation is the correct sequence of four elements of observational learning.

How does observational learning affect behavior? ›

Observational learning can be used to change already learned behaviors, for both positive and negative. Bandura asserted that, if all behaviors are learned by observing others and people can model their behavior on that of those around them, then undesirable behaviors can be altered or relearned in the same way.

What is the main aim of observation? ›

The main objective of observation is to provide practitioners with accurate information in order to plan suitable lessons that meet the child's needs, and to continually improve their learning and development whilst in your care.

How can teachers use observational learning in the classroom? ›

For tasks that can be observed and modeled, it may be beneficial to pair students with other students. By doing so, teachers may increase the likeliness that learners will pay attention during the task and retain information. Students may also feel more motivated when observing their peers.

Are observational methods reliable? ›

Observational research findings are considered strong in validity because the researcher is able to collect a depth of information about a particular behavior.

Why are observational studies not reliable? ›

It is generally believed that observational studies cannot establish causation. They are considered susceptible to unidentified confounders and prone to overestimate treatment benefit and harm. Different results between RCTs and observational studies are cited as examples.

What are issues with observational studies? ›

The main problem in observational studies is the presence of confounders and selection bias (which are prevented in RCTs through randomization and blinding). A confounder can be defined as any factor that is related not only to the intervention (e.g. treatment) but also to the outcome and could affect both.

What is the problem with observational data? ›

Historically, observational studies have more biases than randomized controlled trials, but most of these could be overcome with careful planning and execution. The one inherent disadvantage of observational studies is that they are vulnerable to confounding from unrecognized or unrecorded risk factors.

Why is observation unethical? ›

"Studies based on observation in natural settings must respect the privacy and psychological wellbeing of the individuals studied. Unless those observed give their consent to being observed, observational research is only acceptable in public situations where those observed would expect to be observed by strangers.

What is negative observational learning? ›

Theoretical and empirical studies of the cultural evolution in technology have often focused on positive observational learning, i.e., copying a successful individual. However, negative observational learning, i.e., avoiding negative or bad exemplar behavior, is ubiquitous in humans and other animals.

What are the limitations of observation method? ›

The money and time required to conduct an observation are often prohibitive.
  • Lack of competence of the observer. The lack of competence of the observer may hamper the validity and reliability of observation. ...
  • Lack of clarity. ...
  • Little control over physical situation. ...
  • Unmanageable data. ...
  • Possibility of distortion.

What are the 5 stages of observational learning? ›

– Albert Bandura As the creator of the concept of social learning theory, Bandura proposes five essential steps in order for the learning to take place: observation, attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

What is an example of an observational study? ›

In an observational study, researchers study how participants perform certain behaviors or activities without telling them what methods or behaviors to choose. For example, if a scientist wants to study how the amount of water humans drink affects their diets, they might choose an observational study.

What factors affect observational learning? ›

There are four processes that Bandura's research identified as influencing observational learning: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation (Debell, 2021).

What is the goal of observation study? ›

Observational studies involve the study of participants without any forced change to their circumstances, that is, without any intervention. Although the participants' behaviour may change under observation, the intent of observational studies is to investigate the 'natural' state of risk factors, diseases or outcomes.

What is a good example of an observation? ›

For example, watching an apple fall from a tree could be an observation. Noticing that fish only come to a particular part of the river in the early morning is also an observation. Smelling garbage decomposing is another example of observation.


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