Observational Learning (Modelling)

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define observational learning

  • Discuss the steps in the Modelling process

  • Explain the prosocial and antisocial effects of observational learning

Previous sections of this chapter focused on classical and operant conditioning, which are forms of associative learning. In observational learning, we learn by watching others and then imitating, or Modelling, what they do or say. The individuals performing the imitated behaviour are called models. Research suggests that this imitative learning involves a specific type of neuron, called a mirror neuron [1][2][3].

Humans and other animals are capable of observational learning. As you will see, the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” really is accurate ([link]). The same could be said about other animals. For example, in a study of social learning in chimpanzees, researchers gave juice boxes with straws to two groups of captive chimpanzees. The first group dipped the straw into the juice box, and then sucked on the small amount of juice at the end of the straw. The second group sucked through the straw directly, getting much more juice. When the first group, “the dippers,” observed the second group, “the suckers,” what do you think happened? All of the “dippers” in the first group switched to sucking through the straws directly. By simply observing the other chimps and Modelling their behaviour, they learned that this was a more efficient method of getting juice [4].

A photograph shows a person drinking from a water bottle, and a monkey next to the person drinking water from a bottle in the same manner.

Fig. 23 Monkey See, Monkey Do! A photograph shows a person drinking from a water bottle, and a monkey next to the person drinking water from a bottle in the same manner.


Imitation is much more obvious in humans, but is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery? Consider Claire’s experience with observational learning. Claire’s nine-year-old son, Jay, was getting into trouble at school and was defiant at home. Claire feared that Jay would end up like her brothers, two of whom were in prison. One day, after yet another bad day at school and another negative note from the teacher, Claire, at her wit’s end, beat her son with a belt to get him to behave. Later that night, as she put her children to bed, Claire witnessed her four-year-old daughter, Anna, take a belt to her teddy bear and whip it. Claire was horrified, realizing that Anna was imitating her mother. It was then that Claire knew she wanted to discipline her children in a different manner.

Cognitive Factors

Like Tolman, whose experiments with rats suggested a cognitive component to learning, psychologist Albert Bandura’s ideas about learning were different from those of strict behaviourists. Bandura and other researchers proposed a brand of behaviourism called social learning theory, which took cognitive processes into account. According to Bandura, pure behaviourism could not explain why learning can take place in the absence of external reinforcement. He felt that internal mental states must also have a role in learning and that observational learning involves much more than imitation. In imitation, a person simply copies what the model does. Observational learning is much more complex. According to Lefrançois (2012) there are several ways that observational learning can occur:

  1. You learn a new response. After watching your coworker get chewed out by your boss for coming in late, you start leaving home 10 minutes earlier so that you won’t be late.

  2. You choose whether or not to imitate the model depending on what you saw happen to the model. Remember Julian and his father? When learning to surf, Julian might watch how his father pops up successfully on his surfboard and then attempt to do the same thing. On the other hand, Julian might learn not to touch a hot stove after watching his father get burned on a stove.

  3. You learn a general rule that you can apply to other situations.

Types of Models: Live, verbal and symbolic

Bandura identified three kinds of models: live, verbal, and symbolic.

  1. A live model demonstrates a behaviour in person, as when Ben stood up on his surfboard so that Julian could see how he did it.

  2. A verbal instructional model does not perform the behaviour, but instead explains or describes the behaviour, as when a soccer coach tells his young players to kick the ball with the side of the foot, not with the toe.

  3. A symbolic model can be fictional characters or real people who demonstrate behaviors in books, movies, television shows, video games, or Internet sources ([link]).

A photograph shows a yogi instructor, and another one shows a child watching television.

Fig. 24 Photograph A shows a yoga instructor demonstrating a yoga pose while a group of students observes her and copies the pose. Photo B shows a child watching television.

See also

Latent learning and Modelling are used all the time in the world of marketing and advertising. This commercial played for months across the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut areas, Derek Jeter, an award-winning baseball player for the New York Yankees, is advertising a Ford. The commercial aired in a part of the country where Jeter is an incredibly well-known athlete. He is wealthy, and considered very loyal and good looking. What message are the advertisers sending by having him featured in the ad? How effective do you think it is?

Steps In The Modelling Process

Of course, we don’t learn a behaviour simply by observing a model. Bandura described specific steps in the process of Modelling that must be followed if learning is to be successful: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation:

  1. First, you must be focused on what the model is doing—you have to pay attention.

  2. Next, you must be able to retain, or remember, what you observed; this is retention.

  3. Then, you must be able to perform the behaviour that you observed and committed to memory; this is reproduction.

  4. Finally, you must have motivation.

An illustration of the Steps of Observational learning

Fig. 25 An illustration that shows the four steps in observational learning.

Bandura described specific steps in the process of Modelling that must be followed if learning is to be successful: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation

Vicarious reinforcement

You need to want to copy the behaviour, and whether or not you are motivated depends on what happened to the model. If you saw that the model was reinforced for her behaviour, you will be more motivated to copy her. This is known as vicarious reinforcement.

Clinical Correlate: Application of vicarious reinforcement

Vicarious reinforcement may be employed in behaviour therapies for children. A sibling can be rewarded for a desirable behaviour while the child under treatment is observing. The reward must be appropriate, eg, praise, and not likely to trigger a tantrum.

Vicarious punishment

On the other hand, if you observed the model being punished, you would be less motivated to copy her. This is called vicarious punishment. For example, imagine that four-year-old Allison watched her older sister Kaitlyn playing in their mother’s makeup, and then saw Kaitlyn get a time out when their mother came in. After their mother left the room, Allison was tempted to play in the make-up, but she did not want to get a time-out from her mother. What do you think she did? Once you actually demonstrate the new behaviour, the reinforcement you receive plays a part in whether or not you will repeat the behaviour.

Modelling of aggression and violence

Bandura researched Modelling behaviour, particularly children’s Modelling of adults’ aggressive and violent behaviors [5]. He conducted an experiment with a five-foot inflatable doll that he called a Bobo doll. In the experiment, children’s aggressive behaviour was influenced by whether the teacher was punished for her behaviour. In one scenario, a teacher acted aggressively with the doll, hitting, throwing, and even punching the doll, while a child watched. There were two types of responses by the children to the teacher’s behaviour. When the teacher was punished for her bad behaviour, the children decreased their tendency to act as she had. When the teacher was praised or ignored (and not punished for her behaviour), the children imitated what she did, and even what she said. They punched, kicked, and yelled at the doll.

See also

Watch this video clip to see a portion of the famous Bobo doll experiment, including an interview with Albert Bandura.


What are the implications of this study? Bandura concluded that we watch and learn, and that this learning can have both prosocial and antisocial effects.

Prosocial effects

Prosocial (positive) models can be used to encourage socially acceptable behaviour. Parents in particular should take note of this finding. If you want your children to read, then read to them. Let them see you reading. Keep books in your home. Talk about your favourite books. If you want your children to be healthy, then let them see you eat right and exercise, and spend time engaging in physical fitness activities together. The same holds true for qualities like kindness, courtesy, and honesty. The main idea is that children observe and learn from their parents, even their parents’ morals, so be consistent and toss out the old adage “Do as I say, not as I do,” because children tend to copy what you do instead of what you say. Besides parents, many public figures, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, are viewed as prosocial models who are able to inspire global social change. Can you think of someone who has been a prosocial model in your life?

Clinical Correlate: Modelling in Therapy

Modelling is part of exposure technique. Before the patient enters a feared situation, the therapist models the act while the patient is observing. The patient vicariously learns that the therapist does not experience negative outcome upon entering the situation.

Antisocial Effects

The antisocial effects of observational learning are also worth mentioning. As you saw from the example of Claire at the beginning of this section, her daughter viewed Claire’s aggressive behaviour and copied it. Research suggests that this may help to explain why abused children often grow up to be abusers themselves [6].

Clinical Correlate: Child abuse

Children who experience abuse during childhood tend to be perpetrators of abuse themselves, as adults. Physical abuse during childhood is a risk factor for conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder. The underlying mechanism is observational learning. In fact, about 30% of abused children become abusive parents (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2013). We tend to do what we know. Abused children, who grow up witnessing their parents deal with anger and frustration through violent and aggressive acts, often learn to behave in that manner themselves. Sadly, it’s a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break.


Children learn by observing adults.

Media Violence Controversy

Some studies suggest that violent television shows, movies, and video games may also have antisocial effects ([link]) although further research needs to be done to understand the correlational and causal aspects of media violence and behaviour. Some studies have found a link between viewing violence and aggression seen in children [7][8] (Kirsch, 2010). These findings may not be surprising, given that a child graduating from high school has been exposed to around 200,000 violent acts including murder, robbery, torture, bombings, beatings, and rape through various forms of media [9]. Not only might viewing media violence affect aggressive behaviour by teaching people to act that way in real life situations, but it has also been suggested that repeated exposure to violent acts also desensitizes people to it. While researchers are working to understand this dilemma, the more serious concern with video games is addiction. Based on evidence, addiction to games is now recognised by the World Health Organization as clinical condition; it is classified under impulse-control disorders in the ICD-11.

An illustration shows the relationship between exposure to media violence and aggressive behaviour.

Fig. 26 Exposure to media violence might contribute to increased aggression, yet it could be the individual’s tendency towards aggression that they have a greater exposure to media violence. A genetic predisposition to aggressive behaviour might be the denominator predisposing the individuals to both aggressive behaviour and a liking for games and movies involving aggression.

See also

View this video to hear Brad Bushman, a psychologist who has published extensively on human aggression and violence, discuss his research.


According to Bandura, learning can occur by watching others and then Modelling what they do or say. This is known as observational learning. There are specific steps in the process of Modelling that must be followed if learning is to be successful. These steps include attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. Through Modelling, Bandura has shown that children learn many things both good and bad simply by watching their parents, siblings, and others.

Critical Thinking Questions

What is the effect of prosocial Modelling and antisocial Modelling?

Prosocial Modelling can prompt others to engage in helpful and healthy behaviors, while antisocial Modelling can prompt others to engage in violent, aggressive, and unhealthy behaviors.

Cara is 17 years old. Cara’s mother and father both drink alcohol every night. They tell Cara that drinking is bad and she shouldn’t do it. Cara goes to a party where beer is being served. What do you think Cara will do? Why?

Cara is more likely to drink at the party because she has observed her parents drinking regularly. Children tend to follow what a parent does rather than what they say.

After an incident of violence in the city, a TV channel contacted you to record your views on the causes of aggression. What may be the effect of watching aggression on the viewer’s behaviour?

This is a circular argument. There is evidence for the association of greater exposure to media violence and increased aggression, but the whether the elevated risk of aggression and violence is due to the increased exposure to aggression through media is controversial. It is possible that exposure to violence through media and aggressive behaviour are both caused by a common denominator such as genetic predisposition.

Personal Application Questions

Personal Application Questions


What is something you have learned how to do after watching someone else?


person who performs a behaviour that serves as an example (in observational learning) ^

observational learning

type of learning that occurs by watching others ^

vicarious punishment

process where the observer sees the model punished, making the observer less likely to imitate the model’s behaviour ^

vicarious reinforcement

process where the observer sees the model rewarded, making the observer more likely to imitate the model’s behavior


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