What is Observational Learning?

To learn about observational learning, we need to know what is learning?  “Learning is any relatively permanent change in behavior brought about by experience or practice.” There are different types of learning- classical conditioning, operant conditioning, latent learning, Observational Learning, etc.

Definition of Observational Learning 

Observational learning is the learning of new behavior through watching the actions of a model. Also called vicarious learning.

Bandura (1974) defined observational learning is the result of cognitive processes that are “actively judgmental and constructive,” not merely “mechanical copying.”

According to American Psychological Association (APA), Observational Learning is the acquisition of information, skills, or behavior through watching the performance of others, either directly or via such media as films and videos.

Observational Learning is the conditioning of an animal to perform an act that it observes in a member of the same or a different species. For example, the mockingbird can learn to imitate the song patterns of other kinds of birds.

When we learn by simply watching others.

This learning occurs indirectly. There is no first hand experience by learner, unlike enactive learning.

Sometimes that learned behavior is desirable, and sometimes it is not.

Humans develop the capacity to learn through observation at a very early age as young as 2–3 days, they will imitate a variety of actions, including opening their mouths, sticking out their tongues, and making other facial expressions (Leighton & Heyes, 2010).

Newborn infants can imitate adult expressions when they are less than an hour old (Meltzoff, 2007; Meltzoff & Moore, 1989).

Toddlers and preschoolers can use observational learning to figure out how to solve complex problems like extracting a toy from a puzzle box (Flynn & Whiten, 2010).

Observational learning typically associated with classic work of Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment. 

Earlier this form of learning was called imitationBandura and his colleagues in a series of experimental studies investigated observational learning in detail. In this kind of learning, human beings learn social behaviours, therefore, it is sometimes called social learning. In many situations individuals do not know how to behave. They observe others and emulate their behaviour. This form of learning is called modeling. 

Observational learning also refer as Social Learning. Bandura (1986) proposed a social learning theory, which is composed of observational learning and operant conditioning.

We observe and imitate not only the movements of the body but also certain ways of thinking, evaluating, judging and decision making, etc.

Albert Bandura’s Classical Bobo Doll Experiment.

In the experiment, four-year-old children separately watched a short film showing an adult playing aggressively with
a Bobo doll—a large, inflated balloon doll that stands upright because the bottom is weighted with sand. All the children saw the adult hit, kick, and punch the Bobo doll in the film.

However, there were three different versions of the film, each with a different ending. Some children saw the adult reinforced with soft drinks, candy, and snacks after performing the aggressive actions. Other children saw a version in which the aggressive adult was punished for the actions with a scolding and a spanking by another adult. Finally, some children watched a version of the film in which the aggressive adult experienced no consequences.

After seeing the film, each child was allowed to play alone in a room with several toys, including a Bobo doll. The playroom was equipped with a one-way window so that the child’s behavior could be observed. Bandura found that the consequences the children observed in the film made a difference. Children who watched the film in which the adult was punished were much less likely to imitate the aggressive behaviors than were children who watched either of the other two film endings.

Then Bandura added an interesting twist to the experiment. Each child was asked to show the experimenter what the adult did in the film. For every behavior they could imitate, the child was rewarded with snacks and stickers. Virtually all the children imitated the adult’s behaviors they had observed in the film, including the aggressive behaviors. The particular version of the film the children had seen made no difference.

Bandura (1965) explained these results much as Tolman explained latent learning. Reinforcement is not essential for learning to occur. Rather, the expectation of reinforcement affects the performance of what has been learned.

Four elements of Observational Learning as per Bandura (1986)

Bandura (1986) suggests that four cognitive processes interact to determine whether imitation will occur.

  1. Attention– First pay attention to the model. For example. People pay more attention to attractive & similar things.
  2. Memory–  learner must able to remember what was done. For example. you need to remember the steps in preparing dish. For example.
  3. Imitation– learner must be capable of reproducing the actions of the model. For example. a person can remember what to do but she/he need to have enough capability (organs and mirror neurons).
  4. Desire- Learner must have the desire or motivation to perform the action.

Mnemonics to remember 4 elements – AMID



Ciccarelli, S. K.; White J. N. Adapted by Girishwar Misra (2018). Psychology (5th Edition). Pearson.

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