Observational learning, or social learning, refers to learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining, and replicating behavior observed in others. While this type of learning can take place at any stage in life, it is thought to be particularly important during childhood, when authority becomes important. Observational learning allows for learning without any direct change to behavior, and has been used as an argument against strict behaviorism, which argues that behavior must occur for learning to have taken place.
Observational learning can teach completely new behaviors, or can affect the frequency of occurrence of previously learned behaviors. In some cases, observational learning can have an impact on behaviors that are similar to, but not identical to, the ones being modeled. Seeing a model excel at playing the piano may motivate an observer to play the saxophone. The observational theory of learning implies that behavior is not simply shaped by immediate consequences, but rather by considering the implications of an action
Four Conditions for Observational Learning
Albert Bandura (1925-present) first proposed the theory of observational learning, and stated that in order for this type of learning to occur, four conditions must first be met.
The first condition is attention. Observers cannot learn unless they pay attention to what is happening around them. This process is influenced by characteristics of the model, or the person whom the observer is watching, such as how much one likes or identifies with the model. It is also influenced by characteristics of the observer, such as the observer's expectations or level of emotional arousal.
The second condition is retention or memory. Observers must not only recognize the observed behavior, but also remember it. This process depends on the observer's ability to code or structure the information so it is easily remembered.
The third condition is initiation. Observers must be physically and intellectually capable of producing the act. In many cases the observer possesses the necessary responses, but sometimes reproducing the observed actions may involve skills the observer has not yet acquired. You will not be able to become a champion juggler just by watching someone else do it.
The fourth stage is motivation. An observer must be motivated to reproduce the actions they have seen. Motivation can come from external reinforcement, such as rewards promised by an experimenter, vicarious reinforcement, or noticing that the models of the behavior are rewarded. Models to whom the observer affords higher status affect performance more through motivation. The highest status models tend to be respected members close to the observers peer-group - although in children, this usually extends to older children.
Albert Bandura and the Bobo Doll Experiment (Bandura, 1965)
One of the first recorded instances of observational learning in research was the 1965 study performed by Albert Bandura. This experiment demonstrated that children can learn merely by observing the behavior of a social model, and that merely observing reinforcement of the behavior of a social model could affect whether or not a behavior was performed. Bandura believed that humans are cognitive beings who, unlike animals, are likely to think about the links between their behavior and its consequences, and that humans are more likely to be influenced by what they believe will happen, than by actual experience.
In this experiment, Bandura studied nursery-school aged children's responses to the actions of adults. The children were presented with a short film in which an adult model directed aggression towards an inflatable Bobo Doll (Figure 1). Three main conditions were included: a) the model-reward condition, in which the children saw a second adult give the aggressive model candy for a "championship performance"; b) the model-punished condition, in which the children saw a second adult scold the model for their aggression; and c) the no-consequence condition, in which the children simply saw the model behave aggressively.
Results indicated that after viewing the film, when children were left alone in a room with the Bobo Doll and props used by the adult aggressor, they imitated the actions they had witnessed. Those in the model-reward and no-consequence conditions were more willing to imitate the aggressive acts than those in the model-punished condition. Further testing indicated that children in each condition had equal amounts of learning and it was only the motivation factor that kept behaviors from being similar in each condition.