Observational Learning

Observational learning is the learning that occurs by observing the behavior of a model. It can be highly adaptive. By observing others, an organism can learn which events are important, which stimuli signal that such events are about to occur, and which responses are likely to produce positive or negative consequences.

Modeling is our capacity to learn by observation. The capacity of humans to model far outstrips that of other creatures, and saves us enormous time and effort, as well as helping us bypass the potentially time-consuming and dangerous process of trial and error. We also learn fears, prejudices, likes and dislikes, and social behaviors by watching others. We are more likely to imitate those who are competent, likable, and have higher status or social power.

The Modeling Process

Albert Bandura helped pioneer the scientific study of observational learning, and views it as a cognitive process involving four basic steps: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

1. We must pay attention to the model’s behavior;

2. We must retain that information in memory so that it can be recalled at a later time;

3. We must be physically capable of reproducing the model’s behavior, or something similar to it; and

4. We must be motivated to display the behavior

Motivation highlights the important distinction between learning and performance. Observation alone is enough to learn a behavior, but future performance depends on the consequences that we expect. Knowledge and the capability to perform a behavior can be acquired at one time, but not be displayed until a later time.

Many behaviors are learned through mere observation, and while the behaviour may not be displayed immediately, it instead may appear later when incentive conditions change.

Emotional responses, aggression, and prosocial behaviors can be learned through observation.

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