Learning Through Observation and Imitation

In both classical conditioning and operant conditioning, experience plays a direct role in learning, either through association, reinforcement, or punishment. Yet another type of learning is learning through observation and imitation, called observational learning. While experience is certainly a great teacher, you needn't experience everything for yourself in order to learn. You can watch the behavior and actions of others and learn from their experiences. In fact, this type of learning is very powerful and prevalent in children, though adults also participate in observational learning.

Because children are greatly affected by observational learning, telling a child to do as you say, not as you do, is not going to produce the behavior you want. The drive to model a parent's behavior is much stronger than the drive to take verbal orders, even if punishers or reinforcers are involved with the warning.

Observational learning is strongly associated with the psychology behind Albert Bandura and his famous “Bobo doll” experiment that you read about earlier in Chapter 2. As you may recall, children in the experiment saw adults beating up a Bobo doll in a video. Some of the adults were rewarded, some were punished, and some received no consequence for the behavior. Bandura demonstrated that while the children who saw the adults being rewarded for beating up the doll were more likely to later repeat the behavior, all of the children learned to hit and kick the doll.

Bandura later explained that there are four key cognitive processes at work during observational learning. First, you must be paying attention to the behavior of the person who is modeling the actions. Next, you need to be able to remember the behavior that was demonstrated. Third, you must be able to turn your observations into actions that you are able to repeat. Finally, you need to be motivated to imitate the behavior you observed earlier. So, you are far more likely to perform an action if you saw someone else being rewarded for the same behavior.

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