Observational learning is learning that occurs through observing the behavior of others. Albert Bandura, who is known for the classic Bobo doll experiment, identified this basic form of learning in 1961. The importance of observational learning because it may help, especially children, acquire new responses by observing others' behavior.
This form of learning does not need reinforcement to occur, but instead, requires a model. A social model can be a parent, sibling, friend, or teacher, but—particularly in childhood—a model is someone of authority or higher status. A social model is significantly important in observational learning because it facilitates cognitive process behavior. It helps the learner encode what they observe and store it in memory for later imitation.
While the model may not intentionally try to instill a particular behavior, many behaviors the learner observes, remembers, and imitates are actions that models display. A child may learn to swear, smack, smoke, and deem other inappropriate behavior acceptable through poor modeling. Bandura claims that children continually learn desirable and undesirable behavior through observational learning. Observational learning suggests that an individual's environment, cognition, and behavior all integrate and ultimately determine how the individual functions.
Through observational learning, individual behaviors can spread across a culture through a process called diffusion chain This basically occurs when an individual first learns a behavior by observing another individual and that individual serves as a model through whom other individuals learn the behavior, and so on.
Culture and environment also play a role in whether observational learning is the dominant learning style in a person or community. Some cultures expect children to actively participate in their communities and are therefore exposed to different trades and roles on a daily basis. This exposure allows children to observe and learn the different skills and practices that are valued in their communities.
In communities where children's primary mode of learning is through observation, the children are rarely separated from adult activities. This incorporation into the adult world at an early age allows children to use observational learning skills in multiple spheres of life. This learning through observation requires keen attentive abilities. Culturally, they learn that their participation and contributions are valued in their communities. This teaches children that it is their duty, as members of the community, to observe others' contributions so they gradually become involved and participate further in the community.
- 1 Stages of observational learning and its effects
- 2 Effect on behavior
- 3 Observational learning across cultures
- 4 Observational learning and children with autism
- 5 Other human and animal behavior experiments
- 5.1 Learning About Places
- 5.2 Social Learning in Pigeons
- 5.3 Acquiring Foraging Niches from Social Learning
- 5.4 Social Learning in Crows
- 5.5 Imitation Explains the Propagation, not Stability of Animal Culture
- 5.6 Hummingbird experiment
- 5.7 Bottlenose dolphin
- 5.8 Rhesus monkey
- 5.9 Light box experiment
- 5.10 Peer models on swimming skill performance
- 6 Observational Learning in Neuroscience
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading on animal social learning
Stages of observational learning and its effects
Bandura's social cognitive learning theory states that there are four stages involved in observational learning: 
- Attention: Observers cannot learn unless they pay attention to what's happening around them. This process is influenced by characteristics of the model, such as how much one likes or identifies with the model, and by characteristics of the observer, such as the observer's expectations or level of emotional arousal.
- Retention/Memory: Observers must not only recognize the observed behavior but also remember it at some later time. This process depends on the observer's ability to code or structure the information in an easily remembered form or to mentally or physically rehearse the model's actions.
- Initiation/Motor: Observers must be physically and/intellectually capable of producing the act. In many cases the observer possesses the necessary responses. But sometimes, reproducing the model's actions may involve skills the observer has not yet acquired. It is one thing to carefully watch a circus juggler, but it is quite another to go home and repeat those acts.
- Motivation: Coaches also give pep talks, recognizing the importance of motivational processes to learning.
Bandura clearly distinguishes between learning and performance. Unless motivated, a person does not produce learned behavior. This motivation can come from external reinforcement, such as the experimenter's promise of reward in some of Bandura's studies, or the bribe of a parent. Or it can come to vicarious reinforcement, based on the observation that models are rewarded. High-status models can affect performance through motivation. For example, girls aged 11 to 14 performed better on a motor performance task when they thought it was demonstrated by a high-status cheerleader than by a low-status model. 
Some have even added a step of encoding a behaviour between attention and retention.
Observational learning leads to a change in an individual's behaviour along three dimensions:
- An individual thinks about a situation in a different way and may have incentive to react on it.
- The change is a result of a person's direct experiences as opposed to being in-born.
- For the most part, the change an individual has made is permanent.
Effect on behavior
According to Bandura's social cognitive learning theory, observational learning can affect behavior in many ways, with both positive and negative consequences. It can teach completely new behaviors, for one. It can also increase or decrease the frequency of behaviors that have previously been learned. Observational learning can even encourage behaviors that were previously forbidden (for example, the violent behavior towards the Bobo doll that children imitated in Albert Bandura's study). Observational learning can also have an impact on behaviors that are similar to, but not identical to, the ones being modeled. For example, seeing a model excel at playing the piano may motivate an observer to play the saxophone.
Age difference in observational learning
Albert Bandura highly stressed that developing children learn from different social models, meaning that no two children are exposed to exactly the same modeling influence. From infancy to adolescence, one is exposed to various social models.
It was once believed that babies could not imitate actions until the latter half of the first year. However a number of studies now report that infants as young as seven days can imitate simple facial expressions. By the latter half of their first year, 9-month-old babies can imitate actions hours after they first see them. As they continue to develop, toddlers around age two can acquire important personal and social skills by imitating a social model.
Deferred imitation is an important developmental milestone in a two-year old, in which children not only construct symbolic representations, but can also remember information. Observational learning heightens around the age of elementary school children. Unlike toddlers, elementary kids are less likely to rely on imagination to represent an experience. Instead, they can verbally describe the model's behavior. Since this form of learning does not need reinforcement, it is more likely to occur regularly.
Observational learning compared to imitation
Observational learning is presumed to have occurred when an organism copies an improbable action or action outcome that it has observed and the matching behavior cannot be explained by an alternative mechanism. Psychologists have been particularly interested in the form of observational learning known as imitation and in how to distinguish imitation from other processes. To successfully make this distinction, one must separate the degree to which behavioral similarity results from (a) predisposed behavior, (b) increased motivation resulting from the presence of another animal, (c) attention drawn to a place or object, (d) learning about the way the environment works, as distinguished from what we think of as (e) imitation (the copying of the demonstrated behavior) (Zentall 2012).
Observational learning differs from imitative learning in that it does not require a duplication of the behavior exhibited by the model. For example, the learner may observe an unwanted behavior and the subsequent consequences, and thus learn to refrain from that behavior. For example, Riopelle, A.J. (1960) found that monkeys did better with observational learning if they saw the "tutor" monkey make a mistake before making the right choice. Heyes (1993) distinguished imitation and non-imitative social learning in the following way: imitation occurs when animals learn about behavior from observing conspecifics, whereas non-imitative social learning occurs when animals learn about the environment from observing others.
Not all imitation and learning through observing is the same, and they often differ in the degree to which they take on an active or passive form. John Dewey describes an important distinction between two different forms of imitation: imitation as an end in itself and imitation with a purpose. Imitation as an end is more akin to mimicry, in which a person copies another’s act to repeat that action again. This kind of imitation is often observed in animals. Imitation with a purpose utilizes the imitative act as a means to accomplish something more significant. Whereas the more passive form of imitation as an end has been documented in some European American communities, the other kind of more active, purposeful imitation has been documented in other communities around the world.
Observation may take on a more active form in children’s learning in multiple Indigenous American communities. Ethnographic anthropological studies in Yucatec Mayan and Quechua Peruvian communities provide evidence that the home or community-centered economic systems of these cultures allow children to witness first-hand, activities that are meaningful to their own livelihoods and the overall well-being of the community. These children have the opportunity to observe activities that are relevant within the context of that community, which gives them a reason to sharpen their attention to the practical knowledge they are exposed to. This does not mean that they have to observe the activities even though they are present. The children often make an active decision to stay in attendance while a community activity is taking place to observe and learn. This decision underscores the significance of this learning style in many indigenous American communities. It goes far beyond learning mundane tasks through rote imitation; it is central to children’s gradual transformation into informed members of their communities’ unique practices.
Michael Tomasello(1999) described various ways of observational learning without the process of imitation in animals (ethology): Exposure- Individuals learn about their environment with a close proximity to other individuals that have more experience. For example, a young dolphin learning the location of a plethora of fish by staying near its mother.
Stimulus Enhancement - Individuals become interested in an object from watching others interact with it (Spence 1937). Increased interest in an object may result in object manipulation, which facilitates new object-related behaviors by trial-and-error learning.
For example, a young killer whale might become interested in playing with a sea lion pup after watching other whales toss the sea lion pup around. After playing with the pup, the killer whale may develop foraging behaviors appropriate to such prey. In this case, the killer whale did not learn to prey on sea lions by observing other whales do so, but rather the killer whale became intrigued after observing other whales play with the pup. After the killer whale became interested, then its interactions with the sea lion resulted in behaviors that provoked future foraging efforts.
Goal Emulation-Individuals are enticed by the end result of an observed behavior and attempt the same outcome but with a different method. For example, Haggerty (1909) devised an experiment in which a monkey climbed up the side of a cage, stuck its arm into a wooden chute, and pulled a rope in the chute to release food. Another monkey was provided an opportunity to obtain the food after watching a monkey go through this process on four separate occasions. The monkey performed a different method and finally succeeded after trial and error.
Peer model influences
Observational learning is very beneficial when there are positive, reinforcing peer models involved. Although individuals go through four different stages for observational learning: attention; retention; production; and motivation, this does not simply mean that when an individual's attention is captured that it automatically sets the process in that exact order. One of the most important ongoing stages for observational learning, especially among children, is motivation and positive reinforcement.
Performance is enhanced when children are positively instructed on how they can improve a situation and where children actively participate alongside a more skilled person. Examples of this are scaffolding and guided participation. Scaffolding refers to an expert responding contingently to a novice so the novice gradually increases their understanding of a problem. Guided participation refers to an expert actively engaging in a situation with a novice so the novice participates with or observes the adult to understand how to resolve a problem.
Observational learning across cultures
Cultural variation can be seen in the extent of information learned or absorbed by children through the use of observation and more specifically the use of observation without verbal requests for further information. For example, children from Mexican heritage families tend to learn and make better use of information observed during classroom demonstration then European heritage children. Another example is seen in the immersion, of children in some Indigenous communities of the Americas, into the adult world and the effects it has on observational learning and the ability to complete multiple tasks simultaneously. This might be due to children in these communities having the opportunity to see a task being completed by their elders or peers and then trying to emulate the task. In doing so they learn to value observation and the skill-building it affords them because of the value it holds within their community. This type of observation is not passive, but reflects the child's intent to participate or learn within a community.
Observational learning can be an active process in many Indigenous American communities. The learner must take initiative to attend to activities going on around them. Children in these communities also take initiative to contribute their knowledge in ways that will benefit their community. For example, in many Indigenous American cultures, children perform household chores without being instructed to do so by adults. Instead, they observe a need for their contributions and take initiative to accomplish the tasks based on observations of others having done them. The learner's intrinsic motivations play an important role in the child's understanding and construction of meaning in these educational experiences. The independence and responsibility associated with observational learning in many Indigenous American communities are significant reasons why this method of learning can involve more than just watching and imitating. A learner must be actively engaged with their demonstrations and experiences in order to fully comprehend and apply the knowledge they obtain.
Indigenous communities of the Americas
Children from indigenous heritage communities of the Americas often learn through observation, a learning strategy that can carry over into adulthood. The heightened value towards observation allows children to multi-task and actively engage in simultaneous activities. The exposure to an uncensored adult lifestyle allows children to observe and learn the different skills and practices that are valued in their communities. Children observe elders, parents, and siblings completing tasks and learn to participate in them as they grow. They are seen as contributors themselves and therefore they learn to observe multiple tasks being completed at once and can learn to complete a task, while still engaging with other community members without being distracted.
Indigenous communities utilize observational learning by providing more opportunities to incorporate children in everyday life. This form of integration can be seen in some Mayan communities where children are given full access to community events, which allows observational learning to occur more often. Other children in Mazahua, Mexico are known to intensely observe ongoing activities. For example, in native Northern Canadian and Indigenous Mayan communities children often learn as third-party observers from stories and conversations by others. Most young Mayan children are carried on their mother’s back, allowing the young child to observe the mother’s work. This also allows them to see the world as how the mother would see it. Children are often allowed to learn freely without restrictions and with minimal guidance from their parents or older siblings. Children are self-motivated to learn and finish their chores without their parents telling them to do so. These observant children act as a second set of eyes and ears for their parents by keeping them updated with the community.
Within certain indigenous communities a characteristic of observational learning is that people do not typically seek out explanation beyond basic observation. This is because they are competent in learning through astute observation. In a Guatemalan footloom factory amateur adult weavers observed skilled weavers over the course of weeks without questioning or being given explanations; the amateur weaver moved at their own pace and began when they felt confident. The framework of learning how to weave through observation can serve as a model that particular members or groups within a society use as a reference to guide their actions in particular domains of life.
Observational learning and children with autism
There are not a lot of studies done on the acquisition of knowledge through observation, but there are none on observational learning in children with low-functioning autism according to Nadel, Aouka, Coulon, Grad-Vincendon, Canet, Fagard & Bursztejn (2011). This group of researchers set out to consider whether or not children with low-functioning autism are able to learn through observation only.
They used two groups, children aged four to nine diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and a control group of children. They further divided each group into two subgroups, based on developmental age (24 or 36 months). All four groups then received different tasks that corresponded to their developmental age. The task involved a red box that contained candy, which the children tried to get. This study lasted nine days—during which all the children were given the box on the first day and given time to try to get the object out. They were then shown a demonstration video twice but were not given the box after the demonstration to try to get the candy. The following day, the participants were only given the box with no video demonstrations to test for observational learning. This was repeated seven days later.
Nadel et al. (2011) found that the children who did not have autism showed improvement after the first demonstration. The children of a younger developmental age improved one week later, and the older children improved after only one demonstration. Children with autism improved after the second demonstration only.
The authors believe this means that children with autism progress the same as typical children, but take longer to learn. They also believe this means that children with autism can form motor representations for a task without prior experience with that task, and that they can correct motor representations after previously not being able to do a task. The researchers argue that the difference in the need for more demonstrations for children with autism was not due to a lack of attention but more as a result of an increased difficulty of creating a motor representation of an action that leads to a remote goal as opposed to an immediate goal.
In free play, children with autism often display self-stimulatory behaviours that inhibit appropriate behaviours and decrease their ability to learn new behaviours. In one study, the researchers were looking to determine the effect of the observation of peers on appropriate toy-playing skills in autistic-like children. They also examined the effects training can have on autistic-like children, in the training situation and in a generalization setting. No study before this 1986 work looked at the ability of autistic-like children to learn skills similar to those they learned in training, by observing a peer in a non-training setting. This study strove for insight into the generalization of autistic-like children's skills through observational learning.
Participants included three autistic-like boys with a mean chronological age of 4.4 and a mean age of 2.5. Six other boys with a mean age chronological age of 4.3 and a mean age of 3.2, and good receptive and language skills, served as peer models. Each participant took part in:
- A pretest to determine ten different toys that the child did not play with appropriately
- A baseline test of free play, where children played in a room where the ten toys determined in the pretest were present, as well as another peer
- Two training sessions, each followed by a generalization and maintenance condition
In the first training session, the participant watched a peer (who they did not see in the baseline test) correctly play with a toy. The second training was the same as the first except that the participant was exposed to both a new peer model and a new toy. The amount of exposure to a modeled play task was the independent variable, and was manipulated through additional tasks, models, and settings. Tryon and Keane (1986) identified the dependent variables as the training task acquisition, generalization in free-play, and the frequency of both self-stimulatory behaviour and imitative play behaviours.
The authors found that all three autistic-like boys could learn to imitate the peer model, and could play with an unfamiliar toy in the training sessions by watching a peer model. In the following generalization and maintenance sessions, all the autistic-like boys learned to play with the unfamiliar toy that they had not been trained in. The researchers noticed that the boys decreased their self-stimulatory behaviours as a result of the imitative play learned in training. The authors suggested that enhanced imitation of play behaviours may have been due to the use of multiple peer models.
Other human and animal behavior experiments
When an animal is given a task to complete, they are almost always more successful after observing another animal doing the same task before them. Experiments have been conducted on several different species with the same effect: animals can learn behaviors from peers. However, there is a need to distinguish the propagation of behavior and the stability of behavior. Research has shown that social learning can spread a behavior, but there are more factors regarding how a behavior carries across generations of an animal culture.
Learning About Places
Fish use observational learning to locate food, for survival like many animals.This experiment exemplifies this notion. "An individual, isolated nine-spined stickleback learns that food can be found on the left side of a tank (private information) and will therefore swim to the left when given the choice. But, after a delay of seven days, if he can observe other fish feeding on the right side of the tank (public information), he will swim to the right "(van Bergen et al. 2004). This is presumably because the private information the fish has about food being on the left is now too old and unreliable. Examples of social influence on foraging behavior can be observed in many other animals (Galef & Giraldeau 2001), including humans.
Social Learning in Pigeons
A study in 1996 at the University of Kentucky used a foraging device to test social learning in pigeons. A pigeon could access the food reward by either pecking at a treadle or stepping on it. Significant correspondence was found between the methods of how the observers accessed their food and the methods the initial model used in accessing the food.
Acquiring Foraging Niches from Social Learning
Studies have been conducted at the University of Oslo and University of Saskatchewan regarding the possibility of social learning in birds, delineating the difference between cultural and genetic acquisition. Strong evidence already exists for mate choice, bird song, predator recognition, and foraging.
Researchers cross-fostered eggs between nests of blue tits and great tits and observed the resulting behavior through audio-visual recording. Tits raised in the foster family learned their foster family's foraging sites early. This shift—from the sites the tits would among their own kind and the sites they learned from the foster parents—lasted for life. What young birds learn from foster parents, they eventually transmitted to their own offspring. This suggests cultural transmissions of foraging behavior over generations in the wild.
Social Learning in Crows
The University of Washington studied this phenomenon with crows, acknowledging the evolutionary tradeoff between acquiring costly information firsthand and learning that information socially with less cost to the individual but at the risk of inaccuracy. The experimenters exposed wild crows to a unique “dangerous face” mask as they trapped, banded, and released 7-15 birds at five different study places around Seattle, WA. An immediate scolding response to the mask after trapping by previously captured crows illustrates that the individual crow learned the danger of that mask. There was a scolding from crows that were captured that had not been captured initially. That response indicates conditioning from the mob of birds that assembled during the capture.
Horizontal social learning (learning from peers) is consistent with the lone crows that recognized the dangerous face without ever being captured. Children of captured crow parents were conditioned to scold the dangerous mask, which demonstrates vertical social learning (learning from parents). The crows that were captured directly had the most precise discrimination between dangerous and neutral masks than the crows that learned from the experience of their peers. The ability of crows to learn doubled the frequency of scolding, which spread at least 1.2 km from where the experiment started to over a 5 year period at one site.
Imitation Explains the Propagation, not Stability of Animal Culture
Researchers at the Département d’Etudes Cognitives, Institut Jean Nicod, Ecole Normale Supérieure acknowledged a difficulty with research in social learning. To count acquired behavior as cultural, two conditions need must be met: the behavior must spread in a social group, and that behavior must be stable across generations. Research has provided evidence that imitation may play a role in the propagation of a behavior, but these researchers believe the fidelity of this evidence is not sufficient to prove stability of animal culture.
Other factors like ecological availability, reward-based factors, content-based factors, and source-based factors might explain the stability of animal culture in a wild rather than just imitation. As an example of ecological availability, chimps may learn how to fish for ants with a stick from their peers, but that behavior is also influenced by the particular type of ants as well as the condition. A behavior may be learned socially, but the fact that it was learned socially does not necessarily mean it will last. The fact that the behavior is rewarding has a role in cultural stability as well. The ability for socially-learned behaviors to stabilize across generations is also mitigated by the complexity of the behavior. Different individuals of a species, like crows, vary in their ability to use a complex tool. Finally, a behavior’s stability in animal culture depends on the context in which they learn a behavior. If a behavior has already been adopted by a majority, then the behavior is more likely to carry across generations out of a need for conforming.
Animals are able to acquire behaviors from social learning, but whether or not that behavior carries across generations requires more investigation.
Experiments with hummingbirds provided one example of apparent observational learning in a non-human organism. Hummingbirds were divided into two groups. Birds in one group were exposed to the feeding of a knowledgeable "tutor" bird; hummingbirds in the other group did not have this exposure. In subsequent tests the birds that had seen a tutor were more efficient feeders than the others.
Herman (2002) suggested that bottlenose dolphins produce goal-emulated behaviors rather than imitative ones. A dolphin that watches a model place a ball in a basket might place the ball in the basket when asked to mimic the behavior, but it may do so in a different manner seen.
Fredman (2012) also performed an experiment on observational behavior. In experiment 1, human-raised monkeys observed a familiar human model open a foraging box using a tool in one of two alternate ways: levering or poking. In experiment 2, mother-raised monkeys viewed similar techniques demonstrated by monkey models. A control group in each population saw no model. In both experiments, independent coders detected which technique experimental subjects had seen, thus confirming social learning. Further analyses examined copying at three levels of resolution.
The human-raised monkeys exhibited the greatest learning with the specific tool use technique they saw. Only monkeys who saw the levering model used the lever technique, by contrast with controls and those who witnessed poking. Mother-reared monkeys instead typically ignored the tool and exhibited fidelity at a lower level, tending only to re-create whichever result the model had achieved by either levering or poking.
Nevertheless, this level of social learning was associated with significantly greater levels of success in monkeys witnessing a model than in controls, an effect absent in the human-reared population. Results in both populations are consistent with a process of canalization of the repertoire in the direction of the approach witnessed, producing a narrower, socially shaped behavioral profile than among controls who saw no model.
Light box experiment
Pinkham and Jaswal (2011) did an experiment to see if a child would learn how to turn on a light box by watching a parent. They found that children who saw a parent use their head to turn on the light box tended to do the task in that manner, but children who had not seen the parent chose a more efficient way, using their hands.
Peer models on swimming skill performance
When adequate practice and appropriate feedback follow demonstrations, increased skill performance and learning occurs. Lewis (1974) did a study of children who had a fear of swimming and observed how modelling and going over swimming practices affected their overall performance. The experiment spanned nine days, and included many steps. The children were first assessed on their anxiety and swimming skills. Then they were placed into one of three conditional groups and exposed to these conditions over a few days.
At the end of each day, all children participated in a group lesson. The first group was a control group where the children watched a short cartoon video unrelated to swimming. The second group was a peer mastery group, which watched a short video of similar-aged children who had very good task performances and high confidence. Lastly, the third group was a peer coping group, whose subjects watched a video of similar-aged children who progressed from low task performances and low confidence statements to high task performances and high confidence statements.
The day following the exposures to each condition, the children were reassessed. Finally, the children were also assessed a few days later for a follow up assessment. Upon reassessment, it was shown that the two model groups who watched videos of children similar in age had successful rates on the skills assessed because they perceived the models as informational and motivational.
Observational Learning in Neuroscience
Recent research in neuroscience has implicated mirror neurons as a neurophysiological basis for observational learning. These specialized visuomotor neurons fire action potentials when an individual performs a motor task and also fire when an individual passively observes another individual performing the same motor task. In observational motor learning, the process begins with a visual presentation of another individual performing a motor task, this acts as a model. The learner then needs to transform the observed visual information into internal motor commands that will allow them to perform the motor task, this is known as visuomotor transformation. Mirror neuron networks provide a mechanism for visuo-motor and motor-visual transformation and interaction. Similar networks of mirror neurons have also been implicated in social learning, motor cognition and social cognition.
- mirror neuron
- motor learning
- motor cognition
- Cognitive imitation
- Social cognition
- Machine learning
- Educational psychology
- Educational technology
- Emulation (observational learning)
- Social learning tools
- bottlenose dolphins
- rhesus monkey
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