When we set out to learn something, we do not always do so through our direct experience; we often watch what others are doing.
This is called proxy learningA phenomenon which, as simple as it sounds, when first formulated by psychologist Albert Bandura was a revolution in the field of behavioral science. Let’s see why.
What is proxy learning?
Technically, proxy learning is the type of learning that occurs when observing the behavior of other individuals (and the results of those behaviors) leads to a conclusion about how something works and which behaviors are more useful or more harmful.
That is to say that it is a form of self-education that occurs when we watch what others are doing, Not to imitate them for the simple fact that they do as they would in fashion, but to see what works and what does not.
The term “vicar” comes from a Latin word meaning “to transport”, which is used to express that in him knowledge is transported from the observed to the observer.
Teaching neurobiology through observation
Vicarious learning takes place among members of our species because in the human brain there is a class of nerve cells called mirror neurons. Although it is not yet clear how they work, it is believed that these neurons are responsible for making us able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and imagine what it would be like to experience in our own body what they do.
It is also believed that mirror neurons are responsible for such curious phenomena as yawning contagions or the chameleon effect. However, between the neurobiological level and the behavioral level, there is a large gap both conceptual and methodological, so it is not possible to know exactly how these “micro” processes translate into behavior patterns.
Albert Bandura and social learning
The concept of proxy learning began to take shape from the emergence of social learning theory in the mid-twentieth century. At this time, the psychological current that had dominated in the United States, the behaviorism of John Watson and BF Skinner, was beginning to enter into crisis.
The idea that all behavior was the result of a learning process produced by the stimuli one experiences about one’s own body and the responses that it emits as a reaction (as it used to be, for example , in learning based on punishment) was beginning to be considered as an overly simplistic conception of learning, because according to psychologists of the cognitivist current he paid little attention to cognitive processes such as imagination, beliefs or expectations of each.
This fact created the breeding ground for Albert Bandura, a psychologist trained in behavioralism, to create something called social cognitive theory. According to this new paradigm, learning could also occur by observing others and seeing the consequences of their actions.
In this way, a cognitive process came into play: the projection of oneself on the actions of the otherSomething that requires using some sort of abstract thinking. The construct of vicarious learning was born, however, to prove that his theory served to describe reality, Bandura conducted a series of curious experiments.
However, there is no consensus on whether or not this “addition” served to complement the behavioral learning model, as it also takes into account the perception of behavior exerted by others, but without appealing to basic cognitive entities such as “imagination” or “motivation”.
The jumping experience and observation
To test his claim that proxy learning was a foundational and widely used form of learning, Bandura used a group of boys and girls and had them participate in a curious game of observation.
In this experiment, the little ones were looking at a big grasshopper doll, This kind of toy which, although shaken or pushed, always returns to an upright position. Some children watched an adult play quietly with this doll, while another group of children watched the adult beat and violently treat the toy.
In the second part of the experiment, the children were filmed playing with the same doll they had seen before, and it was possible to see how the group of children who had witnessed the acts of violence they were much more likely to use the same type of aggressive play compared to other children.
If the traditional behavioral model based on operant conditioning had explained all forms of learning, this would not have happened, because all children would have had an equal opportunity to act peacefully or violently. Spontaneous learning by proxy had been demonstrated.
The social implications of proxy learning
This Bandura experiment has not only served to give strength to a psychological theory in academia; it also gives cause for concern about what boys and girls are observing.
Parents no longer had to worry about simply not acting unfairly with them by punishing them when they weren’t playing or giving them undeserved rewards, but they also had to make a serious commitment to lead by example. Otherwise, not only could their image be felt, but they could also teach bad habits without them or their offspring noticing.
Moreover, from this idea, the theory of culture was proposed in the 1970s, according to which we internalize beliefs about how the world works from the fictional worlds constructed by television and cinema.
It was understood that the content seen and read in the media could have a strong social impact. Not only can we learn some things about what works and what doesn’t; too much we are able to learn and internalize a global picture what the society we live in looks like based on the type of experiences we regularly observe.
Limitations to consider
However, knowing that doesn’t tell us much about the effects of, say, a 10-year-old watching an action-violence movie recommended for ages 16 and over.
Proxy learning is a concept that refers to a general form of learning, but not to the effects of a particular event on the behavior of a particular individual. To know these many variables, it is necessary to take into account, and it is today impossible. This is why it is worth watching closely, for example, how watching TV affects our behavior.
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- Pa Blanc, D .; Coltman, P .; Jameson, H .; Lander, R. (2009). “Play, cognition and self-regulation: what exactly do children learn when they learn through play?”. Educational and child psychology. 26 (2): 40-52.