Observational learning: definition, phases and uses

Relevant and famous authors such as Burrhus F. Skinner, Julian B. Rotter and in particular Albert Bandura have contributed to the description of the process by which observational learning occurs, by which we learn by seeing how others behave.

In this article we will describe what is observational learning based on the work of BanduraThe contributions to this are better known as “social learning theory”. We will also talk about the four stages that make up this process: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.

    What is observational learning?

    The concept of “learning by observation” is somewhat ambiguous. Many authors identify it with social learning described by Albert Bandura; this term is probably the most common way to refer to this process in the scientific literature.

    In turn, the definition of social and observational learning is confused with other closely related definitions, especially vicarious learning, imitation and modeling. However, it is possible to find differential nuances between the original scope of each of the terms, even if over time the different conceptions have become homogenized.

    In this sense, we can include in observational learning any type of learning that occurs as a result of contemplating the behaviors of other living beings (Since it is not a specific term for humans), as well as the consequences of these, that is, their contingency with the emergence of reinforcements and punishments.

    The main feature of observational learning is that it is given without the learner needing to obtain reinforcement: In this case, information is obtained about the possible effects of a certain behavior. However, reinforcement if necessary for the behavior to execute, as we will see a little later.

    As for the other terms that we have mentioned, each of them highlights a specificity of a large and shared phenomenon. So when we talk about “modeling” we are emphasizing the importance of knowing who acts as a role model, while “social learning” refers to including this as part of socialization.

      Bandura’s social learning theory

      In the 1960s, the Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura conducted various studies to analyze the learning processes that they could not be explained by traditional behavioral models (Classical and operant conditioning), but required the use of social type variables. From them he formulated his theory of social learning.

      Previously, authors such as BF Skinner or JB Rotter had proposed models that attempted to explain observational learning, or other closely related concepts, through basic mechanisms such as reinforcement. However, the “cognitive revolution” has contributed to the inclusion in scientific psychology of unobservable variables.

      According to Bandura, one of the main weaknesses of the approaches existing at the time was the fact that they did not include social variables in the assumptions about the acquisition of the behavior. His theory is based on the idea that learning is fundamentally a cognitive process which is inseparable from the social framework in which it develops.

      In this way, Bandura proposed the concept of reciprocal determinism, according to which, when a living being performs a learning, it is not a simple receiver of the events that occur in its environment, but there is a mutual influence between context, behaviors and cognitive variables like expectations or motivation.

      One of the most relevant contributions of Bandura’s work is that it shows that learning can take place without the learner needing to reinforce themselves. However, of course, observing that the model gets rewards or punishments for her behavior modulates the learning that takes place.

      The 4 stages of this process

      Albert Bandura conceptualized observational (or social) learning as a process made up of four successive steps. Thus, this type of learning ranges from paying attention to events that occur in our environment to the motivation that causes us to perform a behavior after learning through observation.

      1. Attention

      Attention is the cognitive function that allows us perceive and understand the events happening around us. If a person’s cognitive abilities are adequate and sufficient attentional resources are devoted to observation, it will be more easily learned. Certain characteristics of the model, such as its prestige, influence this process considerably.

        2. Retention

        This stage of observational learning refers to memorizing the observed behavior. According to Bandura, retention can be based on both verbal and visual material, with verbal cognitive models best suited for complex learning in general.

        3. Reproduction

        By Bandura’s definition, by “reproduction” we mean the performance of the behavior that has been memorized; we can conceptualize this process as the creation of an action plan. The feedback we receive from other people significantly modulates specific characteristics of behavioral reproduction.

        4. Motivation

        Even if we have learned a behavior perfectly, it is very unlikely that we will perform it if we do not have the incentives to do so. Thus, the execution of the driving it mainly depends on the expectation of reinforcement; it is in this stage that, according to the theory of Bandura, the presence of a reinforcer is essential, and not in the preceding stages.

          Bibliographical references:

          • Bandura, A. (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
          • Rotter, J. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
          • Skinner, BF (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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