Vicarious conditioning: how does this type of learning work?

Vicarious conditioning is a type of learning which depends on the observation of the reactions of others to a stimulus relevant both for the subject and for the observer, or on the perception of the contingency between a response and certain consequences according to the behavior of others.

In this article, we will describe the main features of vicarious conditioning and its phases, as well as its relationship to other concepts related to very similar types of learning, such as modeling, imitation, social and observational learning. .

    What is proxy conditioning?

    The concept of vicarious conditioning generally refers to a type of learning that occurs through the observation of the consequences of a behavior on another person. The nature of these results increases or decreases the likelihood that the observer will perform the same behavior.

    This type of learning is framed in the paradigm of classical conditioning rather than in the operator. In these cases, we do not learn an association between a behavior and its consequences, but between a stimulus and a response; for example, young children may develop fear towards an animal if they observe this reaction in other people.

    Vicarious learning of the operational paradigm

    From the operative conditioning, if the result of the action is positive for those who perform it, it is said that it has obtained a reinforcement. If we observe that the behavior of others is reinforced, The likelihood of us performing this behavior increases: a child who sees his father giving his sister a drink only after asking will likely imitate him.

    In contrast, when the behavior is followed by an aversive stimulus or the withdrawal of a reinforcing stimulus, we will learn that we should not perform it. In these cases, we are talking about “punishment,” which is defined as the consequence of behavior that reduces the likelihood that we will engage in it again.

    Reinforcement and punishment are not always material: Reinforcement is sometimes social, and may consist of a smile or praise, and in others it is simply identified with the disappearance of an unpleasant emotion; a teacher can punish his students with bad grades, negative comments and many other ways.

    Differences with other types of learning

    The concept of “vicarious conditioning” is very similar to others used in learning psychology: “Modeling”, “social learning”, “learning by observation” and “learning by imitation”. If in general all these terms refer to very similar processes, there are significant nuances because each one highlights different aspects.

    In the case of proxy learning, the emphasis is on whether the subject being observed (i.e. who is performing the behavior or responding to the stimulation) is immersed in a conditioning program, Which, as we have said, can be classical or instrumental or operative; in the latter case, the subject also receives reinforcement or punishment.

    The word “modeling” has very similar implications: in this case, the fact that the person performing the behavior serves as a model for the observer is highlighted. Imitation is understood more restrictively, being simply a copy of the behavior of others that can generate learning.

    “Observational learning” is a broad concept which collects the connotations of the other terms described above. Finally, social learning refers to the behaviors involved in life in society; it is the most macro of all these types of learning, as it also includes others such as symbolic or verbal learning.

    Proxy conditioning phases

    Psychologist Albert Bandura described four processes necessary for learning by proxy or by observation, which can also be understood as the phases through which this type of conditioning occurs.

    1. Attention

    The first step in acquiring a response through observation is concentration of attention on the modelThat is, in the person (or the living being) who initially executed it. Aspects such as the observer’s expectations and the relevance of the learning situation to the observer have a decisive influence on the care process.

      2. Retention

      Retention refers to the observer’s ability to mimic behavior once observed without the model being present. It requires the learner to be able to encode information using words or pictures and repeat it, either in the imagination or in an observable way.

      3. Reproduction

      Once the answer has been learned, it can only be performed by the observer if he has the skills required for it. This process consists of four sub-phases: generating an action pattern, performing the behavior, the comparison between expectations and actual performance and finally the modification by corrective adjustments.

      4. Motivation

      The likelihood of performing the behavior depends not only on whether the subject has learned it correctly, but also on having sufficient incentives to feel compelled to perform it. In this sense, it is necessary to underline the fundamental role of reinforcement in the motivation to imitate the behaviors of others.

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