Learning does not always occur directly as a result of punishment or reinforcement, but can occur through the process of watching others. Children can learn from observing rewards or punishments given to someone else, and do not need to be the recipients themselves. This form of social learning is called observational learning. The terms ''imitation'' and
''modeling'' are often used interchangeably and are types of observational learning.
Imitation may be a powerful means through which infants can learn from those around them. Andrew Meltzoff and M. Keith Moore's classic 1977 study illustrated imitation of tongue protrusion, lip protrusion, and mouth opening by two- to three-week-old infants. For this behavior to occur, infants must match what they see the model doing with what they feel themselves doing, and it has been demonstrated in infants three days old. Thus, it seems that imitation occurs from birth onward and that infants may learn many new behaviors in this way.
As children grow, they imitate more complex behaviors than simple mouth movements. A researcher who has performed much research in the area of observational learning in children is Albert Bandura. His best-known study of modeling in children involved aggressive behavior. While children observed, models either physically attacked or nonaggressively interacted with a large inflatable doll called Bobo. The children were then given the opportunity to play with Bobo. Those who had observed the aggressive model displayed twice as much aggressive behavior as those who had observed the nonaggressive model. In addition, the children who had observed the aggressive model performed aggressive acts that had not been modeled, illustrating that generalization had occurred. These findings indicate that children can indeed learn what behavior is appropriate in a given situation through observation alone.
Observational learning can have other effects as well. The opposite of the Bobo findings can occur in which inhibition of a class of behaviors becomes less likely after observation. Often inhibition occurs after observing another person being punished for performing a certain type of behavior, such as aggressive behavior in general.
Through his studies on observational learning, Bandura developed his cognitive theory of observational learning. He posited that four mental processes need to be present in order for observational learning to occur. One mental process is that of attention; that is, a child must find the model interesting enough to hold the child's attention. The child must also be able to hold the model's behavior in memory in order to imitate the behavior later. In addition, without sufficient motor control, the child would be unable to mimic the model's behaviors. Finally, motivation is integral in that the child must have a reason to perform the behavior that was modeled.
Ban dura's cognitive theory of observational learning is helpful for understanding why children
imitate behavior in some cases and not others. In particular, children are more likely to imitate a model when they see the model's behavior rewarded rather than punished. In addition, self-efficacy beliefs play into a child's choice of imitation. If the child believes that she does not have the talent necessary to imitate a particular behavior, she will not attempt to do so. Thus it seems that both cognitive and social factors come into play in observational learning, and that is why Bandura's theory is also called a social cognitive theory of learning.
Observational learning can be seen in practice in many settings. First, it seems that children can imitate behaviors they have seen on television—behaviors that are often aggressive behaviors. There are many factors that determine whether a child will imitate an aggressive model on television. The observing child must first identify with the model in order to consider imitating the model. The consequences of the aggres sive behavior are also a factor. In addition, if the child is old enough to realize that aggression on television does not represent reality, he is less likely to imitate the behavior. Finally, what the parents tell the child about the aggressive behavior he is viewing also plays a role in whether or not the child will imitate the behavior.
Observational learning is also important in the learning of sex roles. It has been found that children can learn appropriate behaviors for each sex by reading, watching television, or observing real models.
Another type of behavior that has been found to be learned through observation is prosocial behavior (positive or helpful behavior). Children increase their giving and helping behaviors after observing a peer or adult doing the same and even after viewing such behavior on a television program. In addition, it has been found that modeling of prosocial behavior results in more prosocial behavior in the learner than simple statements that prosocial behavior is good.
Observational learning is often used in therapeutic settings. People can be trained in assertiveness through observation of an assertive therapist. In addition, people can learn to overcome phobias through observation of others interacting calmly with the object of their fear.
In sum, imitation and modeling, both of which are forms of observational learning, begin with simple behaviors in infancy and continue on to complex behaviors in childhood and adulthood. Bandura has theorized that cognitive and social factors interact in observational learning and affect whether an observer will imitate a behavior or not. Observational learning occurs in many settings and has also been used in therapy.
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