Observational Learning in Psychology: Example Behaviors

Key Takeaways

  • Observational learning involves acquiring skills or new or changed behaviors through watching the behavior of others.
  • The person or actor performing the action that the observational learner replicates is called a model.
  • The educational psychologist Albert Bandura was the first to recognize observational learning through his Bobo Doll experiment.
  • Observational learning consists of attentive, retentive, reproductive, and motivational processes.
  • Observational learning pervades how children, as well as adults, learn to interact with and behave in the world.


Observational learning, otherwise known as vicarious learning, is the acquisition of information, skills, or behavior through watching others perform, either directly or through another medium, such as video.

Those who do experiments on animals alternatively define observational learning as the conditioning of an animal to perform an act that it observes in a member of the same or a different species.

For example, a mockingbird could learn to imitate the song patterns of other kinds of birds.

The Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura was one of the first to recognize the phenomenon of observational learning (Bandura, 1985).

His theory, social learning theory, stresses the importance of observation and modeling of behaviors, attitudes, and the emotional reactions of others.

Stages of Observational Learning

Bandura (1985) found that humans, who are social animals, naturally gravitate toward observational learning. For example, children may watch their family members and mimic their behaviors.

In observational learning, people learn by watching others and then imitating, or modeling, what they do or say. Thus, the individuals or objects performing the imitated behavior are called models (Bandura, 1985).

Even infants may start imitating the mouth movements and facial expressions of the adults around them.

There are four processes that Bandura’s research identified as influencing observational learning: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation (Debell, 2021).

Social Learning Theory Bandura four stages mediation process in social learning theory attention retention motor reproduction motivation in diagram flat style.


  • In order to learn, observers must pay attention to their environment. The attention levels of a learned person can vary based on the characteristics of the model and environment where they are learning the behavior.
  • These variables can include how similar the model is to the observer and the observer’s current mood.Humans, Bandura (1985) proposed, are likely to pay attention to the behaviors of models that are high-status, talented, intelligent, or similar to the learner in some way.
  • For example, someone seeking to climb the corporate ladder may observe the behavior of their managers and the vice presidents of their company, and try to mimic their behavior (Debell, 2021).


  • Attention in itself, however, is not enough to learn a new behavior. Observers Must also retain, or remember, the behavior at a later time. In order to increase the chances of retention, the observer can structure the information in a way that is easy to remember.
  • This could involve using a mnemonic device or a daily learning habit, such as spaced repetition. In the end, however, the behavior must be easily remembered so that the action can later be performed by the learner with little or no effort (Debell, 2021).

Motor Reproduction

  • After retention comes the ability to actually perform a behavior in real-life. Often, producing a new behavior can require hours of practice in order to obtain the necessary skills to do so.
  • Thus, the process of reproduction is one that can potentially take years to craft and perfect (Debell, 2021).


  • Finally, all learning requires, to some extent, personal motivation. Thus, in observational learning, an observer must be motivated to produce the desired behavior.
  • This motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic to the observer. In the latter case, motivation comes in the form of rewards and punishments.
  • For example, the extrinsic motivation of someone seeking to climb the corporate ladder could include the incentive of earning a high salary and more autonomy at work (Debell, 2021).

The Bobo Doll Experiment

Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment is one classic in the field of observational learning. In all, this experiment showed that children could and would mimic violent behaviors simply by observing others.

In these experiments, Bandura (1985) and his researchers showed children a video where a model would act aggressively toward an inflatable doll by hitting, punching, kicking, and verbally assaulting the doll.

The end of the video had three different outcomes. Either the model was punished for their behavior, rewarded for it, or there were no consequences.

After watching this behavior, the researchers gave the children a bobo doll identical to the one in the video.

The researchers found that children were more likely to mimic violent behaviors when they observed the model receiving a reward, or when no consequences occurred.

Alternatively, children who observed the model being punished for their violence showed less violence toward the doll (Debell, 2021).

Observational Learning Examples

There are numerous examples of observational learning in everyday life, in people of all ages.

Nonetheless, observational learning is especially prevalent in the socialization of children. For example:

  • An infant could learn to chew through watching adults chew food.
  • After witnessing an older sibling being punished for taking a cookie without permission, the young child does not take cookies without permission.
  • A school child may learn to write cursive letters through observing their teacher write them on the board.
  • Children may learn to play hide and seek by seeing other children playing the game and being rewarded in the form of entertainment
  • Children may also learn to say swear words after watching other children say swear words and gain social status.
  • A child may learn how to drive a car by making appropriate motions after seeing a parent driving
  • A young boy can swing a baseball bat without being explicitly taught how to do it after attending a baseball game. Similarly, a child could learn how to shoot hoops after a basketball game without instruction.
  • A child may be able to put on roller skates and stand on them without explicit instruction.
  • A student may learn not to cheat by watching another student be punished for doing so
  • A child may avoid stepping on ice after seeing another child fall in front of them.

Positive and Negative Outcomes

Bandura concluded that people and animals alike watch and learn, and that this learning can have both prosocial and antisocial effects.

Prosocial, or positive models can be used to encourage socially acceptable behavior. For example, parents, by reading to their children, can teach their children to read more.

Meanwhile, parents who want their children to eat healthily can in themselves eat healthily and exercise, as well as spend time engaging in physical fitness activities together.

Observational learning argues, in all, that children tend to copy what parents do above what they say (Daffin, 2021).

Observational learning has also been used to explain how antisocial behaviors develop. For example, research suggests that observational learning is a reason why many abused children grow up to become abusers themselves (Murrel, Christoff, & Henning, 2007).

Abused children tend to grow up witnessing their parents deal with anger and frustration through violent and aggressive acts, often learning to behave in that manner themselves.

Some studies have also suggested that violent television shows may also have antisocial effects, though this is a controversial claim (Kirsh, 2011).

Observational Learning and Behavioral Modification

Observational learning can be used to change already learned behaviors, for both positive and negative.

Bandura asserted that, if all behaviors are learned by observing others and people can model their behavior on that of those around them, then undesirable behaviors can be altered or relearned in the same way.

Banduras suggested showing people a model in a situation that usually causes them some anxiety. For example, a psychologist may attempt to help someone overcome their fear of getting blood drawn by showing someone using relaxation techniques during a blood draw to stay calm.

By seeing the model interact nicely with the fear-evoking stimulus, the fear should subside. This method of behavioral modification is widely used in clinical, business, and classroom situations (Daffin, 2021).

In the classroom, a teacher may use modeling to demonstrate how to do a math problem for a student. Through a prompt delay, that teacher may then encourage the student to try the problem for themselves.

If the student can solve the problem, no further action is needed; however, if the student struggles, a teacher may use one of four types of prompts — verbal, gestural, modeling, or physical — to assist the student. Similarly, a trainer may show a trainee how to use a computer program to run a register.

As with before, the trainer can use prompt delays and prompts to test the level of learning the employee has gained.

Reinforcers can then be delivered through social support after the trainee has successfully completed the task themself (Daffin, 2021).

Observational Learning vs. Operant and Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, also known as pavlovian or respondent conditioning, is a type of learning in which an initially neutral stimulus — the conditioned stimulus — is paired with a stimulus that elicits a reflex response — the unconditioned stimulus.

This results in a learned, or conditioned, response when the conditioned stimulus is present. Perhaps the most famous example of classical conditioning is that of Pavlov’s dogs.

Pavlov conditioned a number of dogs by pairing food with the tone of a bell. After several repetitions, he was able to trigger his dogs to salivate by ringing the bell, even in the absence of food.

Operant conditioning, meanwhile, is a process of learning that takes place by seeing the consequences of behavior. For example, a trainer may teach a dog to do tricks through giving a dog a reward to, say, sit down (Daffin, 2021).

Observational learning extends the effective range of both classical and operant conditioning. In contrast to classical and operant conditioning, in which learning can only occur through direct experience, observational learning takes place through watching others and then imitating what they do.

While classical and operant conditioning may rely on trial and error alone as a means of changing behavior, observational conditioning creates room for observing a model, whose actions someone can replicate.

This can result in a more controlled and ultimately more efficient learning process for all involved (Daffin, 2021).

APA Style References

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84 (2), 191.

Bandura, A. (1985). Model of causality in social learning theory. I n Cognition and psychotherapy (pp. 81-99). Springer, Boston, MA.

Bandura, A. (1986). Fearful expectations and avoidant actions as coeffects of perceived self-inefficacy.

Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American psychologist, 44 (9), 1175.

Bandura, A. (1998). Health promotion from the perspective of social cognitive theory. Psychology and health, 13 (4), 623-649.

Bandura, A. (2003). Social cognitive theory for personal and social change by enabling media. In Entertainment-education and social change (pp. 97-118). Routledge.

Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582.

Debell, A. (2021). What is Observational Learning? 

Daffin, L. (2021). Principles of Learning and Behavior. Washington State University.

Kirsh, S. J. (2011). Children, adolescents, and media violence: A critical look at the research. 

LaMort, W. (2019). The Social Cognitive Theory. Boston University.

Murrell, A. R., Christoff, K. A., & Henning, K. R. (2007). Characteristics of domestic violence offenders: Associations with childhood exposure to violence. Journal of Family violence, 22 (7), 523-532.

Reed, M. S., Evely, A. C., Cundill, G., Fazey, I., Glass, J., Laing, A., … & Stringer, L. C. (2010). What is social learning?. Ecology and society, 15 (4).

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Social cognitive theory.

Skinner, B. F. (1950). Are theories of learning necessary?. Psychological Review, 57 (4), 193.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

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Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

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Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.