August 31, 2010
Learning is the conscious and unconscious acquisition of information which, through interpretation and understanding, and storage of that knowledge, results in a potential or permanent behavior change or no change at all. This can come about in myriad ways. While there are many theories about how learning takes place, one theory developed during the middle of the 20th century suggested that not all behavior was learned by experience. In other words, some behavior could be learned without a behavior change taking place; that some behaviors, aggressive ones specifically, could be manifested simply by observing others acting aggressively. This assertion that the process of learning involves cognition fueled the transition from staunch behaviorism to the more modern cognitive learning theories developed over the last 20 years.
Observational learning, or social learning theory, focuses on the social context of learning and proposes that we can learn from one another by observation, imitation, or by modeling. Albert Bandura is considered to be the originator and main proponent of this theory. During the prime of his career he endeavored to understand the cognitive processes associated with peoples’ interaction with one another. In contrast to the traditional behaviorist view that learning is initiated by a permanent behavioral change, social learning theorists suggest that direct experience is not necessary for our behavior to be self-adjusted. They say that learning can take place simply by observing others actions and the subsequent outcomes of those actions. If we see another person being praised for a particular behavior we are likely to seek that positive reinforcement by repeating that same behavior. On the other hand, if we see another person being punished for a particular behavior we are unlikely to repeat that behavior knowing that it results in positive punishment.
In 1961 Albert Bandura began a study that would become known as ‘The Bobo Doll experiment’. He developed this experiment to study the relationship between observed behavior and exhibited behavior. He intended to prove that aggression is manifested through the observation of others acting aggressively and that learning of that behavior required no direct experience. There are four separate processes that occur during observational learning. First, a person must recognize a behavior. This can be influenced by the initial value a person puts on that behavior. Second, the behavior must be retained and available for retrieval at a later date. A person might form a mental picture of the behavior in their mind in order to remember it. Third, a person must be physically and/or intellectually capable of performing the actions that produce the behavior. On occasion, the necessary skills have yet to be attained, making reproduction impossible. Fourth, a person must have form a goal orientation with the behavior. Subsequent punishment or reinforcement for the behavior, to the person being observed or the person observing, is the most crucial part of the process. This final act ultimately determines whether or not a person will act on the information they acquired and stored about a particular behavior.
The idea that we acquire knowledge by observation of what others do and the consequences of their actions seems very primal. Indeed, it has a foundation in evolutionary biology and can be corroborated by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. By watching others go through the trial and error process we hopefully gain more than we lose. In other words, we achieve and prosper vicariously. This would lend to the argument that we are neurologically predisposed to this form of knowledge acquisition.
It is much more efficient and effective to learn by observation than to contrive our own knowledge. Studies have demonstrated that the learning process is expedited by observing “expert” models. (Van…