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What is Observational Learning?

by | Jun 4, 2020

As humans, we start learning on our first day of existence.

Most of this initial learning happens through observation. Observing friends, family members, and the surrounding environment. That’s how we make sense of the world.

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at observational learning theory: the definition, four processes, examples, and importance.

We’ll also explore observational learning in the corporate workplace. And how you can use observational learning it to improve your corporate training and development programs.

What Is Observational Learning?

Observational learning is the process of learning by watching the behaviors of others. The targeted behavior is watched, memorized, and then mimicked.

Also known as shaping and modeling, observational learning is most common in children as they imitate behaviors of adults.

While at times, we intentionally observe experts to learn new information, observational learning isn’t always intentional. Especially in young children.

A child may learn to swear or smoke cigarettes by watching adults. They are continually learning through observation, whether the target behavior is desirable or not.

What is a model?

A model is the person performing the task being imitated. In the example of a child learning to swear, the model is the parent that said the swear word. The child is using their parent as a model that they observe performing a behavior.

What makes a good model?

Humans don’t just imitate anyone. Most often, we mimic people that:

  • Are similar to us
  • Are in high-status positions
  • Are experts or knowledgeable
  • Are rewarded for their behaviors
  • Provide us with nurturing (parents or guardian-figures)

Four Processes of Observational Learning

Canadian/American psychologist, Albert Bandura, was one of the first psychologists to recognize the phenomenon of observational learning. His theory, Social Learning Theory, stresses the importance of observation and modeling of behaviors, attitudes and emotional reactions of others.

He found that, as social animals, humans naturally gravitate toward observational learning. Children watch their family members and mimic their behaviors. Even infants, at just 3-weeks old, start imitating mouth movements and facial expressions of adults around them.

According to Bandura’s research, there are four processes that influence observational learning:

  1. Attention
  2. Retention
  3. Reproduction
  4. Motivation

Let’s take a look at each in more depth:

1. Attention

To learn, an observer must pay attention to something in the environment. They must notice the model and the behavior occurring. Attention levels can vary based on the characteristics of the model and environment – including the model’s degree of likeness, or the observer’s current mood.

In humans, it is likely the observer will pay attention to behaviors of models that are high-status, talented, intelligent, or similar to the observer in any way.

For example, if you want to become a VP at your company, it makes sense that you’d observe the current VP’s (or other renowned VP’s in your industry) and try to mimic their behavior.

2. Retention

Simple attention is not enough to learn a new behavior. An observer must also retain, or remember, the behavior at a later time.

To increase chances of retention, the observer must structure the information in an easy-to-remember format. Maybe they use a mnemonic device. Or form a daily learning habit.

The behavior must be easily remembered so the action can be performed with little or no effort.

Using our VP example above, let’s say the current VP is giving a company-wide presentation. You notice that they are calm, confident, engaging, and use eye contact. You make a list of these attributes and remember them for the next time you give a presentation.

3. Reproduction

The behavior is remembered. But can it be performed in real-life?

Reproduction is the process where the observer must be able to physically perform the behavior in the real-world. Easier said than done.

Often, producing a new behavior requires hours of practice to obtain the skills. You can’t just watch your VP give a brilliant company-wide presentation, then use only the observed tactics in your own presentation 20-minutes later. Those skills take years to craft and perfect.

Using our VP example again, you’ve observed and identified four skills that the current VP uses during presentations. To be able to perform these skills yourself, you need to deliberately practice these skills. Maybe you hold small team meetings to test your skills. Or you ask team members for feedback on your presenting skills. In a few months, you will have sharpened your presenting skills and may be ready to produce a behavior similar to the current VP.


4. Motivation

All learning requires some degree of personal motivation. For observational learning, the observer must be motivated to produce the desired behavior.

Sometimes this motivation is intrinsic to the observer. Other times, motivation can come in the form of external reinforcement – rewards and punishments.

Using our VP example again, the motivation is intrinsic. You understand that the path to becoming a VP at your company requires a certain skill set.


What does the science say?

Let’s take a look at some of the scientific research around observational learning.

1. Bobo Doll Experiment

Bandura’s classic Bobo Doll experiment showed that children would mimic violent behaviors, simply by observing others.

In the experiment, children were shown a video where a model would act aggressively toward an inflatable doll – hitting, punching, kicking, and verbally assaulting the doll. There were three different endings:

  1. The model was punished for their behavior
  2. The model was rewarded for their behavior
  3. There were no consequences

After watching the model, children were given a Bobo doll, identical to that in the video. Their behaviors were observed.

Researchers found that children were more likely to mimic violent behaviors when they observed the model receiving a reward, or when no consequences occurred. On the flip side – children that observed the model being punished for violence showed less actual violence toward the doll.


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Here are a few real-world examples of observational learning:

  • A child watches their mother eat dinner with a fork. They observe the behavior and quickly learn how to use a fork themselves.


  • A high-school basketball player watches Stephen Curry shoot free-throws. They observe details such as the number of ball dribbles and hand follow through patterns, then try to mimic the behavior themselves.

About the Author:

Andrew DeBell is a learning experience strategist and content developer on the customer education team at Atlassian. Connect with him on LinkedIn for more.