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Observational learning: definition, phases and uses

Observational learning: definition, phases and uses

October 5, 2022

Authors as relevant and famous as Burrhus F. Skinner, Julian B. Rotter and, above all, Albert Bandura contributed to the description of the process by which observational learning takes place, by which we learn by seeing how other people behave.

In this article we will describe what is observational learning based on the work of Bandura , whose contributions in this regard are better known as "social learning theory". We will also talk about the four stages that make up this process: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.

  • Maybe you're interested: "Albert Bandura's Theory of Social Learning"

What is observational learning?

The concept of "observational learning" is somewhat ambiguous. Many authors identify it with social learning described by Albert Bandura; This term is probably the most popular way to refer to this process in the scientific literature.


In turn, both the definition of social learning and that of the observational are confused with other nearby ones, particularly vicarious learning, imitation and modeling. However, it is possible to find differential nuances between the original scope of each of the terms, although with the passage of time the different conceptions have been homogenized.

In this sense we can include within observational learning any type of learning that occurs as a result of the contemplation of behaviors of other living beings (since it is not a specific term for humans), as well as the consequences of these, that is, their contingency with the appearance of reinforcements and punishments.


The main particular of observational learning is that is given without the need for the learner to obtain reinforcement : in this case you get information about the possible effects that a certain behavior will have. However, reinforcement is necessary for the behavior to be carried out, as we will see a little later.

Regarding the other terms that we have mentioned, each of them highlights a specific feature of a broad and shared phenomenon. Thus, when we speak of "modeling" we are emphasizing the importance of who acts as a behavioral model, while "social learning" refers to the inclusion of this in the context of socialization.

  • Related article: "Vicar conditioning: how does this type of learning work?"

Bandura's theory of social learning

In the 1960s the Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura carried out various studies to analyze learning processes that they could not be explained by traditional behavioral models (classical conditioning and operant), but they required the use of social variables. From them he formulated his theory of social learning.


Previous authors such as B. F. Skinner or J. B. Rotter had proposed models that tried to explain observational learning, or other closely related concepts, through basic mechanisms such as reinforcement. However, the "cognitive revolution" contributed to the inclusion of unobservable variables in scientific psychology.

According to Bandura, one of the greatest weaknesses of the existing approaches at the time was the fact that they did not include social variables in the assumptions about the acquisition of behaviors. His theory is based on the idea that learning is a fundamentally cognitive process that is inseparable from the social framework in which it develops.

In this way Bandura proposed the concept of reciprocal determinism, according to which when a living being carries out a learning is not being a simple receiver of the events that happen in their environment, but there is a mutual influence between context, behaviors and cognitive variables as expectations or motivation.

One of the most relevant contributions of Bandura's work was that it showed that learning can take place without the need for the learner to get reinforcement. However, as is logical, observing that the model obtains rewards or punishments as a consequence of its behavior modulates the learning that takes place.

The 4 stages of this process

Albert Bandura conceptualized observational (or social) learning as a process consisting of four stages that take place one after the other . Thus, this type of learning includes from the attention to the events that happen in our environment to the motivation that leads us to execute the behavior after having learned it through observation.

1. Attention

Attention is the cognitive function that allows us perceive and understand the events that happen around us . If the person's cognitive abilities are adequate and sufficient attention resources are dedicated to observation, it will be easier to learn. Certain characteristics of the model, such as its prestige, have a significant influence on this process.

  • Related article: "The 15 types of attention and what are their characteristics"

2. Retention

This stage of observational learning refers to the memorization of observed behavior. According to Bandura, retention can be based on both verbal and visual material, with verbal cognitive models being more suitable for complex learning, in general.

3. Reproduction

Following the definition of Bandura, we understand as "reproduction" the execution of the behavior that had been memorized; we can conceptualize this process as the creation of an action plan . The feedback we receive from other people significantly modulates the specific characteristics of behavioral reproduction.

4. Motivation

Although we have learned a behavior perfectly, it is very unlikely that we will execute it if we do not have incentives to do so. Thus, the execution of behavior depends above all on the expectation of reinforcement ; it is in this step that, according to Bandura's theory, the presence of a reinforcer is fundamental, and not in previous stages.

  • Maybe you're interested: "Types of motivation: the 8 motivational sources"

Bibliographic references:

  • Bandura, A. (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Rotter, J. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Observational Learning & The Social Learning Theory (October 2022).


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