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Vicar learning: observing others to educate us

Vicar learning: observing others to educate us

September 5, 2022

When we propose to learn something, we do not always do it through our direct experience; Many times we look at what others do.

This is called vicarious learning , a phenomenon that, however simple it may seem, when it was formulated for the first time by the psychologist Albert Bandura supposed a revolution in the field of behavioral science. Let's see why.

What is vicarious learning?

Technically, vicarious learning is the kind of learning that occurs when observing the behavior of other individuals (and the results of those behaviors) causes a conclusion to be drawn about the functioning of something and about which behaviors are more useful or more harmful.


I mean, it's a form of self-education that occurs when we look at what others do , not to imitate them for the simple fact that they do so as would happen in fashions, but to see what works and what does not.

The term "vicar" comes from a Latin word meaning "to transport", which serves to express that in it knowledge is transported from the observed to the observer.

Neurobiology education by observation

Vicarious learning exists among the members of our spice because within the human brain there is a class of nerve cells known as mirror neurons. Although we still do not know very well how they work, it is believed that these neurons are responsible for making us capable of put ourselves in the shoes of others and imagine what it would be like to experience in our own body what they do .


It is also believed that mirror neurons are responsible for phenomena as curious as yawning infections or as the chameleon effect. However, between the neurobiological level and the behavioral level there is a large empty space, both conceptual and methodological, so that one can not know exactly how these "micro" processes are translated into patterns of behavior.

Albert Bandura and social learning

The concept of vicarious learning began to take shape after the emergence of the Theory of Social Learning in the mid-twentieth century. At that time, the psychological current that had been dominant in the United States, the behaviorism of John Watson and B. F. Skinner, was beginning to enter into crisis.

The idea that all behavior was the result of a learning process produced by the stimuli that one experienced about his own body and the responses he emitted as a reaction (as, for example, in punishment-based learning) was beginning to be seen as too simplistic, because had little regard for cognitive processes such as imagination, beliefs or expectations each.


This fact created the breeding ground for Albert Bandura, a psychologist trained in behaviorism, to create something called Social Cognitive Theory. According to this new paradigm, learning could also arise by observing others and seeing the consequences of their actions.

In this way, a cognitive process came into play: the projection of oneself over the actions of the other , something that requires using a type of abstract thinking. The construct of vicarious learning was born, but, to show that his theory served to describe reality, Bandura made a series of curious experiments.

The experiment of the fallowing and observation

To test his claim that vicarious learning was a fundamental and widely used form of learning, Bandura used a group of boys and girls and made them participate in a curious observation game.

In this experiment, the little ones watched a big doll teasing , that kind of toys that despite being shaker or pushed always return to stand upright. Some children watched an adult play quietly with this doll, while another separate group of children watched the adult hit and violently treat the toy.

In the second part of the experiment, the children were filmed while playing with the same doll they had seen before, and it was possible to see how the group of children who had witnessed the acts of violence they were much more likely to use the same kind of aggressive game in comparison to other children.

In case the traditional behavioral model based on operant conditioning explained all forms of learning, this would not have happened, since all children would have had the same chances of acting peacefully or violently. Spontaneous vicarious learning had been demonstrated.

The social implications of vicarious learning

This Bandura experiment not only served to give strength to a psychological theory in the academic field; He also gave reasons to worry about what children observe.

Fathers and mothers no longer had to worry about simply not acting in an unfair way with them punishing them when they did not touch or giving them undeserved rewards, but rather they should also commit themselves seriously to set an example . Otherwise, not only could their image be resented, but they could be teaching bad habits without them or their offspring noticing.

In addition, from this idea was proposed in the 70's Theory of Cultivation, according to which we internalized beliefs about the functioning of the world from the fictitious worlds built by television and film.

It was understood that the contents seen and read through the media could have a strong social impact. Not only can we learn certain things about actions that work and those that do not; as well we are able to learn and internalize a global image about how is the society in which we live depending on the type of experiences we observe regularly.

Limitations to consider

However, knowing this does not tell us much about what are the effects of, for example, a 10-year-old child watching a film of action and violence recommended for those over 16.

Vicarious learning in a concept that refers to a general form of learning, but not to the effects that a specific event has on the behavior of a specific individual. To know this we must take into account many variables, and today this is impossible. That is why it is worthwhile to remain cautious about, for example, the way in which watching television affects our behavior.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bandura, A. (2005). Psychologists and Their Theories for Students. Ed. Kristine Krapp. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale.
  • Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Whitebread, D .; Coltman, P .; Jameson, H .; Lander, R. (2009). "Play, cognition and self-regulation: What exactly are children learning when they learn through play?". Educational & Child Psychology. 26 (2): 40-52.

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