What is Vicarious Learning
Vicarious learning is learning through observing the experiences of others without performing the learned behavior directly1.
Humans have the ability to learn new behavior by direct experience or by observing others’ behavior and consequences.
Direct experience is the more rudimentary learning process, based largely on the consequences of their behavior.
However, we obtain most knowledge without direct instruction or experience.
Babies learn to wave goodbye or blow a kiss by mimicking their parents. Toddlers learn language from hearing conversations. Children adopt more complex behavior and beliefs, such as social etiquette or gender expectations, because “this is what people normally do.”
This learning experience is called vicarious learning, also known as observational learning and imitative learning.
In vicarious learning, the learner attentively watches the actions of others, retains the observed actions, and then mimics them2.
The Importance of Vicarious Learning
Learning without direct interaction allows knowledge transfer to take place without tedious trial and error. Individual learning can ensue without directly experiencing danger.
A teen does not have to experience an accident to know the dangers of drunk driving; a news report is enough to drive home the point.
This type of learning passes on a community’s beliefs, traditions, etiquette, and norms. Children learn what is right or wrong, and what is culturally acceptable.
Formal learning can occur through vicarious experience without the actual social learning situations.
How Vicarious Learning Happens
The acquisition and alteration of a person’s behavior rely heavily on vicarious learning.
Despite having simple labels such as imitation, copying, and matching, psychologist Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests that it is a complex process involving biological and mental factors3:
Biologically, mirror neurons, a special type of brain cells that allow us to mimic others, are vicariously activated through observation of others with vision or sound4.
Cognitively, the first step in vicarious learning is paying attention.
People don’t necessarily learn all the behaviors that they see. The mere exposure to a particular model does not guarantee that a person will pay close attention to it, choose the most relevant characteristics from its many attributes, and perceive those aspects accurately.
If a person fails to recognize the essential features of the model’s behavior, they can’t learn much from the vicarious observation.
Identification plays an important role in this process5.
People are more likely to pay attention and mimic the behavior of someone to whom they can identify and relate.
We see the power of peer learning in our daily lives. For instance, teenagers are more likely to emulate their peers than historical role models they read about in school.
After noticing it, a person needs to be able to remember the learning.
A symbolic form of the particular behavior must be present for them to reproduce such behavior.
People who mentally rehearse or actually perform the behavior of a model are more likely to retain the information6.
After paying attention and retaining the behavior patterns, an individual must coordinate various actions in the correct sequence to perform them physically and make adjustments based on direct feedback.
Reinforcement and Motivation
Finally, to activate the learning, a person must have the drive to repeat the behavior.
Motivation to repeat a behavior pattern is influenced by the similarity of the model, the observer’s perception of their physical abilities, as well as the perceived rewards and punishments associated with it7.
In 1961, Bandura conducted the famous Bobo Doll experiment.
In this experiment, children watched videos that showed adults acting aggressively toward dolls. In one group, the adult was punished afterward, while in another, they were rewarded.
Bandura’s research found that the group that observed aggressive behavior being rewarded later behaved aggressively toward dolls more than the group that observed aggression being punished. Despite not being directly rewarded or punished, the children’s behavior was reinforced vicariously8,9.
This is vicarious conditioning.
Observational learning can therefore be reinforced through vicarious reinforcement.
Vicarious Learning Examples
Here are some examples of vicarious learning in our everyday lives.
Video Tutorials and Teaching
You can learn all kinds of everyday tasks from baking a cake to restoring your backyard deck from demonstration videos on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Udemy.
Video recordings provide learners with instructions and demonstrations on how to perform these hands-on tasks in similar situations.
People who have visual learning styles or who have grown up watching video content instead of reading books may benefit most from these types of learning10.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters mentorship program is a great way for vicarious learning to take place.
The program pairs more experienced older individuals with young children, so the younger can learn from the mentor’s experiences.
This provides a unique learning opportunity for children to learn about topics not taught in traditional classrooms. Moreover, they learn about their thought processes and mistakes without having to make the same mistakes themselves.
Kids Watching Parents
Watching their parents is how children learn from birth. They observe their parents’ actions, reactions, and consequences to learn from them.
Vicarious Learning in Parenting
Parents are without a doubt the first and most influential models for their children.
From the moment a child is born, they are constantly learning and observing their parents.
Vicarious learning serves as a reminder to parents that their child’s learning environment extends beyond school.
Be a role model for your child
Seting a good example is the most effective way for parents to help shape their children’s behavior, attitude, values, and emotional development.
If you want your child to read books, read books together as a family.
If you want your child to be kind and polite, watch the way you speak to them and to other people.
Build a good parent-child relationship
Since vicarious learning involves multiple cognitive processes, simply providing a model, even a prominent one, will not automatically produce a learned behavior in children.
Your child must pay attention and be motivated to learn what you want to teach.
Modeled behavior and new skills will be picked up on more readily by your child when they feel connected to you.
Be aware of peer influence
Adolescents often feel closer to their peers than to their parents12.
Peer group association is one of the factors that can affect teenagers’ outcomes13.
Involvement in deviant peer groups is a risk factor for teenage delinquency, according to research.
Therefore, keep a watchful eye on your child’s social circle and social media usage without being intrusive.
If you are concerned about their peer’s influence, talk to them. If you have a close relationship with your child, it is easier to get them to listen to you.
- 1.Roberts D. Vicarious learning: A review of the literature. Nurse Education in Practice. Published online January 2010:13-16. doi:10.1016/j.nepr.2009.01.017
- 2.Myers CG. Coactive Vicarious Learning: Toward a Relational Theory of Vicarious Learning in Organizations. AMR. Published online October 2018:610-634. doi:10.5465/amr.2016.0202
- 3.Gioia DA, Manz CC. Linking Cognition and Behavior: A Script Processing Interpretation of Vicarious Learning. AMR. Published online July 1985:527-539. doi:10.5465/amr.1985.4278987
- 4.Keysers C, Gazzola V. Hebbian learning and predictive mirror neurons for actions, sensations and emotions. Phil Trans R Soc B. Published online June 5, 2014:20130175. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0175
- 5.Bandura A, Blanchard EB, Ritter B. Relative efficacy of desensitization and modeling approaches for inducing behavioral, affective, and attitudinal changes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1969:173-199. doi:10.1037/h0028276
- 6.Carroll WR, Bandura A. Role of Timing of Visual Monitoring and Motor Rehearsal in Observational Learning of Action Patterns. Journal of Motor Behavior. Published online September 1985:269-281. doi:10.1080/00222895.1985.10735349
- 7.Fox J, Bailenson JN. Virtual Self-Modeling: The Effects of Vicarious Reinforcement and Identification on Exercise Behaviors. Media Psychology. Published online February 26, 2009:1-25. doi:10.1080/15213260802669474
- 8.Bandura A. Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online June 1965:589-595. doi:10.1037/h0022070
- 9.Fryling MJ, Johnston C, Hayes LJ. Understanding Observational Learning: An Interbehavioral Approach. Analysis Verbal Behav. Published online April 2011:191-203. doi:10.1007/bf03393102
- 10.Gioia DA, Brass DJ. Teaching the TV Generation: The Case for Observational Learning. Organizational Behavior Teaching Review. Published online July 1986:11-18. doi:10.1177/105256298601000202
- 11.Xiang P, Ağbuğa B, Liu J, McBride RE. Relatedness Need Satisfaction, Intrinsic Motivation, and Engagement in Secondary School Physical Education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education. Published online July 2017:340-352. doi:10.1123/jtpe.2017-0034
- 12.Brauer JR, De Coster S. Social Relationships and Delinquency. Youth & Society. Published online November 29, 2012:374-394. doi:10.1177/0044118×12467655
- 13.Maxwell KA. Friends: The Role of Peer Influence Across Adolescent Risk Behaviors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Published online August 2002:267-277. doi:10.1023/a:1015493316865