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Vicarious Reinforcement

| What Is Vicarious Reinforcement | Reinforcement Learning | Identification | Examples | Vicarious Reinforcement in Parenting |

Human learning can occur through direct experience or through observing the experiences of others. 

In observational learning, one can observe others’ actions and their consequences without carrying out their own actions.

This learning process, called vicarious reinforcement, is often used to teach social rules to children.

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What Is Vicarious Reinforcement

Vicarious reinforcement is a form of observational learning in which the behavior of the observer is altered by observing the consequences of another individual’s actions. 

In order to learn some behavior, a person does not necessarily have to experience rewards and punishment directly; rather, they can observe and interpret the consequences experienced by a model and infer how likely they are to experience them themselves​1​.

Reinforcement Learning

Thorndike’s (1911) Law Of Effect states that responses leading to favorable consequences become reinforced, while those leading to neutral or unfavorable consequences become less frequent.

Based on this work, BF Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning. According to the theory, reinforced behaviors persist while unreinforced behaviors die out or are extinguished​2​.

Reinforcement can be achieved through reinforcers or punishers. Reinforcers increase the likelihood of a particular behavior being repeated. Punishers weaken the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

Reinforcers are used to encourage positive behavior and punishers tend to be used to discourage undesired behavior.

Vicarious reinforcement causes observers’ behavior to change in the same way as the behavior of models. They adopt similar conditioned responses (learned behavior) as the models even though they themselves receive no direct reinforcers or punishers. 


There is more to vicarious reinforcement than simply delivering reinforcement through a model. The outcome of vicarious learning may be influenced by the observer’s perception of the situation and their inferences about their own performance.

An observer must feel similar enough to the model to be able to experience the desired results. When an observer feels they are similar to a model, they identify with the model. 

Studies show that identification increases the likelihood of the observer learning new behaviors​3​

An individual’s similarity may be determined by physical characteristics, personality, race, shared beliefs, common values, previous experience, or skill levels​4​.

Thus, many mediated health messages target the audience using models similar to them. For instance, in an anti-alcohol advertisement, perceived similarity to the model was positively associated with its effectiveness​5​

Examples of vicarious reinforcement

Albert Bandura Bobo Doll Experiment

In the Bobo Doll Experiment, children were divided into two experimental groups and shown a film of an adult behaving aggressively toward a Bobo Doll.

One group of children saw the adult rewarded for being aggressive toward the dollar, while another group saw the adult punished. They were placed in a room to play with the doll.

Children who observed the aggressive model rewarded exhibited more imitative aggression and preferred to emulate the successful aggressor. In the model-punished group, children failed to reproduce the aggressive model’s behavior and rejected it as an example to emulate due to vicarious punishment.

Rewards served as positive reinforcement to the aggression and punishments were deterrents to the imitation of the socially discouraged behavior​6​

Disruptive Classroom Behavior

A teacher can develop desirable behavior in one child by reinforcing the desired behavior of someone else nearby.

For instance, instead of punishing inattentive behavior as a direct reinforcement, a teacher can praise a model student close by for their attentive behavior. Studies found that reinforcing a model’s good behavior in the classroom increased similar behavior in adjacent peers​7​.

Likewise, the “ripple effect” of disciplining a model student affects the adjacent peers who are not directly disciplined. 

Anti-Smoking and Anti-Drug Campaign

To deter people from smoking or abusing drugs, models are shown in public health campaigns with horrifying physical symptoms or broken social relationships as punishment​8​.

Healthy Lifestyle TV Campaign

In a TV campaign aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles in adolescents, an obese teen who is in the emergency room with high blood pressure is advised to eat more fruits and vegetables and exercise by a doctor​9​.

Teenagers who watched the program reported exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables, and getting their blood pressure checked more often than non-viewers. 

Vicarious Reinforcement in Parenting

Imitative learning and social reinforcement play an important role in developing behavior in humans.

Children observe their parents, internalize their patterns of behavior, and learn them vicariously.

Therefore, a parent is a role model and a source of inspiration for their children whether they intend to be so or not.

Parents are the first teachers for teaching their children social and moral values.

The following are some examples of behavior that is reinforced in daily life.

If parents swear in their daily conversations, their kids are likely to do the same. 

Smoking parents will have a difficult time convincing their children not to smoke. 

Authoritarian parents who use physical punishment tend to raise children who show aggressive behavior or become bullying victims​10​.

These children have seen firsthand how hostile and aggressive behavior is effective at winning situations and controlling others (reinforcement)​11​.


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    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
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    Honig WK. Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application. Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1966.
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    Bandura A. Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online February 2001:1-26. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.1
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    Stotland E. Exploratory Investigations of Empathy. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Published online 1969:271-314. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(08)60080-5
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    Andsager JL, Bemker V, Choi HL, Torwel V. Perceived Similarity of Exemplar Traits and Behavior. Communication Research. Published online February 2006:3-18. doi:10.1177/0093650205283099
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    Bandura A, Ross D, Ross SA. Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Published online December 1963:601-607. doi:10.1037/h0045550
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    Kazdin AE. The effect of vicarious reinforcement on attentive behavior in the classroom1. J Appl Behav Anal. Published online 1973:71-78. doi:10.1901/jaba.1973.6-71
  8. 8.
    Witte K, Allen M. A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeals: Implications for Effective Public Health Campaigns. Health Educ Behav. Published online October 2000:591-615. doi:10.1177/109019810002700506
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    Valente TW, Murphy S, Huang G, Gusek J, Greene J, Beck V. Evaluating a Minor Storyline onERAbout Teen Obesity, Hypertension, and 5 A Day. Journal of Health Communication. Published online August 29, 2007:551-566. doi:10.1080/10810730701508385
  10. 10.
    Georgiou SN, Fousiani K, Michaelides M, Stavrinides P. Cultural value orientation and authoritarian parenting as parameters of bullying and victimization at school. International Journal of Psychology. Published online February 2013:69-78. doi:10.1080/00207594.2012.754104
  11. 11.
    Batool SS. Lack of adequate parenting: A potential risk factor for aggression among adolescents. Pakistan Journal of Psychological Research. 2013;28(2):217–238.

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).


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