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Vicarious Reinforcement Definition and Examples

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

In observational learning, one can observe others’ actions and 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 observer’s behavior is altered by observing the consequences of another individual’s actions. 

According to the social learning theory, a person does not have to experience rewards and punishment directly to learn a new behavior; rather, they can observe and interpret the consequences experienced by a model and infer how likely they are to experience the same consequences themselves​1​.

Reinforcement Learning in Psychology

Thorndike’s Law Of Effect (1911) 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 – reinforced behaviors persist while punished behaviors die out or are extinguished​2​.

Operant conditioning can be achieved through positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment.

Reinforcers can encourage positive behavior. They reward desirable behavior to increase the likelihood of it being repeated. Punishers can discourage undesired behavior. They weaken the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

Unlike direct reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement does not address a behavior directly. Vicarious reinforcement involves rewarding or punishing a model causing the observer to imitate or avoid the model’s behavior.

When they see others are being rewarded for a particular behavior, they will likely adopt the same behavior; when they see others are being punished for it, they will be less likely to repeat the same behavior even though they receive no direct reinforcer or punisher.


There is more to vicarious reinforcement than simply delivering reinforcement through a model.

The outcome of vicarious learning may be influenced by the learner’s perception of the situation and their inferences about their own performance.

The learner must feel similar enough to the model to experience the desired results. When observers feel they are similar to a model, they may identify with it. 

Studies show that identification increases the tendency to learn new behaviors through observation ​3​

Similarity may be determined by the model’s physical characteristics, personality, race, shared beliefs, common values, previous experience, or skill levels​4​.

Many marketing 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

There are many different examples of vicarious reinforcement in daily life. Here are some examples in research and everyday life.

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 the aggressive acts, while another group saw the adult punished. Then 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 positive punishments were deterrents to imitating 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 a student who shouts directly, 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, public health campaigns highlight the horrifying physical symptoms and broken social relationships as punishment for the model​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

Imitation and social reinforcement play an important role in developing behavior in children.

Children observe their parents, internalize their behavior patterns, 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 to teach their children social and moral values.

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

If parents swear in daily conversations, their kids will likely 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​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
  7. 7.
    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
  9. 9.
    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.


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