Observational Learning

You probably have a good understanding of how classical and operant conditioning works using basic behaviorism theories, but what about a learning theory that falls outside behaviorism? Keep reading to learn more about observational learning.

In the early 20th century, behaviorism was the primary school of thought that explained how we behave. Behaviorists like Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson used experiments to show that people may change their behaviors (or develop new behaviors) through conditioning. By understanding that our actions have consequences, we engage in some behaviors and stray from others.

By the mid-20th century, psychologists were realizing that this explanation didn’t tell the whole story. People don’t have to directly experience behavior in order to perform that behavior later. They could simply observe the behavior to be able to perform it later.

What is Observational Learning?

Observational learning is a form of social learning that occurs through observing behaviors of other people, things, and objects in the world.

This idea, like many ideas associated with observational learning, seem obvious now. In the 1960s, they were just making their way into academic psychology. I’m going to break down observational learning, how it works, and the experiments that have brought this theory into the light.

Let’s get started. We can thank Albert Bandura for his early work on observational learning, and the overarching social learning theory.

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura is one of the most important psychologists in modern history. His work did not disprove the work of the behaviorists, but it added more pieces to the puzzle.

These puzzle pieces formed a bridge that connected traditional ideas of conditioning to cognitive processes. Sure, people can learn a behavior after experiencing the consequences that come from that behavior. But even if people do not perform a behavior themselves, they can pick up on that behavior through observation. 

The Bobo Doll Experiment

bobo doll

Observational learning theories would not have as strong of an impact if it wasn’t for the Bobo Doll Experiment.

Albert Bandura conducted the first Bobo Doll experiment in 1961. Children were placed in a room with adults and a Bobo doll (one of those clowns that has a large bottom and swings back to upright if you hit it.) The adult either acted aggressively toward the Bobo doll or spent their time enjoying nonaggressive activities.

After ten minutes of observation, the children were taken into another room with more exciting toys. The toys were quickly taken away from the children in order to get them upset. Then the researchers put the children in another room, one which had another Bobo Doll.

You might not be surprised to learn that the children who had observed the aggressive behaviors in the adults were more likely to display them once they got upset. This was a huge development in the world of psychology and learning. The children had not previously seen or experienced consequences for being aggressive toward the Bobo doll – simply observing the adult was enough to help them learn, and then later perform, the action.

Cultural examples

Nowadays, the idea of observational learning seems obvious. We all imitate others and model our behavior after the people in our lives. If you have ever dressed like your older sibling or used the same facial expressions as your parents, you participated in observational learning.

Observational learning is one way that cultures are formed throughout geographical locations or age groups. Have you ever learned slang words or dance moves from your friends? Did you ever use a tutorial to learn how to put on makeup or walk in heels? Examples of observational learning are all around us!

How Observational Learning Works

The Bobo Doll experiment gives us a glimpse into children imitating adults. Imitation is a crucial piece of the social learning theory puzzle. But, as Bandura later theorized, we don’t simply imitate without cognitive thought. We think about our actions. We assess the possible consequences and whether or not we should perform a behavior.

Again, this sounds obvious, but at the time, behaviorists did not account for cognitive processes. They believed that the conditioning we received had all power over our behaviors. Bandura’s theory says that this is only one part of how we learn and perform behaviors.

Bandura believes that once observational learning occurs, humans go through mediational processes that help us decide whether or not we want to perform an action. The steps of that process are as follows:


We are in the presence of so many behaviors every day. It would be simply impossible to observe and learn everything that each person or animal does. In order for us to learn a behavior, we have to pay attention to it first. Attention is simply focusing our conscious thought on a task.


Not everything we see ends up in our memory storage. But retention and memory is crucial to observational learning – we can’t imitate something that we don’t know how to do. You might have paid close attention to a television show in which someone makes a tiramisu. But if you did not retain every step of the process, you will not be able to perform it.

This stage is easier to move through if the person observes the behavior multiple times. The more often someone watches a video on how to make tiramisu, the more likely the information will be stored in their memory.


We narrow down the process even further when we get to the motor (or reproduction) stage. Just because you observe someone performing a behavior does not mean that you can imitate it.


This is where cognitive processes really make an impact. Just because someone can perform an action does not mean that they will. People even have the ability to “turn off” involuntary actions that they might not be consciously doing.

The behaviorists believed that after conditioning took place, certain stimuli would result in an automatic response. Psychologists like Bandura added another “hoop” for people to jump through before behaviors were performed.

Let’s go back to the tiramisu example. Just because a person knows how to make a tiramisu does not mean that certain stimuli will automatically cause them to get into the kitchen. They may use cognitive processes to plan out when they would like to make a tiramisu. They might ask themselves if they want to make the same old tiramisu or try a new dessert. Budget, time, and other responsibilities may come into play before they decide on making a tiramisu.

Michael Tomasello

Bandura is certainly one of the most important psychologists to study observational learning, but he is not the only one. Michael Tomasello is a comparative psychologist who has worked since the 1980s to discover what sets humans apart from other animals. Observational learning and cognitive theories play a big role in what makes us human.

His experiments looked at young primates and children as they observed people solving small tasks. One of the most important takeaways from the study is that while the primates simply tried their best to find success in solving problems, humans directly imitated what they saw. The chimps used trial and error to see whether or not they could also use tools. The humans simply used the tools in the way that they had previously observed.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Other observations showed that while chimpanzees and other primates were more likely to perform tasks for their own benefit, the toddlers were more inclined to act “for the good of the group.” These concepts can take up an entire article of their own – but they were developed while psychologists were trying to understand the concept of observational learning.

Observational Learning in Other Animals


There are differences between how chimpanzees and humans learn through observation. But observational learning does exist in primates and non-primates. These studies continue to give us clues about how humans observe, learn, imitate, and behave.

Take kittens for example. In 1969, Phyllis Chesler conducted a study involving kittens. The kittens were split into three groups. One group watched their mother perform a task. The other group watched a different cat perform a task. The control group did not watch any cat perform the task.

The kittens who watched a cat were more likely to perform that task after observation. Kittens who watched their mother were the most likely to perform the task.

This, again, might seem like common sense. We are more likely to imitate our parents than a stranger that we meet on the street. Later research has shown that we are more likely to imitate people that we deem as “successful” than imitate who we don’t think is successful. The results of this study offer some explanations, but also pose more questions about whose behavior we choose to imitate and why. 

Just One Piece of the Puzzle

Observational learning has done more than just shake up the ideas of the behaviorists. It allowed psychologists to ask questions about what makes us human. Observational learning and learning through imitation are just small pieces of a larger puzzle that have a significant impact on our behavior, attitudes, and personality.

Practical Psychology

Practical Psychology began as a collection of study material for psychology students in 2016, created by a student in the field. It has since evolved into an online blog and YouTube channel providing mental health advice, tools, and academic support to individuals from all backgrounds. With over 2 million YouTube subscribers, over 500 articles, and an annual reach of almost 12 million students, it has become one of the most popular sources of psychological information.

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