Appendix B: Bandura’s Observational Learning

In addition to operant and associational learning, people learn by observing the behavior of others. This is known as observational learning (modeling). To demonstrate the importance of observational learning in children, Bandura and Walters (1959) made a film of a young woman beating up a bobo doll—an inflatable balloon with a weight in the bottom that makes it bob back up when you knock it down. The woman violently hit the doll, shouting “sockeroo!” She also kicked it, sat on it, and hit it with a hammer.

Bandura showed his film to groups of nursery school children and then let them play in a room in which there were some really fun toys. To create some frustration in the children, Bandura let the children play with the fun toys for only a couple of minutes before taking them away. Then Bandura gave the children a chance to play with the bobo doll. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that many of the children imitated the young woman in the film. They punched the bobo doll, shouted “sockeroo,” and hit the doll with a hammer.

For some of the children, the female model was shown being rewarded for engaging in the behavior, and for other children, she was punished. In support of the principles of operant learning, Bandura’s study found that the children were more likely to be aggressive when the model had been rewarded for the behavior and were less likely to be so when the model had been punished. But even the children who did not see the model receive any reward nevertheless imitated the behavior to some extent. One of the major contributions of this study is the demonstration that children learned new types of aggressive behaviors simply by observing and imitating others.

Observational learning is involved in much of our learning about our social worlds. Observational learning teaches us that Hank is friendly, that Joanna is selfish, and that Frankie has a crush on Malik. In other cases, our knowledge comes more indirectly, from what we read in books or see on TV, or from what our friends tell us, for instance.

Observational learning is useful because it allows people to learn without having to actually engage in what might be a risky behavior. As Bandura put it, the prospects for [human] survival would be slim indeed if one could learn only by suffering the consequences of trial and error. For this reason, one does not teach children to swim, adolescents to drive automobiles, and novice medical students to perform surgery by having them discover the appropriate behavior through the consequences of their successes and failures. The more costly and hazardous the possible mistakes, the heavier is the reliance on observational learning from competent learners. (1977, p. 12).

Bandura considered observational learning to be a fundamental determinant of all social behavior and argued that it is most likely to lead to learning when people pay attention to the behavior of models and are highly motivated to imitate the models.

Back to: Social Psychology > Appendices