Observational learning, also known as social learning or modeling, is a form of learning in which people acquire new behavior by watching someone else perform that behavior. The person performing the behavior is known as the model, and the learner is known as the observer. The pioneer of observational learning research is Albert Bandura, who published an important study on it in which he demonstrated that children could learn violent play behaviors by watching a demonstration of violent play.
It is important to note that observational learning is not the same thing as imitation. In imitation, an observer mimics a modeled behavior. In observational learning, behavioral changes are acquired, which means that the observer may take up a new behavior or stop a behavior, depending on how the behavior is presented by the model, and the change is retained.
The new behavior is more likely to be demonstrated if the model is someone who is viewed as an authority figure. For example, children seeing behavior modeled by a child of the same age may not acquire it, but if it is modeled by an older child or an adult, especially one who is seen as a role model in some way, the children will be more likely to pick up the new behavior.
Several components are involved in observational learning. The first is paying attention; the observer has to focus on the model to learn. Next is the ability to retain the information acquired, and to reproduce it. Finally, there must be a motivation for a behavioral change, either in the form of a motivation demonstrated by the model, or in the environment.
For example, if a child sees an older child praised for doing something, that child may replicate the behavior, or if a child sees another child being punished for displaying a particular behavior, the likelihood of reproducing that behavior declines. Likewise, if a child is in an environment where new behaviors tend to be punished, the child will be less likely to reproduce modeled behavior, fearing punishment, while children in an environment where new behaviors are praised will be more likely to reproduce modeled behavior.
Observational learning research has shown that reinforcement and punishment can moderate not necessarily the demonstration of behavior, but the likelihood of reproducing modeled behavior. This may sound like a small distinction, but it can actually be important, because it demonstrates that people can acquire behavior and information without directly being rewarded for specific behaviors. Observational learning appears to be especially common in early childhood, and may be a natural response to learning to navigate in a world which contains a huge volume of new information.