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Observational Learning in Children

By Layne Wood ; Updated June 13, 2017

Educational psychologists recognize more than one dozen different types of learning that occur throughout a person’s lifetime. Learning opportunities for children happen every day in their own environments. Parents, educators and role models are critical in shaping a child’s knowledge and behavior, yet observational learning theory suggests that the things children observe in real life and through various media are equally influential.

What Is Observational Learning?

Observational learning, also called social learning, is the idea that people can learn new information and behaviors simply by watching someone else do something. The observational learning theory states that this type of learning happens even if incentives to learn are not present. Essentially, it supports the idea that children learn by imitation.

The Bobo Studies

Behavioral psychologist Albert Bandura and his colleagues were pioneers in the scientific study of observational learning. He developed his theory in the 1960s in response to the then-popular but simplistic idea that personality was merely a result of environment.

In Bandura’s well-known “Bobo doll” studies, groups of young children watched the same short film under various conditions. In the film, a person is aggressive toward a Bobo doll or clown, by hitting, kicking and yelling at the toy. Different groups of children were shown different outcomes, including reward, punishment and a neutral control. When the children were placed with the Bobo doll in the same scenario as in the film, most of them treated the Bobo doll aggressively, regardless of the behavioral outcome they had been shown.

Bandura's Theory

Years of studies on the topic of behavioral learning led Bandura to develop a theory. He believed that observational learning occurred in a four-step pattern. Children pay attention to something, they retain what they saw, they reproduce the action or verbalization, and the consequences they observe determine whether they will repeat the action in the future.

Negative Implications

Through numerous variations on his original Bobo doll study, Bandura found that children were more likely to repeat aggressive behaviors modeled on film than by live actors. Perhaps his most disturbing finding was that children were most likely to imitate aggression observed in cartoon characters. This suggests that what children see on television, in movies and on the Internet may have a greater impact on their behavior and learning than what they see in real life.

Positive Implications

Bandura also found that children shown positive, or prosocial, behaviors were less likely to display aggression. Thus, children with positive live and media models are typically well-behaved.

His studies also showed that positive reinforcement, or reward, is a better motivator in learning than negative reinforcement, or punishment. This information can help parents and educators find the best ways to motivate cognitive and behavioral learning.

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