Vicarious Learning


Vicarious learning also known as observational learning or learning through modeling occurs when an individual learns something simply through observation without direct reinforcement or punishment of the behavior, i.e., vicariously (Friedman & Schustack, 2012; Nicholle, Symmonds, & Dolan, 2011).  Bandura postulated that vicarious learning is dependent upon the positive or negative consequences of the modeled behavior, as well as possible anticipated consequences of the behavior which he termed outcome expectancy.  For instance, if the initial behavior observed is neither rewarded nor punished, but there is a strict rule in place against the behavior, it is less likely the behavior will be imitated.  An example is when a younger sibling witnesses an older sibling successfully break a well-known rule.  Although the older sibling was successful in this particular instance, the younger sibling is aware of the negative consequences should they be caught imitating the behavior.

Vicarious learning is dependent upon a variety of influences such as external perceptions of the observed, internal attributes of the observer, as well as perceptions of the behavior itself relative to its simplicity or complexity (Friedman & Schustack, 2012).  For instance, perceived similarities to the observed (age, gender, and competence) increases the likelihood of imitation.  In addition, the simpler the behavior to be imitated, the more likely it is to be imitated.  This may be directly and/or indirectly related to the observer’s perceptions of their own attributes of self-esteem, self-efficacy and/or competence.  Individuals with lower self-esteem and less confidence in their abilities (self-efficacy) are less likely to imitate modeled behaviors, especially complex behaviors.

Successful replication of modeled behavior is also dependent upon cognitive and physical abilities such that the individual must correctly interpret and encode the behavior requiring both attention and retention, as well as be capable of physically accurately reproducing the behavior requiring both motivation to do so and motor reproduction (Groenendijk, Janssen, Rijlaarsdam, & Van den Bergh, 2013).

Some aspects of personality are possible to acquire through vicarious learning, i.e., without the requirement of direct reinforcement or punishment.  For instance, numerous studies indicate children who view too much violence tend to be more aggressive than their non-violence viewing counterparts.  On the other hand, if society directly punished such aggressive behavior it should theoretically decrease.  Rather, in many instances, aggressive individuals have a tendency to get what they want, thus rewarding their ill-tempered behaviors.

Kindness and morality may also be taught vicariously through the positive acts and deeds of others.  My son has witnessed me returning things to a store clerk who forgot to charge me for them, as well as stopping to give money to a homeless person.  Now that he is older he often attempts to replicate these acts of kindness and morality, sometimes inappropriately.  For instance, a student at his school lost his cell phone and was very unhappy.  My son volunteered to purchase him a new cell phone.  Of course, this required a conversation regarding boundaries and parental responsibilities, but the intent was kindness.  On another occasion, a student did not have the required folders on the first day of school and Gabriel happily gave her his.  Although I needed to repurchase his set of folders for the class, I was pleased he was so thoughtful to his schoolmate.

On the other hand, poor manners and attitudes may also be transmitted vicariously.  Many people can attest to hearing a five year swear like a sailor.  In fact, my nieces have a very bad tendency to speak disrespectfully to my sister because they imitate the way her husband speaks to her.  However, it should be noted, they do not speak to me or my husband that way.  Further, they have been scolded for speaking to my sister that way in front of me so that the behavior has diminished in my presence.  Unfortunately, I doubt the behavior has diminished elsewhere.

Groenendijk et al. (2013) demonstrated that creativity may be enhanced through vicarious/observational learning versus guided practice in a series of experiments with high school students.  In their experiments, the creative process was modeled for students while the observed individual spoke aloud their thought processes as they worked.  The researchers’ hypotheses was that students in the experimental condition (modeled behavior with cognitive component) would demonstrate increased creativity represented by convergent and divergent thought processes versus those students who participated in a guided instruction condition.  The results indicated a main effect for creativity, that is, the students in the experimental condition produced more creative results than the students in the guided instruction condition, particularly for students with a creative aptitude indicating the necessity for some competence in the ability being observed.




Friedman, H. S., & Schustack, M. W. (2012).  Personality: Classic theories and modern research (5th ed.).  Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Groenendijk, T., Janssen, T., Rijlaarsdam, G., & Van den Bergh, H. (2013). Learning to be creative.  The effects of observational learning on students’ design products and processes. Learning and Instruction, 28, 35-47. Retrieved from

Nicholle, A., Symmonds, M., & Dolan, R. J. (2011). Optimistic biases in observational learning. Cognition, 119(3), 394-402.


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