Observational learning is concerned with the acquisition of attitudes, values, and styles of thinking and behaving through observation of the examples provided by others. Psychological theories have traditionally emphasized learning from direct experience. Natural endowment provides humans with enabling biological systems but few inborn skills. These must be developed over long periods and altered to fit changing conditions over the life course. If knowledge and skills had to be shaped laboriously by trial-and-error experiences without the benefit of modeled guidance, human development would be greatly retarded, not to mention exceedingly tedious and hazardous.
Errors can produce costly or even fatal consequences. Moreover, the constraints of time, resources, and mobility impose severe limits on the situations and activities that can be directly explored for the acquisition of new knowledge and competencies. Fortunately, humans have evolved an advanced capacity for observational learning that enables them to expand their knowledge and competencies rapidly through the information conveyed by the rich variety of models. Social modeling shortcuts the learning process.
Observational learning is governed by four sub-functions. Attentional processes determine what people selectively observe in the profusion of modeling influences and what information they extract from modeled events. A number of personal and social factors influence what people choose to explore and how they perceive what is modeled in the social and symbolic environment.
People cannot be much influenced by observed events if they do not remember them. A second sub-function governing observational learning concerns cognitive representational processes. Retention involves an active process of transforming information about modeled events into conceptions for generating new patterns of behavior. The third sub-function in observational learning involves the behavioral production processes by which symbolic conceptions are transformed into appropriate courses of action.
The fourth sub-function in observational learning concerns motivational processes. People do not perform everything they learn. Whether or not they put into practice what they have learned observationally is influenced by three major types of incentive motivators. These include the directly experienced costs and benefits of the modeled style of behavior; the observed detriments and benefits experienced by others; and the positive and negative self-evaluative reactions to the conduct, rooted in personal standards.
Observational learning is not simply mimicry of what one sees. The proven skills and established customs of a culture may be adopted in essentially the same form as they are modeled. However, in most activities skills must be improvised to suit different situations. Modeling influences convey rules of behavior. For example, individuals may see others confronting moral conflicts involving different matters but applying the same moral standard to them. In abstract observational learning, observers extract the rules and principles embodied in the specific judgments or actions exhibited by others. Once observers learn the underlying principles, they can use them to generate new instances of behavior that go beyond what they have seen or heard.
Social modeling not only promotes higher-level learning, but creativity as well. Modeling unconventional ways of thinking increases innovativeness in others. Creativity usually involves synthesizing existing knowledge into new ways of thinking and doing things. When exposed to diverse modeling influences, observers often adopt advantageous elements, improve upon them, synthesize them into new forms, and tailor them to their particular circumstances. Through these processes, selective modeling serves as the mother of innovation.
Social modeling for observational learning comes in a variety of forms. Some of the observational learning is based on the models in the environment one inhabits. In contemporary society, attitudes, values, and styles of thinking and behaving are adopted from the pervasive modeling in the symbolic environment of the mass media that occupy a major part of peoples’ daily lives. In addition, verbal modeling often substitutes for or supplements behavioral modeling as a source of observational learning. By drawing on verbal descriptions of how to behave, people are aided in mastering social, occupational, and recreational skills and learn appropriate conduct for different situations. In symbolic modeling using inspirational exemplars, people learn values, lifestyles, and guides for daily living personalized in idealized figures in treatises and biographical writings about past visionaries and reformers.
As already noted, observational learning plays a key role in the acquisition of knowledge, cognitive skills, and new styles of behavior. Modeling influences also have strong motivational effects based on the outcomes that flow from the actions of others. Observed desired effects can create outcome expectancies that serve as positive incentives, whereas observed punishing effects can instill negative outcome expectancies that function as disincentives for similar behavior.
People are easily aroused by the emotional experiences of others. Therefore, observers can acquire lasting attitudes, values, and emotional reactions toward persons, places, or things that have been associated with modeled emotional experiences. They learn to fear the things that frightened others, to dislike what repulsed them, and to like what gratified them. Fears and intractable phobias can be weakened or eliminated by modeling coping strategies for exercising control over the things that are feared.
During their daily lives, people have direct contact with only a small sector of the physical and social environment. They inhabit a limited locale, work in the same setting, travel the same routes, visit the same places, perform the same routines day in and day out, and interact with the same circle of friends and associates. Consequently, the public consciousness and images of reality are greatly influenced by vicarious experiences – by what people see and hear. Many of the shared views of occupational pursuits, ethnic groups, minorities, the elderly, social and gender roles, and other aspects of life are partly cultivated through symbolic modeling of stereotypes.
Global broadcasts now show sociopolitical conflicts, the strategies and countermeasures used, and their effects, as they are happening. Televised modeling is becoming an especially influential vehicle for social and political change. The revolutionary advances in communication technologies are conferring growing primacy on observational learning from the variety of models who populate the vast cyber world.
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