Observational learning

Observational learning is one of numerous learning theories.

Also model learning, modeling. Observational learning, a type of latent learning, involves acquiring information indirectly via the actions of others. It occurs when an individual changes their existing behaviours due to what they have seen in others. A good example of observational learning is “learning from others’ mistakes”. For example, you wouldn’t touch a hot stove if you just saw your friend touch the same stove and get injured. Models – those we imitate – are a key concept in observational learning.

Modelling and Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura’s studies with children and Bobo dolls in the 1960s suggested that we often learn from the actions of others. Bandura placed a Bobo doll in the centre of a room. Some children were exposed to an aggressive adult model, who kicked, hit and shouted at the doll, whilst others were exposed to a non-aggressive adult model, who placidly played with the doll. Children who had been exposed to the aggressive model tended to behave more aggressively toward the Bobo doll themselves, whereas children exposed to the non-aggressive model tended to behave less aggressively.

Below is a video which briefly explains Bandura’s studies.

Bandura suggested that there are five key processes necessary for observational learning:


For observational learning to occur, attention must be paid to the model. Imagine trying to learn how to swing a tennis racquet by not paying attention to Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal!

Retention (in memory)

How to perform a task or behave in a particular way must be mentally stored in memory so that it can be used at a later date. Using the same example of learning how to swing a tennis racquet, observational learning will not occur if the learner immediately forgets what they saw when they watched their model.

Reproduction (of the behaviour)

In reproduction, the learner retrieves the relevant information from memory (that they stored in the ‘retention stage’) in order to reproduce the learned behaviour. An important aspect of this stage is that the learner must have the capabilities of reproducing the behaviour. For example, it is highly unlikely that a five year old would be able to reproduce Rafael Nadal’s serving technique, even if they used him as a model and stored that behaviour in memory; they would not have physically nor mentally developed enough to be able to do so.


If the learner has no desire to reproduce the behaviour, then observational learning will not occur. Motivation will occur if the learner believes there to be positive consequences from reproducing the behaviour.


If the model is positively reinforced for their behaviour, the learner is likely to produce that behaviour themselves. Similarly, if the model is punished, the learner is less likely to produce the behaviour.

The five key processes contribute to Bandura’s social learning theory: that we can learn by watching others (models).