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This article deals with social learning in humans. See social learning in animals for the ethological view.


Social learning, in the broadest sense, refers to acquiring information from others.

Observational learning (also known as: vicarious learning or social learning or modeling) is learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining and, in the case of imitation learning, replicating novel behavior executed by others. It is most associated with the work of psychologist Albert Bandura, who implemented some of the seminal studies in the area and initiated social learning theory. It involves the process of learning to copy or model the action of another through observing another doing it. Further research has been used to show a connection between observational learning and both classical and operant conditioning. [1]

Many mistake observational learning with imitation. The two terms are different in the sense that observational learning leads to a change in behavior due to observing a model. This does not mean that the behavior exhibited by the model is duplicated. It could mean that the observer would do the opposite of the model behavior because he or she has learned the consequence of that particular behavior. Consider the case of learning what NOT to do. In such a case, there is observational learning without imitation.

Although observational learning can take place at any stage in life, it is thought to be particularly important during childhood, particularly as authority becomes important. The best role models are those a year or two older for observational learning. Because of this, social learning theory has influenced debates on the effect of television violence and parental role models. Bandura's Bobo doll experiment is widely cited in psychology as a demonstration of observational learning and demonstrated that children are more likely to engage in violent play with a life size rebounding doll after watching an adult do the same. However, it may be that children will only reproduce a model's behavior if it has been reinforced. This may be the problem with television because it was found, by Otto Larson and his coworkers (1968), that 56% of the time children's television characters achieve their goals through violent acts.

Observational learning allows for learning without any change in behavior and has therefore been used as an argument against strict behaviorism which argued that behavior change must occur for new behaviors to be acquired. Bandura noted that "social imitation may hasten or short-cut the acquisition of new behaviors without the necessity of reinforcing successive approximations as suggested by Skinner (1953)."[2]

It is possible to treat observational learning as merely a variation of operant training. According to this view, first proposed by Neal Miller and John Dollard, the changes in an observer's behavior are due to the consequences of the observer's behavior, not those of the model. "[3]"

As an interesting aside, there are a number of variables which have confounded the study of observational learning in animals. One of these is the Venus Effect in which animals are sexual stimulated by the model and this interferes with the ability to observe behavior thereby limiting the ability to make associations based on the behavior of the model. (See Warden and Jackson 1935)

Required conditions

Bandura called the process of social learning modeling and gave four conditions required for a person to successfully model the behaviour of someone else:

  • Attention to the model
A person must first pay attention to a person engaging in a certain behavior (the model).
  • Retention of details
Once attending to the observed behavior, the observer must be able to effectively remember what the model has done.
  • Motor reproduction
The observer must be able to replicate the behavior being observed. For example, juggling cannot be effectively learned by observing a model juggler if the observer does not already have the ability to perform the component actions (throwing and catching a ball).
  • Motivation and Opportunity
The observer must be motivated to carry out the action they have observed and remembered, and must have the opportunity to do so. For example, a suitably skilled person must want to replicate the behavior of a model juggler, and needs to have an appropriate number of items to juggle at hand.

Effect on behavior

Social learning may affect behavior in the following ways:

  • Teaches new behaviors
  • Increases or decreases the frequency with which previously learned behaviors are carried out
  • Can encourage previously forbidden behaviors
  • Can increase or decrease similar behaviors. For example, observing a model excelling in piano playing may encourage an observer to excel in playing the saxophone.

Criminology

In criminology, Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess (1966) developed social learning theory to explain deviancy by combining variables which encouraged delinquency (e.g. the social pressure from delinquent peers) with variables that discouraged delinquency (e.g. the parental response to discovering delinquency in their children). Social learning theory has been also used to better understand aggressive behavior (Bandura, 1973).

The first two stages were used by Edwin Sutherland in his Differential Association Theory. Sutherland’s model for learning in a social environment depends on the cultural conflict between different factions in a society over who has the power to determine what is deviant. But his ideas were difficult to put into operation and measure quantitatively. Burgess, a behavioural sociologist, and Akers revised Sutherland’s theory and included the idea of reinforcement, which increases or decreases the strength of a behaviour, and applied the principles of Operant Psychology, which holds that behaviour is a function of its consequences (Pfohl, 1994).

Functionalism had been the dominant paradigm but, in the 1960s, there was a shift towards Social Control Theories, Conflict Criminology, and Labeling Theories that tried to explain the emerging and more radical social environment. Moreover, people believed that they could observe behaviour and see the process of social learning, e.g., parents watched their own children and saw the influence of other children on their own; they could also see what kind of affect they had on their own children, i.e. the processes of differential association and reinforcement. The conservative political parties were advocating an increase in punishment to deter crime. Unlike Labeling Theory, Social Learning Theory actually supports the use of punishment which translates into longer sentences for those convicted, and helps to explain the increase in the prison population that began in the early 1970s (Livingston, 1996).

Burgess and Akers (1966: 128-147) adapted Sutherland to describe a variety of deviant behaviours:

  1. "Criminal behaviour is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Operant behaviour is affected by ‘environmental consequences’, e.g. conditioning, shaping, stimulus control, and extinction. Conditioning aims to produce consistency of response to stimulus. Shaping gives differential reinforcement of behaviours; for example, parents will reinforce ‘baby talk’ and then as the child gets older, regular speech. Extinction occurs once the operant behaviour is no longer reinforced.
  2. “Criminal behaviour is learned both in non-social situations that are reinforcing or discriminative, and through social interaction in which the behavior of other persons is reinforcing or discriminative for criminal behavior” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Sutherland viewed the process of learning criminal behaviour as symbolic interaction, but Burgess and Akers believed that this excluded other sources of reinforcement, e.g. stealing a loaf of bread may not receive social reinforcement, but it does receive reinforcement because eating the bread nourishes a hungry thief which is inherently reinforcing.
  3. “The principal part of the learning of criminal behaviour occurs in those groups which compromise the individual’s major source of reinforcements” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). The family is the primary example of an ‘intimate primary group’ but Burgess and Akers allowed any ‘groups’ the possibility of offering positive reinforcement.
  4. “The learning of criminal behaviour, including specific techniques, attitudes, and avoidance procedures, is a function of the effective and available reinforcers, and the existing reinforcement contingencies” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Burgess and Akers agreed but felt that it was important to study motivation to see how reinforcement gained value.
  5. “The specific class of behaviours which are learned and their frequency of occurrence are functions of the reinforces which are effective and available, and the rules or norms by which these reinforcers are applied” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Burgess and Akers broadened the idea from which reinforcements may be derived. Effective reinforcements must be analysed to understand the development of individual behaviour and behaviour within a group.
  6. “Criminal behavior is a function of norms which are discriminative for criminal behaviour, the learning of which takes place when such behaviour is more highly reinforced than non-criminal behavior” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). Burgess and Akers posited that there was a process in which norms discriminated in favour of delinquency and that behaviour was then reinforced.
  7. "The strength of criminal behaviour is a direct function of the amount, frequency, and probability of its reinforcement” (Sutherland, 1947: 5-7). They proposed that when there is an increase in the amount of reinforcement, there is also an increase in the response rate.

The theory can be applied to most criminals and crimes that produce a "gain", but is best applied to behaviour within groups which offer reinforcement, such as gangs, peer groups, or social groups (Akers, 1973). The "gain" can be psychological, e.g. positive attention from other group members, or material, e.g. what was stolen. The degree of positive reinforcement will determine whether the behaviour is continued. In their study of alcohol behaviour, Akers et al. (1989) found that elderly drinking and youthful drinking follow the same lines of norms and group behavior. The theory was focused on the interaction between the individual and the social group, and did not address individual differences or social context (Jeffery, 1990:252; Akers, 1998). Individual differences may be biological, psychological, or the result of other factors; and these differences may affect the interaction between the individual and the social group (Jeffery, 1990: 252). Akers (1998) therefore expanded the theory by explaining crime rates as a function social learning in a social structure. While, the original theory focused on individual criminal behaviour, Social Structure Learning focuses on macro-level causes of crime positing that environments impact the individual through learning (Akers 1998: 302).

Unlike situational crime prevention, the theory ignores the opportunistic nature of crime (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2). To learn one must first observe criminal behaviour, but the theory does not explain how a person first meets people exhibiting criminal behaviour (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2). Further, the theory does not explain how people who have not been associating with criminals still become criminals, e.g. if a solitary child in a rural area steals from his mother’s purse; where was this behaviour learned? The theory does explain how criminal behaviour is ‘transmitted’ from one person to another, which can explain increases in types of crimes, but it does not consider how crime can be prevented (Jeffery, 1990: 252) although it may be fairly assumed that the processes of learning behaviours can be changed.

There is also a definitional problem. What may be reinforcement for one person may not be for another. Also, reinforcements can be both social involving attention and behaviour between more than one person, and non-social reinforcement would not involve this interaction (Burgess & Akers: 1966) Social Learning Theory has been used in mentoring programs that should, in theory, prevent some future criminal behaviour. The idea behind mentoring programs is that an adult is paired with a child, who supposedly learns from the behaviour of the adult and is positively reinforced for good behaviour (Jones-Brown, 1997). In the classroom, a teacher may use the theory by changing the seating arrangements to pair a behaving child and a misbehaving child, but the outcome may be that the behaving child begins to misbehave.


References and external links

  • Bandura, Albert, Ross, Dorothea, & Ross, Sheila A. (1961). Transmission of aggressions through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582 Full text
  • Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Hardback: ISBN 0-13-816744-3, Paperback: ISBN 0-13-816751-6
  • Vicarious Learning Blog: Vicarious Learning, Observational Learning, Knowledge Management and eLearning.

Further reading on animal social learning

  • Galef, B.G. & Laland, K.N. (2005). Social learning in animals: Empirical studies and theoretical models. Bioscience, 55, 489-499. Full text
  • Zentall, T.R. (2006). Imitation: Definitions, evidence, and mechanisms. Animal Cognition, 9, 335-353. (A thorough review of different types of social learning) Full text

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts

Books

  • Galef, B.G., Jr. (2004). Social learning. In: Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, Vol. 2. (Ed. by M. Bekoff), Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing (pp. 711-715). Full text
  • Galef, B. G., Jr. (2006). Theoretical and empirical approaches to understanding when animals use socially acquired information and from whom they acquire it. In Lucas, J.R. & Simmons, L. (Eds.) Essays in Animal Behaviour: Celebrating 50 years of Animal Behaviour (pp. 161-182). San Diego: Academic Press. Full text

Papers

  • Zentall, T.R. (2006). Imitation: Definitions, evidence, and mechanisms. Animal Cognition, 9, 335-353. (A thorough review of different types of social learning) Full text

Additional material

Books

Papers

External links


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