Observational learning: Learning by observing others and by using cognitive
processes, including self-help
In spite of centuries of believing that there is a natural tendency for humans to imitate others, psychologists for most of the 20th century generally assumed that humans didn't learn from observing others. Apparently, this idea came from animals who don't learn very well from observing; animals need to have the experience themselves and be rewarded to learn. As we've just discussed, humans are different.
Bandura (1965) and others have demonstrated that we learn from observing models but we don't necessarily copy them. This is called observational learning. In an early study, children watched a film of an adult hitting and kicking a large punching bag type of doll. Some of the children saw the adult rewarded for the aggressiveness, others saw the adult punished, and still others saw no rewards or punishment afterwards. Later, as you might imagine, when placed in a similar situation as the adult with the doll, the children were more aggressive themselves if they had seen an adult rewarded for being aggressive. If they had seen the adult punished, they were less aggressive, even though they could imitate the adult perfectly. They had learned behavior by observing and learned to monitor and control their behavior if it might lead to rewards or punishment. Every parent has observed this too.
Modeling has also been used as a form of treatment. Children with a fear of dogs (Bandura, Grusec, and Menlove, 1967) or snakes (Bandura, Blanchard, and Ritter, 1969) were shown a model who was not afraid and approached and handled the animal. The children learned to be less afraid. Although observing an effective model in a film is helpful, seeing a live model works better. Even more effective is watching a live model first and then participating by approaching and safely handling the feared animal yourself.
This area of research is called Social Learning Theory because it involves people learning from each other or modeling. Humans can learn what behavior leads to what outcomes by directly or vicariously (indirectly on TV or from books) observing others, they don't have to experience the situation themselves or be rewarded for the new behavior. In this theory, reinforcement does not strengthen learning; it is simply a payoff that motivates us to perform the behavior that leads to the reward.
The observational learner uses his/her head and thinks. He/she must attend to the model, remember what the model did, see the usefulness of the model's behavior, and be able to duplicate the behavior (after some practice). This kind of learning, along with classical and operant, is also involved in many things we do. We learn how to socialize, to do a job, to intimidate by yelling...from others. Every one of us can readily see the influence of our parents' model on our habits, preferences, attitudes, and patterns of thought. In several places in this book, the powerful influence of friends will be mentioned. Schools, TV, entertainment stars, religion, and other sources provide other models. In complex ways these models help us decide how to behave and what kind of person we want to be.
Observational learning involves higher order thinking, not just thoughtless imitating. The person becomes a controlling factor; we make decisions that direct our lives; our mind is an active "agent" involved in learning and changing ourselves and our environment.
Cognition and the modern evolution of self-control
In the 1970's much of psychology returned to the study of the mind. Cognitive psychology studied memory, information processing, decision-making, etc. Attribution theory described how thoughts (about what caused what) could influence behavior, and Rational-Emotive therapists said thoughts (irrational ideas) produced emotions. Academic researchers studied reasoning, judgment, the purposes of excuses or rationalizations, etc. Even behavioral therapists started teaching their clients to be assertive and to give themselves instructions. The list could go on, but psychology was again thinking about thinking.
Bandura (1977; 1980b; 1986) came to believe that human behavior is largely self-regulated. He concluded that we evaluate our own behavior; the satisfaction felt when we do well is intrinsic reinforcement. He assumed that self-rewarded behavior was just as well learned as externally reinforced behavior, maybe better. Bandura has also researched extensively the concept of self-efficacy which is one's beliefs about his/her ability or inability to control one's own behavior, based on personal accomplishments or failures. Clearly, Social Learning Theory involves antecedents (environment), consequences (motivating pay offs), and complicated cognitive processes.
Many other psychological theory-developers have studied self-control recently. Mischel (1981) and his students researched the "delay of gratification" which is when we work or wait for a big payoff instead of taking smaller immediate rewards. They studied how a child avoids temptations, including having distracting-but-fun thoughts while waiting, developing a "plan" for the payoff, and making use of self-instructions. Kanfer ( Kanfer & Karoly, 1982) and his students have conjectured a three-stage model of behavioral self-control: self-observation, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement. These theories have evolved to be more and more cognitive.
While focusing on the mind, naturally some psychologists re-considered the old self-help concepts of volition, will-power, self-control and so on. A few self-help books described self-behavior modification. Several books focused on stress management and handling fears. Other books dealt with assertiveness, gaining insight, and other specific skills. But no book covered all the problems of the students in a class; therefore, there is no usable, highly applied textbook and only a few personally useful self-help classes for high school or college students. Consequently, self-help techniques have not been well researched in the classroom. Moreover, self-help teaching and research is too time consuming for most publish-or-perish academics. In addition to developing the classroom instruction, the self-help instructor needs several trained assistants working with small groups of five to seven students. This psycho-educational approach is much too complex and too time consuming for most graduate students doing theses and dissertations. As mentioned in chapter 1, there are several barriers to progress, including a lack of competent teacher-researchers in this area, a negative attitude towards teaching ordinary students, a problem measuring and describing the unobservable mental events and the outcome of self-help efforts, and, thus far, a lack of easily researched areas of specialization (analogous to self-efficacy or locus of control).
In spite of this lack of self-help research, by the early 1980's, therapists and researchers believed that 60% of the effects of therapy were attributable to the client's efforts and only 40% to the therapist and the therapy methods. Therefore, this group expected self-help to grow more than any other development in the field (Koroly, 1982). It hasn't happened, yet. We have several popularized, highly specialized books, but not much sound self-help research and no general introductory self-help textbooks. Hopefully, as the task of preparing the instructional material for a self-help class is reduced (by general textbooks, instructors' manuals, student work books, guides for group facilitators, etc.), the systematic research of self-help methods will increase.