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32 Observational Research
- List the various types of observational research methods and distinguish between each.
- Describe the strengths and weakness of each observational research method.
What Is Observational Research?
The term observational research is used to refer to several different types of non-experimental studies in which behavior is systematically observed and recorded. The goal of observational research is to describe a variable or set of variables. More generally, the goal is to obtain a snapshot of specific characteristics of an individual, group, or setting. As described previously, observational research is non-experimental because nothing is manipulated or controlled, and as such we cannot arrive at causal conclusions using this approach. The data that are collected in observational research studies are often qualitative in nature but they may also be quantitative or both (mixed-methods). There are several different types of observational methods that will be described below.
Naturalistic observation is an observational method that involves observing people’s behavior in the environment in which it typically occurs. Thus naturalistic observation is a type of field research (as opposed to a type of laboratory research). Jane Goodall’s famous research on chimpanzees is a classic example of naturalistic observation. Dr. Goodall spent three decades observing chimpanzees in their natural environment in East Africa. She examined such things as chimpanzee’s social structure, mating patterns, gender roles, family structure, and care of offspring by observing them in the wild. However, naturalistic observation could more simply involve observing shoppers in a grocery store, children on a school playground, or psychiatric inpatients in their wards. Researchers engaged in naturalistic observation usually make their observations as unobtrusively as possible so that participants are not aware that they are being studied. Such an approach is called disguised naturalistic observation . Ethically, this method is considered to be acceptable if the participants remain anonymous and the behavior occurs in a public setting where people would not normally have an expectation of privacy. Grocery shoppers putting items into their shopping carts, for example, are engaged in public behavior that is easily observable by store employees and other shoppers. For this reason, most researchers would consider it ethically acceptable to observe them for a study. On the other hand, one of the arguments against the ethicality of the naturalistic observation of “bathroom behavior” discussed earlier in the book is that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy even in a public restroom and that this expectation was violated.
In cases where it is not ethical or practical to conduct disguised naturalistic observation, researchers can conduct undisguised naturalistic observation where the participants are made aware of the researcher presence and monitoring of their behavior. However, one concern with undisguised naturalistic observation is reactivity. Reactivity refers to when a measure changes participants’ behavior. In the case of undisguised naturalistic observation, the concern with reactivity is that when people know they are being observed and studied, they may act differently than they normally would. This type of reactivity is known as the Hawthorne effect . For instance, you may act much differently in a bar if you know that someone is observing you and recording your behaviors and this would invalidate the study. So disguised observation is less reactive and therefore can have higher validity because people are not aware that their behaviors are being observed and recorded. However, we now know that people often become used to being observed and with time they begin to behave naturally in the researcher’s presence. In other words, over time people habituate to being observed. Think about reality shows like Big Brother or Survivor where people are constantly being observed and recorded. While they may be on their best behavior at first, in a fairly short amount of time they are flirting, having sex, wearing next to nothing, screaming at each other, and occasionally behaving in ways that are embarrassing.
Another approach to data collection in observational research is participant observation. In participant observation , researchers become active participants in the group or situation they are studying. Participant observation is very similar to naturalistic observation in that it involves observing people’s behavior in the environment in which it typically occurs. As with naturalistic observation, the data that are collected can include interviews (usually unstructured), notes based on their observations and interactions, documents, photographs, and other artifacts. The only difference between naturalistic observation and participant observation is that researchers engaged in participant observation become active members of the group or situations they are studying. The basic rationale for participant observation is that there may be important information that is only accessible to, or can be interpreted only by, someone who is an active participant in the group or situation. Like naturalistic observation, participant observation can be either disguised or undisguised. In disguised participant observation , the researchers pretend to be members of the social group they are observing and conceal their true identity as researchers.
In a famous example of disguised participant observation, Leon Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated a doomsday cult known as the Seekers, whose members believed that the apocalypse would occur on December 21, 1954. Interested in studying how members of the group would cope psychologically when the prophecy inevitably failed, they carefully recorded the events and reactions of the cult members in the days before and after the supposed end of the world. Unsurprisingly, the cult members did not give up their belief but instead convinced themselves that it was their faith and efforts that saved the world from destruction. Festinger and his colleagues later published a book about this experience, which they used to illustrate the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956)  .
In contrast with undisguised participant observation , the researchers become a part of the group they are studying and they disclose their true identity as researchers to the group under investigation. Once again there are important ethical issues to consider with disguised participant observation. First no informed consent can be obtained and second deception is being used. The researcher is deceiving the participants by intentionally withholding information about their motivations for being a part of the social group they are studying. But sometimes disguised participation is the only way to access a protective group (like a cult). Further, disguised participant observation is less prone to reactivity than undisguised participant observation.
Rosenhan’s study (1973)  of the experience of people in a psychiatric ward would be considered disguised participant observation because Rosenhan and his pseudopatients were admitted into psychiatric hospitals on the pretense of being patients so that they could observe the way that psychiatric patients are treated by staff. The staff and other patients were unaware of their true identities as researchers.
Another example of participant observation comes from a study by sociologist Amy Wilkins on a university-based religious organization that emphasized how happy its members were (Wilkins, 2008)  . Wilkins spent 12 months attending and participating in the group’s meetings and social events, and she interviewed several group members. In her study, Wilkins identified several ways in which the group “enforced” happiness—for example, by continually talking about happiness, discouraging the expression of negative emotions, and using happiness as a way to distinguish themselves from other groups.
One of the primary benefits of participant observation is that the researchers are in a much better position to understand the viewpoint and experiences of the people they are studying when they are a part of the social group. The primary limitation with this approach is that the mere presence of the observer could affect the behavior of the people being observed. While this is also a concern with naturalistic observation, additional concerns arise when researchers become active members of the social group they are studying because that they may change the social dynamics and/or influence the behavior of the people they are studying. Similarly, if the researcher acts as a participant observer there can be concerns with biases resulting from developing relationships with the participants. Concretely, the researcher may become less objective resulting in more experimenter bias.
Another observational method is structured observation . Here the investigator makes careful observations of one or more specific behaviors in a particular setting that is more structured than the settings used in naturalistic or participant observation. Often the setting in which the observations are made is not the natural setting. Instead, the researcher may observe people in the laboratory environment. Alternatively, the researcher may observe people in a natural setting (like a classroom setting) that they have structured some way, for instance by introducing some specific task participants are to engage in or by introducing a specific social situation or manipulation.
Structured observation is very similar to naturalistic observation and participant observation in that in all three cases researchers are observing naturally occurring behavior; however, the emphasis in structured observation is on gathering quantitative rather than qualitative data. Researchers using this approach are interested in a limited set of behaviors. This allows them to quantify the behaviors they are observing. In other words, structured observation is less global than naturalistic or participant observation because the researcher engaged in structured observations is interested in a small number of specific behaviors. Therefore, rather than recording everything that happens, the researcher only focuses on very specific behaviors of interest.
Researchers Robert Levine and Ara Norenzayan used structured observation to study differences in the “pace of life” across countries (Levine & Norenzayan, 1999)  . One of their measures involved observing pedestrians in a large city to see how long it took them to walk 60 feet. They found that people in some countries walked reliably faster than people in other countries. For example, people in Canada and Sweden covered 60 feet in just under 13 seconds on average, while people in Brazil and Romania took close to 17 seconds. When structured observation takes place in the complex and even chaotic “real world,” the questions of when, where, and under what conditions the observations will be made, and who exactly will be observed are important to consider. Levine and Norenzayan described their sampling process as follows:
“Male and female walking speed over a distance of 60 feet was measured in at least two locations in main downtown areas in each city. Measurements were taken during main business hours on clear summer days. All locations were flat, unobstructed, had broad sidewalks, and were sufficiently uncrowded to allow pedestrians to move at potentially maximum speeds. To control for the effects of socializing, only pedestrians walking alone were used. Children, individuals with obvious physical handicaps, and window-shoppers were not timed. Thirty-five men and 35 women were timed in most cities.” (p. 186).
Precise specification of the sampling process in this way makes data collection manageable for the observers, and it also provides some control over important extraneous variables. For example, by making their observations on clear summer days in all countries, Levine and Norenzayan controlled for effects of the weather on people’s walking speeds. In Levine and Norenzayan’s study, measurement was relatively straightforward. They simply measured out a 60-foot distance along a city sidewalk and then used a stopwatch to time participants as they walked over that distance.
As another example, researchers Robert Kraut and Robert Johnston wanted to study bowlers’ reactions to their shots, both when they were facing the pins and then when they turned toward their companions (Kraut & Johnston, 1979)  . But what “reactions” should they observe? Based on previous research and their own pilot testing, Kraut and Johnston created a list of reactions that included “closed smile,” “open smile,” “laugh,” “neutral face,” “look down,” “look away,” and “face cover” (covering one’s face with one’s hands). The observers committed this list to memory and then practiced by coding the reactions of bowlers who had been videotaped. During the actual study, the observers spoke into an audio recorder, describing the reactions they observed. Among the most interesting results of this study was that bowlers rarely smiled while they still faced the pins. They were much more likely to smile after they turned toward their companions, suggesting that smiling is not purely an expression of happiness but also a form of social communication.
In yet another example (this one in a laboratory environment), Dov Cohen and his colleagues had observers rate the emotional reactions of participants who had just been deliberately bumped and insulted by a confederate after they dropped off a completed questionnaire at the end of a hallway. The confederate was posing as someone who worked in the same building and who was frustrated by having to close a file drawer twice in order to permit the participants to walk past them (first to drop off the questionnaire at the end of the hallway and once again on their way back to the room where they believed the study they signed up for was taking place). The two observers were positioned at different ends of the hallway so that they could read the participants’ body language and hear anything they might say. Interestingly, the researchers hypothesized that participants from the southern United States, which is one of several places in the world that has a “culture of honor,” would react with more aggression than participants from the northern United States, a prediction that was in fact supported by the observational data (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996)  .
When the observations require a judgment on the part of the observers—as in the studies by Kraut and Johnston and Cohen and his colleagues—a process referred to as coding is typically required . Coding generally requires clearly defining a set of target behaviors. The observers then categorize participants individually in terms of which behavior they have engaged in and the number of times they engaged in each behavior. The observers might even record the duration of each behavior. The target behaviors must be defined in such a way that guides different observers to code them in the same way. This difficulty with coding illustrates the issue of interrater reliability, as mentioned in Chapter 4. Researchers are expected to demonstrate the interrater reliability of their coding procedure by having multiple raters code the same behaviors independently and then showing that the different observers are in close agreement. Kraut and Johnston, for example, video recorded a subset of their participants’ reactions and had two observers independently code them. The two observers showed that they agreed on the reactions that were exhibited 97% of the time, indicating good interrater reliability.
One of the primary benefits of structured observation is that it is far more efficient than naturalistic and participant observation. Since the researchers are focused on specific behaviors this reduces time and expense. Also, often times the environment is structured to encourage the behaviors of interest which again means that researchers do not have to invest as much time in waiting for the behaviors of interest to naturally occur. Finally, researchers using this approach can clearly exert greater control over the environment. However, when researchers exert more control over the environment it may make the environment less natural which decreases external validity. It is less clear for instance whether structured observations made in a laboratory environment will generalize to a real world environment. Furthermore, since researchers engaged in structured observation are often not disguised there may be more concerns with reactivity.
A case study is an in-depth examination of an individual. Sometimes case studies are also completed on social units (e.g., a cult) and events (e.g., a natural disaster). Most commonly in psychology, however, case studies provide a detailed description and analysis of an individual. Often the individual has a rare or unusual condition or disorder or has damage to a specific region of the brain.
Like many observational research methods, case studies tend to be more qualitative in nature. Case study methods involve an in-depth, and often a longitudinal examination of an individual. Depending on the focus of the case study, individuals may or may not be observed in their natural setting. If the natural setting is not what is of interest, then the individual may be brought into a therapist’s office or a researcher’s lab for study. Also, the bulk of the case study report will focus on in-depth descriptions of the person rather than on statistical analyses. With that said some quantitative data may also be included in the write-up of a case study. For instance, an individual’s depression score may be compared to normative scores or their score before and after treatment may be compared. As with other qualitative methods, a variety of different methods and tools can be used to collect information on the case. For instance, interviews, naturalistic observation, structured observation, psychological testing (e.g., IQ test), and/or physiological measurements (e.g., brain scans) may be used to collect information on the individual.
HM is one of the most notorious case studies in psychology. HM suffered from intractable and very severe epilepsy. A surgeon localized HM’s epilepsy to his medial temporal lobe and in 1953 he removed large sections of his hippocampus in an attempt to stop the seizures. The treatment was a success, in that it resolved his epilepsy and his IQ and personality were unaffected. However, the doctors soon realized that HM exhibited a strange form of amnesia, called anterograde amnesia. HM was able to carry out a conversation and he could remember short strings of letters, digits, and words. Basically, his short term memory was preserved. However, HM could not commit new events to memory. He lost the ability to transfer information from his short-term memory to his long term memory, something memory researchers call consolidation. So while he could carry on a conversation with someone, he would completely forget the conversation after it ended. This was an extremely important case study for memory researchers because it suggested that there’s a dissociation between short-term memory and long-term memory, it suggested that these were two different abilities sub-served by different areas of the brain. It also suggested that the temporal lobes are particularly important for consolidating new information (i.e., for transferring information from short-term memory to long-term memory).
The history of psychology is filled with influential cases studies, such as Sigmund Freud’s description of “Anna O.” (see Note 6.1 “The Case of “Anna O.””) and John Watson and Rosalie Rayner’s description of Little Albert (Watson & Rayner, 1920)  , who allegedly learned to fear a white rat—along with other furry objects—when the researchers repeatedly made a loud noise every time the rat approached him.
The Case of “Anna O.”
Sigmund Freud used the case of a young woman he called “Anna O.” to illustrate many principles of his theory of psychoanalysis (Freud, 1961)  . (Her real name was Bertha Pappenheim, and she was an early feminist who went on to make important contributions to the field of social work.) Anna had come to Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer around 1880 with a variety of odd physical and psychological symptoms. One of them was that for several weeks she was unable to drink any fluids. According to Freud,
She would take up the glass of water that she longed for, but as soon as it touched her lips she would push it away like someone suffering from hydrophobia.…She lived only on fruit, such as melons, etc., so as to lessen her tormenting thirst. (p. 9)
But according to Freud, a breakthrough came one day while Anna was under hypnosis.
[S]he grumbled about her English “lady-companion,” whom she did not care for, and went on to describe, with every sign of disgust, how she had once gone into this lady’s room and how her little dog—horrid creature!—had drunk out of a glass there. The patient had said nothing, as she had wanted to be polite. After giving further energetic expression to the anger she had held back, she asked for something to drink, drank a large quantity of water without any difficulty, and awoke from her hypnosis with the glass at her lips; and thereupon the disturbance vanished, never to return. (p.9)
Freud’s interpretation was that Anna had repressed the memory of this incident along with the emotion that it triggered and that this was what had caused her inability to drink. Furthermore, he believed that her recollection of the incident, along with her expression of the emotion she had repressed, caused the symptom to go away.
As an illustration of Freud’s theory, the case study of Anna O. is quite effective. As evidence for the theory, however, it is essentially worthless. The description provides no way of knowing whether Anna had really repressed the memory of the dog drinking from the glass, whether this repression had caused her inability to drink, or whether recalling this “trauma” relieved the symptom. It is also unclear from this case study how typical or atypical Anna’s experience was.
Case studies are useful because they provide a level of detailed analysis not found in many other research methods and greater insights may be gained from this more detailed analysis. As a result of the case study, the researcher may gain a sharpened understanding of what might become important to look at more extensively in future more controlled research. Case studies are also often the only way to study rare conditions because it may be impossible to find a large enough sample of individuals with the condition to use quantitative methods. Although at first glance a case study of a rare individual might seem to tell us little about ourselves, they often do provide insights into normal behavior. The case of HM provided important insights into the role of the hippocampus in memory consolidation.
However, it is important to note that while case studies can provide insights into certain areas and variables to study, and can be useful in helping develop theories, they should never be used as evidence for theories. In other words, case studies can be used as inspiration to formulate theories and hypotheses, but those hypotheses and theories then need to be formally tested using more rigorous quantitative methods. The reason case studies shouldn’t be used to provide support for theories is that they suffer from problems with both internal and external validity. Case studies lack the proper controls that true experiments contain. As such, they suffer from problems with internal validity, so they cannot be used to determine causation. For instance, during HM’s surgery, the surgeon may have accidentally lesioned another area of HM’s brain (a possibility suggested by the dissection of HM’s brain following his death) and that lesion may have contributed to his inability to consolidate new information. The fact is, with case studies we cannot rule out these sorts of alternative explanations. So, as with all observational methods, case studies do not permit determination of causation. In addition, because case studies are often of a single individual, and typically an abnormal individual, researchers cannot generalize their conclusions to other individuals. Recall that with most research designs there is a trade-off between internal and external validity. With case studies, however, there are problems with both internal validity and external validity. So there are limits both to the ability to determine causation and to generalize the results. A final limitation of case studies is that ample opportunity exists for the theoretical biases of the researcher to color or bias the case description. Indeed, there have been accusations that the woman who studied HM destroyed a lot of her data that were not published and she has been called into question for destroying contradictory data that didn’t support her theory about how memories are consolidated. There is a fascinating New York Times article that describes some of the controversies that ensued after HM’s death and analysis of his brain that can be found at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/magazine/the-brain-that-couldnt-remember.html?_r=0
Another approach that is often considered observational research involves analyzing archival data that have already been collected for some other purpose. An example is a study by Brett Pelham and his colleagues on “implicit egotism”—the tendency for people to prefer people, places, and things that are similar to themselves (Pelham, Carvallo, & Jones, 2005)  . In one study, they examined Social Security records to show that women with the names Virginia, Georgia, Louise, and Florence were especially likely to have moved to the states of Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida, respectively.
As with naturalistic observation, measurement can be more or less straightforward when working with archival data. For example, counting the number of people named Virginia who live in various states based on Social Security records is relatively straightforward. But consider a study by Christopher Peterson and his colleagues on the relationship between optimism and health using data that had been collected many years before for a study on adult development (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988)  . In the 1940s, healthy male college students had completed an open-ended questionnaire about difficult wartime experiences. In the late 1980s, Peterson and his colleagues reviewed the men’s questionnaire responses to obtain a measure of explanatory style—their habitual ways of explaining bad events that happen to them. More pessimistic people tend to blame themselves and expect long-term negative consequences that affect many aspects of their lives, while more optimistic people tend to blame outside forces and expect limited negative consequences. To obtain a measure of explanatory style for each participant, the researchers used a procedure in which all negative events mentioned in the questionnaire responses, and any causal explanations for them were identified and written on index cards. These were given to a separate group of raters who rated each explanation in terms of three separate dimensions of optimism-pessimism. These ratings were then averaged to produce an explanatory style score for each participant. The researchers then assessed the statistical relationship between the men’s explanatory style as undergraduate students and archival measures of their health at approximately 60 years of age. The primary result was that the more optimistic the men were as undergraduate students, the healthier they were as older men. Pearson’s r was +.25.
This method is an example of content analysis —a family of systematic approaches to measurement using complex archival data. Just as structured observation requires specifying the behaviors of interest and then noting them as they occur, content analysis requires specifying keywords, phrases, or ideas and then finding all occurrences of them in the data. These occurrences can then be counted, timed (e.g., the amount of time devoted to entertainment topics on the nightly news show), or analyzed in a variety of other ways.
- What happens when you remove the hippocampus? – Sam Kean by TED-Ed licensed under a standard YouTube License
- Pappenheim 1882 by unknown is in the Public Domain .
- Festinger, L., Riecken, H., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. University of Minnesota Press. ↵
- Rosenhan, D. L. (1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, 179 , 250–258. ↵
- Wilkins, A. (2008). “Happier than Non-Christians”: Collective emotions and symbolic boundaries among evangelical Christians. Social Psychology Quarterly, 71 , 281–301. ↵
- Levine, R. V., & Norenzayan, A. (1999). The pace of life in 31 countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 30 , 178–205. ↵
- Kraut, R. E., & Johnston, R. E. (1979). Social and emotional messages of smiling: An ethological approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 , 1539–1553. ↵
- Cohen, D., Nisbett, R. E., Bowdle, B. F., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An "experimental ethnography." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (5), 945-960. ↵
- Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3 , 1–14. ↵
- Freud, S. (1961). Five lectures on psycho-analysis . New York, NY: Norton. ↵
- Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., & Jones, J. T. (2005). Implicit egotism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 , 106–110. ↵
- Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., & Vaillant, G. E. (1988). Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55 , 23–27. ↵
Research that is non-experimental because it focuses on recording systemic observations of behavior in a natural or laboratory setting without manipulating anything.
An observational method that involves observing people’s behavior in the environment in which it typically occurs.
When researchers engage in naturalistic observation by making their observations as unobtrusively as possible so that participants are not aware that they are being studied.
Where the participants are made aware of the researcher presence and monitoring of their behavior.
Refers to when a measure changes participants’ behavior.
In the case of undisguised naturalistic observation, it is a type of reactivity when people know they are being observed and studied, they may act differently than they normally would.
Researchers become active participants in the group or situation they are studying.
Researchers pretend to be members of the social group they are observing and conceal their true identity as researchers.
Researchers become a part of the group they are studying and they disclose their true identity as researchers to the group under investigation.
When a researcher makes careful observations of one or more specific behaviors in a particular setting that is more structured than the settings used in naturalistic or participant observation.
A part of structured observation whereby the observers use a clearly defined set of guidelines to "code" behaviors—assigning specific behaviors they are observing to a category—and count the number of times or the duration that the behavior occurs.
An in-depth examination of an individual.
A family of systematic approaches to measurement using qualitative methods to analyze complex archival data.
Research Methods in Psychology Copyright © 2019 by Rajiv S. Jhangiani, I-Chant A. Chiang, Carrie Cuttler, & Dana C. Leighton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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Understanding Observational Learning: An Interbehavioral Approach
Mitch j fryling.
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
University of Nevada, Reno
Linda J Hayes
Observational learning is an important area in the field of psychology and behavior science more generally. Given this, it is essential that behavior analysts articulate a sound theory of how behavior change occurs through observation. This paper begins with an overview of seminal research in the area of observational learning, followed by a consideration of common behavior analytic conceptualizations of these findings. The interbehavioral perspective is then outlined, shedding light on some difficulties with the existing behavior analytic approaches. The implications of embracing the interbehavioral perspective for understanding the most complex sorts of behavior, including those involved in observational learning are considered.
Research in observational learning represents a critical development in the history of psychology. Indeed, the research and scholarly work conducted by Bandura and colleagues set the occasion for the social cognitive perspective of learning ( Bandura, 1986 ), which seemed to challenge the possibility that all behavior could be accounted for by respondent and operant processes alone. Toward this, the social cognitive perspective focused more explicitly on both modeling and cognition, and their role in understanding behavior. Meanwhile, behavior analysts have continued to contend that observational learning can be explained through processes of generalized imitation, conditioned reinforcement, and rule-governed behavior (e.g., Catania, 2007 ; Pear, 2001 ; Pierce & Cheney, 2008 ). However, these contentions become increasingly difficult when we take a closer look at the psychological event of interest in observational learning. Further, while behavior analysts have continued to conduct research in the area of observational learning, relatively little progress has been made toward developing a theoretical understanding of this work. The primary aim of the current paper is to consider the general findings of the observational learning research within a thoroughly naturalistic, behavioral perspective. Of course, verbal processes play an important role in understanding observational learning, and thus, they are given both general and specific treatment throughout. In pursuing this work, J. R. Kantor's philosophy of interbehaviorism and scientific system of interbehavioral psychology are reviewed. The potential benefits of embracing the interbehavioral perspective with respect to understanding observational learning and complex behavior more generally are considered.
In the 1960s and 70s Albert Bandura and his colleagues became well known for their social psychology research in the area of observational learning. Indeed, several of the early experiments in this area are very well known, and considered hallmarks in the field of psychology and behavior science (e.g., Bandura & McDonald, 1963 ; Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963 ). These studies were pursued for a variety of reasons; partially to undermine the value of common psychoanalytic ( Bandura & Huston, 1961 ; Bandura, Ross, et al., 1963 ) and developmental theories ( Bandura & McDonald, 1963 ), and also to evaluate the role of observation as a primary determinant of behavior change. Early studies examined the role of modeling 1 on the acquisition of aggression ( Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963 ) and moral judgment ( Bandura & McDonald, 1963 ), for example, and provided a foundation upon which the social cognitive theory was built. Importantly, this theory is often considered to extend beyond behavioral theories, questioning the possibility that behaviorism alone could provide a comprehensive understanding of learning. Given the importance of this research, we will now provide a brief overview of some of the general findings of studies on observational learning. It is important to note that our review is admittedly less than comprehensive, and that our primary aim is to describe some common themes within this literature.
The Role of Modeling
An early and longstanding aim of the observational learning literature is to understand the role of modeling in behavior change (e.g., Bandura & Huston, 1961 ; Bandura & McDonald, 1963 ; Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961 ). For example, an early study examined how the incidental behaviors of an experimenter might be acquired in the context of learning another task (Bandura & Huston). The important conclusion of these studies is that behavior change can and does occur through observation, even when such observation is incidental, occurring in the context of other activities. While this finding seems rather simple, it has significant implications for how we conceptualize learning. As we will discuss in the coming paragraphs, this general finding may present specific conceptual challenges for behavioral theories of learning.
The role of consequences
Specific emphasis was also placed on the role of consequences in the observational learning literature (e.g., Bandura, 1965 ; Bandura, Grusec, & Menlove, 1966 ; Bandura & McDonald, 1963 , Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963 ). Experiments that added to our understanding of the role of consequences generally compared behavior change between children who either observed a model who was rewarded, a model who was punished, or a control condition (e.g., observing non-aggressive play or observing no consequences). Generally, less behavior change is observed when a child observes a model being punished (e.g., Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963 ). 2
Interestingly, there is often no difference between conditions involving rewards and conditions involving no consequences at all. For example, Bandura and McDonald (1963) compared the effects of three different variables on the acquisition of moral judgment responses. In this study, the three variables involved three different groups of adult/child dyads: group one involved both the model and child's target judgments be reinforced, group two involved the model's behavior being reinforced but not the child's, and group three involved no model and only child reinforcement. Importantly, in the model/child groups trials alternated between the model and the child. Groups one and two demonstrated more behavior change than group three at a 1–3 week post-treatment assessment. Thus, the researchers concluded that modeling was the significant factor involved in the acquisition of the moral judgment repertoire. 3 Other experiments also found no difference between the reward and no consequence groups, while the model punished group continued to yield different results (e.g., Bandura, 1965 ).
Along similar lines, other studies seemed to raise questions about the potentially detrimental effects of incentives on the acquisition of behavior. For example, at the beginning of one experiment ( Bandura, Grusec, & Menlove, 1966 ) half of the participants were placed into an incentive condition where they were told that they would be given candy treats for correctly demonstrating what they learned after watching a movie. More specifically, after watching a film, children in both conditions were asked to demonstrate what they observed on the movie. Generally, the researchers found that children in the incentive condition did slightly worse than those in the no incentive condition, raising questions about the benefits of incentives on learning (see Bandura, et al., p. 505). 4
At this point we must note that the terms reward , reinforcement , and operant conditioning are used rather loosely within this literature. From a behavior analytic perspective, a stimulus change can only be classified as a reinforcer if it increases the future frequency of the class of behavior it was made contingent upon (e.g., Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007 ). Given this, the majority of stimulus changes called “rewards” or “reinforcers” in the observational learning literature do not technically meet the criteria to be classified as reinforcers, or as being involved in the process of reinforcement or operant conditioning in general. Nevertheless, we can say that consequences seem to play some role in observational learning. Again, there are studies suggesting that there are no differences between observation with reinforcement and observation with no consequence at all, leaving us more confident that if consequences have a role, aversive consequences seem to play a large part. Given these important concerns, however, these findings need to be interpreted with caution.
The Role of Verbal Behavior
As this line of researched progressed, increasing attention was paid to the role of cognitive factors, often described with the terms coding and rehearsal . Generally, coding can be thought of as describing what is observed in some way, whereas rehearsal can be thought of as practicing what was observed. For example, Bandura, Grusec, & Menlove. (1966) examined the effects of describing the activity of the model (“coding”) on the acquisition of observed behavior. Of specific interest, this study was fueled by motivation to discredit behavior analysts who failed to account for “delayed reproduction of modeling behavior” (p. 499), which was assumed to necessarily involve some sort of cognitive activity. In this study three groups of children all viewed a video; one group was asked to “verbalize every action of the model as it is being performed” (p. 501), the second group to “count 1 and a 2, and a 3, and a 4, and a 5” (p. 501) repeatedly while watching the video, and a third group observed without any instruction. The researchers found that those individuals who verbally described every action of the model were the most successful when tested for behavior change at a later time. Importantly, this study highlights the early recognition of “cognitive” factors in observational learning.
In an effort to elaborate upon this sort of research, Bandura and Jeffrey (1973) examined the role of “coding and rehearsal” on the acquisition of observed behavior. The researchers found that participants who “symbolically coded” (i.e., developed number or letter coding systems) the model's actions, and also immediately rehearsed (i.e., practiced) those codes had the best outcomes. Neither coding without symbolic rehearsal or symbolic rehearsal without coding was found to be sufficient. Put differently, developing a coded description of the models actions and practicing that description were both found to be important factors in the acquisition of observed behavior. Interestingly, physically practicing (“motor rehearsal”) the observed behavior was found to be less important. This seemed to support a growing distinction between different aspects of an individual's repertoire and the various processes that contribute to their existence (see below).
Learning and performance
Related to the role of verbal behavior, Bandura and colleagues began to notice a difference between the observers imitative performance at a later time compared to their ability to describe what was observed when asked. The ability to describe what was observed was viewed as a measure of learning, while engaging in the observed behavior at a later time was viewed as performance. For example, Bandura, Ross, & Ross (1963) found that children in both the aggressive-reward (participants observed a model be rewarded for engaging in a sequence of responses) and aggressive-punished (participants observed a model be punished for engaging in a sequence of responses) groups were able to describe the observed sequences of behavior, despite differences in imitative behavior change. Similarly, Bandura (1965) found that differences between group measures on imitation of observed behavior were removed on an “acquisition index,” where children were told they would get a reward for telling the experimenter what the model did. These findings further highlighted the role of verbal behavior in the process of learning from observation, including the various ways in which such learning from observation might be measured. That is, one way of measuring learning from observation is through imitation of the observed response at a later time, while another is through descriptions of the observed behavior. As these repertoires seemed to be influenced by different factors, Bandura and colleagues began to distinguish between them more and more.
Throughout the above studies Bandura and colleagues began to articulate a theoretical model of observational learning. Fueled by findings that individuals might be able to describe observed behavior at a later time, even if they did not actually engage in the behavior themselves during a testing condition (e.g., Bandura, 1965 ; Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963 ), Bandura and colleagues began to distinguish between learning and performance (also see Greer, Singer-Dudek, & Gautreaux, 2006 ). Specifically, Bandura and colleagues noted that verbal processes were more likely to influence learning, 5 whereas consequences were more likely to influence the extent to which the individual's behavior changed through observation (i.e., that they actually engaged in the observed behavior). Indeed, theoretical accounts of observational learning highlight this distinction (e.g., Bandura & Jeffrey, 1973 ; Greer, Singer-Dudek, & Gautreaux, 2006 ).
Bandura and colleagues assumed that learning from observation occurred via an input-output, cognitive model. Specifically, Bandura and Jeffrey (1973) described four processes that account for learning from observation: attentional, retention, motor reproduction, and motivational. Bandura and Jeffery (1973) say, “Within this framework acquisition of modeled patterns is primarily controlled by attention and retention processes. Whereas performance of observationally learned responses is regulated by motor reproduction and incentive processes” (p. 122).
Attentional processes were described as cognitive abilities that “regulate sensory registration of modeled actions” and retention processes were those that took “transitory influences and converted to enduring internal guides for memory representation” ( Bandura & Jeffery, 1973 , p. 122). Motor reproduction processes are those that move component actions stored in memory into overt action resembling that of the modeled behaviors. Finally, motivational processes determine whether or not those behaviors emerge as overt action.
According to the authors, this model not only explains how a modeled response can be imitated immediately after it is observed, but can also explain how this behavior can be reproduced later under many different circumstances. Bandura and Jeffrey (1973) conclude, “After modeled activities have been transformed into images and readily utilizable verbal symbols, these memory codes can function as guides for subsequent reproduction” (p. 123). The authors also concluded that participants who engage in transforming modeled actions into either descriptive words or visual images achieve higher levels of observational learning than those who did not.
As a result of these and other experiments, Bandura theorized that observational learning was an integral part of human development, which accounted for the development of the personality ( Bandura & Walters, 1963 ), as well as social and antisocial behaviors in children ( Bandura, 1973 ). Importantly, this research shows that humans can learn without directly experiencing the consequences of their own actions. Thus, if behavior analysts aim to develop a comprehensive account of learning it must include an adequate description of these instances. In particular, behavior analysts must account for the acquisition of novel behavior in the absence of contingent reinforcement for the individual engaging in those responses, and also articulate the role of verbal behavior in observational learning.
In summary, the studies conducted by Bandura and colleagues seemed to question the role of rewards on the behavior of the observer. Importantly, Bandura believed that reinforcement history alone was not sufficient, and that the observation of a model was the most critical factor. Moreover, learning from observation was viewed to be a result of other processes, of which “verbal coding” was one. These general findings seemed to devalue the comprehensiveness of the behavioral position, and set the stage for the social cognitive perspective. However, it is crucial that we reiterate the fact that Bandura and colleagues often misused the terms reinforcer and reinforcement , and thus, it is difficult to draw valid conclusions about the role of consequences from this line of research. What can be said is that observational learning is an important area for behavior science to consider.
Bandura found limitations with the operant interpretation of behavior, albeit a less than thoroughly informed understanding of it. Observational learning seems to defy traditional discriminative stimulus—response—reinforcer analyses, even when more contemporary concepts (e.g., the motivating operation) are considered. Specifically, novel responses occur in observational learning models, responses that have obviously never been reinforced. Added to this, delayed responding is common, and such responding presents conceptual challenges to traditional behavioral concepts (e.g., Bandura, Grusec, & Menlove, 1966 , p. 499). As mentioned earlier, it is perhaps not surprising that Bandura's work may be considered by some to be an extension or move beyond the behavioral position. The limitations of Bandura's work not withstanding, Bandura and colleagues raised several important issues regarding the role of observation and verbal behavior in behavior change processes.
Still, Bandura's model relies upon the existence of hypothetical entities that do not exist in the spatiotemporal event matrix comprising the natural world. In other words, Bandura's theoretical constructs are not derived from events, and as such cannot be found and thereby can never actually be studied (see Kantor, 1957 ; Smith, 2007 ). Rather, they are inferences derived from a thoroughly mentalistic, dualistic worldview. Behavior analysts have long held that embracing such constructs can only distract workers from a scientific analysis (e.g., Skinner, 1953 ). It isn't surprising, then, that behavior analysts have proposed an alternative conceptualization of observational learning. In the following section we provide an overview of the behavior analytic position on observational learning.
THE BEHAVIOR ANALYTIC POSITION
The behavior analytic account of observational learning rests squarely upon the process of generalized imitation ( Baer, Peterson, & Sherman, 1967 ; Baer & Sherman, 1964 ; Pierce & Cheney, 2008 ). This is a familiar process, where the organism is asked to imitate several responses of the model (e.g., “do this” while the model is touching their nose), and after multiple exemplars have been successfully trained, the organism is asked to engage in a response which has never been modeled before. Generalized imitation is said to occur when the organism engages in a response that has never been modeled or reinforced in the past; that is, when imitation has “generalized” to new behaviors. Furthermore, it is assumed that the social community shapes up delays in imitative responses, and thus, it is said that “all instances of modeling and imitation involve the absence of the Sd” ( Pierce & Cheney, 2008 , p. 252). For example, a child might watch their favorite TV show, and at a much later time repeat a phrase from the show, perhaps while sitting in the car, and their parent might say “yes, that's what you heard on TV!”. In other words, the organism is said to learn to imitate observed behavior in the absence of any particular stimulus, and perhaps at a much later point in time. In this sense, the organism may be said to “emit” behaviors, which typically fall under the purview of generalized imitation.
Importantly, conditioned reinforcement hypotheses are also central to the behavior analytic conceptualization of observational learning and imitation in general. In this sense, behaviors that closely resemble the observed behavior of models are presumed to have a history of reinforcement, and thus, behaving in a manner which is similar to the model may become conditioned reinforcer itself. This sort of conceptualization seems to be particularly helpful toward the behavior analytic understanding of delayed imitation (see Gladstone & Cooley, 1975 ; Rosales-Ruiz & Baer, 1997 ).
Behavior analysts have also provided an account of the verbal coding that is said to participate in observational learning. For example, behavior analysts propose that individuals derive self-rules when they observe their environment (e.g., Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001 ; Hayes, Zettle, & Rosenfarb, 1989 ; Poppen, 1989 ). It is assumed that society teaches the organism to tact ( Skinner, 1957 ) relationships in their environment, and that these descriptions exert tremendous control over behavior. Indeed, it is suggested that a large amount of rule-following behavior is reinforced throughout the organisms lifetime, and when combined with a history of tact repertoires being reinforced, individuals both derive self-rules (i.e., tact if-then relations in their environment) and subsequently engage in a great deal of rule-following with respect to those rules.
For example, a child might observe a teacher praising another child for accurately matching a Spanish flashcard to the corresponding English flashcard (“Good job matching perro with dog!”). Two days later, the child who observed the incident may be asked to “match same” when given that same Spanish flashcard, and correctly place it on the corresponding English flashcard. From the behavior analytic perspective it may be assumed that the child already has a generalized imitative repertoire, so they are imitating the child they observed at a later point in time (see conditioned reinforcement hypotheses above). Furthermore, the child may or may not have tacted the observed relationship when it occurred (rule-stating), and engaged in rule-following behavior when she interacted with the card at a later time. Both of these possibilities are consistent with the behavior analytic position. Importantly, the behavior analytic position does not require the individual to engage in rule-stating and following for observational learning to occur. Related to the latter, a recent series of studies conducted by Greer and colleagues seems to support the notion that observational learning may occur without rule-following. For example, individuals have acquired the ability to learn new words through experiences that do not involve observing consequences of another, and stimuli have been conditioned as reinforcers through the observation of others interacting with them, both of which do not require analyses of rule-governed behavior (see Greer & Ross, 2008 , Greer & Speckman, 2009 ).
It must be noted that many of these issues are at the center of current controversy, debate, and development in the field of behavior analysis. For example, the perspectives of joint control (e.g., Lowenkron, 1998 ) naming ( Horne & Lowe, 1996 ), relational frame theory ( Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001 ), and verbal behavior development (e.g., Greer & Ross, 2008 ; Greer & Speckman, 2009 ) all seem to account for the type of phenomena we have commented on herein. Given the importance of these issues, this is a good sign. We primarily mention this to acknowledge the current fact that there is not a behavior analytic position on many of these issues. Nevertheless, missteps may occur while we are on our journey to account for such phenomena, missteps that could have more or less dangerous implications for behavior analysis as an enterprise. It is our perspective that the interbehavioral position may be a rather useful foundation for workers as we continue on this journey (see Morris, Higgins, & Bickel, 1982 ).
Generally speaking, the behavior analytic conceptualization of observational learning relies on generalized imitation, conditioned reinforcement, and a range of verbal processes, depending on ones theoretical preference. These processes seem to account for the fact that imitative responses which have never been reinforced occur at a later time, and also for the role of verbal behavior in observational learning. The fact that there are a number of different perspectives on many of these issues may be considered a sign of progress and growth within behavior analysis, but at the same time highlights the need for further system building in this area. In the following sections we take a closer look at the behavior analytic position through the lens of interbehavioral psychology. Before doing so, we briefly introduce the reader to the interbehavioral position, as it is relatively less familiar to most behavior analysts.
THE INTERBEHAVIORIAL POSITION
From the perspective of interbehavioral psychology the event of interest is always a thoroughly naturalistic, psychological event. Specifically, this event is always the stimulus function ( sf ) ←→response function ( rf ) interaction ( Kantor, 1958 ). Moreover, this interaction always participates in a multifactored, inter related field. This field is conceptualized by the following formula: PE = C ( k , sf , rf , hi , st , md ); where PE is the psychological event, C is the interrelationship of all of the participating factors, k is the unique organization of all factors, sf is the stimulus function, rf is the response function, hi is the interbehavioral history, st is setting factors, and md is the medium of contact. Importantly, this is one event, one interbehavioral field. When one factor is changed the entire field is altered. This is to say none of the above factors are viewed as independent, dependent, or having causal status. Rather, all of the factors are equal participants in the one, integrated whole (see Smith, 2006 ).
Of particular relevance to our discussion of observational learning and complex behavior in general is the explicit distinction between stimulus objects and stimulus functions made within Kantor's system (e.g., Kantor, 1924 , pp. 47–48; Parrott, 1983a , 1983b , 1986 ). In other words, the stimulating action of stimulus objects is differentiated from the formal properties of those objects in Kantor's system. Kantor has suggested that the borrowing of the terms stimulus and response from biology, where stimulus and response functions are at least relatively more determined by their structural properties, has perhaps contributed to the failure to distinguish between object and functional properties in the domain of psychology ( Kantor, 1958 , p. 68). For example, in Kantor's system a picture as a stimulus object would be explicitly distinguished from its psychological functions, such that accounting for seeing something in the absence of the thing seen (as when looking at a picture “reminds you” of the time or place it was taken) is not difficult (see Parrott, 1983a , 1983b , 1986 ; Skinner, 1974 ). The process by which this happens is central to understanding complex behavior, including those that typically fall within the purview of observational learning, and we will now describe this process in more detail.
Kantor suggested that association conditions are fundamental psychological processes (1921, 1924). The term association is used here to refer to spatiotemporal relationships; that is, to relationships among various factors that occur in the environment together in space and time. To be clear, these factors are associated in the environment , and not within the organism. Further, it is not the organism who is associating; rather, the environment is where all associating takes place. Association conditions may involve stimuli and responses, stimuli and stimuli, settings and stimuli, settings and reactions, settings and settings, and reactions and reactions (including implicit and nonimplicit variations thereof; Kantor, 1924 , pp. 321–322).
Stimulus substitution is the outcome of a history of an organism interacting with various association conditions ( Kantor, 1924 , 1958 ; Parrott, 1983a , 1983b , 1986 ). That is, given an organisms history of interacting with spatiotemporal relationships ( A -coffee shop←→ B -Peter), stimulus objects may have the stimulational properties of other objects, even when those other objects are no longer physically present. This is how you might see Peter when you enter a coffee shop you frequented with him, even when he isn't physically there. In this example, stimulus A (coffee shop) and B (Peter) occurred together in space and time, and an organism interacted with that relationship, such that B becomes A ( B [ A ]) and A becomes B ( A [ B ]), psychologically speaking (see Hayes, 1992a ). This process is of particular importance to understanding complex behavior of various sorts. Furthermore, this is how interbehaviorists are able to conceptualize the past and present as one, avoiding both mentalistic and reductionistic practices which place the past within the organism in one way or another (see Hayes, 1992b ).
Added to this, through processes of generalization, stimuli that share physical features of those that participated in spatiotemporal association conditions may also develop substitute stimulus functions. For example, a coffee shop that is physically similar to the coffee shop you went to with your friend Peter might also substitute for Peter. Specifically, you might see Peter in the presence of a coffee shop that is physically similar to the shop you frequented with him. That is to say, substitute stimulus functions also generalize to stimuli which have never actually participated in spatiotemporal association conditions, but which are physically similar to stimuli which have, and thereby involve similar stimulus functions. This type of process may become particularly subtle, and is likely to be involved in a range of complex behaviors, including imagining and dreaming.
At this point it is important to address one potential misunderstanding with the interbehavioral perspective, specifically with respect to association conditions and the development of substitute stimulus functions. 6 We are suggesting that all stimuli which occur together in space and time, and which the organism interacts with, may develop substitute stimulus functions of one another. That is, it is possible for all stimuli to develop substitute stimulus functions of any other stimulus, given the appropriate interbehavioral history. Indeed, as an individual's interbehavioral history becomes more and more elaborate, one might imagine how all stimuli could develop substitute stimulus functions of all other stimuli, such that everything might become one, psychologically speaking. However, recall that the stimulus function←→response function interaction is always a participant in an exceptionally unique, complex, multifactored field. Indeed, Kantor stated “Each interaction is always absolutely specific. What the reacting organism and the stimulus object do in each interaction constitutes a distinctly unique relational happening” (1977, p. 38). Thus, while a specific stimulus object may indeed substitute for a wide range of things given an appropriate interbehavioral history, specific substitute stimulus functions are always actualized (or not) in a unique interbehavioral field. For example, a glass of sangria might substitute for a particular friend in a specific multifactored field (you might see your friend and remember drinking sangria together), whereas that same glass of sangria might substitute for the music of a live band in a different multifactored field (you might hear the music that was playing at a restaurant where you drank sangria in the past). As this example demonstrates, while there may be a wide range of potential substitute stimulus functions for every stimulus object, in each and every specific psychological event, particular substitute stimulus functions are actualized.
Thus far we have briefly introduced some important features of interbehavioral psychology, which we find to be particularly relevant to our understanding of observational learning. From the interbehavioral perspective, individuals observe (i.e., interact with) spatiotemporal association conditions in the environment (e.g., a child putting scrap paper in the recycling bin and this being followed by praise), such that at a later time the stimulus objects involved might substitute for the prior observation (e.g., the scrap paper might have the stimulus functions of praise in the previous observation). In other words, the scrap paper develops the stimulational properties of the observed relations; it substitutes for them. Psychologically speaking, the scrap paper is those relations (see Hayes, 1992a , 1992b ).
The role of verbal behavior must also be considered in the context of our analysis thus far. Generally speaking, one outcome of interacting with an observed relationship is being able to describe it. In other words, describing an observed relationship requires the organism to interact with it, and thus, descriptions are a particularly strong indication that the relations assumed to be observed have indeed actually been contacted. However, from our perspective verbal behavior, including rules more generally, does not explain observational learning. This is to say, whether or not the organism describes the observed relationship does not explain behavior change at a later time; however, not surprisingly, it is likely to be correlated with it, as it assures the organism has interacted with the observed relation. Moreover, to the extent that rule-statements substitute for a history of reinforcement, they may further enhance any learning by observation. Importantly, in this sense verbal behavior does not “mediate” responding. Its participation in the process of observational learning, however, seems to be worth considering. In doing so, it is important that verbal behavior not be given any causal or special sort of status. Observational learning certainly can, and does occur in the absence of verbal behavior, as is the case in animal research within this area (e.g., Biederman, Robertson, & Vanayan, 1986 ; Meyers, 1970 ; Reiss, 1972 ).
Our contention that verbal behavior not be given any causal status within the conceptualization of observational learning may seem to be at odds with a number of popular perspectives in behavior analysis. For example, a growing body of research on naming (e.g., Miguel, Petursdottir, Carr, & Michael, 2008 ), joint control (e.g., Lowenkron, 1998 ), and generalized imitation (e.g., Horne & Erjavec, 2007 ) seems to support the idea that verbal behavior is mediational. Again, as stated above, we do not deny that verbal behavior is likely to be helpful in a number of circumstances, but caution against giving it any sort of special status. That is, verbal behavior may, but importantly also may not, participate in learning from observation. In this sense, verbal behavior need not be considered “meditational.” Our perspective on this matter seems to be both parsimonious and comprehensive. That is, it does not employ any unnecessary assumptions or constructs, and accounts for observational learning that occurs with and without verbal behavior. 7
We hope we have made it clear that observational learning isn't puzzling from an interbehavioral perspective. Stimulus substitution offers a straight forward, naturalistic, and parsimonious way to conceptualize complex processes, including those involved in observational learning. Importantly, the interbehavioral perspective also avoids some shortcomings found with the behavior analytic interpretation of observational learning. In the following section we outline and address these issues specifically.
Review of the Behavior Analytic Perspective
As described earlier, the behavior analytic conceptualization of observational learning rests on the processes of generalized imitation, conditioned reinforcement, rule-governed behavior, and verbal processes more generally. From our perspective these analyses fail to fully articulate the nature of stimulation in the psychological event. Again, from the interbehavioral perspective the psychological event is always the stimulus function←→response function interaction. The generalized imitation analysis leaves us questioning the nature of the stimulus interacted with. In other words, it is not clear what the stimulus is. This problem is further underscored by the suggestion that generalized imitation involves responding in the absence of a discriminative stimulus ( Pierce & Cheney, 2008 , p. 252). Given our assumption that psychological events always involve sf ←→ rf interactions, as participants in multifactored fields, this account is problematic. The process of deriving and following self-rules leaves us in a similar situation. Again, we are left questioning the nature of the stimulus interacted with. That is, it unclear what the organism is interacting with when he/she derives a self-rule, and similarly, when he/she follows such a rule. Again, given our assumptions about the psychological event, both of these analyses require further consideration of the stimulus involved.
Added to the concerns described above, behavior analytic conceptualizations also fail to explicitly articulate the location of the stimulus. In other words, it is unclear where the stimulus interacted with is located. Failing to fully describe the nature and location of the stimulus leaves the door open for common mentalistic explanations to thrive. In the case of generalized imitation we find ourselves saying that the response is “in the repertoire” of the organism, because the stimulus is private, covert, or biological in nature (also see Hayes & Fryling, 2009 ). Alternatively, the organism may be said to “derive” or “relate” with respect to participating verbal processes. In other words, we either avoid attempting to specify the stimulus, place it within the organism, or, alternatively, suggest that it is available only to those involved in other scientific disciplines, namely biology. 8 In each of these cases, we fail to provide a thoroughly psychological account of the event we are interested in, leaving our job unfinished. As has been the case throughout history, where our work is left unfinished, both dualistic and reductionistic workers are quick to complete the job. While it may be argued that much of the contemporary work in the area of complex behavior does in fact avoid many of the concerns we have described, a failure to be explicit about these important issues can only result in long-term confusion, and a possible resurfacing of mentalistic thinking.
The behavior analytic community continues to be interested in the important processes involved in observational learning (e.g., Alvero & Austin, 2004 ; Bruzek & Thompson, 2007 ; Greer & Singer-Dudek, 2008 ; Greer, Singer-Dudek, Longano, & Zrino, 2008 ; Moore & Fisher, 2007 ; Ramirez & Rehfeldt, 2009 ; Rehfeldt, Latimore, & Stromer, 2003 ). Added to this, there are some interesting reasons to believe that this process has important clinical value when compared to other procedures (see Hayes, Kohlenberg, & Melancohn, 1989 ). What is needed is a thoroughly naturalistic conceptualization of observational learning, one that avoids all mentalism (i.e., no intermediate steps within the organism). As we have described, the interbehavioral perspective offers us just that, a clear, consistent, and thoroughly naturalistic conceptualization of observational learning. Moreover, it is one that does not require any additional constructs to explain complex processes, remaining comprehensive all the while.
It is our perspective that the position described in this paper may be integrated with contemporary research and scholarship in behavior analysis. This is especially so when we make clear distinctions between investigative constructs and events, as is advocated by interbehaviorists (see Fryling & Hayes, 2009 ; Kantor, 1957 ; Smith, 2007 ). Kantor (1958) has suggested that investigative constructs are acceptable within the context of the investigative subsystem of science, but that these constructs should not be confused with the constructions of the subject matter and philosophy more generally. That is, the constructs we employ to understand various interrelations among factors participating in psychological events should never be confused to be representations of the subject matter as a whole, as being explanatory of one another, or as having more or less causal status. For example, both operant and respondent processes can be conceptualized within the more global processes of association and subsequent outcomes of stimulus substitution. Contemporary research in behavior analysis requires us to emphasize specific aspects to the interbehavioral position, particularly with respect to the role of the context (unique multifactored fields), and the actualization of specific substitute stimulus functions. In this regard, the research on relational responding is particularly stimulating. In this line of research a multitude of historical association conditions are manipulated in unique ways, under various contextual conditions, and the development or “emergence” of a wide range of events is then tested. When these interesting outcomes are conceptualized as unique sorts of substitute stimulation, operating in historical, multifactored fields, their explanations remain wholly consistent and naturalistic. We think most contemporary research and scholarship in behavior analysis can and should be integrated with the interbehavioral perspective. Importantly, such integration might serve to coordinate the efforts of various workers in the field, and ultimately maximize on our productivity as a scientific enterprise.
The limitations of Bandura's work not withstanding, the process of learning from observation is interesting and relevant to a comprehensive analysis of behavior. Indeed, if one values such comprehensiveness, our most basic concepts and principles must be relevant to, and provide an account of observational learning. Moreover, this comprehensiveness is only valuable when it is achieved within the context of validity (internal consistency) and significance (external consistency within the greater field of the sciences; see Clayton, Hayes, & Swain, 2005 ; Kantor, 1958 ). The interbehavioral perspective is particularly valuable in this regard. Kantor's conceptualization of the psychological event, with all of its fullness, provides an avenue by which the most complex sorts of behavior, including those involved in observational learning, might be fully integrated into a natural science approach to the analysis of behavior.
Cristin Johnston is affiliated with Spectrum Center, Oakland, CA.
1 The term modeling is used synonymously with observation and demonstration in this context. In other words, when something has been modeled the individual has observed a demonstration of the response and factors surrounding it.
2 See Greer et al., 2004 for a description of related studies on peer tutoring, where it was the observation of corrections, and not simply of reinforcement, that resulted in observational learning.
3 Of note, the researchers acknowledged the possibility that their positive statements may not have been the most optimal reinforcers, and thus, it is possible that the modeling plus reinforcement condition would have been superior had more powerful reinforcers been used ( Bandura & McDonald, 1963 , p. 281).
4 The idea that rewards distract individuals from learning seems to be related to the concerns raised by Alfie Kohn (1999) .
5 In this literature the term learning is used to describe the individual's ability to describe observed behavior at a later time.
6 For example, some have criticized interbehaviorism for its “loose form of associationism” (e.g., Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001 , p. 8).
7 A number of socially significant behaviors involve language, and we are not questioning the interest in it for the purposes of understanding how to promote such behaviors (e.g., categorization). However, we are arguing that language not be given special status in the conceptualization of observational learning.
8 Here, it is important to note that even when biological factors are observed (and indeed, they increasingly are) they are never observed to be engaging in the psychological event of interest. That is to say, we can never observe the brain or any biological component of the organism engaging in the behavior we are most interested in (see Kantor, 1947 ). Confusions between what is measured and what ones says they measuring are common in science (see Kantor, 1957 ; Smith, 2007 ), and are especially likely when there is a failure to fully articulate the boundary conditions between individual scientific disciplines.
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- What Is an Observational Study? | Guide & Examples
What Is an Observational Study? | Guide & Examples
Published on March 31, 2022 by Tegan George . Revised on June 22, 2023.
An observational study is used to answer a research question based purely on what the researcher observes. There is no interference or manipulation of the research subjects, and no control and treatment groups .
These studies are often qualitative in nature and can be used for both exploratory and explanatory research purposes. While quantitative observational studies exist, they are less common.
Observational studies are generally used in hard science, medical, and social science fields. This is often due to ethical or practical concerns that prevent the researcher from conducting a traditional experiment . However, the lack of control and treatment groups means that forming inferences is difficult, and there is a risk of confounding variables and observer bias impacting your analysis.
Table of contents
Types of observation, types of observational studies, observational study example, advantages and disadvantages of observational studies, observational study vs. experiment, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions.
There are many types of observation, and it can be challenging to tell the difference between them. Here are some of the most common types to help you choose the best one for your observational study.
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There are three main types of observational studies: cohort studies, case–control studies, and cross-sectional studies .
Cohort studies are more longitudinal in nature, as they follow a group of participants over a period of time. Members of the cohort are selected because of a shared characteristic, such as smoking, and they are often observed over a period of years.
Case–control studies bring together two groups, a case study group and a control group . The case study group has a particular attribute while the control group does not. The two groups are then compared, to see if the case group exhibits a particular characteristic more than the control group.
For example, if you compared smokers (the case study group) with non-smokers (the control group), you could observe whether the smokers had more instances of lung disease than the non-smokers.
Cross-sectional studies analyze a population of study at a specific point in time.
This often involves narrowing previously collected data to one point in time to test the prevalence of a theory—for example, analyzing how many people were diagnosed with lung disease in March of a given year. It can also be a one-time observation, such as spending one day in the lung disease wing of a hospital.
Observational studies are usually quite straightforward to design and conduct. Sometimes all you need is a notebook and pen! As you design your study, you can follow these steps.
Step 1: Identify your research topic and objectives
The first step is to determine what you’re interested in observing and why. Observational studies are a great fit if you are unable to do an experiment for practical or ethical reasons , or if your research topic hinges on natural behaviors.
Step 2: Choose your observation type and technique
In terms of technique, there are a few things to consider:
- Are you determining what you want to observe beforehand, or going in open-minded?
- Is there another research method that would make sense in tandem with an observational study?
- If yes, make sure you conduct a covert observation.
- If not, think about whether observing from afar or actively participating in your observation is a better fit.
- How can you preempt confounding variables that could impact your analysis?
- You could observe the children playing at the playground in a naturalistic observation.
- You could spend a month at a day care in your town conducting participant observation, immersing yourself in the day-to-day life of the children.
- You could conduct covert observation behind a wall or glass, where the children can’t see you.
Overall, it is crucial to stay organized. Devise a shorthand for your notes, or perhaps design templates that you can fill in. Since these observations occur in real time, you won’t get a second chance with the same data.
Step 3: Set up your observational study
Before conducting your observations, there are a few things to attend to:
- Plan ahead: If you’re interested in day cares, you’ll need to call a few in your area to plan a visit. They may not all allow observation, or consent from parents may be needed, so give yourself enough time to set everything up.
- Determine your note-taking method: Observational studies often rely on note-taking because other methods, like video or audio recording, run the risk of changing participant behavior.
- Get informed consent from your participants (or their parents) if you want to record: Ultimately, even though it may make your analysis easier, the challenges posed by recording participants often make pen-and-paper a better choice.
Step 4: Conduct your observation
After you’ve chosen a type of observation, decided on your technique, and chosen a time and place, it’s time to conduct your observation.
Here, you can split them into case and control groups. The children with siblings have a characteristic you are interested in (siblings), while the children in the control group do not.
When conducting observational studies, be very careful of confounding or “lurking” variables. In the example above, you observed children as they were dropped off, gauging whether or not they were upset. However, there are a variety of other factors that could be at play here (e.g., illness).
Step 5: Analyze your data
After you finish your observation, immediately record your initial thoughts and impressions, as well as follow-up questions or any issues you perceived during the observation. If you audio- or video-recorded your observations, you can transcribe them.
Your analysis can take an inductive or deductive approach :
- If you conducted your observations in a more open-ended way, an inductive approach allows your data to determine your themes.
- If you had specific hypotheses prior to conducting your observations, a deductive approach analyzes whether your data confirm those themes or ideas you had previously.
Next, you can conduct your thematic or content analysis . Due to the open-ended nature of observational studies, the best fit is likely thematic analysis .
Step 6: Discuss avenues for future research
Observational studies are generally exploratory in nature, and they often aren’t strong enough to yield standalone conclusions due to their very high susceptibility to observer bias and confounding variables. For this reason, observational studies can only show association, not causation .
If you are excited about the preliminary conclusions you’ve drawn and wish to proceed with your topic, you may need to change to a different research method , such as an experiment.
- Observational studies can provide information about difficult-to-analyze topics in a low-cost, efficient manner.
- They allow you to study subjects that cannot be randomized safely, efficiently, or ethically .
- They are often quite straightforward to conduct, since you just observe participant behavior as it happens or utilize preexisting data.
- They’re often invaluable in informing later, larger-scale clinical trials or experimental designs.
- Observational studies struggle to stand on their own as a reliable research method. There is a high risk of observer bias and undetected confounding variables or omitted variables .
- They lack conclusive results, typically are not externally valid or generalizable, and can usually only form a basis for further research.
- They cannot make statements about the safety or efficacy of the intervention or treatment they study, only observe reactions to it. Therefore, they offer less satisfying results than other methods.
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The key difference between observational studies and experiments is that a properly conducted observational study will never attempt to influence responses, while experimental designs by definition have some sort of treatment condition applied to a portion of participants.
However, there may be times when it’s impossible, dangerous, or impractical to influence the behavior of your participants. This can be the case in medical studies, where it is unethical or cruel to withhold potentially life-saving intervention, or in longitudinal analyses where you don’t have the ability to follow your group over the course of their lifetime.
An observational study may be the right fit for your research if random assignment of participants to control and treatment groups is impossible or highly difficult. However, the issues observational studies raise in terms of validity , confounding variables, and conclusiveness can mean that an experiment is more reliable.
If you’re able to randomize your participants safely and your research question is definitely causal in nature, consider using an experiment.
If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Student’s t -distribution
- Normal distribution
- Null and Alternative Hypotheses
- Chi square tests
- Confidence interval
- Quartiles & Quantiles
- Cluster sampling
- Stratified sampling
- Data cleansing
- Reproducibility vs Replicability
- Peer review
- Prospective cohort study
- Implicit bias
- Cognitive bias
- Placebo effect
- Hawthorne effect
- Hindsight bias
- Affect heuristic
- Social desirability bias
An observational study is a great choice for you if your research question is based purely on observations. If there are ethical, logistical, or practical concerns that prevent you from conducting a traditional experiment , an observational study may be a good choice. In an observational study, there is no interference or manipulation of the research subjects, as well as no control or treatment groups .
The key difference between observational studies and experimental designs is that a well-done observational study does not influence the responses of participants, while experiments do have some sort of treatment condition applied to at least some participants by random assignment .
A quasi-experiment is a type of research design that attempts to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. The main difference with a true experiment is that the groups are not randomly assigned.
Exploratory research aims to explore the main aspects of an under-researched problem, while explanatory research aims to explain the causes and consequences of a well-defined problem.
Experimental design means planning a set of procedures to investigate a relationship between variables . To design a controlled experiment, you need:
- A testable hypothesis
- At least one independent variable that can be precisely manipulated
- At least one dependent variable that can be precisely measured
When designing the experiment, you decide:
- How you will manipulate the variable(s)
- How you will control for any potential confounding variables
- How many subjects or samples will be included in the study
- How subjects will be assigned to treatment levels
Experimental design is essential to the internal and external validity of your experiment.
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- Published: 08 July 2017
Understanding Observational Learning: An Interbehavioral Approach
- Mitch J. Fryling 1 ,
- Cristin Johnston 2 nAff315 &
- Linda J. Hayes 2
The Analysis of Verbal Behavior volume 27 , pages 191–203 ( 2011 ) Cite this article
Observational learning is an important area in the field of psychology and behavior science more generally. Given this, it is essential that behavior analysts articulate a sound theory of how behavior change occurs through observation. This paper begins with an overview of seminal research in the area of observational learning, followed by a consideration of common behavior analytic conceptualizations of these findings. The interbehavioral perspective is then outlined, shedding light on some difficulties with the existing behavior analytic approaches. The implications of embracing the interbehavioral perspective for understanding the most complex sorts of behavior, including those involved in observational learning are considered.
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Lowenkron, B. (1998). Some logical functions of joint control. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior , 69 , 327–354.
Meyers, W. A. (1970). Observational learning in monkeys. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior , 14 , 225–235.
Miguel, C. F., Petursdottir, A. I., Carr, J. E., & Michael, J. (2008). The role of naming in stimulus categorization by preschool children. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior , 89 , 383–405.
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Parrott, L. J. (1983a). Similarities and differences between Skinner’s radical behaviorism and Kantor’s interbehavior-ism. Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis , 9 (1), 95–115.
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Ramirez, J., & Rehfeldt, R. A. (2009). Observational learning and the emergence of symmetry relations in teaching Spanish vocabulary words to typically developing children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis , 42 , 801–805.
Rehfeldt, R. A., Latimore, D., & Stromer, R. (2003). Observational learning and the formation of classes of reading skills by individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities , 24 , 333–358.
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Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior . New York: Free Press.
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Present address: Spectrum Center, Oakland, CA, USA
Authors and Affiliations
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, 617 W. 7th St., 8th Floor, Los Angeles, CA, 90017, USA
Mitch J. Fryling
University of Nevada, Reno, USA
Cristin Johnston & Linda J. Hayes
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Correspondence to Mitch J. Fryling .
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Fryling, M.J., Johnston, C. & Hayes, L.J. Understanding Observational Learning: An Interbehavioral Approach. Analysis Verbal Behav 27 , 191–203 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03393102
Published : 08 July 2017
Issue Date : April 2011
DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03393102
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- Observational learning involves acquiring skills or new or changed behaviors through watching the behavior of others.
- The person or actor performing the action that the observational learner replicates is called a model.
- The educational psychologist Albert Bandura was the first to recognize observational learning through his Bobo Doll experiment.
- Observational learning consists of attentive, retentive, reproductive, and motivational processes.
- Observational learning pervades how children, as well as adults, learn to interact with and behave in the world.
Table of Contents
Observational learning, otherwise known as vicarious learning, is the acquisition of information, skills, or behavior through watching others perform, either directly or through another medium, such as video.
Those who do experiments on animals alternatively define observational learning as the conditioning of an animal to perform an act that it observes in a member of the same or a different species.
For example, a mockingbird could learn to imitate the song patterns of other kinds of birds.
The Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura was one of the first to recognize the phenomenon of observational learning (Bandura, 1985).
His theory, social learning theory, stresses the importance of observation and modeling of behaviors, attitudes, and the emotional reactions of others.
Stages of Observational Learning
Bandura (1985) found that humans, who are social animals, naturally gravitate toward observational learning. For example, children may watch their family members and mimic their behaviors.
In observational learning, people learn by watching others and then imitating, or modeling, what they do or say. Thus, the individuals or objects performing the imitated behavior are called models (Bandura, 1985).
Even infants may start imitating the mouth movements and facial expressions of the adults around them.
There are four processes that Bandura’s research identified as influencing observational learning: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation (Debell, 2021).
- In order to learn, observers must pay attention to their environment. The attention levels of a learned person can vary based on the characteristics of the model and environment where they are learning the behavior.
- These variables can include how similar the model is to the observer and the observer’s current mood.Humans, Bandura (1985) proposed, are likely to pay attention to the behaviors of models that are high-status, talented, intelligent, or similar to the learner in some way.
- For example, someone seeking to climb the corporate ladder may observe the behavior of their managers and the vice presidents of their company, and try to mimic their behavior (Debell, 2021).
- Attention in itself, however, is not enough to learn a new behavior. Observers Must also retain, or remember, the behavior at a later time. In order to increase the chances of retention, the observer can structure the information in a way that is easy to remember.
- This could involve using a mnemonic device or a daily learning habit, such as spaced repetition. In the end, however, the behavior must be easily remembered so that the action can later be performed by the learner with little or no effort (Debell, 2021).
- After retention comes the ability to actually perform a behavior in real-life. Often, producing a new behavior can require hours of practice in order to obtain the necessary skills to do so.
- Thus, the process of reproduction is one that can potentially take years to craft and perfect (Debell, 2021).
- Finally, all learning requires, to some extent, personal motivation. Thus, in observational learning, an observer must be motivated to produce the desired behavior.
- This motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic to the observer. In the latter case, motivation comes in the form of rewards and punishments.
- For example, the extrinsic motivation of someone seeking to climb the corporate ladder could include the incentive of earning a high salary and more autonomy at work (Debell, 2021).
The Bobo Doll Experiment
Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment is one classic in the field of observational learning. In all, this experiment showed that children could and would mimic violent behaviors simply by observing others.
In these experiments, Bandura (1985) and his researchers showed children a video where a model would act aggressively toward an inflatable doll by hitting, punching, kicking, and verbally assaulting the doll.
The end of the video had three different outcomes. Either the model was punished for their behavior, rewarded for it, or there were no consequences.
After watching this behavior, the researchers gave the children a bobo doll identical to the one in the video.
The researchers found that children were more likely to mimic violent behaviors when they observed the model receiving a reward, or when no consequences occurred.
Alternatively, children who observed the model being punished for their violence showed less violence toward the doll (Debell, 2021).
Observational Learning Examples
There are numerous examples of observational learning in everyday life, in people of all ages.
Nonetheless, observational learning is especially prevalent in the socialization of children. For example:
- An infant could learn to chew through watching adults chew food.
- After witnessing an older sibling being punished for taking a cookie without permission, the young child does not take cookies without permission.
- A school child may learn to write cursive letters through observing their teacher write them on the board.
- Children may learn to play hide and seek by seeing other children playing the game and being rewarded in the form of entertainment
- Children may also learn to say swear words after watching other children say swear words and gain social status.
- A child may learn how to drive a car by making appropriate motions after seeing a parent driving
- A young boy can swing a baseball bat without being explicitly taught how to do it after attending a baseball game. Similarly, a child could learn how to shoot hoops after a basketball game without instruction.
- A child may be able to put on roller skates and stand on them without explicit instruction.
- A student may learn not to cheat by watching another student be punished for doing so
- A child may avoid stepping on ice after seeing another child fall in front of them.
Positive and Negative Outcomes
Bandura concluded that people and animals alike watch and learn, and that this learning can have both prosocial and antisocial effects.
Prosocial, or positive models can be used to encourage socially acceptable behavior. For example, parents, by reading to their children, can teach their children to read more.
Meanwhile, parents who want their children to eat healthily can in themselves eat healthily and exercise, as well as spend time engaging in physical fitness activities together.
Observational learning argues, in all, that children tend to copy what parents do above what they say (Daffin, 2021).
Observational learning has also been used to explain how antisocial behaviors develop. For example, research suggests that observational learning is a reason why many abused children grow up to become abusers themselves (Murrel, Christoff, & Henning, 2007).
Abused children tend to grow up witnessing their parents deal with anger and frustration through violent and aggressive acts, often learning to behave in that manner themselves.
Some studies have also suggested that violent television shows may also have antisocial effects, though this is a controversial claim (Kirsh, 2011).
Observational Learning and Behavioral Modification
Observational learning can be used to change already learned behaviors, for both positive and negative.
Bandura asserted that, if all behaviors are learned by observing others and people can model their behavior on that of those around them, then undesirable behaviors can be altered or relearned in the same way.
Banduras suggested showing people a model in a situation that usually causes them some anxiety. For example, a psychologist may attempt to help someone overcome their fear of getting blood drawn by showing someone using relaxation techniques during a blood draw to stay calm.
By seeing the model interact nicely with the fear-evoking stimulus, the fear should subside. This method of behavioral modification is widely used in clinical, business, and classroom situations (Daffin, 2021).
In the classroom, a teacher may use modeling to demonstrate how to do a math problem for a student. Through a prompt delay, that teacher may then encourage the student to try the problem for themselves.
If the student can solve the problem, no further action is needed; however, if the student struggles, a teacher may use one of four types of prompts — verbal, gestural, modeling, or physical — to assist the student. Similarly, a trainer may show a trainee how to use a computer program to run a register.
As with before, the trainer can use prompt delays and prompts to test the level of learning the employee has gained.
Reinforcers can then be delivered through social support after the trainee has successfully completed the task themself (Daffin, 2021).
Observational Learning vs. Operant and Classical Conditioning
Classical conditioning , also known as pavlovian or respondent conditioning, is a type of learning in which an initially neutral stimulus — the conditioned stimulus — is paired with a stimulus that elicits a reflex response — the unconditioned stimulus.
This results in a learned, or conditioned, response when the conditioned stimulus is present. Perhaps the most famous example of classical conditioning is that of Pavlov’s dogs.
Pavlov conditioned a number of dogs by pairing food with the tone of a bell. After several repetitions, he was able to trigger his dogs to salivate by ringing the bell, even in the absence of food.
Operant conditioning, meanwhile, is a process of learning that takes place by seeing the consequences of behavior. For example, a trainer may teach a dog to do tricks through giving a dog a reward to, say, sit down (Daffin, 2021).
Observational learning extends the effective range of both classical and operant conditioning. In contrast to classical and operant conditioning, in which learning can only occur through direct experience, observational learning takes place through watching others and then imitating what they do.
While classical and operant conditioning may rely on trial and error alone as a means of changing behavior, observational conditioning creates room for observing a model, whose actions someone can replicate.
This can result in a more controlled and ultimately more efficient learning process for all involved (Daffin, 2021).
APA Style References
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