Someone walks over, introduces themselves and raises their hand out in front of you. How do you know what you’re supposed to do next?
If this were the first time you saw this behavior, you wouldn’t have a clue.
If you were from an Eastern culture, you might go to bow toward this person. But you know what to do because since childhood, you’ve observed many adults shaking hands.
Observational learning is a learning theory in psychology that describes how we learn by watching and imitating others.
In this article, we will look into what observational learning really is and how it helps you learn and grow.
Observational learning in a nutshell
Children learn many of their behaviors and expressions through observation. We pick up things as fundamental as walking, playing, gestures, facial expressions, and body postures via observational learning.
In the 1970s, psychologist Albert Bandura outlined a four-stage process of how observational learning occurs:
- Attention: Notice something in the environment.
- Retention: Recall what was noticed (memory).
- Reproduction: Copy or mimic what you noticed.
- Motivation: Get reinforcement from the environment for completing the behavior (or punishment for not).
Pretty simple, right?
Neuroscience provides further evidence. Mirror neurons fire when one animal acts and another animal observes as if the neurons in one brain are mirroring the patterns of another brain.
You make a funny face at a baby. And the baby makes the same funny right back at you.
What influences observational learning?
Observational learning doesn’t always occur, so it’s essential to understanding the conditions in place when it does.
So when are we more like to imitate others? It happens when:
- You doubt yourself and your abilities.
- You are confused or in an unfamiliar environment.
- You’re in a position of authority, like a boss, leader, or celebrity.
- Someone is similar to you in some way: interest, age, or social class.
- You see someone getting rewards for their behavior.
For example, let’s say four people go out to an upscale restaurant. One person frequents this type of restaurant while it’s the first time for the other three individuals.
The person who is comfortable in this environment knows what to do: when and where to place the napkin, how the place setting works, and how to communicate with the wait staff. Because he knows what to do, in this situation, he’s the authority.
The rest of his company are in an unfamiliar environment. And when we don’t know how to behave, we tend to look around and observe the behavior of others.
Somehow, we know who to observe by picking up subtle cues. So without having to think about it, the rest of the party subconsciously looks around and begin to discern who the “expert” is and what he’s doing. And this sort of process frequently happens throughout our development and the rest of our lives.
How to use observational learning to perform at your best
Observational learning usually occurs subconsciously in social situations. That is, our basic need to belong, or “fit in,” drives us to adapt our behavior to the actions of others.
But the real power of observational learning comes from making this process active and conscious.
What does this mean?
Once you understand how observational learning works, you can choose to apply it in ways that support your personal and professional development.
is another term for observational learning. Let’s say you want to become an expert presenter. No problem. Find a few presenters that you believe are highly skilled and watch what they do.
Pay attention to everything:
- How do they hold themselves?
- When do they pause?
- How do they emphasize specific points?
- Do they use slides? Imagery? Sounds?
- What gestures do they make as they communicate?
Modeling the success of others is perhaps the fastest way to elevate your game and make rapid progress in your development.
In the workplace, observational learning is often called shadowing.
By shadowing an experienced employee for a period, you’ll naturally learn how to perform the tasks this person does each day. This process works effectively in sales environments too.
If you study the masters of any field, you quickly learn that they had great teachers or masters from whom they learned.
In Mastery, author Robert Greene points out that those who reach the level of mastery in any field submit to a rigorous apprenticeship to absorb the secret knowledge of those with many years of experience.
Similarly, in The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle highlights that anyone who cultivates talent has a master coach who knows how to break things down and teach things in a way that accelerates learning.
So if there’s any area of your life that you’re seeking mastery in, with who can you form an apprenticeship?
How observational learning can hijack your behavior
Our brains, in many ways, are like sponges. We absorb what we observe.
While this observational learning can be a powerful tool for our personal growth and development, it can also be a destructive force.
Consider all of the bad behavior we witnessed when we were kids (and still today):
- Poor attitudes
- Nastiness and rudeness
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Neurotic tendencies
- Deceit and lying
- Negative self-talk
The list goes on. And yes, we observed and absorbed these behavioral patterns too from our parents, teachers, family members, and friends.
We also adopt behavior we observe on television and in the media. Studies show, for example, that teens who watched a lot of sexual content were more likely to start having sex soon after.
Does this mean that watching violent movies will make you act violently? Not necessarily, but these images are imprinted in our unconscious and often later express themselves under the right conditions.
Here’s the bottom line:
Be very conscious of the media you consume and with who you spend your time. Our minds are like computer hardware and what we observe is like the software. So choose positive and life-supporting software if you want your brain to mimic it!
5 tips on how to use observational learning to your advantage
Here are five tips to make observational learning work for you:
1. Be highly selective on what, who and when you observe
Remember, observational learning is taking place whether we want it to or not. To harness this powerful force, consciously select who you are observing and in what context.
For example, if you know someone who’s highly productive in their work, ask to shadow them as they work.
But this individual may be an entirely different person when they aren’t working. So be mindful of what behavioral patterns you’re absorbing.
2. Pay attention to the details
Those who achieve mastery in any area of their lives do so by mastering the fundamentals and then continually improving on more subtle levels. To the inexperienced eye, it’s often difficult to notice what they do differently.
In the case of negotiations, for example, a skilled negotiator knows how and when to disarm the other player. Sometimes these skills express themselves instinctively, so you may pick up on details in behavior the individual doesn’t even know they are doing.
3. Maintain a playful attitude
Many of us are conditioned to believe that seriousness is a valuable quality for learning. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, however, found that self-actualizing individuals, or individuals with positive mental health, tend to have a more innocent, playful attitude when they are learning and developing.
Research also shows that we learn up to ten times faster in the areas that interesting to us. So stay curious, open, and ready to learn.
4. Rehearse What You Observe in Your Mind
Studies show that rehearsing specific patterns of movement in our mind’s eye can help our brains encode desired actions and behaviors. Many peak-performance athletes and musicians use this form of creative visualization training.
Visualization practices are extraordinarily powerful when you do it right before bedtime so your subconscious mind can process in the images while you sleep.
5. Don’t just observe, do
To make observational learning stick, you must also do whatever it is you’re observing . Many companies combine shadowing experienced employees with hands-on training to accelerate the learning and development of new employees.
Put observational learning to work for you
In the personal development space, observational learning is often called modeling the success of others .
Perhaps as you’re reading this, you’re already getting ideas of who you can start modeling.
Here are three questions to help you get started right now:
- What skills and behaviors to you want to learn?
- Who already possesses these skills and behaviors?
- How can you start modeling these individuals right away?
Now, make it so!