Observational learning is the learning that occurs through observing the behavior of other people. Albert Bandura, who is best known for the classic Bobo doll experiment, discovered this basic form of learning in 1986. Bandura stressed the importance of observational learning because it allowed children especially, to acquire new responses through observing others’ behavior. This form of learning does not need reinforcement to occur; instead, a model is required. A social model can be a parent, sibling, friend, or teacher, but particularly in childhood a model is someone of authority or higher status. A social model is significantly important in observational learning because it allows one to cognitively process behavior, encode what is observed, and store it in memory for later imitation. While the model may not be intentionally trying to instill any particular behavior, many behaviors that one observes, remembers and imitates are actions that models display. A child may learn to swear, smack, smoke, and deem other inappropriate behavior acceptable through poor modeling. Bandura claims that children continually learn desirable and undesirable behavior through observational learning. Observational learning suggests that an individual’s environment, cognition, and behavior all integrate and ultimately determine how one functions. Through observational learning, behaviors of an individual can spread across a culture through a process known as diffusion chain, which basically occurs when an individual first learns a behavior by observing another individual and that individual serves as a model through whom other individuals will learn the behavior and so on so forth.
Culture and environment also play a role in whether observational learning will be the dominant learning style in a person or community. In some cultures, children are expected to actively participate in their communities and are therefore exposed to different trades and roles on a daily basis. This exposure allows children to observe and learn the different skills and practices that are valued in their communities. In communities where children’s primary mode of learning is through observation, the children are rarely separated from adult activities. This incorporation into the adult world at an early age allows children to use observational learning skills in multiple spheres of life. Culturally, they learn that their participation and contributions are valued in their communities. This teaches children that it is their duty as members of the community to observe contributions being made in order to gradually become involved and participate further in the community.