Learning by Watching: Social Cognitive Theory and Vicarious Learning

Have you ever stood in front of a machine, with little or no idea about how to operate it – say at a self-check-in counter at an international airport that has its default language set to Dutch, or in front of a self-service kiosk for a tram that requires you to input information and money to print your ticket?

In such or similar situations, what do you do if you have a couple of people operating the machine before you? Try and peep in, don’t you? This isn’t to embarrass you. Rather, we have stated this example to prove a point: that observation is an intrinsic human technique to learn unfamiliar tasks or behaviors – something that has been theorized by the psychologist Albert Bandura as what he called the ‘Social Cognitive Theory’.

What is Social Cognitive Theory?

The theory states that when people observe a model performing a behavior and the consequences of that behavior, they remember the sequence of events and use this information to guide subsequent behaviors. Bandura’s social learning theory stresses the importance of observational learning, imitation and modeling. His theory states that a continuous interaction exists between behaviors, personal factors and the environment.

  • Environment includes social and physical environments: the people that the learner works with, family and friends; as well as size of a room, the ambient temperature etc.
  • Personal factors includes mental cognition: personality, self-efficacy and motivation of the learner.
  • Behavior is affected by the situation: the cognitive or mental representations of the environment and the constant influence of the three components on each other.

This is referred to as reciprocal causation model, meaning every two elements out of these three affect each other reciprocally although in different amounts.

The Social Cognitive Theory creates an interesting opportunity for observational learning. That is, by using vicarious learning to teach abstract yet important behaviors or skills to employees – for example handling customer queries, price negotiation, communication skills, interviewing skills for an HR trainee or probing skills for a new doctor. Research suggests that instead of exposing learners to hit and trial of such behaviors, learning takes place in a better way when they are allowed to observe professionals exhibiting the same. In case of personal exploration or hit and trial, a learner may not be able to see the big picture and his scope is limited by his own performance. On the contrary, observational learning allows the learner to grasp the various aspects of the given behavior.

For example, if you try and teach interviewing skills by pairing learners and allowing them to interview each other, most of them will not be able to get past asking the regular questions like “Tell me about yourself”, “Why do you think we should hire you”, “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses”, etc. If however, these learners are shown videos or allowed to observe actual good quality interviews, they will be able to absorb the skill to a far greater extent. They may be able to understand how to uncover crucial personal characteristics of interviewees by creating hypothetical situations that would relate to the job.

Vicarious Learning

With this theory in the backdrop, we now come to highlight the utility of vicarious learning. Simply put, it is ‘learning by watching’. A vicarious learning design focuses on the basic human instinct of ‘picking’ new kinds of behavior from the ‘models’ they see and then re-enacting those behaviors when the situation so demands. For example, a young girl learning how to be a good hostess by observing when she visits a dinner party she’s invited to.

At the workplace, there are certain behaviors that are crucial in job success but are too abstract or vague to be taught by lecturing, reading or other means. In such cases, vicarious learning has great potential to get the desired outcomes.


  • progers10503@gmail.com'
    Paula Rogers

    Great article! Thank you.

    January 13, 2015 - 1:53 pm/ Reply
  • cytopf@gmail.com'
    Dan Topf

    A great post with some really good evidence to back it up. Thank you.

    I wonder about the efficacy of social learning in this context for high complex, cognitive tasks. Can a learner actually learn the wrong thing? Learn that “I can’t do that!” or something like it? It requires guided instruction, in my view, to lessen this risk.

    Also, I’ve observed, (does the research support this?), that learners have difficulty translating what they see and hear to what they think, say, and do. The learning channel matters. What do you think?

    January 20, 2015 - 2:03 pm/ Reply

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