Learning by Watching: Social Cognitive Theory and Vicarious Learning

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Editor’s Note: This blog post has been updated in February 2022.

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 at a railway station 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 is not 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 and called the Social Cognitive Theory.

Learning by Watching Social Cognitive Theory and Vicarious Learning
Image Credit – http://www.careers.govt.nz/fileadmin/image/rte/model-bandura.png

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 include mental cognition: personality, self-efficacy, curiosity, and the motivation to learn.
  • 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.

Reciprocal causation occurs when two or more events have a simultaneous effect on each other.

The Social Cognitive Theory proposed by Albert Bandura creates an interesting opportunity for observational learning at the workplace. By using vicarious learning, teaching abstract yet important behaviors or skills to employees becomes easier and more effective. Training opportunities include handling customer queries, price negotiation, communication skills, interviewing skills for an HR trainee, or diagnostic skills for a new doctor, etc. Research suggests that instead of letting learners acquire new skills on a trial-and-error basis, learning works better when they observe seasoned professionals perform the same tasks.

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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” and such. Instead, if these learners are shown videos or allowed to observe actual superior quality interviews, they will be able to absorb the skills faster and with greater clarity. 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

Have you observed children in kindergarten? Or young children in the playground? They follow each other and the teacher with intense curiosity – listening to instructions and replicating their actions step-by-step. This is the easiest way to explain vicarious learning. One learns to do something by following others performing the task. Think, DIY-videos on YouTube! It gives viewers simple and easy instructions that are easy to follow. Watching something, learning, and then replicating the learning or putting it into action is the best form of learning.

At the workplace, there are certain behaviors that are crucial to the job’s success but are too abstract or vague to be taught through lectures or through reading materials. In such cases, vicarious learning is promising to attain desired outcomes.
This blog post about social learning delves into how it influences learning in the modern workplace.

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Key benefits of deploying Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory and Vicarious Learning in eLearning

At this time it is important to note that vicarious learning has an added advantage to simple observational learning. Vicarious learning places criticality in the ability of the learner to visualize themselves doing the activity while understanding the right course of action through observation. When this visualization is achieved, it creates a lasting impact on the learner and leads to knowledge retention and effective application.

  • Ease in Implementation: When compared to traditional training practices, it is far easier to implement vicarious learning at the workplace. The trainees can easily be allowed to observe, learn, and visualize the situation for their understanding. Additionally, clarifications and support can be easily rendered immediately. There is no time lost, and gets the job done effectively.
  • Risk-free Application: Vicarious learning offers a safe space for practice. It gives the learner ample opportunities to practice the newly acquired knowledge and improve further along the way without the risk of failure or dire consequences as in a real environment. It boosts confidence and pushes them to excel.
  • Learning Flexibility: Learners get to observe, visualize, and learn at their own pace. Since communication is in tandem, there is always an exchange of ideas, information, and troubleshooting. The flexibility in learning leads the way for long-term retention and sustained improvement.

To better understand the topic of social cognitive theory and vicarious learning in organizational L&D, let us look at some FAQs.

1. What are the barriers to effectively leveraging social cognitive theory or vicarious learning at the workplace?

The concept is based on the reciprocal causation between person, behavior, and environment. The forecasted result remains unclear if one of the factors is more influential than the other. Another barrier of significance is that the theory may not yield the expected results if the trainee is unable to visualize or lacks the skills needed to place himself in the situation. It would be meritorious for trainees who are confident and are able to draw parallels from the whole learning experience. Trainees must be able to clearly understand the rationale behind the decision-making process.

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2. What are the training opportunities that warrant vicarious learning at the workplace?

As explained about the concept through the course of this blog, enterprises have an array of opportunities for implementation. From customer support or customer experience skills, sales negotiations, communicating with clients, troubleshooting instances, and more such are the ideal opportunities. These blogs here and here offer great tips and strategies. This article here is another great read.

3. How is the concept of social cognitive theory linked with social learning concept or collaborative learning?

This question can be effectively answered through a remarkable case study. This case study – Social Learning Platform – offers a deep dive into how an enterprise embraced social learning for its employees. Do direct your attention to the efforts made to bring employees on one unified platform, and how it led to a boost in employee engagement, course completion, and enhanced productivity among other benefits.

Does your organization use social learning to foster collaboration? Or would you like to understand how this would work specifically to the needs of your organization? Do draft an email to info@originlearning.com to view our award-winning solutions deployed at leading global organizations. Discover innovative eLearning and ace your organizational L&D goals with soaring ROI.



  1. 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?

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