Learning by Watching: Social Cognitive Theory and Vicarious Learning

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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 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 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.
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This is known as reciprocal causation. Reciprocal causation occurs when two or more events have simultaneously causal effects upon each other.

The Social Cognitive Theory proposed by Albert Bandura creates an interesting opportunity for observational learning. By using vicarious learning to teach abstract yet important behaviors or skills to employees – like handling customer queries, price negotiation, communication skills, interviewing skills for an HR trainee, or diagnostic skills for a new doctor. Research suggests that instead of letting learners acquire new skills with trial and error basis, learning works better when they observe seasoned professionals performing tasks.

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. Instead, if these learners are shown videos or allowed to observe actual good 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 or art class. 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. Why do you think DIY-videos rank high on YouTube? It is because they give viewers instructions in an easy-to-understand manner. Watching something, learning, and then replicating the learning or putting it into action is the best form of learning.

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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. Read this blog post to learn how social learning is influencing learning at the modern workplace. Does your organization use social learning to foster collaborative learning and employee performance improvement? Do share your thoughts.



  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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