What is Observational Learning? + Using it at Work

From our first days on Earth, we begin learning about the world around us through observation. This constant subconscious analysis of the environment is an integral part of life, and one of the most important processes in human beings.

But what really is observational learning on a deeper level? What is its meaning? Its processes? And its Importance?

Furthermore, how can you utilize observational learning in the workplace to improve both your productivity, and the productivity of those around you?

The 411 on Observational Learning – What is it?

Observational learning is a psychological process in which any being (capable of doing so) learns new skills by watching others, memorizing the observed behavior, and then mimicking that same behavior to achieve a desired action.

However, observational learning isn’t necessarily a deliberate process. In fact, the most obvious examples of observational learning are performed unknowingly.

To provide a quick mental illustration:

If a child grows up seeing his or her parents waving at someone on first or final contact, they will learn to mimic the behavior and begin waving at appropriate times as well.

The child is not knowingly learning through observation. Nonetheless, the action will remain learned and affect future behavior.

How Observational Learning Affects Behavior

“Monkey see, monkey do.”

Would you say this is a prime example of observational learning?

Of course! And in the least complex explanation possible, this is what observational learning boils down to.

As stated prior, the majority of these processes occur without us even realizing it (the waving child example being a perfect illustration of this).

And with researchers showing that newborns begin imitating facial expressions of people they see at no more than 3 weeks old, we can safely say that observational learning appears to be the earliest type of learning humans engage in.

Parents and friends are the main source of socialization for a child in which this kind of learning plays a massive role.

But while observational learning is integral to develop necessary skills, it can also lead to many negative side effects.

Negative Sides: Aggression and Sexual Behavior

If children are able to quickly learn to wave through observational learning without realizing the processes they’re undertaking, they’re just as easily able to learn behaviors that can negatively impact their lives.

Children of smokers are more likely to become smokers. Children of alcoholics are more likely to become alcoholics. And children facing domestic abuse are more likely to become abusers themselves.

“Monkey see, monkey do” – it’s a vicious and unfortunate cycle. And while there are many children of abusers who do not become abusers themselves, this population is still more likely to do so through the natural processes of observational learning.


Let’s paint another mental illustration:

Jason is a problematic child. He is aggressive towards his little brother, his peers at school and his parents.

Jason’s uncle was recently imprisoned for a crime related to aggressive behavior.

After one more day of Jason’s aggression at school, his father decides “enough is enough,” and physically punishes him when he comes back home.

Later on that night, Jason’s father sees his younger son playing very rough with a toy.

Jason’s father concludes that combatting aggression with more aggression is not the right approach, as it is further reinforcing this type of negative behavior.

This is a straightforward example of observationally learned aggressive behavior.

Sexual Behavior

Aggression isn’t the only form of negative behavior learned through observation.

Rebecca Collins conducted a research study on the link between exposure to sexual behavior in media, and subsequent sexual activity in teens.

The results of the studied showed that teens who were exposed to larger quantities of sexual behavior through media were 2x more likely to participate in risky sexual activities than their peers.

And the processes leading to these results are quite interesting.

The 4 Processes of Observational Learning

Famous Canadian-American psychologist, Albert Bandura, was one of the first psychologists to notice that observational learning isn’t just a blind mimicking of a model’s behavior.

He and his colleagues proposed another branch of behaviorism – social learning theory – which emphasized the importance of cognitive processes in learning.

According to Bandura, observational learning consists of four processes:

  1. Attention
  2. Retention
  3. Reproduction
  4. Motivation

1) Attention

To learn anything, you’re probably going to want to start off by paying attention to whatever it is you want to learn. But there are many factors that affect a learner’s attention.

A learner might be ill, sleepy, stressed, worried, or any other related state. Regardless of the initial catalyst for distraction, it isn’t likely that an observed behavior will be learned and expressed in the future if attention is not being fulfilled.

But the influences don’t stop there. A learner’s attention will also be affected by various characteristics of “the model” as well.

For example, it is statistically more likely that an observer will pay more attention to a model that is attractive, popular, intelligent, or shares similar traits with the learner themselves.

Another example:

Frank sees how athletic, handsome, and popular pro basketball players are. He sees the amount of attention they get and desires this for himself.

He notices that they’re all extremely athletic and well built. He assumes they probably exercise all the time and never touch a pack of cigarettes.

So Frank decides to imitate what he sees or believes, because he wants to be a professional basketball player treated the same way.

He starts exercising daily and decides never to smoke.

This is an example of attention fixation on someone positive.

2) Retention

Retention refers to the fact that an observed behavior has to be memorized in order to be learned.

If what an observer pays attention to is not retained, then the observational learning process is stopped, and the learner will not be able to imitate the actions in the future.

3) Reproduction

After a learner pays attention to and then retains the actions of a model, these actions then need be to be mimicked.

But proper attention and retention are not necessarily the only prerequisites for an observer to reproduce the observed behavior. Other areas (such as physical capability) may need to be satisfied as well.

Katie is a 5-year old child that loves watching gymnasts perform on TV.

Katie will pay attention to the gymnasts, and even retain the movements. However, she will be unable to properly reproduce the learned behaviors due to her physical limitations at that age.

4) Motivation

Motivation is (arguably) the most important process in the sequence of observational learning.

Learners can optimize for attention, they can work to retain what they see, and they can modify limitations they may have in order to reproduce actions.

But if they lack the motivation to actually initiate this learning process, then none of the other steps can occur.

Motivation doesn’t need to be conscious either.

Bandura suggests the main motif for imitation lies in reinforcement.

An example of positive reinforcement:

Jill’s friend Carina is very good at gymnastics. She practices daily and goes to many competitions. Carina has fantastic grades and wins tons of rewards.

Jill likes how her teachers love Carina, how easily she wins prizes, and how athletic she is thanks to her training.

So Jill decides to join the gymnastics team so she can achieve similar results to Carina.

Most of Jill’s motivation occurs subconsciously within this process of positive reinforcement. However, motivation can also occur through negative reinforcement:

Mark’s friend from work, Simon, was late for the third time this week.

Today, Simon had a meeting with his boss about his consistent tardiness, and 5% of Simon’s salary was subsequently deducted from this month’s pay.

Mark makes a mental note to never be late for work, and even decides to head off to work 10 minutes earlier from now on.

How Can Observational Learning Be Used to Increase Workplace Efficiency?

Mark’s response to his friend being punished for tardiness is just one example of observational learning in the workplace.

But there are many more practical examples of its use in a professional setting. And not all of them require negative reinforcement either.

Job Applicants

Job applicants often have no idea what the average day in the life of “X company’s” employee looks like.

It may be a good idea to allow select applicants to shadow senior employees for a day so that both the company and applicant can feel out whether there’s a good fit.

This would save the company a lot of time and money in the long-run.

On-the-Job Training

Similar to applicants, making it the norm to have new employees shadow senior employees for a week will give them a quick step up on understanding a company’s flow.

This also allows for additional questions and clarification on various concerns from someone experienced in the company.

Potential Promotions

Having high-performing employees work closely with managers may give employers a better picture of how these employees would perform in a managerial position.

The development of closer working relationships creates the ability to make more informed decisions on promotions that take out a lot of the guesswork.

Management Meetings

Allowing lower or middle-tier management to attend board meetings will give them the opportunity to learn more about the intricacies behind their company over time.

In turn, understanding what the decision making process looks like will provide them insight into becoming more effective themselves.

Top Managers in Day-to-Day Positions

The understandings between managers and employees should be mutual to create a cohesive company culture.

Having upper-management work in low-level employee positions for a few days each year will give them first-hand experience of the difficulties employees at this level face.

Disciplining Employees

Just like tardy Simon, it can be a good idea to discipline (within reason) any employees who show consistent, unhealthy workplace behavior.

Whether it’s pulling them to the side to chat or having a one-on-one in the office, addressing individual negative behaviors will have a domino effect of sorting out problematic behaviors of other employees as well.