This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 05 table of contents.

Observational Learning

In an influential 1968 book, Behavior Modification: Theory and Practice, Albert Bandura rallied evidence to support the importance of learning through observation. As the name suggests, observational learning is learning stimulated by observing the behavior of another organism. Modeling is one form of observational learning. It occurs when one person performs a behavior, while others look on and learn from it.

Specialized nerve cells called mirror neurons may account for this ability. Mirror neurons are found in many different primate species. They fire the same patterns whether a creature is performing an action itself or watching another member of the same species performing the action. This provides a way for actions seen externally to be taken into the nervous system, through a sort of automatic motor empathy.

What is observational learning? How might it be aided by mirror neurons?

Non-primate species show observational learning in special situations. For example, lion cubs learn to hunt by watching from a concealed location as the adult lions hunt. Parrots are also good at imitating. Modeling is used in the rival mate technique for training parrots. If a trainer wants an adult male parrot to perform tricks, the bird is allowed to watch a rival male show off in front of a female. The untrained parrot will then imitate many of the tricks with no special training.

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