AP Psychology

Module 29 - Learning by Observation

FOCUS QUESTION: What is observational learning, and how do some scientists believe it is enabled by mirror neurons?

Cognition is certainly a factor in observational learning (also called social learning) in which higher animals, especially humans, learn without direct experience, by watching and imitating others. A child who sees his sister burn her fingers on a hot stove learns not to touch it. We learn our native languages and various other specific behaviors by observing and imitating others, a process called modeling.

Picture this scene from an experiment by Albert Bandura, the pioneering researcher of observational learning (Bandura et al., 1961): A preschool child works on a drawing. An adult in another part of the room is building with Tinkertoys. As the child watches, the adult gets up and for nearly 10 minutes pounds, kicks, and throws around the room a large inflated Bobo doll, yelling, "Sock him in the nose .... Hit him down .... Kick him."

The child is then taken to another room filled with appealing toys. Soon the experimenter returns and tells the child she has decided to save these good toys "for the other children," She takes the now-frustrated child to a third room containing a few toys, including a Bobo doll. Left alone, what does the child do?

Compared with children not exposed to the adult model, those who viewed the model's actions were more likely to lash out at the doll. Observing the aggressive outburst apparently lowered their inhibitions. But something more was also at work, for the children imitated the very acts they had observed and used the very words they had heard (see FIGURE 30.1).

That "something more," Bandura suggests, was this: By watching a model, we experience vicarious reinforcement or vicarious punishment, and we learn to anticipate a behavior's consequences in situations like those we are observing. We are especially likely to learn from people we perceive as similar to ourselves, as successful, or as admirable. Functional MRI scans show that when people observe someone winning a reward (and especially when it's someone likable and similar to themselves) their own brain reward systems activate, much as if they themselves had won the reward (Mobbs et al., 2009). When we identify with someone, we experience their outcomes vicariously. Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) had the idea: "We are, in truth, more than half what we are by imitation."

Mirrors and Imitation in the Brain

On a 1991 hot summer day in Parma, Italy, a lab monkey awaited its researchers' return from lunch. The researchers had implanted wires next to its motor cortex, in a frontal lobe brain region that enabled the monkey to plan and enact movements. The monitoring device would alert the researchers to activity in that region of the monkey's brain. When the monkey moved a peanut into its mouth, for example, the device would buzz. That day, as one of the researchers reentered the lab, ice cream cone in hand, the monkey stared at him. As the researcher raised the cone to lick it, the monkey's monitor buzzed - as if the motionless monkey had itself moved (Blakeslee, 2006; Iacoboni, 2008, 2009) .

The same buzzing had been heard earlier, when the monkey watched humans or other monkeys move peanuts to their mouths. The flabbergasted researchers had, they believed, stumbled onto a previously unknown type of neuron (Rizzolatti et al., 2002, 2006). These presumed mirror neurons may provide a neural basis for everyday imitation and observational learning. When a monkey grasps, holds, or tears something, these neurons fire. And they likewise fire when the monkey observes another doing so. When one monkey sees, its neurons mirror what another monkey does.

Imitation is widespread in other species. In one experiment, a monkey watching another selecting certain pictures to gain treats learned to imitate the order of choices (see FIGURE 30.2). In other research, rhesus macaque monkeys rarely made up quickly after a fight - unless they grew up with forgiving older macaques. Then, more often than not, their fights, too, were quickly followed by reconciliation (de Waal & Johanowicz, 1993). Rats, pigeons, crows, and gorillas all observe others and learn (Byrne et al., 2011; Dugatkin, 2002). As Module 85 describes, chimpanzees observe and imitate all sorts of novel foraging and tool use behaviors, which are then transmitted from generation to generation within their local culture (Hopper et al., 2008; Whiten et al., 2007).

In humans, imitation is pervasive. Our catchphrases, fashions, ceremonies, foods, traditions, morals, and fads all spread by one person copying another. Imitation shapes even very young humans' behavior (Bates & Byrne, 2010). Shortly after birth, a baby may imitate an adult who sticks out his tongue. By 8 to 16 months, infants imitate various novel gestures Gones, 2007) . By age 12 months (see FIGURE 30.3), they look where an adult is looking (Meltzoff et al., 2009). And by age 14 months, children imitate acts modeled on TV (Meltzoff, 1988; Meltzoff & Moore, 1989, 1997). Even as 2 1/2-year-olds, when many of their mental abilities are near those of adult chimpanzees, young humans surpass chimps at social tasks such as imitating another's solution to a problem (Herrmann et al., 2007). Children see, children do.

So strong is the human predisposition to learn from watching adults that 2- to 5-year-old children overimitate. Whether living in urban Australia or rural Africa, they copy even irrelevant adult actions. Before reaching for a toy in a plastic jar, they will first stroke the jar with a feather if that's what they have observed (Lyons et al., 2007). Or, imitating an adult, they will wave a stick over a box and then use the stick to push on a knob that opens the box - when all they needed to do to open the box was to push on the knob (Nielsen &Tomaselli, 2010).

Humans, like monkeys, have brains that support empathy and imitation. Researchers cannot insert experimental electrodes in human brains, but they can use £MRI scans to see brain activity associated with performing and with observing actions. So, is the human capacity to simulate another's action and to share in another's experience due to specialized mirror neurons? Or is it due to distributed brain networks? That issue is currently being debated (Gallese et aJ. 2011; Iacoboni, 2008, 2009; Mukamel et al., 2010). Regardless, children's brains enable their empathy and their ability to infer another's mental state, an ability known as theory of mind.

The brain's response to observing others makes emotions contagious. Through its neurological echo, our brain simulates and vicariously experiences what we observe. So real are these mental instant replays that we may misremember an action we have observed as an action we have performed (Lindner et al., 2010). But through these reenactments, we grasp others'states of mind. Observing others' postures, faces, voices, and writing styles, we unconsciously synchronize our own to theirs - which helps us feel what they are feeling (Bernieri et al., 1994; Ireland & Pennebaker, 2010) . We find ourselves yawning when they yawn, laughing when they laugh.

When observing movie characters smoking, smokers' brains spontaneously simulate smoking, which helps explain their cravings (Wagner et al., 2011). Seeing a loved one's pain, our faces mirror the other's emotion. But as FIGURE 30.4 shows, so do our brains. In this fMRI scan, the pain imagined by an empathic romantic partner has triggered some of the same brain activity experienced by the loved one actually having the pain (Singer et al., 2004). Even reading fiction may trigger such activity, as we mentally simulate (and vicariously experience) the experiences described (Mar & Oatley, 2008; Speer et al., 2009). The bottom line: Brain activity underlies our intensely social nature.

Applications of Observational Learning

FOCUS QUESTION: What is the impact of prosocial modeling and of antisocial modeling?

So the big news from Bandura's studies and the mirror-neuron research is that we look, we mentally imitate, and we learn. Models - in our family or neighborhood, or on TV - may have effects, good or bad.

Prosocial Effects

The good news is that prosocial (positive, helpful) models can have prosocial effects. Many business organizations effectively use behavior modeling to help new employees learn communications, sales, and customer service skills (Taylor et al., 2005).Trainees gain these skills faster when they are able to observe the skills being modeled effectively by experienced workers (or actors simulating them).

People who exemplify nonviolent, helpful behavior can also prompt similar behavior in others. India's Mahatma Gandhi and America's Martin Luther King, Jr., both drew on the power of modeling, making nonviolent action a powerful force for social change in both countries. Parents are also powerful models. European Christians who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis usually had a close relationship with at least one parent who modeled a strong moral or humanitarian concern; this was also true for

U.S. civil rights activists in the 1960s (London, 1970; Oliner & Oliner, 1988). The observational learning of morality begins early. Socially responsive toddlers who readily imitate their parents tend to become preschoolers with a strong internalized conscience (Forman et al., 2004).

Models are most effective when their actions and words are consistent. Sometimes, however, models say one thing and do another. To encourage children to read, read to them and surround them with books and people who read. To increase the odds that your children will practice your religion, worship and attend religious activities with them. Many parents seem to operate according to the principle "Do as I say, not as I do." Experiments suggest that children learn to do both (Rice & Grusec, 1975; Rushton, 1975). Exposed to a hypocrite, they tend to imitate the hypocrisy - by doing what the model did and saying what the model said.

Antisocial Effects

The bad news is that observational learning may have antisocial effects. This helps us understand why abusive parents might have aggressive children, and why many men who beat their wives had wife-battering fathers (Stith et al., 2000). Critics note that being aggressive could be passed along by parents' genes. But with monkeys we know it can be environmental. In study after study, young monkeys separated from their mothers and subjected to high levels of aggression grew up to be aggressive themselves (Chamove, 1980). The lessons we learn as children are not easily replaced as adults, and they are sometimes visited on future generations.

TV shows and Internet videos are a powerful source of observational learning. While watching TV and videos, children may "learn" that bullying is an effective way to control others, that free and easy sex brings pleasure without later misery or disease, or that men should be tough and women gentle. And they have ample time to learn such lessons. During their first 18 years, most children in developed countries spend more time watching TV shows than they spend in school. The average teen watches TV shows more than 4 hours a day; the average adult, 3 hours (Robinson & Martin, 2009; Strasburger et al., 2010).

TV-show viewers are learning about life from a rather peculiar storyteller, one that reflects the culture's mythology but not its reality. Between 1998 and 2006, prime-time violence reportedly increased 75 percent (PTC, 2007). If we include cable programming and video rentals, the violence numbers escalate. An analysis of more than 3000 network and cable programs aired during one closely studied year revealed that nearly 6 in 10 featured violence, that 74 percent of the violence went unpunished, that 58 percent did not show the victims' pain, that nearly half the incidents involved "justified" violence, and that nearly half involved an attractive perpetrator. These conditions define the recipe for the violence-viewing effect described in many studies (Donnerstein, 1998, 2011) . To read more about this effect, see Thinking Critically About: Does Viewing Media Violence Trigger Violent Behavior?

Thinking Critically About

Does Viewing Media Violence Trigger Violent Behavior?

Was the judge who, in 1993, tried two British 10-year-olds for the murder of a 2-year-old right to suspect that the pair had been influenced by "violent video films"? Were the American media right to wonder if Adam Lanza, the 2012 mass killer of young children and their teachers at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, was influenced by his playing of the violent video games found stockpiled in his home? To understand whether violence viewing leads to violent behavior, researchers have done some 600 correlational and experimental studies (Anderson & Gentile, 2008; Comstock, 2008; Murray, 2008). Correlational studies do support this link:

But as we know from Unit II, correlation need not mean causation. So these studies do not prove that viewing violence causes aggression (Freedman, 1988; McGuire, 1986). Maybe aggressive children prefer violent programs. Maybe abused or neglected children are both more aggressive and more often left in front of the 1V or computer. Maybe violent programs simply reflect, rather than affect, violent trends.

To pin down causation, psychologists experimented. They randomly assigned some viewers to observe violence and others to watch entertaining nonviolence. Does viewing cruelty prepare people, when irritated, to react more cruelly? To some extent, it does. This is especially so when an attractive person commits seemingly justified, realistic violence that goes unpunished and causes no visible pain or harm (Donnerstein, 1998, 201 1).

The violence-viewing effect seems to stem from at least two factors. One is imitation (Geen & Thomas, 1986). Children as young as 14 months will imitate acts they observe on 1V (Meltzoff & Moore, 1989, 1997). As they watch, their brains simulate the behavior, and after this inner rehearsal they become more likely to act it out. Thus, in one experiment, violent play increased sevenfold immediately after children viewed Power Rangers episodes (Boyatzis et al., 1995). As happened in the Bobo doll experiment, children often precisely imitated the models' violent acts - in this case, flying karate kicks.

Prolonged exposure to violence also desensitizes viewers. They become more indifferent to it when later viewing a brawl, whether on 1V or in real life (Fanti et al., 2009; Rule & Ferguson, 1986). Adult males who spent three evenings watching sexually violent movies became progressively less bothered by the rapes and slashings. Compared with those in a control group, the film watchers later expressed less sympathy for domestic violence victims, and they rated the victims' injuries as less severe (Mullin & Linz, 1995). Likewise, moviegoers were less likely to help an injured woman pick up her crutches if they had just watched a violent rather than a nonviolent movie (Bushman & Anderson, 2009).

Drawing on such findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics (2009) has advised pediatricians that "media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed." Indeed, an evil psychologist could hardly imagine a better way to make people indifferent to brutality than to expose them to a graded series of scenes, from fights to killings to the mutilations in slasher movies (Donnerstein et al., 1987). Watching cruelty fosters indifference.

Our knowledge of learning principles comes from the work of hundreds of investigators. This unit has focused on the ideas of a few pioneers - Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, B. F. Skinner, and Albert Bandura. They illustrate the impact that can result from single-minded devotion to a few well-defined problems and ideas. These researchers defined the issues and impressed on us the importance of learning. As their legacy demonstrates, intellectual history is often made by people who risk going to extremes in pushing ideas to their limits (Simonton, 2000).

Before You Move On

ASK YOURSELF: Who has been a significant role model for you? For whom are you a model?

TEST YOURSELF: Jason's parents and older friends all smoke, but they advise him not to. Juan's parents and friends don't smoke, but they say nothing to deter him from doing so. Will Jason or Juan be more likely to start smoking?