This theory suggests that people learn phobias by watching others. We use observational learning to learn things. We copy and imitate people because we think that it would get us rewards. Don't get confused with social learning theory for aggression.
Here is what happens during observational learning:
- Attention: paying attention to the person being observed
- Memory: being able to remember what we have seen until it is needed
- Reproduction: being able to act out what we have seen. (modelling)
- Motivation: the incentive to copy what we have seen
Role models: The person we observe and learn from
Identification: We identify with the role model. we adopt similar behaviours and attitudes of the role model. We become like them
Vicarious reinforcement: Learning through the positive consequences of other people’s actions rather than first hand
For example, Ben is a toddler in a nursery. He bites other children and gets their toys. James sees getting extra toys so he starts biting people too. This action is vicarious reinforcement. Ben is James' role model because James can identify with Ben. Social learning also applies to emotions as well as behaviours, so
Mineka et al (1984)
Another example would be an experiment with monkeys by Minkea et al (1984). They found out that their laboratory monkeys that had grown up in the wild were afraid of snakes. However, the monkeys born in captivity were not afraid of anything. Mineka et al thought that the wild born monkeys had learned their fear by observing adults in the wild. To test this idea they watched the monkeys’ reactions to: snakes (real, toys and models) and other things (black and yellow cord, biftas, etc).
The wild-born monkeys were only afraid of the snakes. The lab born monkeys were not afraid of anything. The lab born monkeys then watched a wild born monkey reacting to each object. They learned to fear snakes but not the other objects. This experiment shows that monkeys learn fears through social learning. As monkeys and people are very similar, it is likely that we can learn fears too. This shows us that we can also learn other responses, like aggression, by observation.
People can also imitate the emotions of a role model. This suggests that fears can be learnt by observing others. Curio (1988) showed that social learning explained how blackbirds could learn to give predator alarms to a non-predator. Curio put two blackbirds (one ‘teacher and one ‘learner) in cages so they could not see each other but could each see a stuffed bird. The ‘teacher’ bird could see a stuffed owl -owls are dangerous to blackbirds. The ‘learner’ bird could see a harmless stuffed honeyeater. The ‘teacher’ bird produced an alarm call. The ‘learner’ bird could hear the teacher’s call but could only see the honeyeater. Later it imitated the behaviour and produced an alarm call when it saw a honeyeater. This shows that social learning can produce fears in animals even when the object of the fear is not dangerous.
Coombes et al (1980)
In an experiment Coombes et al let two rats drink from a spout. One rat had been given an injection to make it sick. Later, both rats avoided the drinking spout. The rat which hadn't been sick learned not to drink from the spout because it had seen the other rat being sick. Learning to avoid something unpleasant is similar to learning a fear.