Examples of Observational Learning

Updated May 11, 2021
observational learning toddler boy playing doctor
    observational learning toddler boy playing doctor
    Nikola Stojadinovic / E+ / Getty
    Used under Getty Images license

Observational learning takes place by watching others. Discovered by educational psychologist Albert Bandura in 1986, this type of learning is often included in a style of progressive education and can affect an individual, a group of people, a nation, or a culture. Keep reading for examples of observational learning for both children and adults.

Understanding Observational Learning

So what is observational learning and what is imitation? Imitation occurs when a person copies another person's behavior as they're doing it. Observational learning occurs as a result of witnessing another person, but is performed later and cannot be explained as having been taught in any other way.

The four stages of observational learning are:

  • attention - an observer pays attention to another person's behavior
  • retention - the observer stores the behavior in their memory
  • production (or initiation) - the observer must acquire the skills needed to reproduce the behavior
  • motivation - the observer finds a reason to reproduce the behavior

This type of learning also encompasses the concept of behavior avoidance. When an observer sees another person behave in a certain way and receive a negative consequence, they learn not to perform that behavior to avoid the same consequence.


Observational Learning Examples for Children

If you walk into a preschool play kitchen or outdoor tricycle track, you'll see the results of observational learning at work. Additional examples of observational learning for children include:

  • An infant learns to make and understand facial expressions
  • A child learns to chew
  • After witnessing an older sibling being punished for taking a cookie without asking, the younger child does not take cookies without permission
  • A child learns to walk
  • A child learns how to play a game while watching others
  • A child shows that she has learned the basic steps of cooking a meal by doing so at a play kitchen in her classroom
  • A child learns a science concept by demonstration from the teacher
  • After watching her mother, a young girl shows she has learned how to hold a baby by walking around with the baby in her arms the correct way
  • A child shows observational learning of how to drive a car by making appropriate motions after seeing a parent driving
  • A young boy swings a baseball bat without being explicitly taught how to do it after attending a baseball game
  • A young girl watches a basketball game, then shoots hoops without being explicitly taught how to do so
  • Without previous experience, a child puts on roller skates and skates without being taught
  • A student learns not to cheat by watching another student be punished for cheating
  • A girl sees another child fall on ice in front of her so she avoids stepping on the ice
  • A girl learns how to mow her own lawn by watching neighbors mowing their lawns

Observational Learning Examples for Adults

The majority of learning that occurs in observational learning happens with children watching adults. However, that doesn't mean that adults can't also learn new behaviors from other, more experienced adults. Some examples of observational learning in the adult world are:

  • A newer employee avoids being late to work after seeing a co-worker fired for being late
  • A new customer in a store learns the process for lining up and checking out by watching other customers
  • A customer in a clothing store learns the procedure for trying on clothes by watching others
  • A person in a coffee shop learns where to find cream and sugar by watching other coffee drinkers locate that area
  • A new car salesperson learns how to approach potential customers by watching others
  • A person moves to a new climate and learns how to properly remove snow from his car after watching others
  • A tenant sees a neighbor evicted for late rent payment and as a result consistently pays her rent on time
  • An inexperienced salesperson is successful at a sales meeting after observing the behaviors and statements of other salespeople
  • A viewer watches an online video to learn how to contour her foundation makeup, then buys makeup and later tries the look herself
  • Drivers slow down when they see that another driver has been pulled over by a police officer
  • A bank teller watches their more efficient colleague to learn a better way of counting money quickly
  • A shy party guest watches a more popular person talk to different people in the crowd, and later can do the same thing
  • Adult children begin to act the same way that their parents did when they were young
  • A lost tourist watches a local person navigate the subway system and later can do it on their own

Different Types of Learning

Observational learning is one of the most common types of learning in human society. However, it's certainly not the only way that children and adults learn new skills and behavior. Take a look at these examples of latent learning, where observers learn skills without exhibiting them right away. You can also check out the key types of learning styles to decide how you learn best.