Learning through Reinforcement or Punishment – Vicarious Reinforcement

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

You’ve got to have models in your head and you’ve got to array your experience – both vicarious and direct – onto this latticework of mental models. – Charlie Munger

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The process of vicarious reinforcement refers to increasing the probability or frequency that a behavior will be repeated based upon the individual observing another person being reinforced for that behavior (Ormrod, 2004).

Example of Vicarious Reinforcement

Scenario: Mary sees her friend Judy gets special privileges when she talks very sweetly to the teacher. As a result,Mary begins to sweet-talk the teacher as well.

This scenario represents an incidence of vicarious reinforcement. In this example, Mary represents the observer who witnesses the reinforcement received by another and responds by incorporating the behavior in her own repertoire. Judy represents the model whose behavior is being reinforced and subsequently observed and imitated.

As a social learning construct, this process builds on behavioral theories, emphasizing that cognitive processes influence and are influenced by behavioral associations. Researchers have distinguished four separate types of vicariouslearning,including:

  • The Modeling Effect: occurs when a person almost directly duplicates a behavior he has seen someoneelse perform and which the observer has not previously suppressed. The observer displays new behaviors that prior to the modeling had a zero probability of occurring.
  • The Eliciting Effect: occurs when the observer performs a behavior to the model's, but still somewhat different.
  • The Disinhibitory Effect: occurs when a person who has previously refrained from a behavior goes ahead and performs that behavior after seeing a model perform thebehavior without receiving any negative consequences.
  • The Inhibitory Effect: occurs when a person refrains from a behavior after seeing a model punished for engaging in that behavior (Vockell, 2003).

Table 2 depicts the four types of vicarious learning and indicates examples of the development of both positiveand negative behaviors.

Descriptions and Examples of Specific Types of Vicarious (Observational) Learning (Vockell, 2003)

The scenario presented may depict either the Modeling Effect or the Disinhibitory Effect, depending upon whether or not Mary has intentionally suppressed the modeled behavior in the past.

Additionally, researchers have identified three major factors that influence the likelihood that vicarious learningwill occur: the similarity of the model to the observer, the prestige of the model, and the observability of the behavior to be imitated (Vockell, 2003). Specifically, they have found that:

  • An observer is more likely to imitate a model who is perceived as similar to the observer. Similarity is especially important when observers have little information about the functional value of the modeled behavior (Bandura, 1986). The degree of similarity, of course, is determined within the mind of the observer. A young boy who thinks he is similar to Michael Jordan is likely to imitate what he sees Michael Jordan doing on television, even if most impartial judges would agree that there is actually not evena remote similarity.
  • An observer is more likely to imitate a model who is perceived as prestigious. Again, the degree of prestige is determined within the mind of the observer. A person who isperceived to be very low in prestige by a parent or teacher may be viewed as highly prestigious by a young child.
  • Behaviors that are more easily observed are more easily imitated. Observability can be increased by such strategies as having the model perform the behavior very deliberately,using slow-motion or videotaped replays, verbalizing or otherwise focusing attention on behaviors that are difficult to observe, and pairing written instructions with visuallymodeled behaviors (Vockell, 2003).

These factors and associated examples in advertising and educational realms are summarized in Table 3.

Important Factors in Vicarious (Observational) Learning (Vockell, 2003)

The scenario presented clearly depicts an example involving the similarity and observability factors. Depending uponMary’s subjective opinion of her friend, the prestige factor may also be an influence the modeling process.

In sum, an individual can develop an emotional response to a specific stimulus through direct experience; a person can also learn to respond to a particular stimulus after observing the experience of others. For example, a person can become afraid of dogs after being bitten, or after seeing another person being bitten. The development of a Conditioned Stimulus's ability to elicit a Conditioned Response following such an observation is called vicarious conditioning.


Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 589-595.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning, 4e. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Vockell, E. (2003). Educational psychology: A practical approach. Purdue University web site: http://education.calumet.purdue.edu/vockell/edpsybook/

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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