I was a child with two big brothers. They were like furniture, from my point of view; they had always been there. They were a constant in my life. They helped me learn things, sometimes willingly, sometimes under duress (Mom!). Mostly, I learned by watching them. I saw what they did and made mental notes of what and what not to do.
Watching others is not only fun but a major way we decide what to do next. We learn broad concepts and attitudes from modeling. Role models teach us how to perform a role: parent, celebrity, teacher, friend. We compare our wealth with our neighbors (keeping up with the Jones). And we decide what we should wear in junior high from our peer group.
Modeling can also be specific. I learned how to tie a tie, put on a cummerbund, shine shoes, brush my hair, negotiate a loan, make a sale, write a book and teach a class from watching others. I learned to wear my watch upside down from the album art of a pop singer. I learned to walk across stage while singing from another star (I was rather singer-centric as a child); I also had to unlearn that behavior. I learned what it looked like to be comfortable in front of a group by watching live television shows.
I had to learn many things on my own but modeling gave me a head start. It gave me a template. I didn’t have to invent the wheel, I could borrow a pattern from someone else.
This ability to learn from watching others has evolutionary value. If you notice a pattern, you can change your plan. If the people who rush out of the cave and turn left get eaten by a sabre tooth tiger, you can learn from their experience. We don’t have to make the same mistakes as others.
There are three major types of observational learning. They differ from each other in the amount of intentionality needed to use them. The most automatic is mirroring, followed by imitation and modeling.
Mirroring is matching your behavior to another’s. This behavior begins in the first days after birth. Babies learn to look where you look; and you look where they look. When they have enough motor control to sit up and turns their heads, infants will tilt their heads to the side if you do so.
Watch close friends and relatives. Their posture, gestures and amount of eye contact match. Lined up to take wedding pictures, people tend to match how they hold their hands. We are not trying to be like others. We match without much mental processing.
We mirror automatically. When we are arguing with someone who waves their hands, we wave our hands. It they are pointers, we point. If they yell, we yell. If your boss holds a report in one hand, you tend to hold your copy in one hand. If people in a committee meeting are smiling or frowning, we follow suit.
Some people are naturally good at it. I know politicians and sales professionals who unthinkingly mirror those they meet, matching eye contact and posture. They even shift their level of vocabulary.
We can also intentionally mirror. It is common to advise job seekers to mirror the language and eye contact of the interviewer. We like being mirrored, if it is natural. You’d quickly notice if every time you lean to the left, people lean the same direction. But when it is subtle, we feel comfortable with people who act like we do.
There is a bit more intentional trying to match others in imitation. At 6 months of age, infants match sounds and vocalizations with those around them. The babbling of the 9-month old imitates the accent of the parents. At about 18 months old, toddlers will talk on their toy phones like their parents. Two years later, these kids pretend to get ready for work, just like their parents. They have become quite skilled imitators.
Three-year-olds improve their language skills by imitation. They repeat the last few words they’ve heard. When Gramma says “Pop-Pop went bye-bye,” the child strips the verbs and imitates by saying “Pop-Pop bye-bye.” When I was this age, I stood beside my father and shook hands with the congregation as they exited the church. I was adorable.
Imitation is copying. It is intentionally replicating a behavior. We imitate the traditions and customs of our family. We celebrate holidays the same way. We imitate the food, lighting and decorations of our families. I love pot roast cooked in an iron Dutch oven because that’s how Mom made it. My Dad loved Hostess Snowballs because it reminded him of his youth. My Mom loved chicken necks because that was all she got in her Cinderella childhood.
It takes a while for our brains to develop the skill of imitation. The parietal and frontal lobes have to mature. Developmental disorders or strokes to these regions cause apraxia, the inability to successfully plan motor movements. Some patients can answer a phone if it rings but cannot pretend to answer a phone. They also might pucker their lips in response to sucking a real lemon but they can’t pretend to do so. They lose the ability to imitate.
We get better at imitating as our brains grow. Our imitations are more accurate. We also can extend the time between observation and behavior, what Piaget called “deferred imitation.”. Once we can create mental models, we can defer action until we need or want to use it.
Children imitate rewarding and punishing. If the family provides a model of generosity and kindness, children display those qualities. If the family yells and hits, those traits are more commonly displayed. A twist on the Golden Rule (treat others the way you want to be treated) is don’t be scornful to your children and they won’t be scornful to others.
Similarly, children imitate gender appropriate behaviors. They notice if Mom carries a briefcase and Dad does the dishes. They imitate gender roles in their play. My daughters loved to carry Barbies in their Tonka trucks.
Humans are not the only imitators. Birds imitate human voices. Bottlenose dolphins learn hunting from other dolphins by imitation. Japanese macaque monkeys who watch humans learn to wash potatoes before eating them.
Modeling is the most intentional version of observational learning. The name comes for the cognitive structures we build. Just as engineers and architects build scale models of bridges and skyscrapers before making the real thing, we build mental models before we commit ourselves to a course of action.
We start with a model and then modify it; that’s the normal progression. This progression occurs in four stages: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. The first stage of modeling is attention. We track the environment, paying attention to what is happening and looking for patterns. Without attention, nothing else occurs.
Retention is the second stage of modeling. We convert our observation into a cognitive rule. This is the building of the constructs. We watch what others do and create a rule. Some are simple rules (don’t speak up, you’ll be ridiculed) and others are more complex (the cafeteria’s tuna salad is good on Tuesdays but stick with yogurt the rest of the week).
Reproduction is the third stage of modeling. We apply the rule. This is the tough part: actually doing it. The rule of basketball is easy: throw the ball through the hoop. Golf is hitting the ball into a hole. Politeness is letting another person or car go first. But playing sports for a championship or being polite during Christmas rush can be quite difficult.
The fourth stage of modeling is motivation. This is where Maslow and Skinner differ. Skinner says you have not learned until you do. Maslow says you need a reason to demonstrate your learning. You’ve already learned the rule but you won’t jump through the hoop unless you get a doggy biscuit, metaphorically speaking.
Modeling allows you to have vicarious experiences. Football and soccer games have raving fans who get excited when “their team” wins. Without owning the team, playing on the team or knowing the members of the team, you can vicariously feel successful and proud.
Team spirit is actually a form of empathy. We use the same brain processes when we cry at sad movies, grieve with loved ones or salute members of the military. We have specialized neural circuits that help us track what others are doing. These “mirror neurons” (which makes them sound shiny) are circuits that process observations, empathy and social interactions. In autism, the brain development in these mirror neuron circuits are damaged or not fully developed. People with autism have varying levels of social interaction and empathy, depending on how damaged their brains are.
Our brains build models for things we should do and things we should avoid. Good parents teach us to appreciate our children and allow them to find their way. Rotten parents teach us what not to do. Models don’t have to be positive.
Why is it that we vow to not verbally berate our kids but end up doing it? Although there are many factors, the simplest is that we revert to the original model when we are under stress. We learned the bully-your-kids rule and modified it to be much more gentle. That’s a two-step process: remember the rule and remember to modify it. When we are under pressure we remember the rule but forget to modify it.
There are two theories of modeling: association and transformation. Associative theories of modeling are based on the principle of contiguity. According to this view, we notice when two or more external factors occur together or in close proximity. This pattern directly activates us. The advantage to the view is that it requires little or no mental processing. Like classical conditioning, external cues elicit our responses. Unfortunately, there is no good evidence that this process works on complex stimuli. Except for the reflexive properties of classical conditioning, a more cognitive approach seems necessary to explain modeling.
The transformational theories of modeling propose we use cognitive processing to create mental structures. These theories help account for Piaget’s deferred imitation. We can create a structure but not show it until there is a motivational reason to do so. The best known transformational theory is Bandura’s social cognitive theory.