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Study notes

​Vicarious Reinforcement

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Vicarious reinforcement involves learning through observation of the consequences of actions for other people.

When a learner observes someone they identify with and the role model receives reinforcement, the learner is motivated to imitate the behaviour as if they had been reinforced themselves.

Vicarious reinforcement is demonstrated in Bandura, Ross & Ross (1963).


To test the effect of vicarious conditioning on observational learning of aggression


Children aged 2.5 - 6 years watched a film of an adult punching and shouting at a Bobo doll. There were three experimental groups:

  • (Reinforcement) The model was rewarded with sweets
  • (Punishment) The model was punished with “Don’t do it again”
  • (Control) The film ended after the model was aggressive

The children were left in the room with the Bobo doll.


Both boys and girls produced more aggressive acts after watching the film where the model was rewarded. Boys generally performed more aggressive acts that girl; but the difference was most noticeable after the punishment condition.


Vicarious reinforcement of a model has an effect on the production of behaviour by observers. The difference between boys and girls shows that the effect is mediated by cognitive factors.

Counter-intuitive reinforcement in Social Learning Theory

Because reinforcement is always interpreted through mediating cognitive factors, this can lead to counter-intuitive effects.

For example, reinforcement might make a behaviour less likely to be reproduced if the learner does not value it. This is especially obvious in vicarious reinforcement, where a learner who sees a role model punished may remember the behaviour because their attention was drawn to it.

Even though they may not reproduce it in the same situation, they may imitate it in other situation to find out where it is appropriate.

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