When I began my career, behaviorism dominated the field of psychology. In this theoretical orientation, human behavior was shaped primarily by paired associations or rewarding and punishing consequences. Two major issues concerned me regarding this line of theorizing. The first was the exclusive focus on learning by direct experience. The second was the mismatch between time-honored psychological theories and the incredible transformative changes in the nature of the environment in the electronic era.
Learning by More than Just Direct Experience
For learning by direct experience, I found it difficult to imagine a culture whose language, values, complex competences, and the elaborate practices of its social, political, and cultural systems all were shaped in each new member by trial-and-error learning. Fortunately, in real life, social modeling (learning by example) of thinking and behaving can shortcut the laborious trial-and-error process. I launched a large-scale program of research to advance our understanding of this pervasive mode of learning and to apply this knowledge for individual and social change.
We showed that social modeling operates through four core processes. Attentional processes determine what people observe in the profusion of other people's behavior styles and the information they extract from what they observe. The second aspect of social modeling involves representational processes, whereby modeled events are converted into symbolic representations available for future recall. People cannot be much influenced by modeled events if they do not remember them. In the third aspect, translational production processes, symbolic representations are transformed into corresponding courses of action. Motivational processes determine whether people will act on what they have learned. People do not perform everything they learn through observation.
We found that virtually everything learned by direct experience could be learned much faster through social modeling. Further research clarified the four major ways social modeling exerts its influence. First, it instructs people in new ways of thinking and behaving. Second, it also affects motivation and self-regulation by conveying the functional value of modeled behavior. Seeing others gain desired outcomes by their actions creates outcome expectancies that serve as positive incentives. Conversely, seeing others punished for certain actions creates negative outcome expectancies that serve as disincentives. Third, people are easily aroused by the emotional experiences of others. This capacity for vicarious emotional arousal plays a key role in emotional learning. People acquire lasting attitudes and emotional reactions toward persons, places, and things through modeled emotional displays.