How do I watch people

Learning through observation: advantages, theory, tips

We don't just learn from our own mistakes. We learn through observation. So through the mistakes of others. In psychology, this ability to imitate is also called “social learning” or “learning from role models”. Strictly speaking, observation learning is not aimed at imitating, but the exact opposite: we now know how it is NOT possible. How learning by observation works - and how we can benefit from it ...

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

Learning through observation: a recipe for success

Herd instinct, followers, lemming behavior - hardly anything denounces our society with such zeal. In fact, our drive to imitate other people is an important survival mechanism. “Learning through observation is a cornerstone of our ability to change our behavior,” says Itzhak Fried, professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry at the University of California in Los Angeles. It is part of human nature to "rather learn from the mistakes of others than commit your own."

Observational learning example

A team led by Fried and neuroscientist Michael Hill from the University of Zurich has found that certain neurons are activated in our brain while we are observing other people. For their study, the researchers placed electrodes in the brains of epileptics. The electrodes were designed to measure neuron activity in the subjects' brains while they were playing a simple card game. But the cards were marked. One deck consisted of 70 percent “good” cards, the other only 30 percent. Based on their observations, the players quickly realized which stack was the most promising - and adjusted their game strategy. While they were doing this, three areas of the brain in particular were active: the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex and the cingulate cortex.

In particular, the cingulate cortex at the front of the brain was constantly firing electrical impulses. This brain region is involved, among other things, when we show emotions or make decisions. Very specific nerve cells in our brain process the information that we collect while observing other people.

Imitation learning: what does schadenfreude have to do with it?

The same regions of the brain that become active when learning through observation also jump in with Schadenfreude. Whenever the test person won the card game and the rivals lost, the neurons fired from all pipes. But if the player lost and the opponents won, they almost stopped their activity. It's fascinating, says Hill, that learning and glee are so close together.

Behavioral Science: Why Do We Imitate?

The theory of social learning goes back mainly to the Canadian psychologist and behavioral scientist Albert Bandura. Already in the sixties he developed several experiments and studies on learning by observation. Back then, science still assumed that children only learn through conditioning. In other words: We encourage a child to do something by asking them to do so. We reward it when it does something right. And we punish it for wrongdoing so that it learns not to repeat it. Wrong, Bandura found out. Children also learn by copying other people's behaviors.

Then there is instinct. It is in us to imitate others. Infants, for example, imitate adult gestures - even without reinforcement or reward. They pursue their lips, stick out their tongues or open their mouths wide.

Bandura Theory: This is how we imitate others

Bandura's “Bobo Doll Experiment” from 1965 caused a sensation in professional circles. He first played a short film to children aged 4 to 5 years. It shows an adult beating a plastic doll, throwing it to the ground, verbally abusing it, and generally acting aggressively. Now the film had three endings:

  • In version 1, the ruffian is praised by a second person for his behavior and rewarded with sweets.
  • In version 2, the second person rebukes the bat and threatens him in turn with punishment.
  • In version 3, the aggressive behavior has no consequences. The second person doesn't even appear here.

Then the little audience was sent to a room with a plastic doll called “Bobo”. Result: The children who saw the video with the first ending were much more aggressive towards Bobo. They kicked, hit, and cursed the doll. As soon as the experimenter promised a reward to children in the other groups, they too beat Bobo. Now all children were equally aggressive. Bandura's conclusion: All children learned the behavior through simple observation. Whether they then mimicked the behavior they had learned again depended on other factors, on rewards or punishments.

Learn and observe from people who are like us

Thus, learning through observation has something to do with attention to do and with processes in mind. Bandura also found out that it is above all dominant, powerful people that we imitate. And people who are like ourselves.

From an evolutionary point of view, that makes sense. When we imitate strong people, we increase our own chances of success (survival). Similar people, in turn, give us inferences about how we are doing in a comparable situation. Or as Michael Hill says: "The ability to learn quickly from others can give people a decisive advantage over other species."

Observational learning: 5 tips for everyday work

Of course, the following still applies: one (hopefully) becomes wise out of one's own mistakes. But you are welcome to avoid one or the other mistake by leaving them to others and observing them. Learning through observation can help us everywhere in our daily work. Examples:

  • Job rotation: This is how you get to know - also through observation - new areas of responsibility and job profiles.
  • internship: The internship principle is based, among other things, on setting a learning process in motion through observation (and learning by doing).
  • Presentations: You should take a close look at speeches, presentations, lectures at conferences or at the university. Who is doing what right or wrong? Learning effect: great!
  • Assessment center: If you don't want to attract attention, you don't step out of line. But if you really want the job, go boldly and try something new. If he does it well, he will be copied by the others. Watch it!
  • Chameleon technique: With their help you mirror other people and make yourself more personable. To do this, you have to study their behavior carefully beforehand.

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