Vicarious Conditioning: 10 Examples & Easy Definition

vicarious conditioning examples and definition

Vicarious conditioning refers to learning through observing other people’s responses to an environmental stimulus that is noticeable to the observer and the model (Kibler & Shea, 2005). Observers imitate successful models. Vicarious conditioning, therefore, produces increased imitation of the model by the observer.

In vicarious conditioning, an individual does not have to experience the consequences of a behavior directly to learn from it. Instead, they can observe the consequences that others receive and use this information to guide their behavior.

A vicarious conditioning example is when a child sees another child get rewarded for sharing their toys, meading the child to engage in sharing behavior themselves.

Similarly, if a child sees a teacher praising another student for turning in their homework on time, they may be more likely to turn in their homework on time in the future.

Examples of Vicarious Conditioning

  • Disliking food: A child sees their parent express disgust at a particular food and begins to dislike that food as well. This is an example of vicarious classical conditioning, as the child has learned to associate the food with a negative emotion (disgust) through observing their parent’s reaction.
  • Fear of dogs: A person sees a dog attack someone on the news and becomes afraid of all dogs. This is also an example of vicarious classical conditioning, as the person has learned to associate the stimulus of a dog with the response of fear through observing the attack on the news.
  • Fear of spiders: A child sees their parents reacting with fear to a spider, and the child begins to feel afraid of spiders as well. This is an example of vicarious classical conditioning, in which the child learns to associate the stimulus of a spider with the response of fear through observation of their parent’s reaction.
  • Vicarious punishment: A child sees their sibling get punished for misbehaving, and they start to behave better to avoid punishment. This is an example of vicarious operant conditioning, in which the child learns to behave in a certain way in order to avoid punishment by observing the consequences of their sibling’s actions.
  • Physical appearance: A person sees someone else receive a lot of attention for their physical appearance and becomes motivated to improve their own appearance. This is an example of vicarious operant conditioning, as the person has learned that improving their appearance can lead to positive consequences (attention) through observing the consequences of the other person’s actions.
  • Praise for hard work: A person sees someone else receiving praise for their work, and they become motivated to work harder to receive praise themselves. This is an example of vicarious operant conditioning, as the person has learned that working hard can lead to positive reinforcement in the form of praise by observing the consequences of the other person’s actions.
  • Product endorsements: A person sees a celebrity endorsed product and decides to buy it because they believe it is of high quality. This is an example of vicarious classical conditioning, as the person has learned to associate the celebrity endorsement with the product being high quality through observing the celebrity’s endorsement.
  • Social media: A person sees someone else receive a lot of social media likes and becomes motivated to post more content in order to receive likes as well. This is an example of vicarious operant conditioning, as the person has learned that posting content can lead to positive reinforcement (likes) through observing the consequences of the other person’s actions.
  • Winning at the casino: A person sees someone else win a lot of money at a casino and decides to try their luck at gambling. This is an example of vicarious classical conditioning, as the person has learned to associate gambling with the potential for a positive outcome (winning money) through observing the other person’s success.
  • Work promotion: A person sees someone else receive a promotion and becomes motivated to work harder in order to be considered for a promotion. This is an example of vicarious operant conditioning, as the person has learned that working hard can lead to positive consequences (a promotion) through observing the consequences of the other person’s actions.

Types of Vicarious Conditioning

There are two types of vicarious conditioning: vicarious operant and vicarious classical conditioning.

  • Vicarious operant conditioning occurs when the observer is exposed to a model who is reinforced or punished for performing a certain behavior. The observer should usually see the model be reinforced or punished many times, since vicarious conditioning may not occur after a single exposure (Dowd, 2002).
  • Vicarious classical conditioning occurs when “the observer is exposed to a model who behaves fearfully when confronted with a feared object (such as a snake) or who has negative consequences occur when exposed to an object (such as being scared by a large animal or in association with that animal). As a result of making these observations, the observer may likewise learn to fear these objects or situations” (Dowd, 2002, p. 881).

Benefits of Vicarious Conditioning

Vicarious conditioning is thought to be an important mechanism through which individuals learn about the informal norms, values, and expectations of their social group and culture.

It is also thought to play a role in the development of empathy and prosocial behavior, as individuals may learn to understand and respond to the emotions and needs of others through observation and imitation.

Vicarous Conditioning vs Vicarious Learning

Vicarious conditioning should not be confused with vicarious learning. Vicarious learning and vicarious conditioning are two closely related concepts that refer to the process of learning through observation.

The two concepts are similar in that they both involve learning from the experiences of others, rather than through direct experience. However, they do differ in some important ways.

  • Vicarious learning refers to the process of acquiring new information or skills through observation, without necessarily experiencing the consequences of the behavior being observed. It is a form of learning that occurs when an individual observes the behavior of others and uses this information to guide their behavior.
  • Vicarious conditioning, on the other hand, refers to the process of modifying one’s behavior based on the consequences that are observed in others. It is a type of learning that occurs when an individual observes the consequences that others receive for their behavior and uses this information to guide their behavior. For example, the child becomes afraid of an animal after watching how others show signs of fear in response to encountering the same animal. Similarly, vicarious conditioning can give rise to positive emotions. People are more likely to approach objects associated with other people’s happiness than objects associated with other people’s fears (Blair, 2018).

In summary, vicarious learning involves acquiring new information or skills through observation, while vicarious conditioning involves modifying one’s behavior based on other people’s responses to a noticeable environmental stimulus.

Both of these processes can be important mechanisms for learning and adapting to one’s environment and social group.

Conclusion

Vicarious conditioning is a type of learning that occurs when an individual observes other people’s reactions to an environmental stimulus that is salient. There are two main types of vicarious conditioning: operant and classical.

In the former case (vicarious operant conditioning), an individual learns to perform or not perform a certain behavior by observing how someone else is rewarded or punished for performing that behavior. In the latter case (vicarious classical conditioning), an individual learns to fear certain objects or situations by observing how someone else behaves when confronted with a feared object or situation.

Both vicarious operant conditioning and vicarious classical conditioning involve learning through observation, rather than through direct experience. They are thought to be important mechanisms for learning about the consequences of one’s actions and the expectations of one’s social group.

Research has shown that vicarious conditioning can be at least as effective as direct conditioning (Dowd, 2002, p. 883). This phenomenon is especially true if the tasks are more conceptual than manual. It is also the major source of childhood fears and can be used to reduce or eliminate them (Dowd, 2002; Ollendick & King, 1991; Mineka & Tomarken, 1989).

References

Blair, R. J. R. (2018). Traits of empathy and anger: Implications for psychopathy and other disorders associated with aggression. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 373(1744), 1–8.

Dowd, E. T. (2002). Vicarious Conditioning. In M. Hersen & W. Sledge (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy (pp. 881–883). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-12-343010-0/00233-6

Kibler, J. L., & Shea, D. T. (2005). Vicarious Conditioning. In Encyclopedia of Behavior Modification and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (Vol. 1–3, pp. 1083–1084). SAGE Publications, Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412950534

Mineka, S., & Tomarken, A. J. (1989). The role of cognitive biases in the origins and maintenance of fear and anxiety disorders. In Aversion, avoidance, and anxiety: Perspectives on aversively motivated behavior (pp. 195–221). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Ollendick, T. H., & King, N. J. (1991). Origins of childhood fears: An evaluation of Rachman’s theory of fear acquisition. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 29, 117–123. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(91)90039-6

Tio Gabunia (B.Arch, M.Arch)
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Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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