Vicarious learning is a type of vicarious conditioning where learning occurs through the experience of others. You learn indirectly rather than personally experiencing something.
It is a central component of social learning theory proposed by Albert Bandura (1977).
People learn a great deal by observing the experiences of others, including parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, teachers, classmates, and even strangers and acquaintances. By observing others first, it gives us the advantage of not needing to risk failure or punishment (hence why it’s also called vicarious punishment).
Vicarious Learning Examples
Simple examples of vicarious learning include:
- Seeing your mother burn her hand on a hot plate and deciding it’s not a good idea to touch the hot plate.
- Observing people speaking respectfully to a police officer and you learn that a police officer is someone you should respect.
- Watching a baseball player on television and taking notes on his batting style.
- Asking a business mentor to give you stories and analogies that help you learn how to run a business.
- Seeing a brother or sister get into deep trouble for their misbehavior so deciding not to misbehave yourself.
- Watching another chess player do a special move you didn’t know before and taking note of it so you can use it later.
- Watching your parents interacting with a server at a restaurant and learning restaurant etiquette.
- Listening to fables and learning morals and cultural mores from the stories.
- Learning about gender roles by watching a Disney movie.
- Learning how to flirt by watching teen romance movies.
- Reading a biography by a billionaire and learning some tips and tricks about how to get rich from the book.
In these examples, you don’t have to experience that situation directly or engage in that behavior in order to learn; you have received the reinforcements vicariously.
1. Classroom Rules
Summary: While teachers spend a lot of time explicitly reinforcing rules, students tend to decide whether to obey a rule or not when they see a teacher’s response when another child breaks the rules.
Very young children are surprisingly observant. The world is full of unknowns and so they are very attuned to their environment, especially when first entering an unfamiliar situation.
You can see their awareness when they first enter the classroom. They are very cautious. First, they will often just stand at the doorway before entering and observe.
Their first concern is about safety. They are monitoring the classroom and the actions of others to determine if the environment is safe to enter.
If they observe a teacher that seems to be a bit aggressive and uses a stern tone of voice when a child runs across the classroom, then they have learned something very valuable, immediately: running in the classroom will make the teacher upset.
Vicarious learning is efficient and safe. No need to upset the teacher by engaging in the wrong behavior when discovering what is right can be learned vicariously.
2. Learning in the Animal Kingdom
Summary: Animals learn to clean themselves, hunt, seek shelter, and interact with one another by observing their parents.
Some of the best examples of vicarious learning are seen in the animal kingdom. Certainly, animals cannot listen to their parents explain how to perform all the necessary tasks for survival.
There are no schools and teachers, or books or YouTube videos. Learning is all accomplished either through trial and error, or vicariously by watching mom and dad.
For example, lion cubs learn how to stalk prey by carefully observing their mother. Young dolphins learn to herd fish into a bait ball or use “shelling” by watching their peers.
Although some direct experience is involved at various points in the learning process, the primary mode of instruction is vicarious.
3. Cultural Storytelling
Summary: Historically, cultures have used folk stories that contain within them morals and warning to teach children. The stories also teach cultural values.
Storytelling has played a vital role in cultures for thousands of years. Before the printing press and modern technology, cultural traditions were passed from generation to generation through the narrative of storytelling.
Sometimes the stories were acted out as plays, chants, poems and rhymes. Sometimes they were conveyed through song and dance rituals. And in some cultures, the lessons and values of the culture materialized through objects such as paintings, carvings, and weaves.
These expressions often serve the purpose of teaching younger generations valuable lessons about life and hardship. They help youth learn without having to endure the trauma and consequences of mistakes.
In this way, storytelling is a version of vicarious learning that existed long before any scientist ever invented the term.
4. Conflict Resolution Strategies
Summary: Observing someone who is good at conflict resolution skills can be a great way to develop these conflict resolution strategies yourself.
Learning how to handle conflicts is an extremely valuable workplace skill. Conflicts between coworkers can occur without warning, especially on demanding projects with rapidly approaching deadlines.
Tensions can escalate as teammates start to feel pressure. Unfortunately, this can lead to tempers flaring and hostile accusations being exchanged.
This is where conflict resolutions skills can come in handy. One common way of developing this skill is through professional development training.
Role-playing is a key component of this kind of training and entails trainees observing others engage in an argument while a third party plays the role of mediator.
By observing the techniques the mediator is applying and the reactions of the disagreeing parties, it is possible to learn a great deal; without having to experience the conflict directly.
Trainees learn about the effectiveness of various conflict resolution strategies vicariously.
Go Deeper: Conflict Resolution Examples
5. Salesperson Trainee
Summary: Learning sales often requires working alongside an expert salesperson and seeing their skills in action.
Sales is a tough job. It requires excellent people skills, great communication abilities, and a very tough skin. A lot of companies rely on their sales-team for survival.
Because a salesperson basically only has one shot at closing a deal with each customer they approach, it is important that new staff are properly trained from the very beginning.
Even after going through the training program, the next step will involve tagging along with a seasoned pro.
This will give the new member of the team an opportunity to learn vicariously. Of course, the experienced pro will offer advice and commentary after each client encounter, but learning through direct observation also plays a key role.
6. The Nausea Reflex
Summary: If we see someone who is sick, we can get nauseous ourselves. Here, we’re vicariously learning that we should avoid eating because there might be some compromised food nearby (this is also known as passive avoidance learning).
One unpleasant example of vicarious learning is the reflex that humans have when witnessing another person getting sick. This is a well-known phenomenon that is a basic survival instinct.
When we watch someone else eat something and then become ill right away, other people that observed that sequence have a tendency to also get ill.
This is probably a defense mechanism to prevent food poisoning that has been ingrained in our biology for thousands of years.
Back in our hunting and gathering days, most members of the tribe ate the same things. So, if one person ate something and then got sick, most likely, everyone else in the tribe ate it too. Having a reflex built around this vicarious experience helped ensure the survival of the tribe.
7. Reading About the Adventures of Others
Summary: Reading other people’s biographies is enjoyable because they contain lessons within them that we can take with us for our own lives.
Vicarious learning doesn’t have to involve directly observing another person’s experience, it can also happen indirectly. In an interview with Christopher Myers of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, he states that “we can also learn vicariously from stories or narratives of others’ experiences.”
For example, although we may never directly attempt to sail around the world, we can certainly learn a lot about it by reading a well-written account. If the author is quite skilled, their words can create an emotionally impacting experience for the reader.
The reader might not get drenched while reading about a ferocious storm, but they may feel their nerves tightening as they experience the author’s plight vicariously.
8. Office Gossip
Summary: When we start a new job, we often learn about who the ‘mean’ boss is and who is a helpful co-worker by standing by the water cooler and listening to other people’s stories.
Vicarious learning can take many forms, such as through storytelling, cultural traditions, and even office gossip!
In the words of gossip researchers Jolly and Chang (2021): “Social information acquired through gossip aids in vicarious learning, directly influencing future behavior and impression formation” (p. 2539).
By listening to another person convey information about specific situations or personnel, it is possible to learn something without directly experiencing those circumstances, observing others experience those situations, or interacting directly with the individuals involved.
This is an efficient and relatively risk-free form of learning, as “…gossip also helps promote cooperation in groups without a need for formal sanctioning mechanisms” (Jolly & Change, 2021, p. 2539).
Summary: We can’t learn directly from history because it’s in the past now. So, we learn the lessons of history vicariously – through books, movies, and stories.
There is a famous quote by Spanish philosopher George Santayana which reads, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Since the original version was published in his book The Life of Reason (1905/1906), those cautionary words have gone through various iterations, one of them being “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
Whichever version you prefer, the lesson to be learned here is the same: one should learn vicariously by knowing the history of those that came before.
There are many lessons to be learned from history books, and many of those lessons could prevent those in modern times from committing the same errors.
10. Chimpanzee Tool Use
Summary: Chimpanzees observe their parents using tools and then start using the tools themselves. They are one of the few species on earth who pass down this skill to their children.
For a very long time, scientists believed that only humans were capable of using tools. In fact, tool use was identified as one of the defining criteria for human beings to be considered more advanced than other primates.
All of that changed with the naturalistic observation research of Jane Goodall. In her observations of chimpanzees in Kenya, she noted the use of twigs and straw as a tool. She observed mother chimps demonstrating how to carefully insert a twig down the tunnel of a termite mound.
After some skilled maneuvering, the twig was then pulled-out, and covered with termites, which the chimps find tasty.
This was quite a profound breakthrough at the time, and led to Lous Leaky, renowned anthropologist, to proclaim that “we must now redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimps as humans.”
Strengths of Vicarious Learning
Pro 1: It’s Efficient
The biggest advantage of vicarious learning is efficiency. By observing others and making note of the consequences of their actions, both successful and otherwise, there is no need to go through the experience directly.
This allows individuals to avoid investing time and energy and experiencing the unpleasantness of failure.
Vicarious learning through observation is also much more efficient than reading. A person can demonstrate the correct way to carry-out a process, demonstrate the movements in detail, and provide additional commentary and advice in a short period of time.
The information is relayed at a much faster rate of transmission than if a person had to read the same content in a book.
Pro 2: It Can Improve Memory Retention
Compared to sitting in class being ‘told’ information, observing another person can lead to much stronger learning.
The information is more firmly ingrained in memory, which makes retention is longer and most likely easier to access when necessary. This is due to a variety of factors.
For instance, watching another human being can capture more of our attentional resources than reading. In addition, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then watching a live-action moving picture should be worth considerably more than a mere thousand words.
Weaknesses of Vicarious Learning
Con 1: Poor Role Models Demonstrate Poor Examples
The quality of learning in its vicarious form is largely dependent on the quality of the person modeling the behaviors or lessons.
If the role model is doing a poor job demonstrating the target task or procedure, then those that are observing will be exposed to a poor example. Then, when it comes time for them to engage in that same behavior, performance will suffer.
This is not a good method of learning. Those that displayed faulty behavior will not only experience negative consequences but they may also be required to undergo additional training (hopefully from a different model). This is inefficient and can also lead to the observers feeling frustrated and losing motivation.
Con 2: It Doesn’t Match All Learning Styles
Not everyone learns the same way. People have different learning styles. To maximize learning it is best to match the teaching method with the person being taught.
For example, some people have a kinesthetic learning style, which means that they learn by doing.
So, if some people learn better through movement, direct experience, and tactile stimulation, then learning vicariously is going to be much less effective.
They will become less attentive during the learning process, which then makes the information less accessible since it wasn’t firmly stored in memory.
Con 3: It’s How Less Desirable Values are Passed Down
Vicarious learning also teaches some things that we might not want to pass down. These can include xenophobia and unhelpful gender stereotypes.
It is said that children don’t see gender or color or social class when they’re born. The way they learn about these things is usually vicarious learning rather than explicit instruction.
Vicarious Learning vs Observational Learning
Vicarious learning and learning by observation are not completely the same concepts.
They overlap quite a bit, but vicarious learning is broader. It can include learning by reading someone’s account of their experience in a book or biography.
It can also include learning by listening to someone tell a story about something that happened in their life, or someone else’s life.
So, vicarious learning can come from a broader array of sources than pure observational learning.
Related: Latent Learning
Vicarious learning is as old as time. We learn not only through active learning, but also by passive learning. We learn through observation and by avoiding the mistakes of others. But, it’s also positive. When we see someone else succeed at something, we can learn to follow their lead.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Prentice Hall.
Jolly, E., & Chang, L. J. (2021). Gossip drives vicarious learning and facilitates social connection. Current Biology: CB, 31(12), 2539–2549.e6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.03.090
O’Malley, R., Wallauer, W., Murray, C. M., Goodall, J. (2012). The appearance and spread of ant fishing among the Kasekela chimpanzees of Gombe: A possible case of intercommunity cultural transmission. Current Anthropology, 53(5), 650-663. https://doi.org/10.1086/666943
Skversky-Blocq, Y., Haaker, J., & Shechner, T. (2021). Watch and learn: Vicarious threat learning across human development. Brain Sciences, 11(10), 1345. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11101345