Vicarious Reinforcement: 10 Examples and Definition

Vicarious Reinforcement: 10 Examples and DefinitionReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

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.

Vicarious reinforcement examples and definition, explained below

Vicarious reinforcement refers to times when a person’s behaviors are influenced by their observations of the consequences of other people’s actions.

In other words, our behaviors are reinforced not through direct rewards or positive punishments for our own behaviors, but vicariously: by observing rewards and punishments of other people’s behaviors.

For example, let’s say a child sees his older sibling get praised for coming home early after school.

The younger child starts to associate coming home early from school with positive attention from their parents and may be more likely to adopt this behavior themselves.

In this case, the older sibling’s positive reinforcement serves as a model for the younger child’s own behavior.

The idea of vicarious reinforcement has important implications in the social learning theory, which suggest that individuals are influenced not only by direct experiences but also by observing others’ experiences.

chrisComprehension Questions: As you read through this article, our editor Chris will pose comprehension and critical thinking questions to help you get the most out of this article. Teachers, if you assign this article for homework, have the students answer these questions at home, then use them as stimuli for in-class discussion.

Vicarious Reinforcement Definition

Vicarious reinforcement refers to the learning process in which an individual behaves in a certain way because they have observed someone else being reinforced or rewarded for that behavior.

The concept is based on two theoretical perspectives: behaviorism and social learning theory.

  • Behaviorism: The behaviorists believe that learning occurs through reward and punishment. By rewarding and punishing people’s behaviors, we can guide them into behaving and even thinking in certain ways long-term.
  • Social learning theory: Behaviorism alone does not sufficiently explain vicarious reinforcement. For a full explanation, we need to turn to social learning theory by Albert Bandura. According to this theory, people can learn by observing and imitating others’ behaviors and experiencing their outcomes (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018).

Vicarious reinforcement works similarly to direct reinforcement (a concept directly from a branch of behaviorism called operant conditioning). In direct reinforcement, people’s behaviors are reinforced by reward and punishment. In vicarious reinforcement, people’s behaviors are reinforced by observing other people being rewarded and punished (sometimes, we call this vicarious punishment).

Therefore, we tend to copy behaviors that lead to rewarding outcomes after observing others being praised or recognized for those actions (Kazdin, 1981).

Similarly, witnessing others experiencing negative outcomes due to certain behaviors makes individuals less likely to repeat the same errors themselves to prevent undesirable results from occurring.

Therefore, vicarious reinforcement highlights the important role that social influence and modeling can play in shaping human behavior and learning.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: How does social learning theory build upon behaviorism? Further, how does vicarious conditioning contain traces of both behaviorism theory and social learning theory?

10 Examples of Vicarious Reinforcement

  • Sports: When young athletes watch their role model – such as a famous professional sports star – receive praise and recognition for their exceptional performance, they may become more motivated to practice harder so that they might replicate those same successes in their own life.
  • Academic achievement: When a student sees their classmate receive an A+ in their work, or a award or recognition for high academic achievement, they may start to replicate that person’s study strategies to try to replicate that success.
  • Work performance: At work, when a colleague receives praise or promotion for doing an excellent job, other employees are likely to learn from the actions that led to their success and may model that behavior in their own job performance.
  • Social behaviors: Children who witness kind and respectful behavior towards others may be more likely to imitate those actions and develop healthy social skills and relationships.
  • Public speaking: When watching public speakers deliver inspiring speeches with confidence and poise, individuals can develop skills and techniques from their experience that they can apply to improve their own public speaking abilities.
  • Cooking skills: Watching cooking shows where chefs prepare gourmet meals using sophisticated techniques can inspire aspiring cooks. So they can improve cooking methods and presentation styles and develop new ideas about ingredient combinations.
  • Mental health actions: Seeing someone successfully reduce stress through positive coping mechanisms like exercise or meditation can encourage an observer to try these coping mechanisms themselves when facing challenging situations.
  • Driving behavior: Observing good driving behaviors from parents, siblings, or other experienced drivers sets a good example that novice drivers imitate when they start practicing driving independently.
  • Body image issues: Young people struggling with body image issues may find inspiration from individuals in the media who have accepted appearance diversity about size or clothing choices.
  • Fitness/weight-loss programs: Success stories of weight-loss programs reinforce the idea that healthy eating habits and proper exercise routines can lead to desired results which is useful information for those interested in weight loss.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Having observed a range of examples, it’s time for you to apply this to your own life. Can you think of five examples of times when you have experienced vicarious reinforcement?

Origins of Vicarious Reinforcement

Vicarious reinforcement is a concept that is directly linked to the social learning theory (SLT), which psychologist Albert Bandura developed in the 1970s.

Bandura’s theory suggests that people learn behaviors through direct observation of phenomena in their surrounds, including by observing modeling and imitating those models.

It explains how people acquire new behaviors without direct reinforcement (Mukhalalati et al., 2022).

Case Study: The Bobo Doll Experiment

The Bobo doll experiment is Bandura’s (1977) founding theory which, to this day, is regularly cited as the empirical evidence for social learning theory. It showed how children learned aggression through vicarious observation. In this famous study, children were split into two groups: one group observed adult model exhibiting aggressive behavior toward an inflatable doll. The second group observed an adult model exhibiting loving behavior toward the doll. The children were then placed in a room with the same doll. Those who saw the aggressive model began to imitate the aggressiveness they had observed earlier, while those who saw the loving model began to imitate the loving behavior they saw earlier. From this research, Bandura (1977) concluded that not only do we learn through direct reinforcement but also indirectly (or, vicariously) through observing others’ experiences.

We use our cognitive abilities, like attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation, to adapt observed behaviors into our behavioral patterns.

Types of Reinforcement: Direct vs Vicarious vs Self

Direct reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement, and self-reinforcement are three important psychological concepts that differ in the source of reinforcement.

Here are their differences:

1. Direct Reinforcement

Direct reinforcement refers to the process when an individual is directly rewarded or punished for their own behavior. This concept comes from operant conditioning in behaviorism theory.

It may occur from a authority figure like a parent or teacher; or, it may occur naturally, as in the situation where a person would learn not to touch a hot stove because you are ‘punished’ by the burning feeling when you touch it.

Simply, it shows us that, in general, if a person performs a certain action that leads to positive outcomes, they are more likely to repeat this behavior in the future (Woolfolk et al., 2013).

The benefit of direct reinforcement is that it provides immediate feedback and motivation. For example, when a student does well on an exam and receives praise and recognition from their teacher or parents for their hard work, this is direct reinforcement.

2. Vicarious Reinforcement

This refers to the process of learning behaviors by observing others being rewarded or punished for their actions (Woolfolk et al., 2013), as explained in social learning theory.

When individuals learn through vicarious reinforcement, they observe someone else’s experiences and adapt these behaviors accordingly to achieve similar results.

Vicarious reinforcement is, for example, when a child learns to engage in fair play by observing their peers being positively reinforced for doing so, even if they themselves have not received positive feedback for fair play yet.

3. Self-Reinforcement

Self-reinforcement is about individuals proactively shaping their behavior by creating self-reinforcing conditions that reward them for achieving specific goals and objectives they choose for themselves (Woolfolk et al., 2013).

For example, when someone is attempting to lose weight, they may set goals for adopting healthy eating habits. They may treat themselves to new clothing as a reward for achieving a particular weight loss milestone.

This strategy serves to reinforce the positive behavior of maintaining healthy eating habits. Additionally, it exemplifies the potential outcomes of such behavior, providing further reinforcement through behaviorist conditioning.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Select two of the above types of reinforcement (direct, vicarious, and self-reinforcement) and create a venn diagram showing unique aspects of each type, as well as similarities (i.e. points of overlap) between each.

Why Vicarious Reinforcement is Valuable

From learning through observation to positive role modeling, vicarious reinforcement is crucial in behavior and skill development.

Vicarious reinforcement is valuable in several ways:

1. It Saves Time

Vicarious reinforcement learning saves time compared to direct reinforcement by allowing individuals to learn from observing the consequences of behavior without experiencing them firsthand.

This enables quicker learning and behavior modeling.

2. It Improves Decision-Making

Vicarious reinforcement enables individuals to improve their decision-making skills by using insights gained from the choices and factors behind them.

Based on observed outcomes of challenges, this informed judgment gives individuals greater confidence when faced with new situations.

Go Deeper: Decision-Making Examples

3. It Reinforces Positive Role Modeling

The knowledge that people can experience vicarious conditioning can reinforce the importance of being a positive role model, especially for children, students, and employees.

For example, when employers or leaders display positive qualities in different organizations, it sets a good example for employees.

This can inspire them to develop good habits such as being responsible, motivated, empathetic, and more. These qualities can have a positive impact on productivity in the workplace.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Identify an area of your life where you can use role modeling in order to stimulate vicarious learning in your child, employee, or a peer in your life who you know observes and is aware of your actions.


Vicarious reinforcement is a powerful psychological mechanism that allows individuals to learn by observing the behavior and experiences of others.

This learning method can help save time, as individuals do not have to directly encounter consequences before realizing their impact and potential outcomes.

Vicarious reinforcement also enables positive role modeling, which is an excellent example for people in workplaces and everyday life.

Through social learning, individuals are inspired to model the positive actions of those around them, internalizing good habits and orienting themselves towards making decisions based on informed judgments from observed challenges.

Furthermore, vicarious reinforcement has particular importance in contemporary fields such as parenting, education, and mental health counseling.

It serves as an effective tool in preparing the next generation to succeed in the face of challenges by helping them learn from their environment without always having to experience negative consequences firsthand.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall.

Gureghian, D. (2013). Vicarious reinforcement procedures: An analysis of stimulus control and potential side effects.

Horsburgh, J., & Ippolito, K. (2018). A skill to be worked at: Using social learning theory to explore the process of learning from role models in clinical settings. BMC Medical Education18(1).

Kazdin, A. E. (1981). Vicarious reinforcement and punishment processes in the classroom. Applied Clinical Psychology, 129–153.

Mukhalalati, B., Elshami, S., Eljaam, M., Hussain, F. N., & Bishawi, A. H. (2022). Applications of social theories of learning in health professions education programs: A scoping review. Frontiers in Medicine9.

Woolfolk, A. E., Hughes, M., & Walkup, V. (2013). Psychology in education. Pearson Longman.

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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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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