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What is the difference between observational learning and operant conditioning theory?

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Observational learning is a way to acquire (learn) a new behavior by paying attention to the actions and behaviors of others, who act like the models of the behavior whether they do it purposely or not. During this type of learning, there are three actions that the observer must engage in, in order to actually learn.

  1. Observe
  2. Remember
  3. Repeat (this is optional and depends on the capabilities of the observer of replicating the action)

If the observer is not paying full attention to the behavior, chances are that the entire behavior will not be committed to short-, and then long-term memory. Therefore, the observer needs to remember the action, and even repeat it, in order to fully process it.

Observational learning experiments can be found in the work of the father of Social Learning Theory, Albert Bandura. Using the Bobo-doll experiment in 1961, Bandura demonstrated that children tend to repeat the behaviors that they see, especially when the behavior is new, surprising, shocking, or simply interesting enough to get their attention. The observer does not have to change anything in his or her current behavior to learn a new behavior in a systematic way; all that needs to happen is to pay sustained attention and remember the action.

Operant Conditioning is related to B.F. Skinner, who coined the term in 1938. It is an active process of learning in which one behavior will replace another via a series of variables. This is the key difference with Observational Learning: Operant Conditioning is active, while Observational Learning can be passive.

The “operants” in the process of Skinner's conditioning have to do with environmental and purposeful variables that try to identify which processes make some behaviors happen. These variables are also known as reinforcement.

  • Neutral operants- the environmental responses that do not affect a behavior, meaning it neither prompts it to repeat, nor deters it from repeating.
  • Positive reinforcement- rewards given in the hope of prompting a behavior to be repeated.
  • Negative reinforcement- punishment done in an attempt to make a behavior to stop

Both concepts of learning have one thing in common: motivation. Whether it is inherent or caused by reinforcement, there has to be motivation prior to action.

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The major difference between these two is that one is experienced directly whereas the other is only experienced vicariously, or through observation.

In operant conditioning, a person's behavior is affected by reinforcements and punishments that the person experiences him or her self.  The person behaves a certain way and then observes the responses of others to that behavior.  The other people's responses help to shape the first person's behavior.

In observational learning, a person's behavior is influenced by what happens to other people when they behave in certain ways.  The person who is learning does so by seeing responses are elicited by others' behaviors.  The person then bases his or her behavior on the lessons learned by watching what happens to the other people.

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