Vicarious Learning Revisited: A Contemporary Behavior Analytic Interpretation

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Beginning in the 1960s, social learning theorists argued that behavioral learning principles could not account for behavior acquired through observation. Such a viewpoint is still widely held today. This rejection of behavioral principles in explaining vicarious learning was based on three phenomena: (1) imitation that occurred without direct reinforcement of the observer's behavior; (2) imitation that occurred after a long delay following modeling; and (3) a greater probability of imitation of the model's reinforced behavior than of the model's nonreinforced or punished behavior. These observations convinced social learning theorists that cognitive variables were required to explain behavior. Such a viewpoint has progressed aggressively, as evidenced by the change in name from social learning theory to social cognitive theory, and has been accompanied by the inclusion of information-processing theory. Many criticisms of operant theory, however, have ignored the full range of behavioral concepts and principles that have been derived to account for complex behavior. This paper will discuss some problems with the social learning theory explanation of vicarious learning and provide an interpretation of vicarious learning from a contemporary behavior analytic viewpoint.



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