Whether we like it or not, others have an impact on us, just as we have an impact on them. Our social interactions determine the acquisition of new behaviors, skills, or abilities. We are endowed with an ability to observe, analyze, interpret and imitate the behaviors of others that seem favorable to us. This is where vicarious learning comes in.

1. What is vicarious learning?


Vicarious learning is the imitation of a behavior after observing the behavior of our peers.

We consider the results of certain actions carried out, and see their success thanks to the highlighted behaviors. They seem to be, in our eyes, consciously or unconsciously, necessary to imitate. And we adhere to them because they offer results that correspond to our expectations or values (such as leadership, for example). In this way, we avoid accumulating trials and errors that others may have made before us.

2. What definition for vicarious learning?

Vicarious learning can also be called “modeling”. In effect, we imitate the behaviors we have observed in people we consider to be models in a field. 

Observation is therefore not passive, unlike mimicry. In an active way, observation goes through several dimensions: attention, memorization, reproduction and motivation. 

In this type of learning, the observed behaviors have proven to be successful, and we want to apply the same ones to achieve the same successes.

3. Which theoretical current?

Vicarious learning was born out of social learning theories in 1986 by Albert Bandura. With a cognitive-behavioral orientation, Bandura realizes that we cannot live without considering our surroundings, be it our family, our culture etc. We always live with them, and whether we want to or not, learn from them. We always live with them, and whether we want to or not, we learn from them. 

Social learning theories then consider human actions as the result of three factors: cognitions, behaviors and the environmental context.


4. What room is there for our own experience?

Just because we learn by imitation does not mean that our own experience should be neglected in this type of learning. In fact, based on our own experience, we constantly adjust our behavior according to what we have experienced. Some of them may have been failures, so we try to analyze the successful experiences of others in those that put us in difficulty. 

This is what we consider the symbolization of our experience. In this way we learn to communicate better, to anticipate possible difficulties better, to imagine the future and our own actions better. Vicarious learning is therefore not a mimicry, since it finally considers the interpretation that we make of the result of the other’s behavior.

5. Vicarious learning in education

We have been living with vicarious learning since we were born. Indeed, we imitate the behaviors and actions of our parents. In fact, this learning brings several benefits to the child, the adolescent or the adult. 

At first, he can learn new behaviors that he had not yet acquired. He will be able to observe, train and appropriate it in his own way.

In a second step, he will be able to suppress certain behaviors that seem to be dysfunctional. Indeed, if he sees that a more correct reaction to a situation allows the person to develop more, he will try to acquire the same. 

Finally, this type of learning helps to reduce anxiety or phobias. We observe our loved ones facing situations that are anxiety-provoking, but their behavior seems quite appropriate and fearless. We will then imitate these same behaviors and decrease our own anxiety.

6. Learning is all around us

Vicarious learning is not limited to imitating the behaviors of our family members. It goes far beyond that. It comes from our culture (our peers, sharing the same value, ideology, religion…), from books, from the media (TV shows, radio), from influential people (president, Nobel prize winners etc.), from our peers, from our school (teachers, educators…).

School is a great source of vicarious learning. Indeed, the teacher talks about his experience, shows exercises and methods of success, and the student will only have to apply it to succeed in a similar exercise. 

Imitation of a behavior can occur in any context. The closer the person is to the source of influence, the more quickly the behavior will be accepted. Nevertheless, even if he does not know her personally, a person can consider a distant model. 

This is why, like any type of learning, it can be toxic, depending on the source of our inspiration. Malicious people can use the vulnerability of others to make them adhere to the adoption of behaviors that are considered successful.

7. Use this learning as a driver

Now that you are fully aware that the behaviors of others influence you, take hold of them. Observe the behaviors of people you consider successful, analyze and interpret that success. Ask yourself what could be right for you, and what you could put in place, to achieve your goals. This is not about “copying” your peers, or losing who you are to become who they are. It’s about appropriating behaviors that could be useful to you, and taking them from your own personality and experience.