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Theories of imitation

Three effects of the observation of models

Determinants of imitative phenomena


Learning by vicarious experience has historically been referred to as “imitation,” although in the contemporary social science literature essentially the same phenomenon is subsumed under other terms, such as “observational learning,” “social facilitation,” “vicarious learning,” “contagion,” and “identification.”

Accounts of the acquisition and modification of social behavior are frequently limited to descriptions of behavioral change based on principles of trial and error or instrumental conditioning. Although the efficacy of direct conditioning procedures has been well documented by laboratory studies, it is doubtful if many of the responses that almost all members of a society exhibit would ever be acquired if social learning proceeded entirely by these methods.

Informal observation and experimental analyses of the social-learning process reveal that a person can rapidly acquire new responses and that his existing behavioral repertoire can be considerably modified, solely as a function of his observing the behavior of others without performing any overt responses himself. The provision of models not only serves to short-circuit and accelerate the learning process but also, in cases where errors are dangerous or costly, becomes an indispensable means of transmitting and modifying social response patterns.

Theories of imitation

The concept of imitation in psychological theory has had a long history, dating back to Tarde (1890) and McDougall (1908), who regarded imi-tativeness as an innate or instinctive propensity.

Association and classical conditioning

As the instinct doctrine fell into disrepute, a number of psychologists, notably Humphrey (1921), Allport (1924), and Holt (1931), attempted to account for imitative behavior in terms of associative, or Pav-lovian, conditioning principles. According to Holt, for example, when an adult copies a response made by a child, the child tends to repeat the behavior; and as this circular sequence continues, the adult’s matching behavior becomes an increasingly effective stimulus for the child’s response. If, during this spontaneous mutual imitation, the adult performs a response that is novel to the child, the child will copy it. Piaget (1945) is a more recent exponent of essentially the same point of view.

Although the classical conditioning theories accounted adequately for the imitator’s repetition of his own behavior, they failed to explain the psychological mechanisms governing the emergence of novel responses during the model-observer interaction sequence. Moreover, demonstrations of observational learning in animals and humans do not ordinarily commence with a model’s matching a semi-irrelevant response of the learner. Thus, in utilizing modeling procedures to teach a bird to talk, the trainer does not engage initially in the circular process of imitating crowing behavior; instead, he begins by emitting verbal responses that do not exist in the bird’s behavioral repertoire.

Instrumental conditioning theories

As theoretical explanations of learning shifted the emphasis from classical conditioning to instrumental learning based on rewarding and punishing response consequences, theories of imitation similarly assumed that the occurrence of observational learning is contingent on the administration of reinforcing stimuli either to the model or to the observer. This point of view was most clearly expounded by Miller and Dollard in the classic publication Social Learning and Imitation (1941). According to this theory, the necessary conditions for learning through imitation include a motivated subject who is positively reinforced for matching the correct responses of a model during a series of initially random trial-and-error responses.

The experiments reported by Miller and Dollard in the monograph cited above involved a series of two-choice discrimination problems in which a trained leader responded to environmental stimuli of which the subject was unaware; consequently, the subject’s own responses were totally dependent upon the cues provided by the leader’s behavior. The leader’s choices were consistently rewarded, and the observing subject was similarly reinforced whenever he matched the choice responses of the imitatee. This form of imitation was labeled by the authors as “matched-dependent behavior” because the subjects relied on the leader for relevant cues and matched his responses. Based on this paradigm, it was demonstrated that both rats and children readily learn to follow their respective models and generalize imitative responses to new stimulus situations, new models, and different motivational states.

Although these experiments have been widely accepted as demonstrations of learning by imitation, they in fact represent only the special case of discrimination place learning, in which the behavior of others provides discriminative stimuli for responses that already exist in the subject’s behavioral repertoire. Had the relevant environmental cues been made more distinctive, the behavior of the models would have been quite irrelevant, and perhaps even a hindrance, to the acquisition process. In contrast, most forms of imitation involve response rather than place learning, in which subjects acquire new ways of behaving as a function of exposure to models. Moreover, since this conceptualization of observational learning requires that the subject perform the imitative response before he can learn it, the theory propounded by Miller and Dollard evidently accounts more adequately for the emission of previously learned matching responses than for their acquisition. Continuing with our example of language learning, in order for a myna bird to learn the word “encyclopedia” imitatively, it would first have to emit the word “encyclopedia” in the course of random vocalization, match it accidentally with the trainer’s verbal response, and secure a positive reinforcement. It is evident from the foregoing discussion that the conditions assumed by Miller and Dollard to be necessary for learning by imitation place severe limitations on the types of behavioral changes that can be attributed to the influence of social models.

Sensory feedback theory

Mowrer’s proprioceptive feedback theory (1960) similarly highlights the role of reinforcement, but unlike Miller and Dollard, who reduce imitation to a special case of instrumental learning, Mowrer emphasizes the classical conditioning of positive and negative emotions to matching response-correlated stimuli. Mowrer distinguishes between two forms of imitative learning in terms of whether the observer is reinforced directly or vicariously. In the former case, the model makes a response and at the same time rewards the observer. Through the repeated contiguity of the model’s behavior with rewarding experiences, these responses gradually take on positive value for the observer. On the basis of stimulus generalization, the observer can produce self-rewarding feedback experience simply by reproducing as closely as possible the model’s positively valenced behavior.

In the second, or “empathetic,” form of imitative learning, the model not only exhibits the responses but also experiences the reinforcing consequences himself. It is assumed that the observer, in turn, experiences empathetically the sensory concomitants of the model’s behavior and also intuits the model’s satisfactions or dissatisfactions. As a result of this higher-order vicarious conditioning, the observer will be predisposed to reproduce the matching responses for the attendant positive sensory feedback.

There is some research evidence that imitative behavior is enhanced by an increase in the rewarding qualities of a model (Bandura & Huston 1961), and by positive reinforcers administered to a model (Bandura et al. 1963; Walters et al. 1963). However, the reinforcement theories of imitation fail to explain the learning of matching responses when the observer does not perform the model’s behavior during the acquisition process and for which reinforcers are not dispensed either to the model or to the observer (Bandura & Walters 1963).

Stimulus contiguity and mediation

The acquisition of imitative responses under the conditions described above appears to be accounted for more adequately by recent theories of observational learning (Bandura 1962; 1965b; Sheffield 1961) that emphasize stimulus contiguity and mediational symbolic responses. According to Sheffield, when an observer witnesses a model exhibiting a sequence of responses, the observer learns, through contiguity of sensory events, perceptual and symbolic responses that are capable of eliciting, at some time after observation, overt responses corresponding to those that had been modeled.

Bandura’s conceptualization of the imitative process similarly assumes that as a function of observing a model’s behavior, the subject acquires cue-producing symbolic responses that subsequently can be translated into their motoric equivalents. Additionally, it is assumed that the acquisition of matching responses takes place primarily through stimulus contiguity, whereas reinforcements administered to the model or the subject exert their major influence on the performance of imitatively learned responses. The importance of distinguishing between learning and performance in discussing the necessary conditions for the occurrence of imitation is illustrated by findings from an experiment (Bandura 1965a) that proceeded in the following manner.

Children observed a film-mediated model perform a set of novel physical and verbal responses. In one condition the model was severely punished, and in a second the model was generously rewarded, whereas the third condition presented no response consequences to the model. A postexpo-sure test of imitation revealed that differential reinforcement had produced differential amounts of imitative behavior. Children in the model-rewarded and the no-consequences groups spontaneously performed a significantly larger number of imitative responses than did subjects in the model-punished condition. Following the performance test, children in all three groups were offered highly attractive incentives contingent on their reproducing the model’s responses, in order to activate performance of what the children had learned through observation. The introduction of rewards completely wiped out the previously observed performance differences, revealing an equivalent amount of learning among the children in the model-rewarded, model-punished, and no-consequences conditions. Thus, reinforcement was seen to be related to performance rather than to learning.

It is also evident from the results of this experiment that mere exposure to modeling stimuli does not provide sufficient conditions for imitative or observational learning. The fact that most of the children failed to reproduce the entire repertoire of behavior exhibited by the model, even under positive-incentive conditions designed to disinhibit and to elicit matching responses, indicates that other variables combine with contiguous stimulation in governing the process of imitative response acquisition. Clearly, an observer does not function like a passive video tape recorder, registering indiscriminately and storing all behavioral events that he happens to encounter in his daily experiences.

Factors affecting imitation

Exposing a person to a complex sequence of stimulation does not guarantee that he will attend to the entire range of cues, that he will necessarily select from a total stimulus complex only the most relevant stimuli, or that he will even perceive accurately the cues to which his attention is directed. Motivational variables, prior training in discriminative observation, and the induction of incentive-oriented sets may be highly influential in channeling, augmenting, or reducing the observation of responses, which is a necessary conditioning for imitative learning.

In addition to attention-directing variables, the rate, amount, and complexity of modeling stimuli presented to the observer may partly determine the degree of imitative learning. The acquisition of matching responses through observation of a lengthy, uninterrupted sequence of behavior is also likely to be governed by principles of associative learning, such as frequency and recency, serial order effects, and other multiple sources of associative interference.

Social responses are generally composed of a large number of different behavioral units combined in a particular manner. Responses of higher-order complexity are produced from combinations of previously learned components that may, in themselves, represent relatively complicated behavioral patterns. Consequently, the rate of acquisition of intricate matching responses through observation may be partly determined by the number of necessary components that are contained in the observer’s repertoire.

Data on most of the variables mentioned in the foregoing discussion are lacking; consequently, considerably more research is needed to determine the manner in which motivational and other attention-directing variables combine with stimulus contiguity to facilitate or impede observational learning.

Although imitation has received considerable attention in psychological theorizing, and the influential role of vicarious experiences in social learning has been widely acknowledged, surprisingly little research designed to elucidate this important, but poorly understood, process has been conducted. There has been a substantial increase in the past few years, however, in the amount of research devoted to systematic experimental analyses of vicarious learning phenomena. A number of evaluative reviews of the major theoretical issues, research strategies, and findings pertaining to observational learning in both human and animal subjects have been recently published (Bandura 1965b; Bandura & Walters 1963; Hall 1963). Some of the main empirical findings are summarized in the remainder of this article.

Three effects of the observation of models

Exposure to the behavior of models may have three rather different behavioral effects on an observer’s subsequent behavior.

Modeling effect

A subject may acquire patterned responses that did not previously exist in his behavioral repertoire by observing the behavior of another person. In demonstrating this modeling effect experimentally, the model exhibits responses that the observer has not yet learned to make and must later reproduce in substantially identical form.

For example, in an experiment (Bandura 1962) designed to study the social transmission of aggression, young children witnessed an adult model who exhibited highly novel physical and verbal aggressive responses. In order to compare the relative efficacy of real-life and symbolic models, one group of children observed real-life models, a second group viewed the same models presented on film, while children in a third group were shown a film in which a cartoon character displayed the same pattern of behavior. Two control groups of children were also included, one observing no models and the other witnessing the adult displaying inhibited and nonaggressive behavior. After exposure to the models, all children were mildly frustrated, and measures were obtained of the amount of imitative and nonimitative aggression they exhibited in a new setting with the model absent.

The children who had observed the aggressive models displayed a great number of precisely imitative aggressive responses, whereas such responses rarely occurred in either the nonaggressive-model group or the control group. In addition, the results indicated that filmed displays are essentially as effective as real-life models in transmitting novel response patterns.

Inhibitory and disinhibitory effects

Exposure to the behavior of others may also strengthen or weaken inhibitory responses in the observer. In the experiment to which reference has just been made, children who witnessed the aggressive models, regardless of whether they were presented in real-life or symbolic form, subsequently displayed approximately twice as much aggression as subjects in the control group or those who observed behav-iorally inhibited models.

A series of experiments by Blake and his associates (1958) demonstrates the influence of models in reducing inhibitions to social deviation. In these studies, accomplices of the experimenter violated traffic signals or signs prohibiting certain types of behavior. Subjects who observed the deviating models more readily performed the transgressions than subjects who observed conforming models.

The occurrence of inhibitory and disinhibitory effects is significantly influenced by whether the model experiences reward or punishment as a consequence of his behavior. These consequences may either occur immediately after the model’s responses or be inferred from certain discriminative symbols, attributes, and skills possessed by the model that tend to be regularly correlated with differential reinforcements.

The manner in which these consequences of the model’s behavior enhance or inhibit imitation is demonstrated in an experiment (Bandura et al. 1963) in which children observed an adult model being either rewarded or punished following displays of aggression. Subjects who witnessed the aggressive model being rewarded showed more imitative behavior and more preference for emulating the successful aggressor, even though they disapproved of his actions, than children who observed the aggressive model being punished, who both failed to reproduce his behavior and rejected him as a model for emulation. Thus, the rewarding consequences of the model’s behavior outweighed the acquired value systems of the observers.

In an experiment conducted by Walters, Leat, and Mezei (1963), kindergarten children were first shown an assortment of attractive toys with which they were forbidden to play. Children who later saw a film in which a child was rewarded after playing with the forbidden toys subsequently deviated more readily than subjects who saw the film-mediated model being punished, whereas control children showed an intermediate degree of resistance to deviation.

Inhibition or disinhibition of social behavior is frequently mediated by conditioned fear responses. A series of experiments by Berger (1962) demonstrates how emotional responses may be acquired vicariously without the observer’s receiving any direct aversive stimulation. In each study one person, the performer or model, participated in a classical conditioning procedure in which a buzzer was sounded and, shortly thereafter, an electric shock was supposedly administered to the model, who feigned pain reactions by jerking his arm away from the source of the “shock” and wincing. The observers who witnessed the performer undergoing the conditioning trials exhibited conditioned psychogalvanic skin responses to the buzzer alone, although they had not experienced the electric shock directly.

Although vicarious conditioning by this procedure has been clearly demonstrated, wide individual differences in the rate and magnitude of vicariously acquired emotional responses have been noted. Further research is needed, therefore, to identify the variables that contribute to this learning process.

Response-facilitating effects

In addition to transmitting new response patterns and strengthening or weakening inhibition of existing repertoires, the behavior of models may serve as eliciting stimuli for previously learned responses that match precisely or resemble closely those exhibited by the model. Response facilitation effects can be distinguished from disinhibition when the behavior in question is not likely to have incurred punishment and any observed increase in responsivity is therefore not attributable to the reduction of inhibitory responses.

Determinants of imitative phenomena

The initial laboratory investigations of imitation were primarily concerned with isolating the different behavioral effects of exposure to models on observers. Current research in this area is directed primarily toward identifying the variables that govern the occurrence and magnitude of imitative behavior.

Characteristics of the model

Evidence is accumulating to indicate that the characteristics of the model partly determine the extent to which matching responses will be exhibited by observers. A model’s social power, competence, tendency to reward, and esteemed position in an age-grade or prestige hierarchy tend to be positively associated with imitation. As mentioned earlier, the characteristics of the consequences of the model’s responses are also highly influential in promoting response matching.

Mode of model presentation

It is often mistakenly assumed that imitative learning phenomena are largely confined to younger age groups and to stimulus situations in which real-life models exhibit, intentionally or unwittingly, particular social response patterns. Once a person has developed an adequate verbal repertoire, increasing reliance is placed on symbolic models. Pictorial stimuli and verbal statements that describe the appropriate responses and their sequencing constitute prevalent means of providing symbolic models. Indeed, without the response guidance furnished by instructional manuals and social codes of behavior, members of a society would be forced to engage in exceedingly tedious and often hazardous trial-and-error experimentation. Studies concerned with the relationship between imitation and mode of model presentation suggest that the imitative process is essentially the same regardless of whether the model’s behavior is exhibited through demonstration, pictorial presentation, or verbal description.

Characteristics of the observer

Characteristics of the observers, deriving from their previous social-learning histories, also influence the degree to which imitative behavior occurs. Persons who are dependent, are emotionally aroused, lack self-esteem, or believe themselves to be similar to the model in some attributes are especially prone to imitate successful models. Once imitative responses have been acquired, their maintenance, persistence, and generalization can be effectively controlled by reinforcers administered directly to the observer.

Since attending behavior is a necessary prerequisite to imitative learning, a systematic analysis of motivational and incentive variables that facilitate, impede, or channel observing responses would throw considerable light on this particular mode of response acquisition. Continued exploration of these factors, as well as of the learning parameters mentioned earlier, promises to provide the type of data that will eventually permit adequate explanation, prediction, and control of the vicarious psychological processes commonly subsumed under the general term “social imitation.”

Albert Bandura

[See alsoIdentity, psychosocial; Imprinting. Other relevant material may be found inLearning; Self concept; Socialization.]


Allport, Floyd H. 1924 Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bandura, Albert 1962 Social Learning Through Imitation. Volume 10, pages 211-269 in Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Edited by Marshall R. Jones. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Bandura, Albert 1965a Behavioral Modifications Through Modeling Procedures. Pages 310-340 in Leonard Krasner and Leonard P. Ullmann (editors), Research in Behavior Modification. New York: Holt.

Bandura, Albert 1965b Vicarious Processes: A Case of No-trial Learning. Volume 2, pages 1-55 in Leonard Berkowitz (editor), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press.

Bandura, Albert; and Huston, Aletha C. 1961 Identification as a Process of Incidental Learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63:311-318.

Bandura, Albert; Ross, Dorothea; and Ross, Sheila A. 1963 Vicarious Reinforcement and Imitative Learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 601-607.

Bandura, Albert; and Walters, R. H. 1963 Social Learning and Personality Development. New York: Holt.

Berger, Seymour M. 1962 Conditioning Through Vicarious Instigation. Psychological Review 69:450-466.

Blake, Robert R. 1958 The Other Person in the Situation. Pages 229-242 in Renato Tagiuri and Luigi Petrullo (editors), Person Perception and Interpersonal Behavior. Stanford (Calif.) Univ. Press.

Hall, K. R. L. 1963 Observational Learning in Monkeys and Apes. British Journal of Psychology 54:201-226.

Holt, E. B. 1931 Animal Drive and the Learning Process. Vol. 1. New York: Holt.

Humphrey, George 1921 Imitation and the Conditioned Reflex. Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology 28:1-21. → Now called the Journal of Genetic Psychology.

McDougall, William (1908) 1950 An Introduction to Social Psychology. 30th ed., enl. London: Methuen. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Barnes and Noble.

Miller, Neal E.; and Dollard, John 1941 Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Mowrer, Orval H. 1960 Learning Theory and the Symbolic Processes. New York: Wiley.

Piaget, Jean (1945) 1951 Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood. New York: Norton; London: Heine-mann. → First published as La formation du symbole chez l’enfant.

Sheffield, F. D. 1961 Theoretical Considerations in the Learning of Complex Sequential Tasks From Demonstration and Practice. Pages 13-32 in Arthur A. Lums-daine (editor), Student Responses in Programmed Instructions: A Symposium on Experimental Studies of Cue and Response Factors in Group and Individual Learning From Instructional Media. National Research Council Publication No. 943. Washington: National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council.

Tarde, Gabriel (1890) 1903 The Laws of Imitation. New York: Holt. → Translated from the second French edition of 1895.

Walters, Richard H.; Leat, Marion; and Mezei, Louis 1963 Inhibition and Disinhibition of Responses Through Empathetic Learning. Canadian Journal of Psychology 17:235-243.


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The act of mimicking or copying; also called modeling or social learning.

Unlike behaviorist models of learning through various forms of conditioning , imitation occurs naturally without outside stimulus or reward. In a child's early years, an enormous amount of learning is done through imitation of parents, peers, and modeling based on other stimuli, such as television. Imitative learning occurs in primates, both human and nonhuman, but has not conclusively been proved to exist in other species.

The foremost researcher in the area of imitative learning is Albert Bandura , whose work has focused on how modelingespecially the modeling of aggressive behavioraffects the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of children. Bandura's research revealed that imitation may result in the acquisition of new responses as well as the facilitation or inhibition of existing ones. While modeling will occur in situations where neither the observer nor the model is rewarded for performing a particular action, Bandura found that punishment and reward can have an effect on the modeling situation. A child will more readily imitate a model who is being rewarded for an act than one who is being punished. Thus, the child can learn without actually being rewarded or punished himselfa concept known as vicarious learning. Similarly, Bandura has shown that when a model is exposed to stimuli intended to have a conditioning effect, a person who simply observes this process, even without participating in it directly, will tend to become conditioned by the stimuli as well.

Further Reading

Meinhold, Patricia. Child Psychology: Development and Behavior Analysis. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1993.

Owens, Karen. The World of the Child. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1987.

Papalia, Diane E. A Child's World: Infancy through Adolescence. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.


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im·i·tate / ˈimiˌtāt/ • v. (often be imitated) take or follow as a model: his style was imitated by many other writers. ∎  copy (a person's speech or mannerisms), esp. for comic effect: she imitated my Scottish accent. ∎  copy or simulate: synthetic fabrics can now imitate everything from silk to rubber.DERIVATIVES: im·i·ta·ble / ˈimitəbəl/·i·ta·tor / -ˌtātər/ n.


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im·i·ta·tion / ˌimiˈtāshən/ • n. a thing intended to simulate or copy something else: [as adj.] an imitation diamond. ∎  the action of using someone or something as a model: a child learns to speak by imitation. ∎  an act of imitating a person's speech or mannerisms, esp. for comic effect: he attempted an atrocious imitation of my English accent. ∎  Mus. the repetition of a phrase or melody in another part or voice, usually at a different pitch.


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imitate XVI. f. pp. stem of L. imitārī copy, rel. to imāgō IMAGE and æmulārī EMULATE; see -ATE3.
So imitation XVI. — (O)F. or L. imitative XVI, — late L. imitator XVI. — L.


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imitation. Compositional device in part-writing involving repetition by one v. of more or less the phrase previously stated by another v. In canon and fugue, imitation is according to a strict regulated pattern.


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imitation imitation is the sincerest form of flattery often said in mitigation of apparent borrowing of someone's ideas; proverbial saying, early 19th century.
Imitation of Christ English name for Thomas à Kempis's manual of spiritual devotion De Imitatione Christi.


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imitation The acquisition of patterns of behaviour by repeating similar behaviour observed in others, not necessarily of the same species.


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imitation The acquisition of patterns of behaviour by repeating similar behaviour observed in others, not necessarily of the same species.