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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 modeling—especially the modeling of aggressive behavior—affects 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 himself—a 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.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaLearning & Memory