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The process of learning by watching others; a therapeutic technique used to effect behavioral change.

The use of modeling in psychotherapy was influenced by the research of social learning theorist Albert Bandura, who studied observational learning in children, particularly in relation to aggression. Bandura pioneered the concept of vicarious conditioning, by which one learns not only from the observed behavior of others but also from whether that behavior is rewarded or punished. Bandura concluded that certain conditions determine whether or not people learn from observed behavior. They must pay attention and retain what they have observed, and they must be capable of and motivated to reproduce the behavior. The effects of observed behavior are also stronger if the model has characteristics similar to those of the observer or is particularly attractive or powerful (the principle behind celebrity endorsements). Bandura maintained that television offered a major source of modeling, educating thousands of people to drink certain sodas or use brand name soaps. Likewise, violence and death modeled on television influenced behaviors, according to some social learning who cite the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. John Hinckley made the attempt after watching Taxi Driver 15 times. Four girls testified in court that they watched Born Innocent before raping a California girl with a bottle, similar to a scene in the movie. Other theorists counter that television provides a release, rather than a modeling for aggressive behavior. In one study, researchers found that juvenile boys who watched aggressive television shows were less likely to exhibit violence than juvenile boys who did not.

Critics of modeling as an explanation for violent behavior maintain that the theory does not allow for differences in genetics, brain functioning and learning differences. Critics of the Bandura's findings on aggression maintain that the methods employed led to the outcome, including high frustration levels of children because they were not allowed to touch the toys.

As a therapeutic technique for changing one's behavior, modeling has been especially effective in the treatment of phobias. As with systematic desensitization, an individual is exposed to the feared object or situation in progressively anxiety-provoking forms. However, this series of confrontations, instead of being imagined or experienced directly, is first modeled by another person. In symbolic modeling, the person receiving treatment has also had relaxation training, and his or her task is to watch the series of modeled situations (live or on film) while remaining relaxed. As soon as a situation or action provokes anxiety, it is discontinued and the observer returns to a state of relaxation. In another effective technique, "live modeling with participation," the observer actively imitates the behavior of a live model in a series of confrontations with a feared object or situation. For example, persons being treated to overcome fear of snakes watch and imitate a model. They gradually progress from touching a snake with a gloved hand to retrieving a loose snake bare-handed and letting it crawl on their bodies.

In individual therapy sessions, the therapist may model anxiety-producing behaviors while the client, remaining relaxed, first watches and then imitates them. In therapy involving social skills and assertiveness training, this technique may take the form of behavioral rehearsal, in which the therapist models and then helps the client practice new, more socially adaptive behaviors.

Beyond phobias, modeling has wide application in therapy. Therapists use the modeling technique to illustrate healthy behaviors that clients can learn by example and practice in session. With children, the therapist models a variety of responses to difficult situations. In the situation of dealing with a classroom bully, the therapist models alternate responses in the context of a role play, where the therapist acts as the child initially and the child assumes the role of the bully. Then roles reverse. The child practices the behavior and responses modeled while the therapist portrays the bully. In couples' therapy, modeling is used to teach listening and communications skills. With quarreling couples, the therapist models responses to facilitate resolution rather than spiral the discussion downward into name-calling. Modeling has also been used effectively in anger management and in abuse cases.

Schools offer one of the largest arenas for modeling where teachers first demonstrate the behavior they seek, be it classroom decorum or how to work a long division problem. Bandura maintains that self-efficacy may be influenced by modeling. A behavior modeled increases the student's belief about what is possible, enhancing the student's ability to accomplish the task set forth.

See also Imitation

Further Reading

Bandura, Albert. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1997.

Decker, Phillip J. and Nathan, Barry R. Behavior Modeling Training: Principles and Application. New York: Praeger, 1985.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaLearning & Memory