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Strengthening Communities by Walking the Walk

Observational learning may save our communities.

Key points

  • Observational learning is a proven process for influencing behavior.
  • Simply using reward and punishment to change behavior, both individually and at the community level, is not enough.
  • To foster resilience and cooperation in communities, those actions must be modeled, even showcased.
Johnhain/ Pixabay
Source: Johnhain/ Pixabay

It has been said America is in crisis. Arguably some of the greatest gems of American society, our cities, are in crisis. Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, Portland, and even New York appear to be struggling. Political vitriol, economic challenges, social upheaval, homelessness, and escalating crime seem too commonplace. While we wait for our elected leaders to fashion a remedy, perhaps we can work on our own behalf to foster resilience and even move forward. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Be the peace you want to see in the world.” The implication is that if we act individually to make the world a better place, we may reach a critical mass, a “tipping point” where a significant change can be realized.

But there is more than additive mathematics to this mechanism of change. Mahatma Gandhi is credited with saying “We but mirror the world.” Science tells us we do indeed mirror the world around us. In fact, we learn how to behave, situationally, and how to live our lives trans-situationally through a process called “observational learning.” Perhaps, before we expect others to change, we should “be the change we want to see in others.” Perhaps by acting individually to foster respect, cooperation, and support, we may serve as role models fostering better communities through the science of observational learning.

How We Learn

Science tells us that human beings acquire new behaviors through three mechanisms:

  1. reinforcement
  2. punishment
  3. observational learning.

Observational learning is the term that refers to learning by observing and then mimicking the attitudes and actions of others. Observational learning is arguably the most efficient and likely the most effective form of learning if followed by reinforcement, especially with the acquisition of otherwise novel behavior as well as the refinement of previously acquired behavior

Observational Learning

Observational learning has nothing less than profound implications for individual and group resilience in the wake of crisis, as well as community well-being as a whole. Dr. Albert Bandura is credited with underscoring the power of observational learning. Community violence is increasing. Two of America's greatest cities have been referred to as “lawless” by their own leadership. Between 1961 and 1963, Bandura demonstrated that even children as young as ages roughly 3 years to 5 years would learn “aggressive” behavior by watching aggression modeled by others.

Later research on vandalism and criminality revealed the observation of visible signs of vandalism, civil disorder, and perhaps more serious crimes “give permission” to repeat those actions. On the other hand, well-maintained communities send a message that those who reside therein are collaborative and possess the determination and agency to support one another.

Lastly, the world of advertising was turned upside down when it realized that consumers were more likely to buy certain products and act in the ways they saw portrayed on TV and in the movies than by the traditional advertising commercials linked to those same productions. The lesson: If we want to change behavior, portray it on the screen, don’t simply advertise it as desirable.

In Sum

A core premise in Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant book Tipping Point is that small changes can lead to much bigger ones. The prime mechanism in such replicative behavior is observational learning. No, harnessing the power of observational learning by being respectful, forgiving, considerate, and supportive of others will not cure all of the ills of society, but it could be a meaningful start. Rather than wait for our leaders to provide direction, perhaps it’s time to “be the change we want to see in others” and in doing so we begin to change our communities and even the world.

© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., 2022.


Understanding Observational Learning: An Interbehavioral Approach, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior

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