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How we acquire behaviours and habits without intentionally engaging in training


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Sometimes we are curious about our habits, as to why we do somethings we do or how we behave the way we do. What makes the child fear a snake even without directly experiencing any harm from it, why a girl who lives close to a woman that gets beaten by her husband fears or disdains marriage, how and why we can learn faster, etc. How did we  learn the habits we didn’t intentionally wish to learn? Psychologists – Behaviourists to be specific have empirical explanations to all of these. With this understanding, you will gain awareness about why you or others do what they do and this will accelerate our abilities to alter some of the unwanted behaviours we “unintentionally” learned and how we can easily imbibe in others behaviours, skills and other acts we want them to learn. Most importantly, we will get to understand how strong social influence is in shaping our attitudes and behaviours. We are indeed  social beings who easily get influenced by other people without significant effort or intent to act like those people we observe. How this happens is what this article is all about.

There are many explanations as to how social interaction shape our behaviours however, I will be discussing two major concepts that explain how are Behaviors shaped through observing other people’s Behaviors and the consequences of their Behaviors.

First one is Vicarious Conditioning

In Bandura’s Bobo Doll study, Bandura found that children who saw the adult rewarded for aggression showed the most aggressive acts in play. This is known as viicarious conditioning; which refers to a kind of observational learning through which a person is influenced by watching or hearing about the consequences of others’ behavior. The children who had seen the adult punished for aggressive acts showed less aggression, but they still learned something. When later offered rewards for all the filmed aggressive acts they could perform, these children displayed just as many of these acts as the children who watched the adult being rewarded. Observational learning can occur even when there are no vicarious consequences; many children in the neutral condition also imitated the model’s aggression. Like direct reward and punishment, observational learning is a powerful force in the socialization process through which children learn about which behaviors are and are not appropriate in their culture (Bandura, 1999). For example, children show longterm increases in their willingness to help and share after seeing a demonstration of helping by a friendly, impressive model (Schroeder et al., 1995). Fears, too, can be learned partly by watching fearfulness in others (Kleinknecht, 1991).

For instance, children who observe influential set of people get away with certain criminal acts may be found performing similar acts because the consequences of those people’s behaviors are not aversive. Sometimes when these people get arrested, they still through other despicable acts find their way out of the mess. Same thing applies to parents who admonish their children to be less aggressive but demonstrates the aggression. The child learns that the consequences of those aggressive behaviors appear to serve as a defense mechanism that enables a person to escape embarrassment and achieve particular aim through strong assertiveness that could be aggressive.

Using this procedure to our advantage, it is important that we pay close attention to the videos we let our children see. The people they hang out with and even ensure that our behaviours as parents demonstrate the values we want to imbibe in the children. Let the instructions you give to the children match with the actions you display. For instance, if you are teaching a child to always clean his or her room, ensure that you do the same and you motivate everyone around the house to do the same. Anyone who fails to do it should receive a sort of aversive stimulus that shows to the child practically that being unhygienic is not tolerated in the house. If you are trying to imbibe in a teenager to be more prosocial and diligent, ensure that others who exhibit the same act in the house are well compensated. This will help the teenager acquire such habit vicariously without you putting too much effort of instructing the teenager “too” assertively.

Related article: Theories and framework that explain human behaviour and productivity

The Second one is Vicarious Classical Conditioning

In vicarious classical conditioning, the observers’ vicariously elicited emotional responses become conditioned, through contiguous associations, to formerly neutral stimuli. In other words, an individual who observes others will start responding in the same way as others who were involved in the actual learning. This differs from vicarious conditioning because it involves activating an emotional response to a neutral stimulus after associating such a neutral stimulus to an unconditioned stimulus. This is not as complex as it appears. Let me cite an example. Imagine every night the generator is switched on, your uncle walks into the sitting room. This implies that the generator comes on when your uncle is around. Maybe when he returns from work, he goes to the back yard to switch on the generator before walking into the main house. Therefore the generator becomes a neutral stimulus that signals the presence of your uncle. So whenever you hear the sound of the generator especially at night, you know that your uncle is around.

So that is how classical conditioning works. It becomes vicarious when you observe say, your uncle’s wife’s wif response to the sound of the generator by rushing to the dining table to set your uncle’s food on the table. That way, you have learned through her to attach the sound of the generator to the arrival of your uncle. To the point that you don’t have to see her set the table, so far you hear the generator sound, you know your uncle is back.  I hope this analogy has given you a better insight into what vicarious classical conditioning is about.

One of the earliest laboratory investigations of this process was reported by Kriazhev (1934), who conditioned one animal in each of seven pairs of dogs to stimuli presented in conjunction with food or electric shock, whilst the other pair observed the procedure. The observing dogs rapidly developed salivary responses to the signal for food, and conditioned agitation and respiratory changes to the signal for food, and conditioned agitation and respiratory changes to that for a shock. However, this report does not contain sufficient information on the details of the experimental procedure to determine whether the observers’ reactions to the conditioned stimulus were tested in the absence of the models.

In laboratory investigations of Vicarious Classical Conditioning in humans (Barnett & Benedetti, 1960) the observer / model typically undergoes an aversive conditioning process in which a formerly neutral stimulus is presented, and shortly thereafter the model displays pain cues and other emotional reactions supposedly in response to an unconditioned aversive stimulus. If an observer witnesses the model undergoing this conditioning procedure ,the observer will also begin to exhibit emotional responses to the conditioned stimulus alone, even though he has not himself experienced the aversive stimulation directly the neutral stimulus is presented, and shortly thereafter the model displays pain cues and other emotional reactions supposedly in response to an unconditioned aversive stimulus. If an observer witnesses the model undergoing this conditioning process ,the observer will also begin to exhibit emotional responses to the conditioned stimulus alone, even though he has not himself experienced the aversive stimulation directly.

Also, Berger (1962) has shown in his study that observers displayed a higher degree of conditioned responses when they “know” that the models were receiving aversive stimulation or when they saw the models show avoidance responses. This study was about 4 different groups of participants, the observers were informed that the first group was receiving an electric shock whenever the light dimmed, the dimming of the light was however proceeded by a buzzer sound which served as the conditioned stimulus. The second group received no shock but showed voluntary arm movement. The two other groups received shock but showed no overt response, and the other group received no shock nor showed any movement.

Individual differences tend to influence acquisition rate and stability of vicariously acquired conditioned responses. Therefore variables that influence an observer’s general level of emotional arousal are likely to enhance or impede vicarious learning. Findings have as well established that vicarious conditioning would likewise be positively related to the degree of psychologically induced arousal.

Investigations have shown the function of direct aversive classical conditioning as a function of subjects’ arousal. Subjects’ arousal is either manipulated by varying the intensity of unconditioned and stressor stimuli or examined in terms of personality measures or emotional susceptibility.

The implication of this is that vicarious classical conditioning is influenced by individual differences (including their emotional proneness) and the nature of the condition experience. This influences how soon the observed learn through the process and how soon the learning diminishes. The condition observed by the observers must arouse their emotion, it is through this that they acquire the responses displayed when the conditioned stimulus is presented.

Vicarious classical conditioning accounts for numerous behaviours acquired especially at a tender age because children are able to navigate their world through observing and making sense of those observations. It provides an explanation as to how behaviours spread across very fast and also how scapegoating works. For instance, say in a particular community, the people’s behaviours may get easily shaped not because they had to pay the penalty themselves but because they had observed others (who broke the laws) who expressed particular actions/emotions upon the sight of the officer or signposts that gave warnings about particular (illegal) behaviours. This would then instil in others the emotional response (fear) upon the sight of the officers or signposts which has been paired with an actual sanction.

Another example is how a child may also immediately run inside when the sound of the parents’ car horn is heard because the elder ones express emotional arousal and behaviours when they hear the horn out of fear of being caught playing outside or having too many friends inside the house.

Vicarious classical conditioning also accounts for why specific behaviours of interest are not easily imbibed by children. A child whose emotion is not necessarily aroused by the observation of other siblings’ attitude toward afternoon cues to carry their books. Maybe the book is paired with sweets, that is, sweets are shared with children who are reading. If the older children show low or no excitement to a conditioned stimulus (afternoon/books), it might retard the vicarious classical conditioning, that prompts the child to emulate such responses.

You may want to check out this article about the concept of human actions from a psychological perspective.  


This is a specific sequence of responses in which the completion of each response provides a cue to engage in the next response. For example, when an individual puts on a t-shirt, placement of the shirt on top of the individual’s head is a cue for the individual to pull the shirt over the head; having the shirt around the individual’s neck is a cue for the individual to put each arm through the armholes, etc. Other examples include independent living skills (e.g., brushing the hair, completing assignments etc.), carrying out daily routines such as cleaning the bedroom (e.g., dusting the windows/tables may be a cue for sweeping the floor, the latter perhaps a signal to go mop the floor; completion of this task may be a cue to go have a bath or cook dinner etc.), and following activity schedules.

Behaviour chains may as well be associated with disruptive behaviour. For example, knocking at the gate (and entering into the compound) may be a cue for walking into the sitting room, This may be a cue for laying out complaints about the unkempt areas of the house. In this situation, having the person enter into the house through a different entrance or with another mindset or walk directly toward a part of the house before going into the sitting room may prevent the tantrum behaviour.

To teach a behaviour chain, a complex skill or sequence of behaviours is first broken down into smaller units that may be easier to learn than the entire chain. For example, if a child is being taught how to be respectful, the first step taught is to learn to greet the parents, following greeting every member of the house, following greeting outsiders when at occasions, then learning to talk kindly to younger ones and then to others, etc.

Chaining has three strategies. The instructor then chooses one of these three strategies:

Forward chaining: Here, the steps of the sequence of behaviour in the task are taught in temporal order (first step to the last). Thus, in the example of teaching respectful behaviours, the instructor would focus on teaching the individual to greet the parents first thing every morning. When this step is mastered, then on greeting every older person in the house etc.  Following the completion of each step, some reward (reinforcer) is provided for completion. This reinforcer could be a pleasant smile, chocolate etc.

Backward chaining: In backward chaining, the last step in the chain is taught first (e.g., talking to other people kindly). Once learned, the second to last step is taught (e.g., talking kindly to younger ones) followed by the third to last etc. The potential advantage of backward chaining is that the learner always “knows” what the next step is whenever a new step is learned. For instance, the child first learns to talk nicely to younger ones.

Total presentation:  In total task (or whole task) presentation, a child is guided or prompted through the entire behaviour chain without requiring that each step is learned before proceeding to the next. As the child learns each step, the guidance or prompting is removed. For instance, a child is motivated to talk nicely to younger ones; he or she may at the same time be taught to greet the parents, the teaching/instruction comes to vary across contexts.

With this information, we must have been enlightened on how to guide our actions and strategies in training students, children and every individual in a position to learn; acquire a set of behaviours and or skills.


Albert Bandura (1965). Vicarious Processes. Advan. In Experimental Soc. Psychology, Vol 1. .

Berger, S., (1961) Incidental learning through vicarious instigation. Pychol. Rev. 69, 450-466

ASAT (2019)  Behavior Chaining. Association for Science in Autism Treatment.  Retrieved from:

Schachter, S., & Singer, J., (1962). Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychol. Rev. 69, 379-399

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