How the term 'role model' came into being

October 23, 2015

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After watching children beat the crap out of a clown doll, Albert Bandura was finally able to show people that we don't just learn by associating outcomes with events. We also learn from each...


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After watching children beat the crap out of a clown doll, Albert Bandura was finally able to show people that we don't just learn by associating outcomes with events. We also learn from each other. It seems obvious, but psychologists tended to stick to individual theories, and be blind to the other possibilities (like this nutter).

Bandura and his colleagues pioneered research into what has since been called 'observational learning' or 'social learning'. Essentially, they noted that people sometimes tended to behave in a certain way, or stop behaving in a certain way, after watching someone else do that same thing. He even noted that we tended to imitate the behaviour of actors in films, or cartoons.

In his infamous early experiments, he had actors beat up a clown doll. Children would watch the videos of these actors, and shortly after, would beat up the dolls themselves. The children were following the behaviour of these actors. They were using that behaviour as a model.

Bandura called anything we tended to imitate a 'model' and that is, in fact, where we get the term 'role model'. In particular however, research notes that four things must happen for a model to be influential:

  • We have to pay attention to it (obviously. We need to note the behaviour and it's consequences. We're more likely to attend to something if it's something we can relate to easily, or is similar to us (because of this and this).
  • We have to remember what happened (called retention). If we don't store some kind of internal representation of what happened, we can't reproduce it, leading me to our next point;
  • We have to be able to reproduce it. If we don't have the ability (mental or physical) to actually carry out the behaviour, then, uh, we won't do that.
  • We have the motivation to reproduce it too, though. If we don't have any reason to act that we, then we probably won't bother. But the motivation doesn't just need to come from observing that the model got rewarded. For example, in Bandura's doll experiments, they actually made the kids frustrated before they gave them alone time with the doll. That was enough to motivate the kids to be aggressive in the same way the model had.

Interestingly, humans are not the only creatures who can learn from others. It's well known that other primate species copy one another. So too, do many bird species. Part of the reason for this might be the complexity of the brain. Complex animals have brain structures that allow us to model the world in such great detail that we can predict the behaviour of others. We can percieve their intentions, because we can put ourselves in their shoes. This is called theory of mind. Other animals have less complicated brains than ours, but may be able to do something similar.

However, this can't be the only explanation. Honey bees can learn how to play football from one another. Their brains are absolutely miniscule. It seems unlikely that they have the computing capacity to engage in theory of mind.

There are certain neurons (cells) in the brain that respond specifically to the actions of others. These are called "mirror neurons". When neurons fire, they produce behaviour. A particular pattern of neurons firing, for example, will make your finger wiggle. Another pattern would make your toe wiggle. When we watch someone else wiggle their finger, our "mirror neurons" fire in a pattern that reflects that, as if we ourselves were wiggling our finger. It may be that honey bees have a similar system.

Why is this useful?

Being able to learn from observing is very useful. Imagine if we were stuck learning everything through trial and error, association, or through reward and punishment. Observational learning lets us absorb a great deal, very quickly, from everyone around us. The problem then, is that not everything around us models the best behaviour. And since social learning is especially apparent in our children, it's up to you to moderate the influences in their lives because as George Carlin once wrote:

If your kid needs a role model and you ain't it, you're both f**ked.

Learn what happens when your role model starts to lose grip on reality (and you're stuck with them). Or learn how you can be your own role model, by talking to yourself (as long as you do it right). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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