Vicarious Reinforcement Explained with Examples

Vicarious reinforcement example
Vicarious reinforcement is a form of learning behavior through rewards and punishments. We will study this concept in greater detail and understand how it forms an important part of the learning process.
Did You Know?
The Bobo Doll Experiment by Albert Bandura (1961) is one of the most important experiments that was designed to study the role of observation and imitation in the learning of behavior.
Vicarious reinforcement forms an important part of Albert Bandura's 'Social Learning Theory' and highlights the learning by imitation model of learning. This theory suggests that people learn to imitate or avoid certain behavior patterns by observing whether others are being rewarded or punished for the same behavior.

This is a very interesting theory that sheds light on how learning takes place. In this Buzzle article, we will understand this concept in greater detail and provide examples of the same.
The Workings
Woman receiving an award
There are several ways in which human beings learn behavior; one of the main ways in which behavior is learned and retained is with the help of reinforcements. Reinforcements can be of two types, positive and negative. In the former, a positive behavior is encouraged by providing rewards for the same and in the latter, negative behavior is discouraged by providing punishments for the same.
Human beings also learn through observation and imitation. In that, we observe others' behavior patterns and learn to thereby follow or avoid certain behavioral traits. It is in this context that the third form of reinforcement, known as vicarious reinforcement features. This reinforcement occurs when a particular behavior is either imitated and modeled or avoided and discarded based on the rewards or punishments that are given to a model (the person who is being observed).
Positive Vicarious Reinforcement

This form of vicarious reinforcement occurs when the subject imitates a particular behavior after the model's behavior is rewarded for carrying it through.


Tim and John have been asked to arrange the books in the library. While John is going about his work, Tim is slacking off. The librarian notices this. Instead of reprimanding Tim about slacking, she praises John for the excellent job done. Tim therefore learns that doing a job well will earn him praise and he sets about imitating the good behavior.

Negative Vicarious Reinforcement

This form of vicarious reinforcement occurs when the subject discards a particular behavior after the model's behavior is punished for carrying it through.


Sara is watching Pam while she's throwing stones at the rose shrub. She wants to do the same. Before she has a chance to join her, Mrs. Patmore sees Pam and gives her sound hearing for attempting to destroy the rose shrub. Watching this, Sara drops the stones from her hand and returns home. Sara has learned that this behavior will earn her a scolding, just as it did for Pam and avoids that behavior.
Why Does it Work
Lesson from father
Vicarious reinforcement works because we are wired to learn by observation and imitation. People imitate and model someone whom they look up to, or someone who possesses a quality or feature that they themselves wish to own. Therefore, they are able to associate themselves to that person and want to be like them. This is especially true of parent-children, older sibling-younger sibling, or teacher-student relations, among others.
This is the reason why advertisements that feature celebrities or people whom you can relate to, work so well. You look up to these people and want to be like them. Which is the reason why you want to follow what they're following and buy what they are buying.
Vicarious Reinforcement Examples
Example # 1

A toddler eats all his spinach so that he can become strong and muscular, just like his favorite cartoon character―Popeye the Sailor Man.

Example # 2

Jill notices that her roommate, Nina's grades are improving since she's joined a study group. So she joins one herself in the hopes of improving her scores as well.

Example # 3

Colin is tempted to cheat on the class test, but after he witnesses Ryan being caught doing the same and being sent to the principal's cabin, he decides never to try that again.

Example # 4

Chloe learns to finish all her homework in the afternoon so that she is allowed to watch her favorite cartoon on TV. Watching her, Lola learns to do the same as well.

Example # 5

Jack notices how Tim always wins the employee of the month award because he's always jovial and polite to the customers and asks after them. He decides to become friendlier henceforth.
Vicarious reinforcement can be brought about through rewards and punishments that involve money, praise, materialistic things, or emotions―the giving or taking away of the same. It is a concept that we have all been making use of since our very birth and is key in showing how learning takes place.