“After all, you can’t imitate something that’s never been done before.”
In psychology, observational learning describes the process we use to learn from another person’s behavior. Dr. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory breaks this process down into four key steps:
- Attention – awareness of a behavior that can be imitated
- Retention – the remembering of that behavior
- Reproduction – the ability to perform that behavior
- Motivation – the will to perform that behavior 
This ability of learning through imitation we have as humans allows us to learn all sorts of skills behaviors. Often, we’re not fully aware of behaviors we learned through observation: like learning to walk as a young child after observing how others do it. As we gain awareness, we can use our observational learning ability with much more intent.
For instance, When I first started playing ultimate, I remember looking up Brodie Smith’s “how to throw a forehand” video to learn the fundamentals of throwing forehand. I had to pay attention to how Brodie gripped the disc and snapped his wrist. I had to retain that knowledge as I grabbed my own disc to go outside and practice. I had to be physically capable of reproducing that snap with my own wrist (it probably wouldn’t have worked if my wrist was broken at the time). And I needed to motivated by the reward received for learning how to throw a forehand (playing better ultimate).
We use observational learning all the time in our daily lives. Just this morning, I attended yoga class for the first time and used observational learning to learn the moves from the instructor.
The problem with observational learning arises when we stop at imitation–when we limit our goals and our actions to mimicking someone else and never tap into our own creative potential. As Bruce Lee said, you need to “research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”
“Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”
You may or may not have noticed that this is my third straight post referencing Bruce Lee. The reason I love referencing Bruce Lee is that I view him as someone who was a master of expressing himself and I am seeking to become a master of expressing myself. One tactic I’ll use when I’m not sure how to act in a certain situation is ask “what would Bruce Lee do?” In doing so, I don’t seek to imitate the action he would take in my shoes. Rather, I’m seeking to understand how this particular master of self expression would act in my situation. Then, recognizing how I am different from Bruce Lee helps me uncover how I can act authentically in that situation. In applying observational learning this way, I absorb what is useful (the ability to express myself) rejecting what is useless (things Bruce Lee would do that I would never do) and adding what is essentially my own.
“It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it become rigid and stale. Understanding others…will help you become whole.”
– Iroh, Avatar the Last Airbender
Still, I try to be careful not to pull all my wisdom from a single source. As Iroh said in Avatar the Last Airbender, “It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it become rigid and stale. Understanding others…will help you become whole.” Indeed, this very idea of making connections between the wisdom, techniques, and ideas of seemingly disparate sources of knowledge is one of my primary reasons for writing this blog.
For example, consider that some of the best observational learners out there are competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee players. Melee is a video game that’s played more heavily than ever today, over 15 years after its release in 2001. Yet in just the past five or so years, the level of play of both the average competitive player and the top professionals have increased tremendously.
While there are many factors that have contributed to this, one key factors I identify is the abundance of video content for the game available online. There are tutorial videos for everything from the basics of competitive play to the most intricate technical skills. If you want to learn the best techniques for your character, you can instantly pull up a video of a top player who uses the same character as you, and observe what they do. Top players even share videos where they analyze matches, meaning you can learn how to be a better observational learner through observational learning.
With all this video content available, it’s easier than it’s ever been to imitate the way a top player plays. I would argue that the number one thing that separates the very best players from the rest is their creativity–their ability to continue exploring innovative ways to get just a little bit better. After all, you can’t imitate something that’s never been done before.
 McLeod, S. A. (2016). Bandura – social learning theory. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html