3 Things Infants Learn Through Observational Learning: Study

observational learning

Can infants learn through “observational learning”? After all, we know one key way infants learn is by doing — touching and interacting with individuals and things. But what about just by watching?

However, a recent study published by I-LABS’ Anna Waismeyer and Andrew N Meltzoff in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology titled “Learning to make things happen: Infants’ observational learning of social and physical causal events,” came to a different conclusion: “Infants can learn cause and effect relations by observing the consequences of others’ interactions with both people and objects.” (See video here)

It’s called Observational Causal Learning, and the team conducted three experiments:

  • Experiment 1 assessed infants’ learning of a physical event in the absence of visible spatial contact between the causes and effects.
  • Experiment 2 developed a novel paradigm to assess whether infants could learn about a social causal event from third-party observation of a social interaction between two people.
  • Experiment 3 compared learning of physical and social events when the outcomes occurred probabilistically (happening some, but not all, of the time).

Observational Learning: 3 Things Infants Can Learn Just by Watching

The results show three things infants can learn just by watching:

  1. Children can learn causal relations just by watching someone’s causal interventions, even in the absence of spatial contact or linguistic descriptions.
  2. Children can learn just by “‘eavesdropping’ on social interactions between other people” — by watching individuals interact with another adult — by “
  3. Children even can learn based on probability — when events sometimes occur and sometimes don’t (the authors’ example: When a child asks her mother for an apple, sometimes she gets one, and sometimes she doesn’t).

The authors’ conclusion: “Observational causal learning is a powerful mechanism in early childhood development.”

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