Vicarious Reinforcement: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 What Is Vicarious…
  • 0:59 Use of Vicarious Reinforcement
  • 3:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Vidhi Desai
Stickers, praise, and sweet treats - what do they have in common? The fact that they can all be used for vicarious reinforcement! When two people are given the same task, and one is excelling and the other is slacking, one way to push the slacker to do more is to reward the positive behavior of the other person. Learn more in this lesson!

What Is Vicarious Reinforcement?

Let's split up the words 'vicarious reinforcement.' For something to be vicarious, it has to be something that is experienced through another person. For example, many parents want to live vicariously through their children, hence why they may push their children to do the things they never got to do like pursue medical or law school. In psychology, reinforcement is a way to recognize and reward desirable behavior in hopes that it will continue. Now let's put the two together: vicarious reinforcement is our tendency to repeat or duplicate behaviors for which others are being rewarded.

Imagine this: You and a coworker are given the same task to do. One day, you feel particularly lazy and are struggling to focus on the task at hand. Your supervisor comes in and notices, but instead of reprimanding you, she praises and thanks your coworker for continuing to be diligent. She mentions how she will not forget his work ethic during next week's performance review. You start to pick up the pace.

Use of Vicarious Reinforcement

As you can see, vicarious reinforcement may be used at times that someone is acting out in a mild or non-destructive way. This method would not work if a person had issues with authority or had other underlying issues. While this was a productive use of vicarious reinforcement, some may misuse this strategy. Let's look at some more examples.

Here is an example of the productive use of vicarious reinforcement:

Jen and Kelly are both in first grade. They both have to work on puzzles individually, but they are sitting next to each other. The teacher sees that Jen is just turning the pieces upside down and then right-side up over and over again. Kelly, however, is actually trying to put the pieces together, although with limited success. The teacher comes over to both of them and says 'Kelly, it's great that you are trying. That's the only way to piece the puzzle together! Here's a sticker for your effort.' Jen notices and attempts to put the puzzle together as well.

When used correctly, vicarious reinforcement is a motivator.

Here is an example of questionable use of vicarious reinforcement:

Tim is a little league football player who is being rewarded and praised for acting aggressively and using his anger in the game. Seeing this, his teammates think this is a desirable way to act. They start following suit.

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