How the term 'role model' came into being cover image

How the term 'role model' came into being

Dorian Minors • October 23, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

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 (or inhibit behaviour) after watching someone else do that same thing. He even noted that we tended to imitate behaviour following watching a film or a cartoon of certain behaviour. He 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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;
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Bandura for President Bandura for President. Seriously, what a swell guy.

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.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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