Observational conditioning refers to the finding that when people observe another person’s reaction to a certain stimulus, their own behaviour toward that stimulus changes. This learning effect is thought to play a vital role in many aspects of daily life. For example, observing someone’s fear in the presence of an animal increases the observer’s fear of the animal as well. It is often assumed that effects like these result from the formation of simple associative links (between the stimulus and the person’s reaction) in the memory of the observer. We are the first to systematically examine the alternative idea that these effects arise because people use their observations to make inferences about the properties of stimuli.
First, we test whether observational conditioning effects can be reduced or eliminated by discrediting (via instructions) the beliefs on which potentially crucial inferences are based. Second, we investigate whether mere instructions about observations can also lead to a change in behaviour, and whether these instructed effects are similar to experience-based effects. Finally, we explore the relation between observational conditioning and persuasion by examining if observational conditioning is influenced by the same moderators as the impact of persuasive messages. Testing these predictions will not only expand our theoretical and empirical knowledge about this important learning phenomenon, but is also bound to have important practical implications.