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Cognition. 2013 Jul;128(1):26-34. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.03.004. Epub 2013 Apr 10.

Observational learning without a model is influenced by the observer's possibility to act: evidence from the Simon task.

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Department of Communication and Economics, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Reggio Emilia, Italy.


We assessed whether observational learning in perceptual-motor tasks is affected by the visibility of an action producing perceived environmental effects and by the observer's possibility to act during observation. To this end, we conducted three experiments in which participants were required to observe a spatial compatibility task in which only the effects of computer-generated responses were visible before executing a Simon task. In Experiment 1, we compared the effects of a passively observed practice with either a spatially compatible or incompatible stimulus-response (S-R) association. In Experiment 2, during the observed spatially incompatible practice participants were prevented from potentially acting, either because a plexiglas barrier separated the participant from the response device rendering it out of reach; or because the participant's hands were tied; or the device affording a response was absent. In Experiment 3, the plexiglas presented an opening that could allow the participant to potentially reach and interact with it. As when the practice is physically performed, we found an elimination of the Simon effect following a spatially incompatible observed practice, suggesting that participants learned an incompatible S-R association by observing and transferred this knowledge to the subsequent Simon task. No evidence of transfer of learning was found when, during passive observation, the participant's hands were tied, or a barrier prevented him/her from potentially interacting with the device, or no response device was present. Differently, a transfer-of-learning effect was observed when the barrier presented an opening. These results suggest that learning can derive from the mere observation of action effects, even when an action is not visible, as long as the observer has the potential to act.

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