Modeling 968
Photo by: Bonita R. Cheshier


Modeling, which is also called observational learning or imitation, is a behaviorally based procedure that involves the use of live or symbolic models to demonstrate a particular behavior, thought, or attitude that a client may want to acquire or change. Modeling is sometimes called vicarious learning, because the client need not actually perform the behavior in order to learn it.


Modeling therapy is based on social learning theory. This theory emphasizes the importance of learning from observing and imitating role models, and learning about rewards and punishments that follow behavior. The technique has been used to eliminate unwanted behaviors, reduce excessive fears, facilitate learning of social behaviors, and many more. Modeling may be used either to strengthen or to weaken previously learned behaviors.

Modeling has been used effectively to treat individuals with anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder , specific phobias , obsessive-compulsive disorder , eating disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder , and conduct disorder . It has also been used successfully in helping individuals acquire such social skills as public speaking or assertiveness. The effectiveness of modeling has led to its use in behavioral treatment of persons with substance abuse disorders, who frequently lack important behavioral skills. These persons may lack assertiveness, including the ability to say "no"; in addition, they may have thought patterns that make them more susceptible to substance abuse.

Modeling when used alone has been shown to be effective for short-term learning. It is, however, insufficient for long-lasting behavior change if the target behavior does not produce rewards that sustain it. Modeling works well when it is combined with role-play and reinforcement . These three components are used in a sequence of modeling, role-play, and reinforcement. Role-play is defined as practice or behavioral rehearsal of a skill to be used later in real-life situations. Reinforcement is defined as rewarding the model's performance or the client's performance of the newly acquired skill in practice or in real-life situations.

Several factors increase the effectiveness of modeling therapy in changing behaviors. Modeling effects have been shown to be more powerful when:

  • The model is highly skilled in enacting the behavior; is likable or admirable; is friendly; is the same sex and age; and is rewarded immediately for the performance of the particular behavior.
  • The target behavior is clearly demonstrated with very few unnecessary details; is presented from the least to the most difficult level of behavior; and several different models are used to perform the same behavior(s).


Types of modeling

Therapy begins with an assessment of the client's presenting problem(s). The assessment usually covers several areas of life, including developmental history (the client's family background, education, employment, social relationships); past traumatic experiences; medical and psychiatric history; and an outline of the client's goals. The client works with the therapist to list specific treatment goals; to determine the target behavior(s) to be learned or changed; and to develop a clear picture of what the behavior(s) will look like. The therapist then explains the rationale and concepts of the treatment. He or she also considers any negative consequences that may arise as the client makes changes in his or her behavior.

The client then observes the model enacting the desired behavior. Some models may demonstrate poor or inadequate behaviors as well as those that are effective. This contrast helps the client to identify ineffective behaviors as well as desired ones. Modeling can be done in several different ways, including live modeling, symbolic modeling, participant modeling, or covert modeling.

Live modeling refers to watching a real person, usually the therapist, perform the desired behavior the client has chosen to learn. For example, the therapist might model good telephone manners for a client who wants a job in a field that requires frequent telephone contact with customers.

Symbolic modeling includes filmed or videotaped models demonstrating the desired behavior. Other examples of symbolic models include photographs, picture books, and plays. A common example of symbolic modeling is a book for children about going to the hospital, intended to reduce a child's anxiety about hospitals and operations. With child clients, cartoon figures or puppets can be used as the models. Self-modeling is another form of symbolic modeling in which clients are videotaped performing the target behavior. The video is than replayed and clients can observe their behaviors and how they appear to others. For example, public speaking is one of the most common feared situations in the general adult population. A law student who is afraid of having to present arguments

Young girls in a ballet dancing class. The instructors are serving as live models, showing the girls a behavior that they are to imitate and practice. This is an example of learning through modeling. (Bob Krist/CORBIS. Photo reproduced by permission.)
Young girls in a ballet dancing class. The instructors are serving as live models, showing the girls a behavior that they are to imitate and practice. This is an example of learning through modeling.
(Bob Krist/CORBIS. Photo reproduced by permission.)
in a courtroom might be videotaped speaking to classmates who are role-playing the judge and members of the jury. The student can then review the videotape and work on his or her speech problems or other aspects of the performance that he or she would like to change.

In participant modeling, the therapist models anxiety-evoking behaviors for the client, and then prompts the client to engage in the behavior. The client first watches as the therapist approaches the feared object, and then approaches the object in steps or stages with the therapist'sencouragement and support. This type of modeling is often used in the treatment of specific phobias. For example, a person who is afraid of dogs might be asked to watch the therapist touch or pet a dog, or perhaps accompany the therapist on a brief walk with a dog. Then, with the therapist's encouragement, the client might begin by touching or holding a stuffed dog, then watching a live dog from a distance, then perhaps walking a small dog on a leash, and eventually by degrees touching and petting a live dog.

In covert modeling, clients are asked to use their imagination, visualizing a particular behavior as the therapist describes the imaginary situation in detail. For example, a child may be asked to imagine one of his or her favorite cartoon characters interacting appropriately with other characters. An adult client is asked to imagine an admired person in his or her life performing a behavior that the client wishes to learn. For example, a person may greatly admire his or her mother for the way she handled the challenges of coming to the United States from another country. If the client is worried about the challenge of a new situation (changing careers, having their first child, etc.), the therapist may ask him or her to imagine how their mother would approach the new situation, and then imagine themselves acting with her courage and wisdom.

Models in any of these forms may be presented as either a coping or a mastery model. The coping model is shown as initially fearful or incompetent and then is shown as gradually becoming comfortable and competent performing the feared behavior. A coping model might show a small child who is afraid of swimming in the ocean, for example. The little boy or girl watches smaller children having fun playing in the waves along the edge of the shore. Gradually the child moves closer and closer to the water and finally follows a child his or her age into the surf. The mastery model shows no fear and is competent from the beginning of the demonstration. Coping models are considered more appropriate for reducing fear because they look more like the client, who will probably make mistakes and have some setbacks when trying the new behavior.

Having the model speak his or her thoughts aloud is more effective than having a model who does not verbalize. As the models speak, they show the client how to think through a particular problem or situation. A common example of this type of modeling is sports or cooking instruction. A golf or tennis pro who is trying to teach a beginner how to hold and swing the club or racquet will often talk as they demonstrate the correct stance and body movements. Similarly, a master chef will often talk to students in a cooking class while he or she is cutting up the ingredients for a dish, preparing a sauce, kneading dough, or doing other necessary tasks. The model's talking while performing an action also engages the client's sense of hearing, taste, or smell as well as sight. Multisensory involvement enhances the client's learning.


Role-playing is a technique that allows the client opportunities to imitate the modeled behaviors, which strengthens what has been learned. Role-play can be defined as practice or behavior rehearsal; it allows the client to receive feedback about the practice as well as encouraging the use of the newly learned skill in real-life situations. For example, a group of people who are trying to learn social skills might practice the skills needed for a job interview or for dealing with a minor problem (returning a defective item to a store, asking someone for directions, etc.). Role-play can also be used for modeling, in that the therapist may role-play certain situations with clients. During practice, the therapist frequently coaches, prompts, and shapes the client's enactment of the behavior so that the rehearsals can come increasingly close to the desired behavior.

Feedback and social reinforcement of the client's performance in the practice phase is an important motivator for behavior change. Feedback may take the form of praise, approval, or encouragement; or it may be corrective, with concrete suggestions for improving the performance. Suggestions are followed by additional practice. Such tangible reinforcements as money, food, candy, or tokens have been used with young children and chronic psychiatric patients. The therapist may teach the client how to use self-reinforcement; that is, using self-praise after performing the desired behavior. The purpose of reinforcement is to shift the client's performance concerns from external evaluation by others to internal evaluation of their own efforts.

Modeling in group settings

Modeling has been shown to be effective in such group programs as social skills training and assertiveness training as well as in individual therapy. The general approach to both social skills training and assertiveness training is the incorporation of the modeling, role-play, and reinforcement sequence. After assessment of each group member's presenting problem, each member is asked to keep a diary of what happened when the situation occurred during the week. Group members develop goals for dealing with their individual situations, and each person determines how he or she can meet these goals. Modeling is done with either the therapist or other group members role-playing how to deal effectively with a particular problem situation.

Length of treatment

While modeling therapy is a relatively short-term approach to behavioral change, some therapeutic techniques take longer than others. Imagery, for example, requires more sessions than in vivo (real-life) treatments. In vivo work that takes place outside the therapist's office would require longer time periods for each session. Other considerations include the nature of the client's problem; the client's willingness to do homework; the client's financial resources; and the presence and extent of the client's support network. The therapist's length of experience and personal style also affect the length of therapy.

There are, however, guidelines of treatment length for some disorders. Treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder may require five weekly sessions for approximately three weeks, with weekly follow-up sessions for several months. Depressive disorders may require three to six months, with the client experiencing short-term relief after three to four weeks of treatment. General anxiety disorder may also take several months of weekly sessions. The length of treatment depends on the ability to define and assess the target behaviors. Clients may meet with the therapist several times a week at the beginning of treatment; then weekly for several months; then monthly for follow-up sessions that may become fewer in number or spaced more widely until therapy is terminated.

Normal results

Modeling or observational learning is effective as a method of learning such behaviors as self-assertion, self-disclosure, helping others, empathic behaviors, moral judgment, and many other interpersonal skills. Modeling is also effective in eliminating or reducing such undesirable behaviors as uncontrolled aggression, smoking, weight problems, and single phobias.

The expected outcome is that clients will be able to use their new behaviors outside the treatment setting in real-life situations. This result is called transfer of training, generalization, or maintenance. Homework is the most frequently used technique for transfer of training. Homework may represent a contractual agreement between the therapist and the client in which the client gives a report on his or her progress at each meeting.

To ensure that generalization occurs and that clients will use their new skills, several "tranfer enhancers" are used to increase the likelihood of successful transfer of training. Transfer enhancers include:

  • Giving clients appropriate rationales and concepts, rules, or strategies for using skills properly.
  • Giving clients ample opportunity to practice new skills correctly and successfully.
  • Making the treatment setting as much like the real-life situation as possible.
  • Giving clients opportunities to practice their new skills in a variety of physical and interpersonal settings.
  • Giving clients adequate external social reinforcement and encouraging internal self-reinforcement as they use their skills successfully in real life.

See also Behavior modification



Braswell, Lauren and Philip C. Kendall. "Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy with Youth." In Handbook of Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, edited by Keith S. Dobson. 2nd ed. New York: The Guilford Press. 2001.

Jinks, Gordon. "Specific Strategies and Techniques." In Handbook of Counselling and Psychotherapy, edited by Colin Feltham and Ian Horton. London: Sage Publications, 2000.

Sharf, Richard S. "Behavior Therapy." In Theories of Psychotherapy and Counseling: Concepts and Cases. 2nd ed. Stamford: Thomson Learning, 2000.


American Psychological Association. 750 First St. N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002. (202) 336-5800. <> .

Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy. 305 Seventh Ave., 16th Floor, New York, NY 10001. (212) 647-1890. <http://www.aabt,org> .

National Institute of Mental Health. 6001 Executive Boulevard, RM8184, MSC 9663, Bethesda, MD 20892-9663. (301) 443-4513. <> .

National Mental Health Association. 1021 Prince Street, Alexander, VA 22314-2971. (703) 684-7722. <> .

Janice VanBuren, Ph.D.

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