Who Responds Well To Modeling Behavior?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Humans often learn through observation. From infancy through adulthood, we can discover new skills and abilities by watching others. Behavior modeling can be defined as the process of demonstrating desired actions so others can replicate them. Children, adolescents, and adults can all respond well and benefit from behavior modeling. It can also be a helpful way for those living with mental health disorders to learn effective coping skills. Cognitive behavioral therapy and behavior modification therapy may both be treatment modalities to help with behavioral changes, and you can begin treatment in person or online.

Could behavior modeling benefit you?
What is behavior modeling?

According to the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology, behavioral modeling can be viewed as a technique that teaches new skills through demonstration and imitation.

Social learning theory

Psychologist Albert Bandura developed social learning theory in 1977, proposing that most human behavior may be learned through observation. With behavior modeling, you can view an action, form an idea of how it’s performed, and later use that cognitively coded information to serve as a guide for your behavior. 

How does behavior modeling work?

If you’ve ever watched a teacher demonstrate how to solve a problem, followed an instructor’s directions to complete a workout routine, or shadowed an experienced employee when starting a new job, you’ve likely already used behavior modeling.

Chances are, you may have been using it your entire life. From taking your first shaky steps as a toddler to teaching your own children to behave and everything in between, behavior modeling can help humans pass along knowledge and skills through practical methods. Behavior modeling can teach new desired behaviors and decrease unwanted behaviors through negative consequences. 

Four steps of behavior modeling

Bandura’s theory states that effective learning usually requires four conditions:


To learn from a behavior model, the subject must generally pay attention to the model’s actions. You may be more likely to learn well and retain new information when you’re alert, rested, and focused. You may also learn better if you relate to or respect the model and the knowledge they have to offer. 


For the lesson to be retained, you may need to remember what you observed and form ideas about how and when you should use that behavior.


A crucial component of behavior modeling can be the replication of observed actions. While physical limitations may interfere with your ability to reproduce the behavior, you can still learn the process and how it should work. For example, a short person may have trouble replicating the slam dunk of a professional basketball player, but they could still learn how the process works. With an adjusted goalpost, they could also put their newly learned skills into practice to test their abilities. 


As with many aspects of teaching, the effectiveness can depend on the student’s motivation to learn. Positive reinforcement and rewards for desired behaviors can serve as incentives. 

Who does behavior modeling help?

Behavior modeling can be applied to a wide variety of situations and circumstances, potentially helping to teach new skills and behavioral patterns. From birth throughout your entire life, you can learn through observation. Below, explore the different groups of people behavior modeling can help. 

Young children 

From the day they’re born through the early childhood years, young children tend to learn nearly all their behavior patterns from their parents, caregivers, or close friends and family. Learned behaviors can range from simple to complex, typically increasing with age, cognitive ability, and communication skills. 


The teenage years can be challenging to navigate, and adolescents often expand their array of behavior-modeling sources to include people outside their homes. In addition to observing and replicating the actions of family, teens may model their behaviors after their peers, teachers, celebrities, or others. 


Parents can learn a great deal from observing other parents and mimicking their behaviors. Parenting classes can teach healthy skills for raising children, including tips for modeling desired behaviors consistently to help children learn how to act in various circumstances. 


Couples therapy often uses behavior modeling. For example, the therapist may show videos of partners engaging in healthy, open communication to teach practical ways to express needs and emotions to one another. 

People with substance use disorders

Behavior models are often used to help people who are recovering from substance use disorders. Observing someone who is further in the recovery process can teach healthy, practical coping skills to manage stress and maintain sobriety. 

People with anxiety disorders

If you struggle with anxiety, it can be helpful to watch someone model relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to learn coping skills that may make it easier to manage symptoms. 

People with phobias

Phobias often involve intense or irrational fears. Research indicates that it may be beneficial to watch someone else face their fears and effectively manage their stress and anxiety reactions. 

People with anger management issues

Anger can be a dominating emotion, especially for those who have difficulty managing their feelings. Observing another person getting angry and effectively managing their emotional reactions can help you cultivate a calm, non-confrontational attitude when addressing disputes. 

People with other mental health conditions

Behavior modeling can benefit people with a variety of mental health conditions. Working with a licensed therapist in a group setting can help you observe practical coping strategies and visually demonstrate that you’re not the only one who feels that way. 

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Could behavior modeling benefit you?

Organizations teaching new skills in the workplace

Behavior modeling can be successfully utilized in workplace environments worldwide. New employees may work with experienced staff members to observe their behavior and learn how to function efficiently in their new positions. 

Challenges with behavior modeling

Behavior modeling can have many applications, and it’s often quite effective. However, it can also come with a variety of challenges.

Maintaining consistent behaviors

The key to successfully modeling behaviors usually lies in consistency. Particularly with children, it can be crucial to model the same behaviors reliably. Otherwise, children may learn it’s acceptable to act in ways other than the “appropriate” way. For example, parents may teach their children not to raise their voices and then yell when they are frustrated. This behavioral contradiction can be confusing for children still learning how to act in different situations. 

Self-esteem obstacles

If behaviors constantly need correction or you’re observing people who appear to behave in an extraordinary fashion, it may set unrealistic or unachievable expectations. The inability to meet those standards can create obstacles to healthy self-esteem. 

Unintended consequences

Behavior modeling can be positive or negative. For example, teens may learn how to use certain substances or hide their behavior by witnessing others doing the same. Young children tend to act like sponges, soaking up all the information they can and repeating it—including potentially negative behaviors such as using profanity. While behavior modeling can have many benefits, it may also lead to some unintended consequences.

Behavior modification therapy

Many therapists use behavior modification therapy to help individuals identify and reshape maladaptive behaviors in adults and children. Some therapeutic approaches can involve addressing patterns in thoughts and behaviors. However, behavior modification therapy usually centers on changing specific behaviors without addressing thoughts and emotions. Appropriate modeling subjects may be identified, clear examples of the desired behavior can be demonstrated, and the individual is typically expected to reproduce the modeled actions. 

Advantages of behavior modeling

  • Behavior modeling is generally an inexpensive training method in the workplace. 
  • This method typically centers on identifiable behaviors rather than abstract concepts. 
  • Positive behavior modeling can create beneficial impacts in the workplace or family dynamic. 
  • Behavior modeling often helps people engage in various situations in positive ways and teaches them to watch others for appropriate behavior if they are unsure how to act. 

Disadvantages of behavior modeling

  • This theory may not be appropriate for every situation.
  • Incorrect, unhelpful, or even harmful behaviors can be modeled, too, often reinforcing unwanted or potentially dangerous actions. 

When to reach out for help

If your behavioral patterns cause disruptions and distress in one or more areas of your life, lead to mental health symptoms lingering for at least two weeks, or make it difficult to function mentally, physically, emotionally, or socially, consider speaking to your doctor or another healthcare provider.

If you’ve noticed harmful or undesirable patterns in your thinking or actions and want to make a change, consider working with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform. Many therapists can use cognitive behavioral therapy to help you identify and replace negative patterns, and you can get the professional guidance you deserve from the comfort of your home or any other location with an internet connection.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to adjust thought patterns that can lead to unwanted emotions and behaviors. As one study explains, online cognitive behavioral therapy can result in both short-term and long-term benefits. Online CBT may be a valid choice for you if you’re interested in modifying your behavior and addressing any mental health challenges you may be experiencing.


One of the first ways humans learn how to behave is usually through behavior modeling. From infants watching their parents and mimicking their behaviors to adults replacing undesired patterns with more acceptable habits, behavior modeling can teach appropriate actions in various settings. Many people of all ages, including those with various mental health disorders, can benefit from behavior modeling. Behavior modification therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy may be two treatment modalities that can help you adjust your behavior, and you can connect with a licensed therapist practicing these methods online or in your local area.
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