Look and learn

How we change through observation learning

Ronald Strasdowsky, Ph.D., is director of education and family life for the Euro-Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

A German pastor nearing retirement had been overweight for several years. His doctor was worried, and so was his family. A chorus of well-meaning voices urged, "You ought to do something about exercising."

The pastor shared their concern. He was particularly worried about his heart condition, a serious threat for a man almost 60. Nevertheless, the daily pastoral routine continued to prevail over his good intentions to get going with an exercise program.

Then suddenly he changed. A new, active lifestyle emerged from his attendance at a pastoral retreat. A psychologist there showed a film about a San Francisco waiter jogging to and from work every day—at the age of 104. The man's wrinkled face radiated health and satisfaction.

Viewing this remarkable model created a desire in the pastor to go and do likewise. He started to jog, even inviting houseguests along on his daily run through Black Forest trails.

One morning as he and I stumbled over roots and rocks, I personally got the impact of the health promotion film he had seen. Although my knowledge of that San Francisco waiter was second hand, I nevertheless felt challenged by his example. And I received new insight into a process called "change through beholding," more often known as "observation learning."

Attitudes are caught

Children imitate parents. Most of our values and attitudes are learned from persons whom we grow up watching. A toddler takes pride in sweeping the kitchen just like her mother. Even teenagers who insist upon independent values still tend to reflect those of their family.

In a study of values, Adventist re searcher Roger Dudley found that children from conservative homes showed greater conformity with their parents' convictions than did their peers with a less distinctive value orientation.1 Dudley's study of teenagers in the United States did not suggest they were carbon copies of their parents, but it cast doubt upon the common wisdom that strict parenting causes children to revolt against the family's lifestyle. It seems that parents who talk about their faith in order to "pass on the torch" enjoy success toward that end.

The past 20 years have seen increasing interest among social psychologists in the study of attitudes. Experimental research in the area of traffic education confirms that human modeling is the best method in bringing about attitudinal change.2 Students exposed to rational argumentation and pictures of traffic accidents did not register attitude transformation as much as those who were exposed to the testimonies and advice of a selected group of safe and considerate drivers.3

Not all are equally good models

Much research has gone into learning which factors make some "human models" more successful than others. As ministers know so well, not everyone responds positively to a given person. We need to select an appropriate model to whichever target group we want to reach.

Some general principles are apparent from television commercials. People who display what we value most, what we dream of, exert the strongest appeal upon us. It is no surprise, therefore, to see featured predominantly young and healthy actors with clear skin and white teeth. We wonder if a film on jogging promotion featuring a 104-year-old would be effective with all age groups.

Advertising psychology involves not only the choice of a suitable model but also the linking of two sets of impressions: (1) someone is seen doing some thing; and (2) he or she enjoys doing it and thus gains some advantage or reward. Often we find some absurd associations and combinations. Think of the ragged man in his cowboy hat amid untamed nature, enjoying a certain brand of cigarette. His suntanned appearance and powerful posture suggest that strength and independence go with smoking.

The essence of power in attitude change is best summed up in Albert Bandura's concept of "vicarious reinforcement." 4 We observe an admirable person receiving a reward (reinforcement) for doing something good. Just the sight of someone else being rewarded produces much the same effect as if we ourselves had been rewarded. In this vicarious process we bask in the glow of another's accomplishments. Among other things, this implies that we need not always learn through personal experiences, since we can thus participate in those of others.

The best model

The best model is obviously the visibly rewarded individual: a pastor who radiates joy and success tends to attract young people into the ministry; the house wife who testifies to answered prayer in front of the assembled church influences some listeners to change their attitude toward prayer. Research indicates that effective human models appeal to our inmost yearnings. Argumentation also has an influence; no doubt, our values and attitudes are a mix of intellectual and emotional ingredients. But with many, the door to attitude change is primarily the appeal to emotions that comes from witnessing others who are rewarded and fulfilled.

We Christians claim Jesus as our supreme example. Our sermons and songs suggest that we become changed by be holding Him. Is this "beholding" the same as observation learning?

The Gospels show Jesus as a powerful presence, a vibrant force of attraction that won Him a harvest of followers. He often promised them rewards, a fact overlooked by some squeamish altruists. The truth is that Jesus Himself has already been re warded, as if to show us "what's in it" for us. He who conquered death has received a seat of honor at the right hand of God.

While we marvel at the modeling power of Jesus while on this earth, we wonder how effective He is today as an invisible model. Is the visibility of being rewarded essential?

Visibility through faith

It is indeed a miracle of faith to know Jesus in the way one can experience a close friend. This requires an inner vision comparable to that of Elisha's servant, who suddenly perceived what had been hidden from his normal sight: the presence of God's power around a besieged town in Samaria (see 2 Kings 6:17).

How much of this inner vision is available to us through the Holy Spirit? Is there anything we can do to improve our ability to see Jesus?

The beloved song says:

"Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face;

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim

In the light of His glory and grace."

The apostle Paul never met Jesus personally, but he did see Him in vision, and that gave him power to proclaim the living Christ. How can we behold Jesus for ourselves? Should we spend hours inwardly visualizing His death, as did Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits? Ellen White has the answer in The Desire of Ages. She recommends that we "spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ" (p. 83).

No doubt, the talent of "seeing" the invisible Christ is not shared equally by all believers. In fact, we wonder if perhaps our power of inspired imagining has been dwarfed by disuse. At best, our vision of Christ will be somewhat secondhand. We read in the Gospels what others have seen and even they were not always eyewitnesses. Thus, what we are able to perceive now is as through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12).

Perhaps here again we find the paradox of the "mustard seed" principle. God seems to prefer small and unassuming models that call for our faith. After ages of limited visibility in Old Testament times, a young Carpenter provided a compelling vision of God's love. Jesus did not leave enough of a biography to give even the most spiritual believer more than "just a glimpse." And yet this glimpse perhaps against some laws of communication and advertising translates into a powerful live model.

1. Janet Leigh Kangas and Roger L. Dudley, "How Adventist Teenagers Perceive Their Church," Ministry, October 1989. Also, Roger Dudley, Passing On the Torch (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1986).

2. Robert M. Gagne, Conditions of Learning (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977).

3. Ibid., p. 248.

4. Albert Bandura, Principles of Behavior Modification (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969).

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Ronald Strasdowsky, Ph.D., is director of education and family life for the Euro-Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists.

April 1992

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