Imitation is perhaps the least complex of the four dimensions of Akers’s social learning theory. Imitation occurs when an individual engages in a behavior that is modeled on or follows his or her observation of another individual’s behavior. An individual can observe the behavior of potential models either directly or indirectly (e.g., through the media). Furthermore, the characteristics of the models themselves, the behavior itself, and the observed consequences of the behavior all affect the probability that an individual will imitate the behavior. The process of imitation is often referred to as vicarious reinforcement (Bandura, 1977). Baldwin and Baldwin (1981) provided a concise summary of this process:
Observers tend to imitate modeled behavior if they like or respect the model, see the model receive reinforcement, see the model give off signs of pleasure, or are in an environment where imitating the model’s performance is reinforced. . . . Inverse imitation is common when an observer does not like the model, sees the model get punished, or is in an environment where conformity is being punished. (p. 187)
Although social learning theory maintains that the process of imitation occurs throughout an individual’s life, Akers has argued that imitation is most salient in the initial acquisition and performance of a novel or new behavior. Thus, an individual’s decision to engage in crime or deviance after watching a violent television show for the first time or observing his friends attack another peer for the first time provides the key social context in which imitation can occur. Nevertheless, the process of imitation is still assumed to exert an effect in maintaining or desisting from a given behavior.