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Healing Space | Did Naomi Osaka pave the way for Simone Biles?

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka prove Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning. It doesn’t matter what the system rewards, it is possible to change human behaviour.

July 29, 2021 / 12:52 PM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.

Healing Space logo for Gayatri Jayaram column on mental healthSimone Biles, the 24-year-old leader of the American Olympic gymnastics squad, withdrew from the 2021 Games yesterday. She was the first American gymnast to win four medals at the 2016 Rio Games, and she has won three consecutive world titles since 2013. She was expected to peak this year with what would have been her fourth winning spree. “I truly do feel like I have weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” she said. She is one of several gymnasts who faced sexual abuse by former Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar, now serving a life sentence, and has battled depression.


Albert Bandura, eminent social cognitive psychologist, propounded the social learning theory. His most famous experiment was the Bobo doll experiment, in which adults are recorded beating up a doll in a film that is then shown to children. The children beat up the doll too, imitating the adults' actions. Until then, it was thought that behaviour was reinforced by reward or punishment. But these children had been promised no incentive and adopted the behaviour anyway. This became the basis for observational learning.

What is observational learning? It’s Simone Biles looking at Naomi Osaka and thinking, ‘Hey, that is how to step back’. Even Bandura did not suggest a simplistic copycat mechanism. A number of factors influence the way we absorb this learning.

When there is a highly-established environment of reward and punishment, how does one adopt an alternate way of functioning? There is no motivation for it. In fact there is a fine, a ban, trolling, loss of status, shame, anger, etc. Punishments deter actions in the behavioural model. So, in a high visibility field like the Olympics, the deterrents are extremely high. What allows you to change behaviour regardless? Only observational learning. Someone shows you how to act in a new way.


This is how influence, or influencers in the social media age, brand ambassadors and celebrity endorsements work. They reinforce through imitation. What you gain is not an incentive, but permission. You didn’t know you could act, think about, or use things in another way, now you do. This also works in a negative way. When highly-visible people endorse sexism, misogyny, communalism and disharmony, they grant permission for this behaviour to be imitated.

Our learning is what grants us self efficacy, the belief in one’s own ability to organise and execute the tasks one needs to succeed. A child tells their parents they can eat on their own. They have learned to navigate the task themselves but also believe they are equipped to do it. On a grander scale, this is the self-belief that allows us to take on life challenges.

On the surface, it may look like Simone Biles disproves self efficacy. After all, she avoided her challenge. She had all the necessary components of it: mastery experiences, i.e., previous success at the task; social modelling, i.e., seeing others win and using that as motivation; social persuasion, people who were cheering for her; and psychological persuasion, as a highly-trained athlete. So what went wrong?

Bandura’s social learning theory points out that we model behaviour from the environment. In a high reward-punishment environment, Biles learned a new way of acting from the environment – a comparable woman athlete, a peer, who was not deterred by punishment. Naomi Osaka created a new model. Simone Biles made an observational learning.

We don’t just imitate, Bandura pointed out, how we absorb the learning is based on the inner mental state. This includes our esteem, pride, satisfaction, motivation, and sense of accomplishment. Logically, the French Open/Olympics wins should feed these. In renouncing them, Osaka also modelled a new definition of success by rerouting the inner mental state towards alternate sources of accomplishment, pride and esteem—not from external sources of validation like medals, praise, news, but an internal one of safety, self-assuredness, mental health.

This is self-efficacy in action, the ability to use one’s learning to arrive at success. It’s just that the two women changed what that success means.

Social learning is a powerful tool to disseminate learning that people are not exposed to. When no reinforcement model exists, how do we change behaviour? If the whole system is rewarding hate, how do we teach love? We model it. Simone Biles proves Bandura’s social learning is the paradigm shift away from behavioural incentives. The more people stand up, reclaim, redefine, the more they can and will change behaviour.

If you have ever asked yourself, ‘what is the point of standing up?’, here’s your answer. Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles just proved that when the system heavily incentivises a behaviour, you can still change it. All you have to do is stand up and be the new model.

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Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author of Sit Your Self Down, a novice’s journey to the heart of Vipassana, and the forthcoming Anitya, a guide to coping with change. [ @G_y_tri]
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