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Theoretical Perspectives Behind Role Modelling Psychology Essay

Role model, hero, idol and star are just a few of the terms that can be used to describe highly influential figures in society. The term ‘role model’ is widely used and has been described by Spencer (1998, p.58) as “an individual whose actions are worthy of imitation.” Yancy (1998, p.254) describes a role model to vary from an individual who is “perceived as exemplary, or worthy of imitation” to an individual who inspires individuals or groups of people, through personal contact and relationship (Ingall, 1997). This statement from Ingall can be considered to mean such people as teachers, parents, peers and sporting heroes may be considered as role models.

Another term which is commonly used is ‘hero’. The term “hero” is frequently used in the place of, or to describe, role models and originates from the Greek word meaning, “person distinguished for courage, fortitude or deeds, its meaning is adaptable between cultures and through time” (Lines, 2001, p. 287). Andrews and Jackson (2001, p.153) state that a hero is “any person admired for given qualities or achievements.”

An ‘idol’ is quite distinctly similar to a role model as Biskup and Pfister (1999, p.199) briefly put it “idols and models symbolize and reinforce the ideals and norms prevailing in a society or in a specific group.” A ‘star’ is not much different to a role model, hero or idol and this is exemplified by the definition of Whannel (1999, p.258) who says sports stars are “the providers of the magic moments and golden memories that allow their elevation into the heroic and mythic.”

Although role models are often excellent displays of character “performing live under unpredictable sporting conditions” (Lines, 2001, p.287), many athletes in recent times have been the subject of scandals or serious reports (Biskup and Pfister, 1999; Brookes, 2002; Hardman, Fleming, Jones and Sheridan, 2005). This means that one day they are said to be highly influential, yet the next said to be setting a poor example (Macauley, 2000; Brookes, 2002). Therefore it is important to note, that role models, heroes and idols, should not be assumed to be solely positive in nature and that the person is worthy of imitation, because they may influence non-participation or deviant behaviour (Payne, Reynolds, Brown and Fleming, 2002). This statement is supported by Whannel (1999) who suggests that this begins a knock-on effect and will increase poor behaviour and possibly even discontinued. Whannel (1999) added to this by saying:

“As surveillance and discipline have become more prominent features of top level sport, the transgressions of sports stars have encountered greater exposure and less tolerance.”

(Whannel, 1999, p.261)

However, arguing this point, Bromnick and Swallow (1999) say that without role models in children’s lives the effects on the child’s development would be severely detrimental.

“Role models are an essential component of the socialization process” (Vescio, Wilde and Crosswhite, 2005) where Calhoun (1987, p.259) describes socialisation as “the process by which we acquire personalities as functioning members of society.” This links with the observational learning theory of Bandura (1977, p.22), who explains “most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling.” Furthermore, he continues explaining the observational learning theory and the four processes that tie into this; attentional processes; retention processes; motor reproduction processes and motivational processes, this will be explored in greater depth in the coming section.

Theoretical Perspectives of Role Modelling

In attempting to understand the place of role models and how the mechanism of role modelling appears to operate, this section will discuss theoretical perspectives under three general headings. Two of these will highlight specific theories which provide logical clues as to why role modelling occurs while the third section will briefly mention a few related theories which could, in part, have some additional relevance.

2:3.1 Social Cognitive Theory

This is a theory that has evolved from the original work of Bandura (1977) who put forward a social learning theory. Bandura built on his earlier work with the help of a contemporary, Walter Mischel, who emphasised the cognitive and situational variables associated with human behaviour. It was proposed that there was intra-individual cognition which encouraged Bandura (1986) to extend his own work on observational learning and self-regulation.

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Bandura (1977) noted in his earlier work, that the task of learning would be a most tedious task if there was reliance solely on the effects of the learner’s own actions. Most learning is, therefore, learned from observation and hence relies to a large extent on the influence of role models. There are four processes attached to social learning Attentional process, Retention process, Motor reproduction process, Motivational process (appendix 1).

The above processes have specific and important practical applications in the sport and physical activity sphere. The communication approach by the model, the symbolic representations of words and images, and the precise processes of interpreting and observing cues plus the factors which motivate behaviour can all be applied in the understanding of individuals’ subsequent involvement in physical activity see appendix 1.

2:3.2 Self-Efficacy Theory

The effectiveness of models to influence learners to actually carry out a particular type of behaviour may also be dependent on the characteristics of these models (Bandura, 1997). If a model is similar, rather than dissimilar, to a learner and demonstrates a highly skilled activity, there is more chance for the learner to be motivated. This type of behavioural mechanism can be associated with Bandura’s self-efficacy theory which is a competency based theory that has been applied to over 100 studies (McCauley & Mihalko, 1998). There are three mediating factors associated with this theory, Self-efficacy expectancy, Outcome expectancy, Outcome value (appendix 2).

The above theory is particularly useful to explain the performance of motor skills but it also has relevance to physical activity involvement. Bandura (1997) has indicated that women are especially inclined to operate on their beliefs of physical efficacy and that the producers of sport videos often neglect the benefits of assumed similarity and subsequently portray superstars in examples of athletic performances.

2.3.3 Other Useful Frameworks

Several other theoretic frameworks may also have some relevance with regards to a learner’s decision to model another person’s behaviour. Some of these may relate to some aspect of stage theories where behaviour may be more likely to occur according to the stage at which a learner has reached (Prochaska & Marcus, 1994) (appendix 3).

Similarly, such theories as the health belief model (appendix 4) or the theory of planned behaviour (appendix 5) may also contain applicable sections to provide a further understanding of role modelling behaviour (Champion, 1984; Glanz, Rimer, & Lewis, 2002). However, Buckworth & Dishman, (2002) claim that it would be somewhat restrictive if the approach to role modelling in sport and physical activity were attacked solely from the perspective of one theory or framework. The further analysis of current perspectives may subsequently result in the development of an improved approach which is more appropriate for studying the world of physical education, physical activity, sport and recreation.

Role Models and Children

For many children, having a role model can allow them to dream and aspire to be like their favourite idol as Biskup and Pfister (1999, p.199) say role models “are the substance from which dreams are made”, and White and O’Brien (1999, p.83) support this by stating “for children, heroes, with their accompanying myths and legends, are part of the material from which their dreams and drama are derived.”

The role models who influence children and adolescents tend to change over time

(Glover, 1978), numerous sources have found previously that children copy not only sports persons, but family members, friends, teachers and even their peers (French & Pena, 1991;

Biskup and Pfister, 1999; Payne, Reynolds, Brown and Fleming, 2002). However, it has been argued that children are very young and thus are more vulnerable to choosing role models which are completely unsuited to them and in which their parents totally disagree with (Bromnick and Swallow, 1999). The transition from early childhood into adolescence brings about many changes, not least the children’s ideals of who they see as their role model. Vescio, Wilde and Crosswhite (2005) explain that as children grow older and begin to seek independence from their family, significant others become more important to them than their parents. However French & Pena (1991) suggests that parents, friends and teachers may still be seen as role models during the adolescent and adult years, especially for females.

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In direct opposition to this, it has been claimed that “regardless of the age level family members, particularly parents, were the people most identified as heroes” (White and O’Brien, 1999, p.91). White and O’Brien (1999) continue in their tirade against national figures as role models to children, and they conclude from their study that the participants they questioned, actually named people who display good morals as role models and not the famous celebrities who have made it to where they are now through the fame and fortune of the entertainment business.

Children are very often known to adopt a very different kind of role model in the form of an entertainment figure, who along with the sports hero, are evidently providing children with a good role model to idolise and someone to identify with (Virtapohja, 1998).

However, there is no doubt that sportsmen and sportswomen have an astounding effect on the way we act out our lives (House of Commons, 2004) and the sporting heroes that we, as a nation, identify with reflect how we see ourselves (White and O’Brien, 1999). Sports stars are allocated the label of role model because of their behaviour both in and out of the world of sport (Woods, 1998) and it has been said by the House of Commons (2004, p.42) that the manner in which they go about their lives can have a “strong and pervasive” influence on others around them.

Moreover, recent research from Virtapohja (1998, p.20) has suggested that “sports heroes are always seen as representatives of good values. “Teenagers, adolescents and youngsters hold sports people in very high regard and they not unexpectedly placed sporting heroes at the top of the pile with regards to who is most influential in their lives (Bromnick and Swallow, 1999) compared to music artists, film stars and the like. Sports stars are very powerful in their roles and influence children more than any other age group in society (Biskup and Pfister, 1999; Carr and Weigand, 2002; Vescio, Wilde and Crosswhite, 2005).

“the great majority of sports idols have always been male” (Biskup and Pfister, 1999, p.203), and with this comes the assumption that young males will identify with these stars more so than females, because as Vescio, Wilde and Crosswhite (2005, pp. 157-158) state “role models for teenagers were drawn mainly from certain domains: sporting heroes for boys, music artists and entertainers for girls.”

Sporting Role Models and the Media

Young people are able to see sporting figures almost everywhere they look, not just on the television and in newspapers, but on the internet, advertising and feature films (Brookes, 2002, p.49). Andrews and Jackson (2005) say the media is where young people are able to identify with their heroes and role models. It is also stated that because of all the media hype surrounding the sports stars, they are often paraded on the pages of the newspapers or hailed by many public figures to be role models for young people (Andrews and Jackson, 2001). It had been said the “sports stars provide audience identification with the sporting spectacle” (Sugden and Tomlinson, 2002, p.207) suggesting that sports heroes are created and idolised because of performances seen live on television.

The media also plays a major part in constructing the sports stars as “villains, fools and heroes” (Lines, 2001, p.285) and due to the extensive coverage that the media gives to sports and the athletes taking part, they can be seen to exemplify athletes as superior to any other being, and this creates our idols and heroes (Virtapohja, 1998). Payne, Reynolds, Brown and Fleming (2002) states that sporting figures are heroes but when they receive increased media attention, more personal details are revealed and their reputation as a role model suffers as a consequence. It is also stated that although sporting personalities receive an extensive amount of recognition in the media, it has been argued by UK Sport (2003, p.5) that the “lack of media coverage remains a key issue for elite women athletes.”

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Biskup and Pfister (1999) found that athletes were rated last by females in terms of providing role models, while Ewens and Lashuk (1989), found that sportsmen were identified significantly more often than sportswomen as role models. Consequently girls tend to choose screen and magazines personalities as their sources for role model identification (Lines, 2001). Even these sources have limitations, as shown by Jones and Schuman (2000) who found through content analysis of 132 issues and 5874 advertisements in “Sports Illustrated” that 95.6% of the advertisements focused on men. Furthermore, the advertisements were overrepresented by the sports of football, golf and baseball. The findings of the study are credible as the sample was obtained from analysing three issues from each year of print (1955-1998).

The above evidence does seem to suggest that young people, especially males see athletes/ celebrities as role models. The next section will consider the role that sporting personalities play as role models.

Influence of Role Models on Participation in Physical Activity

“One key element to encouraging young people to get involved in sport is to have role models that will encourage them to participate” (Matheson, 2005). Many other researches and studies have been found to exclaim the same notion ( ). Vescio, Wilde and Crosswhite (2004) agrees wholeheartedly suggesting that successful athletes, such as David Beckham, Dame Kelly Holmes, Cathy Freeman and Ian Thorpe, are influential role models who can inspire young people to become or stay involved in sport and physical activity. Weigand (2000) also says that choosing a sporting role model may be far more effective than adopting a parent or a friend as a role model, and may increase motivation possibly to participate in sporting activities.

However, not all sources have the same point of view and another study, coincidentally written by the same authors, claimed that it is questionable if the success of sports stars can actually have the desired effect of enhancing participation of girls in sport and physical activity (Vescio, Wilde and Crosswhite, 2005). The source continues to state that girls who share interests with sporting personalities may be influenced, but those who do not share interests will not be influenced. Echoing this, Sugden and Tomlinson (2002, p.196) explain that “an heroism-villainy continuum provides a basis for the discussion of the social function of sports stars as inspirational role models for young people”.

Coakley (2003) supports this as he explains that young people are able to watch sport on TV, listen to others discussing sport and hear about sports stars, and because then they discover the “wealth and fame” (p.130), this can influence young people to participate in sporting activities. He then states, with specific relevance to females, that because of the increased coverage in the media that female sports stars are now experiencing, and with girls able to see or read about their idols on the TV or in newspapers and magazines, this may “encourage girls and women to be active as athletes themselves” (p.244).

Further evidence of the negative actions of heroes and role models is provided by

Lines (2001), who offered a critical discussion of the ways in which sports stars are constructed as role models for young people. The notion that the media play a large role in how a hero/ role model is perceived, encouraged Lines to employ a content and discourse analysis of a range of tabloid and quality of United Kingdom newspapers to explore the actions of role models. Role models were often seen as heroes but as the media intrusion into their lives grew, more non-sporting details are provided which often damages their reputations as positive role models. The increased media attention highlights many of the social problems of everyday life and these heroes are often, “seen using and abusing drugs and alcohol, beating wives and girlfriends, and having extra marital affairs” (Lines, 2001, p. 292). Despite these actions, which failed to match the definition of a hero, sporting personalities were still considered to have an influence on young children as role models.

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In contrast, sporting personalities can be negative role models through inappropriate or unlawful actions, which usually receive wide media coverage (Globus, 1998). Even though there is a belief that many sports provide a rich environment in the development of children, there is much empirical evidence which tends to counteract the attitudes and practices of sporting personalities (especially men) promoted in certain sporting cultures (Fitzclarence, Hickey, & Matthews, 1998; Messner & Sabo, 1994). In certain sports, male dominance through the support of patriarchal ideology is very obvious and through the media and other outputs, children tend to model their behaviour on the actions of these sportspeople (Bryson, 1983).


After a detailed analysis of previous research, it can be concluded that role models are an important part of society and on the whole their behaviour is commendable and worthy of idolisation (Virtapohja, 1998). The advantages of having a role model are extremely beneficial to children (Bromnick and Swallow, 1999) and it gives them the opportunity to dream about one day becoming like their favourite star (Biskup and Pfister, 1999; White and O’Brien, 1999).

Summarising the section on role models and children it can be concluded that role models are not necessarily only sporting figures but they could be family members, peers or even teachers (Biskup and Pfister, 1999; Payne, Reynolds, Brown and Fleming, 2002). For younger children their role models tend to be an immediate family member (White and O’Brien, 1999) but as children grow from their younger years into adolescence and then into adulthood, they look almost exclusively outside the family home for inspiration (Vescio, Wilde and Crosswhite, 2005), with sporting figures being a dominant choice for many teenagers in society in particular males.

It can also be concluded that the media plays a major role in how sports are perceived by the public (Andrews and Jackson, 2001) especially young children. The coverage they receive is enormous, thus producing a larger likelihood of people seeing and copying the images seen on TV, in newspapers or on the internet.

Finally, the influence that sports stars have on participation can be seen to be positive in many lights (Weigand, 2000). Considering what previous studies and previous researchers have found, it is fairly evident that a large proportion of young people identify with sporting figures and this in turn influence many people to participate in their chosen activity (Vescio, Wilde and Crosswhite, 2004).

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