Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Developed by Canadian sociologist Albert Bandura in the 1950’s as a way of explaining how people learn about their world, the social learning theory ( later renamed the social cognitive theory) is conceivably the most instrumental theory of learning and development. Although this theory finds it origins in many of the basic ideas of traditional learning theory, Bandura doubted that direct reinforcement accounted for every type of learning. Instead, his theory contends that people can learn new behaviors from watching others. Also known as modeling, this form of learning can be used to describe a multitude of behaviors. Within the field of sociology, the social learning theory has mainly been applied to the socialization process, deviance and aggression.

The social learning theory is based upon three basic concepts. First is the belief that learning is possible through observation of another person’s behavior and attitudes. By watching the behaviors of others, a person forms an idea of how to perform new behaviors and stores the information for later use as a guide for action. Second is the belief that internal mental states are an important part of the process. Third, this theory acknowledges that a learned behavior will not always result in a changed behavior.

In his famous 1961 “Bobo doll’ experiment, Bandura established that children imitate and learn behaviors that they see other people doing. This is in contrast to behaviorists, who view either positive or negative reinforcement as the primary means of learning. In viewing the results of his experiment, Bandura found that people are more likely to imitate a behavior if the model receives a reward or a neutral response for that particular action. In his study, the children watched an adult acting aggressively toward a Bobo doll. After watching this, the children were allowed to play with a Bobo doll; they repeated the behavior they had observed which was to beat the doll. An interesting observation of this experiment was that males imitated the aggressive behavior more than their female counterparts. Through his experiment, Bandura coined the term observational learning.

Observational learning can be broken down into three components:

1. A live model which consists of a person demonstrating a behavior. 2. A verbal instructional model which describes and explains the action 3. A symbolic model which consists of real or fictional characters exhibiting behaviors in films, television shows, or books.

Bandura also stated that mental states are intrinsic to learning because learning and reinforcement are influenced by factors other than external, environmental reinforcements. Internal rewards such as pride and satisfaction are also fundamental to learning. By focusing on cognition, learning theories can be linked to cognitive developmental theories. In fact, Bandura describes his theory as a social cognitive theory which assumes a middle ground position between other theories that emphasize either internal cognitive or environmental processes as the only means of learning.

Although behaviorists argue that learning leads to a change in behavior, observational learning proves otherwise; people are capable of learning new information without exhibiting new behaviors. Not every behavior that is observed is learned. In fact, both the model and the observer are vital to the process of successful social learning. For this process to be successful, specific steps must be followed. These steps include:

1. Attention- the observer must pay attention to the model. 2. Retention- the person must be able to remember the behavior that has been modeled. Language and imagery are helpful in this process because observed behaviors are stored in the form of visual images or verbal descriptions. 3. Reproduction-the observer must be able to repeat the action. Repetition of the action will lead to improvements in skill. 4. Motivation- the observer must want to demonstrate what they have learned. Reinforcement and punishment play a vital role in motivation. If the observer see the model receive praise for their actions, they are more likely to demonstrate the behavior. Likewise, if they see the model punished for the action, they are less likely to demonstrate the behavior.

Bandura’s theory can best described as a combination of cognitive and behavioral theories of modeling. According to Bandura, one’s personality is the result of interaction with the environment and psychological processes. He contends that self-regulation allows a person to control their behavior. Self- control therapy has incorporated self- regulation. There are three steps to this process:

1. Self- observation- People keep track of their actions by looking at themselves and their behaviors. 2. Judgment- They compare what they see during self-observation with standards that are either personal or set by society. 3. Self- response- The person will give themselves a positive self-response if they measure up to the set standards. If they fail to compare favorably with the standards, the person will give themselves a punishing self-response.

The social learning theory has had a significant impact on the field of psychology; more specifically in the areas of cognitive psychology, psychotherapy, personality psychology and education.

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