Social Learning Theory

An executive at a large company wants to train her employees to better manage client complaints. She considers her options for communicating this valuable information. Should she distribute a customer service manual and require the employees to read it? Should she give a speech? Should she make a PowerPoint presentation? Finally, the executive settles on a highly effective training method based on the principles of social learning theory: she herself will demonstrate for the employees how to handle tough complaints in a role-playing scenario.

Social learning theory was developed in the 1970s by psychologist Albert Bandura, and it added a whole new dimension in understanding human behavior and its influences. Before social learning theory, psychologists believed human behavior was strictly a product of conditioning, or direct reinforcement. However, Bandura theorized that much of learning is a simpler and subtler process; humans can, and do, mimic observed behavior with little or no reinforcement. The theory was the first to incorporate aspects of both behaviorist and cognitive learning theories.

Core Concepts

For years, researchers studied a person’s environment as the sole cause of his or her behavior. Through a process called reciprocal causation, however, Bandura proposed that human behavior results from the combination and interaction of three variables: the environment, the person’s own thoughts and feelings, and the behavior itself. Reciprocal causation explains how people from similar environments can adopt completely different behaviors. The following concepts are also vital to the theory:

1. Modeling – People can learn by observing the behaviors of others and their consequences.
2. Learning without performance – Learning can occur without a behavioral change.
3. Attention – Learning depends upon the subject focusing on the behavior being demonstrated.
4. Expectation – People come to expect certain behaviors to be either rewarded or punished.
5. Awareness – People must be aware that behaviors are being positively or negatively reinforced.


Bandura first observed modeling in a series of experiments starting in 1961. In the experiments, one of three groups of children witnessed an adult model acting aggressively toward an inflatable clown doll. When later given an opportunity to play with the doll, many of the children who had seen the violent behavior acted in a similar manner. However, when the children saw the model being punished for hitting the doll in a follow-up experiment, the number of aggressive reactions decreased.

Bandura further identified three types of models that can teach behavior:

1. Live model – An actual person demonstrates the desired behavior.
2. Verbal model – The desired behavior is described in detail, with instructions on how to perform it.
3. Symbolic model – A real or fictional character demonstrates the behavior through such media as movies, television, Internet, literature and radio.

Modeling has been shown to teach a wide variety of both positive and negative behaviors. It has been used to inspire confidence in stressful situations, such as job interviews. Children learn how to respond to praise or difficulty through modeling. Teen violence, as well as morality, can be traced to adult models. Modeling can teach new skills, affect the frequency of previously established behaviors, encourage similar behaviors or promote forbidden acts. It has been used most successfully in the treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders, with therapists demonstrating healthy attitudes and behaviors for their patients.


For modeling to successfully influence behavior, however, some type of motivation to imitate or avoid the behavior is needed. Bandura theorized that such motivation comes from either positive or negative reinforcement, and behavior can be reinforced in a variety of ways:

1. By the model – A salesperson who improves his performance after observing a successful coworker is then praised by the coworker.
2. By a third person – The salesperson receives praise from a supervisor for applying the coworker’s selling techniques.
3. Directly through consequences – The salesperson earns higher commissions while imitating the coworker.
4. Vicariously – The salesperson notices the coworker earning praise and high commissions with the successful selling method.

While these motivating factors can be very strong, contemporary social learning theorists believe reinforcement has an indirect, rather than a direct, effect on learning. In other words, reinforcement does not cause a person to learn a behavior. Learning occurs when an individual observes a model. Instead, reinforcement determines the extent to which a person exhibits a learned behavior. For example, a person who had watched an alcoholic family member die of cirrhosis would be more likely to restrict his alcohol consumption than someone who had witnessed no negative effects of alcoholism. However, social learning theorists acknowledge that people’s expectations of reinforcement determine the amount of attention they pay to models, which affects learning. Students who know they won’t be tested on a particular subject, for instance, are unlikely listen to a lecture on it.


Whether a person will engage in a learned behavior depends upon that person’s self-efficacy, or self-confidence in his or her ability to repeat the behavior successfully. Self-efficacy determines how much effort a person will put into learning and how much enjoyment he or she will derive from it. People with high self-efficacy usually exhibit high levels of achievement. Previous successes and failures, messages received from others, and the successes and failures of others can affect a person’s self-efficacy. A recipient’s self-efficacy is an important factor to consider when determining whether a message will result in the communicator’s desired outcome.

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