Social learning theory

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Social learning theory (Albert Bandura) posits that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement.[1] In addition to the observation of behavior, learning also occurs through the observation of rewards and punishments, a process known as vicarious reinforcement. The theory expands on traditional behavioral theories, in which behavior is governed solely by reinforcements, by placing emphasis on the important roles of various internal processes in the learning individual.[2]


Prior to 1960, published theories of learning were heavily influenced by theories of classic conditioning, operant conditioning, and the psychoanalytic concept of drives.[3] In 1959, Noam Chomsky published his criticism[4] of B.F. Skinner's book Verbal Behavior.[5] In his review, Chomsky stated that pure stimulus-response theories of behavior could not account for the process of language acquisition, an argument that contributed significantly to psychology's cognitive revolution.

Within this context, Albert Bandura studied learning processes that occurred in interpersonal contexts and were not adequately explained by theories of operant conditioning or existing models of social learning, such as the work of Julian Rotter.[1] Specifically, Bandura argued that "the weaknesses of learning approaches that discount the influence of social variables are nowhere more clearly revealed than in their treatment of the acquisition of novel responses."[1] Skinner's explanation of the acquisition of new responses relied on the process of successive approximation, which required multiple trials, reinforcement for components of behavior, and gradual change.[6] Rotter's theory proposed that the likelihood of a behavior occurring was a function of the subjective expectancy and value of the reinforcement.[7] This model assumed a hierarchy of existing responses and thus did not (according to Bandura[1]) account for a response that had not yet been learned. Bandura began to conduct studies of the rapid acquisition of novel behaviors via social observation, the most famous of which were the Bobo doll experiments.


Social learning theory integrated behavioral and cognitive theories of learning in order to provide a comprehensive model that could account for the wide range of learning experiences that occur in the real world. As initially outlined by Bandura and Walters in 1963[1] and further detailed in 1977,[8] key tenets of social learning theory are as follows:[9]

  1. Learning is not purely behavioral; rather, it is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context.
  2. Learning can occur by observing a behavior and by observing the consequences of the behavior (vicarious reinforcement).
  3. Learning involves observation, extraction of information from those observations, and making decisions about the performance of the behavior (observational learning or modeling). Thus, learning can occur without an observable change in behavior.
  4. Reinforcement plays a role in learning but is not entirely responsible for learning.
  5. The learner is not a passive recipient of information. Cognition, environment, and behavior all mutually influence each other (reciprocal determinism).

Social learning theory draws heavily on the concept of modeling, or learning by observing a behavior. Bandura outlined three types of modeling stimuli:

  • Live model
in which an actual person is demonstrating the desired behavior
  • Verbal instruction
in which an individual describes the desired behavior in detail and instructs the participant in how to engage in the behavior
  • Symbolic
in which modeling occurs by means of the media, including movies, television, Internet, literature, and radio. Stimuli can be either real or fictional characters.

Exactly what information is gleaned from observation is influenced by the type of model, as well as a series of cognitive and behavioral processes, including:[3]

  • Attention
In order to learn, observers must attend to the modeled behavior. Attention is impacted by characteristics of the observer (e.g., perceptual abilities, cognitive abilities, arousal, past performance) and characteristics of the behavior or event (e.g., relevance, novelty, affective valence, and functional value).
  • Retention
In order to reproduce an observed behavior, observers must be able to remember features of the behavior. Again, this process is influenced by observer characteristics (cognitive capabilities, cognitive rehearsal) and event characteristics (complexity).
  • Reproduction
To reproduce a behavior, the observer must organize responses in accordance with the model. Observer characteristics affecting reproduction include physical and cognitive capabilities and previous performance.
  • Motivation
The decision to reproduce (or refrain from reproducing) an observed behavior is dependent on the motivations and expectations of the observer, including anticipated consequences and internal standards.

An important factor in social learning theory is the concept of reciprocal determinism. This notion states that just as an individual’s behavior is influenced by the environment, the environment is also influenced by the individual’s behavior.[8] In other words, a person’s behavior, environment, and personal qualities all reciprocally influence each other. For example, a child who plays violent video games will likely influence their peers to play as well, which then encourages the child to play more often. This could lead to the child becoming desensitized to violence, which in turn will likely affect the child’s real life behaviors.

Social learning in neuroscience[edit]

Recent research in neuroscience has implicated mirror neurons as a neurophysiology basis for social learning, observational learning, motor cognition and social cognition.[10] Mirror Neurons have been heavily linked to social learning in humans. Mirror neurons were first discovered in primates in studies which involved teaching the monkey motor activity tasks. One such study, focused on teaching primates to crack nuts with a hammer. When the primate witnessed another individual cracking nuts with a hammer, the mirror neuron systems became activated as the primate learned to use the hammer to crack nuts. However, when the primate was not presented with a social learning opportunity, the mirror neuron systems did not activate and learning did not occur.[11] Similar studies with humans also show similar evidence to the human mirror neuron system activating when observing another person perform a physical task. The activation of the mirror neuron system is thought to be critical for the understanding of goal directed behaviors and understanding their intention. Although still controversial, this provides a direct neurological link to understanding social cognition.[12]



Social learning theory has been used to explain the emergence and maintenance of deviant behavior, especially aggression. Criminologists Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess integrated the principles of social learning theory and operant conditioning with Edwin Sutherland's Differential Association Theory to create a comprehensive theory of criminal behavior.[13][14] Burgess and Akers emphasized that criminal behavior is learned in both social and nonsocial situations through combinations of direct reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement, explicit instruction, and observation. Both the probability of being exposed to certain behaviors and the nature of the reinforcement are dependent on group norms.

Developmental psychology[edit]

In her book Theories of Developmental Psychology, Patricia H. Miller lists both moral development and gender-role development as important areas of research within social learning theory.[15] Social learning theorists emphasize observable behavior regarding the acquisition of these two skills. For gender-role development, the same-sex parent provides only one of many models from which the individual learns gender-roles. Social learning theory also emphasizes the variable nature of moral development due to the changing social circumstances of each decision: "The particular factors the child thinks are important vary from situation to situation, depending on variables such as which situational factors are operating, which causes are most salient, and what the child processes cognitively. Moral judgments involve a complex process of considering and weighing various criteria in a given social situation."[15]

For social learning theory, gender development has to do with the interactions of numerous social factors, involving all the interactions the individual encounters. For social learning theory, biological factors are important but take a back seat to the importance of learned, observable behavior. Because of the highly gendered society in which an individual might develop, individuals begin to distinguish people by gender even as infants. Bandura's account of gender allows for more than cognitive factors in predicting gendered behavior: for Bandura, motivational factors and a broad network of social influences determine if, when, and where gender knowledge is expressed.[15]


Social Learning theory proposes that rewards aren't the sole force behind creating motivation. Thoughts, beliefs, morals, and feedback all help to motivate us. Three other ways in which we learn are vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological states. Modeling, or the scenario in which we see someone's behaviors and adopt them as our own, aide the learning process as well as mental states and the cognitive process.(citation? more description)

Media violence[edit]

Principles of social learning theory have been applied extensively to the study of media violence. Akers and Burgess hypothesized that observed or experienced positive rewards and lack of punishment for aggressive behaviors reinforces aggression. Many research studies have discovered significant correlations between viewing violent television and aggression later in life, as well as playing violent video games and aggressive behaviors.[16][17] The role of observational learning has also been cited as an important factor in the rise of rating systems for TV, movies, and video games.

Creating Social Change With Media[edit]

Entertainment-education in the form of a telenovela or soap opera can help viewers learn socially desired behaviors in a positive way from models portrayed in these programs.[18] The telenovela format allows the creators to incorporate elements that can bring a desired response.[19] These elements may include music, actors, melodrama, props or costumes.[19] Entertainment education is symbolic modeling and has a formula with three sets of characters with the cultural value that is to be examined is determined ahead of time: 1. Characters that support a value (positive role models); 2. Characters who reject the value (negative role models); 3. Characters who have doubts about the value (undecided)[19]

Within this formula there are at least three doubters that represent the demographic group within the target population.[19] One of these doubters will accept the value less than halfway through, the second will accept the value two-thirds of the way through and the third doubter does not accept the value and is seriously punished. This doubter is usually killed.[19] Positive social behaviors are reinforced with rewards and negative social behaviors are reinforced with punishment. At the end of the episode a short epilog done by a recognizable figure summarizes the educational content and within the program viewers are given resources in their community.[18]

Why this type of social modeling helps with social change[edit]

Through observational learning a model can bring forth new ways of thinking and behaving.[20] With a modeled emotional experience, the observer shows an affinity towards people, places and objects.[18] They dislike what the models do not like and like what the models care about.[20] Television helps contribute to how viewers see their social reality.[18] “Media representations gain influence because people’s social constructions of reality depend heavily on what they see, hear and read rather than what they experience directly”.[18] Any effort to change beliefs must be directed towards the sociocultural norms and practices at the social system level.[18] Before a drama is developed, extensive research is done through focus groups that represent the different sectors within a culture. Participants are asked what problems in society concern them most and what obstacles they face, giving creators of the drama culturally relevant information to incorporate into the show.[18]

The pioneer of entertainment-education is Miguel Sabido a creative writer,-producer director in the 70's at the Mexican national television system Televisa. Sabido spent 8 years working on a method that would create social change and is known as the Sabido Method.[19] He credits Albert Bandura's social learning theory, the drama theory of Eric Bentley, Carl Jung's theory of archetypes, MacLean's triune brain theory and Sabido's own soap opera theory for influences his method.[21] Sabido's method has been used worldwide to address social issues such as national literacy, population growth and health concerns such as HIV.[18]


Another important application of social learning theory has been in the treatment and conceptualization of anxiety disorders. The classical conditioning approach to anxiety disorders, which spurred the development of behavioral therapy and is considered by some to be the first modern theory of anxiety,[22] began to lose steam in the late 1970s as researchers began to question its underlying assumptions. For example, the classical conditioning approach holds that pathological fear and anxiety are developed through direct learning; however, many people with anxiety disorders cannot recall a traumatic conditioning event, in which the feared stimulus was experienced in close temporal and spatial contiguity with an intrinsically aversive stimulus.[23][24] Social learning theory helped salvage learning approaches to anxiety disorders by providing additional mechanisms beyond classical conditioning that could account for the acquisition of fear. For example, social learning theory suggests that a child could acquire a fear of snakes by observing a family member express fear in response to snakes. Alternatively, the child could learn the associations between snakes and unpleasant bites through direct experience, without developing excessive fear, but could later learn from others that snakes can have deadly venom, leading to a re-evaluation of the dangerousness of snake bites, and accordingly, a more exaggerated fear response to snakes.[25]

School psychology[edit]

Many classroom and teaching strategies draw on principles of social learning to enhance students' knowledge acquisition and retention. For example, using the technique of guided participation, a teacher says a phrase and asks the class to repeat the phrase. Thus, students both imitate and reproduce the teacher's action, aiding retention. An extension of guided participation is reciprocal learning, in which both student and teacher share responsibility in leading discussions.[26] Additionally, teachers can shape the classroom behavior of students by modelling appropriate behavior and visibly rewarding students for good behavior. By emphasizing the teacher's role as model and encouraging the students to adopt the position of observer, the teacher can make knowledge and practices explicit to students, enhancing their learning outcomes. [27]

With increased use of technology in the classroom, game-based social learning platforms such as Kahoot! are being integrated into the curriculum to reinforce knowledge while encouraging peer-to-peer support, debate, critical thinking and development of leadership skills.

Social learning algorithm for computer optimization[edit]

In modern field of computational intelligence, the social learning theory is adopted to develop a new computer optimization algorithm, the social learning algorithm.[28] Emulating the observational learning and reinforcement behaviors, a virtual society deployed in the algorithm seeks the strongest behavioral patterns with the best outcome. This corresponds to searching for the best solution in solving optimization problems. Compared with other bio-inspired global optimization algorithms that mimic natural evolution or animal behaviors,[29][30] the social learning algorithm has its prominent advantages. First, since the self-improvement through learning is more direct and rapid than the evolution process, the social learning algorithm can improve the efficiency of the algorithms mimicking natural evolution. Second, compared with the interaction and learning behaviors in animal groups, the social learning process of human beings exhibits a higher level of intelligence. By emulating human learning behaviors, it is possible to arrive at more effective optimizers than existing swarm intelligence algorithms. Experimental results have demonstrated the effectiveness and efficiency of the social learning algorithm, which has in turn also verified through computer simulations the outcomes of the social learning behavior in human society.[28]


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  2. ^ Albert Bandura (1971). "Social Learning Theory" (PDF). General Learning Corporation. Retrieved 25 December 2013. 
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  27. ^ There are some limitations to the social learning theory that make it more complicated than it is made out to be. Some of the limitations are that a changes in the environment does not automatically mean that a person changes too. The theory also seems to ignore biological and hormonal dispositions of people. You can read more about this by clicking on this link.
  28. ^ a b Gong, Yue-Jiao (2014-10-11). "From the social learning theory to a social learning algorithm for global optimization" (PDF). Systems, Man and Cybernetics (SMC). 
  29. ^ "Genetic algorithm". 
  30. ^ "Particle swarm optimization".