‍‍Social Learning Theory‍‍
Emily Barnum, Erin Davis, Desiree Howell ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍(with Albert Bandura‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍)

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Influential Background

‍‍Traditional Learning Theories ‍‍(e.g. John Watson, B.F. Skinner) ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍serve as ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍the most influential background for Albert Bandura's Social Learning theory.

‍‍Behaviorism, in general, was a response to psychoanalysis (Freud, Erikson, Jung). Behaviorists thought if psychology should focus on observable, measurable, external processes instead of internal processes in order for psychology to be a science.

Social Learning Theory falls somewhere between Freud (internal processes/introspection) and Skinner (external, observable behaviors/conditioning) because Social Learning Theory emphasizes both internal and external processes. ‍‍

‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍Bandura and other social learning theorists disagreed with behaviorism regarding operant conditioning. Behaviorists believe that learning will only occur with trial and error as related to reinforcement and punishment. Social Learning theorists believe that observing the behavior of others can result in learning.


Cognition and the social environment are essential components of learning and human development

‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍Observational learning (aka: modeling) is the concept that individuals can learn by watching others. Socialization (which is the process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies) is a significant result of observational learning. ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍

Learning is an internal process

Motivation is partly determined by positive and negative consequences which ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍shape behavior.‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍

Behavior is goal directed or purposeful

Motivation + goal-directed behavior = ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍self-regulated behavior‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍

Outcome expectancies (expected consequences/reinforcement) directly influence a person's self efficacy. For example, if someone expects to be praised or reinforced for her/his good grade in art class, she/he may put in more effort towards the class projects which in turn will probably increase her/his artistic and/or academic self-efficacy.

‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍Self-Efficacy is the belief in one's ability to effectively deal with one's environment ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍

View of Human Nature
In Social Learning theory, individuals are both active and passive in the developmental process. Individuals actively process the information they receive but are, in part, passive subjects to what is being modeled and observed.

"People are self-organizing, proactive, self-reflective, and self regulating" (Bussey & Bandura, 1999, p. 691).

"...people are contributors to, rather than the sole determiners of, what happens to them" (Bandura, 1997, p. 3). This quote highlights the importance of the environmental context in which all people live.

Quantitative or Qualitative

Social learning theory does not have stages, or steps of development; instead, change is qualitative and depends on learning, due to interactions of the person, modeled behavior, and the social environment.

‍‍Here is an excellent overview of Social Learning Theory as a whole.‍‍

Nature or Nurture

Social learning theorists believe children can be shaped by their environment but only within the boundaries of biological or genetic constraints. In other words, nature sets the parameters and nurtur‍‍‍‍e‍‍‍‍ fills in the rest.

Bandura's triadic reciprocal causation-the environment, the person (cognition, affect, biological factors), and the behavior of the person are interdependent forces operating simultaneously.

Below is a modern day media depiction of social learning theory; it was made in Australia by NAPCAN, an organization which promotes the well-being of children. Please be warned, it is powerful and disturbing, ‍‍yet a wonderful example of social learning theory‍‍...‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍Bandura would have been proud.‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍

Development in Social Learning Theory
  • Humans learn from their environment Social learning theory believes growth and development occur through a process called experiential learning.
    • This indicates that there is no universal developmental milestone according to social learning theory
    • Social learning theorists are more interested in process rather than content
    • Unlike other theorists, Bandura believed in both logical and illogical thought processes. Bandura stated that children have the capability to use both of these processes but this is dependent on which types of processes they have learned from their environment.
Mechanisms of Development
  • Similar to Vygotsky’s theory of development, social learning theorists focus on the process of change and not the structural process (or stages that other theorists such as Freud and Erickson promoted)
  • Bandura’s mechanisms
    • Physical maturation: physical maturity to replicate observed behavior
    • Experience the world
    • Cognitive Development
      • Note the first of these mechanisms shows little important to social learning theorists
      • These processes are broken down further:

Experience the World: one of the processes Bandura believed humans developed. Experience the world is the process by which individuals learn through watching and perceiving their environment.
  • An individual experiences something in the social world, and interactions occur between individuals, children learn a plethora of behaviors. This allows individuals to learn appropriate situations to act out behaviors. Behavior's are reinforced by other people in our environment, and because of that reinforcement, individuals become motivated to preform behaviors again.

  • Example: A child is watching Mickey Mouse dance to music on television. The child gets up and begins dancing to the music also. The child's mother walks by and claps for the child who is still dancing along with the music. The child learns this behavior is good preforms his dance moves the next time he hears music.

Bandura’s Conditions for Modeling:
  • Attention: the amount of attention we are capable of utilizing in regards to a specific action
  • Retention: The job of remembering what was paid attention to
  • Reproduction: Repeating the action that was originally paid attention to
  • Motivation: Having a reason to imitate what was seen
Click here for more information
Reinforcement: the process of encouraging or establishing a belief or pattern of behavior
Punishment: the process of discouraging a belief or pattern of behavior.

Graph explanation:
Two qualities shape behavior: punishment and reinforcement. Each stimulus can have either positive or negative implications toward the individual. Breaking this down further:
Positive punishment: A stimulus is added to increase a behavior - A child is clapped for when they dance.
Negative reinforcement: A stimulus is decreased or removed to increase a behavior - A prisoner receives a reprieve from his jail sentence for good behavior.
Positive punishment: A stimulus is added to decrease a behavior - A child is placed in time out for inappropriate behavior.
Negative punishment: A stimulus is decreased or removed to decrease a behavior - A child's cell phone is taken away for poor behavior at school
For further explanation click here
Cognitive Development: Children’s perceptions of the world and specific developmental mechanisms (self-efficacy) are formed through both direct experience and the effects formed from their actions.
  • The following change during development
    • Child’s attention
    • Memory
    • Cognitive organization
      • The older a child/individual ages, the longer they can hold attention, the more memory they can retain and the stronger their organizational skills.
Example: A child assesses their own internal feelings and confidences about learning the piano, based upon his/her ability to remember to remember how to play, his ability to play overall and innate musical talents.
What drives Development?
  • Social learning theorists take a contextual world-view on development
    • Social context’s on children drive development
    • Behavior is influenced by the environment
      • People act on their environment
      • Individuals filter out their environment based upon their current world-view
      • Individuals create their own environment as they act on their environment
      • Individuals make new behaviors by reorganizing previously learned behaviors
Example: A child sees his best friend pick up a piece of trash in the park and throw it away in a nearby trashcan. As the child sees his, he looks around, people are looking at his friend and smiling. The child takes this into consideration and finds another piece of trash and throws it away.

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Caption: Social learning theory is driven by a combination of the individual's learned environment, their innate personality and behavior that is modeled for them.

Outline of Developmental Processes across the Lifespan
Let’s break this down shall we?
  • Formula of human development according to social learning theory
  • S->O->R (developed by Clark Hall)
  • The stimulus (S) effects the organism (O) which produces a response (R) that is as dependent on (S) as it is on (O). Persons act upon and are acted on by their environment.

This formula breaks down the process by which social learning theory is utilized in real world scenarios. As an individual has a stimulus acted upon them, they produce a response. This is consistent over the lifetime which indicates that social learning is a continuous process in which individual behaviors are shaped by stimuli in their environment and can be affected by an individuals own cognitive development and functioning.
Connections between Early and Late Childhood
As a child develops, less attention is paid to their capability to repeat an action
Older children are expected to acquire new skills quickly, with minimal verbal instructions

Example: Toddlers first learning to use silverware are often repeatedly shown the proper techniques to holding the utensils properly. However, school age children who are first learning to paint will get minimal instruction as they are as they are expected to pick up nonverbal ques more quickly than when they were younger. This demonstrates that different age groups face different social environments based upon their degree of experience.

Example: A child learning how to walk often has to go through various steps prior to walking. The child first has to roll over, then crawl and take minimal steps before they can walk across a room. The child has to learn how to use his/he motor functions to make their appendages move across a room, which make take them till they are over one year old. A amputee patient who is learning to walk with a prosthesis, has the knowledge of move specific parts of their body, but need rehabilitation to assist them with the specific body movements. This can take a few months of physical therapy.


Testing Methodology

Experiments with human subjects, similar to Bandura's bobo doll experiment. For a highly informative video of the original 1961 experiment (with added musical score), click below.

Here is an excellent link to an article about Bandura's life and theory.

Here is some valid recent (20‍‍06) criticisms a‍‍bout Band‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍ura's early research (particularly his ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍Bobo doll ‍‍aggression study).‍‍
Diversity Applications

  • Self-efficacy is useful when examining group differences in power and status
  • "When group members are denied access to opportunities and experiences, they are less likely to gain the confidence and skill needed to succeed in those areas" (Miller & Scholnick, 2000, p. 140).
  • There is a significant need for greater access to resources for all people so the opportunities to develop self-efficacy in a variety of domains exist.
  • There is a significant need for more successful role models for members of minority groups. This is relevant because self-efficacy is more likely to develop when the model being observed seems similar to the observer.
  • Higher risk of low self-efficacy in areas where prejudice and discrimination exist.j
  • Eccles's 1989 longitudinal study on gender differences in math achievement demonstrated the significance of negative attitudes towards one's own abilities. If girls were told that boys were better in math than girls (or that girls had naturally low mathematic abilities) they performed worse than boys on subsequent tests of mathematical ability.
  • There are many implications for college success, relationship satisfaction, SES, career satisfaction, and overall achievement and well-being when members of minority groups do not have access to the resources needed to create and foster self-efficacy in domains linked to success in our society.
  • Self-efficacy is related to identity development and self-esteem which in turn, can also be negatively affected by the lack of resources and opportunities for growth and enrichment.

Current View/Implications

There are several informative books and articles on human development and social learning theory, especially as applied to social psychology, theories of learning and development, and aggression research. A tribute to Bandura and his work was recently published in American Psychologist when Bandura won a lifetime award for psychological contributions to the field.

One recent article that may be of interest to us as psychologists discusses the ability of the media (television) to teach multicultural values.‍‍‍ Researchers found that portrayals of multicultural families on T.V. influenced children's attitudes towards different ethnic groups in a positive way:

"It is the medium of television, supported by some of its electronic offspring, that are the multimedia cross-cultural socializers of children, and they compete with those traditional agencies of socialization that we know as the home or family, the school, religious organizations, and peer groups. Television and other media bring with them attractive models, crafted language, and dynamic storytelling features about people, places, and cultural groups that help shape the worldview of young people (Berry, 2003, p. 362).

Or in other words: one of the greatest implications of Social Learning Theory for the conceptualization of human development is that modeling matters. Throughout the lifespan, individuals' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are shaped by what is observed in the world.