Albert Bandura’s social learning theory (SLT) suggests that we learn social behavior by observing and imitating the behavior of others.
Bandura realized that direct reinforcement alone could not account for all types of learning, so he added a social element to his theory, arguing that people learn by observing others (Nabavi, 2012).
His theory is regarded as the bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories, encompassing attention, memory, and motivational processes (Muro & Jeffrey, 2008)
The SLT states that in response to observation, imitation, and modeling, learning can occur even without changing behavior (Bandura, 1965).
This article introduces Bandura’s social learning theory and explores key concepts, real-life examples, and some fascinating experiments.
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What Is Bandura’s Social Learning Theory?
To understand Bandura’s theory, let’s first look at the originator.
Who is Albert Bandura?
Albert Bandura, born in 1925 in Alberta, Canada, became interested in psychology while studying biological sciences at the University of British Columbia (Nabavi, 2012).
Graduating with a degree in psychology, Bandura continued his studies and in 1952 was awarded a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Iowa. He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1974 and awarded the Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology in 2004 (Nabavi, 2012).
In the 1960s, Bandura became known for his social learning theory (SLT). His approach recognized reinforcement and the importance of observing, modeling, and imitating the emotional reactions, attitudes, and behaviors of others in learning (Bandura, 1977a).
In 1986, the SLT developed into the social cognitive theory, incorporating the idea that learning takes place in a social context, “with a dynamic and reciprocal interaction of the person, environment, and behavior,” and a cognitive context that considers past experiences that shape engagement in behavior (LaMorte, 2019).
Because of his continuing research, Bandura became known among academics as the father of cognitive theory (Nabavi, 2012).
What is the social learning theory?
Learning is about interacting with the environment and making a permanent change in knowledge or behavior that improves human performance (Driscoll, 1994).
According to Bandura’s SLT, we learn from interacting with others in a social context. We observe, assimilate, and imitate others’ behavior when witnessing positive or rewarding experiences (Nabavi, 2012).
Bandura (1977a) agreed with the behaviorist learning theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning yet, crucially, added the following:
- Mediating processes take place between the stimuli and response.
- Behavior is learned through observation of the environment.
As a result, both environmental and cognitive factors combine to influence human learning and behavior.
The SLT states that we acquire behaviors through a combination of reinforcement and imitation, where “imitation is the reproduction of learning through observation” (Gross, 2020, p. 489).
Stages of the Theory: A Diagram
Bandura’s social learning theory provides a helpful framework for understanding how an individual learns via observation and modeling (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018).
Cognitive processes are central, as learners must make sense of and internalize what they see to reproduce the behavior. Psychological processing is required to match cognition and behavior between the observation and the performance (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018).
The following diagram represents the three interconnected underlying themes of the SLT: environmental, personal, and behavioral factors (modified from Bandura, 1977b).
The SLT suggests that we learn from one another throughout our lives via the following processes (Nabavi, 2012):
We observe other people’s behavior.
Following observation, we assimilate and imitate the observed behavior.
We are more likely to imitate behavior modeled by people we perceive as similar to ourselves.
While behaviorists claim learning must result in a permanent behavior change, social learning theorists demonstrated the importance of cognition, recognizing that learning can occur in the absence of behavior (Bandura, 1965).
Behaviors learned through modeling
Bandura proposed that modeling or learning is composed of four mediational processes or conditions that must be met (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018; Nabavi, 2012):
We must pay attention to the model. Our attention increases when behavior is more striking, different, or prestigious, and when the model is more similar to ourselves.
We must be able to remember the observed behavior; this can be increased through rehearsal.
We must be capable of replicating the behavior just observed. Note that a novice may not be developmentally ready to reproduce the action.
We must be motivated to demonstrate what we have learned. This can be influenced by both reinforcement and punishment.
The following diagram shows the stages involved in the modeling process (modified from Nabavi, 2012):
In a 2018 study using the SLT to explore learning from role models, students confirmed the processes above, describing how they were “selectively and consciously paying attention, using retention strategies, reproducing observed behavior and being motivated to imitate” (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018, p. 1).
10 Key Psychology Concepts
Interpretation of the Social Learning Theory depends on the following key concepts.
SLT foundational concepts
While there are several concepts crucial to our understanding of the SLT, the following are foundational (Nabavi, 2012; Introduction, 2020):
- People learn through observation.
- Reinforcement and punishment have an indirect effect on behavior and learning.
- Cognitive factors contribute to whether a behavior is acquired.
- Learning involves modeling, yet does not require behavioral change.
Reinforcement and punishment
Both reinforcement and punishment are essential factors in the observer’s motivation to replicate the behavior they have seen (Nabavi, 2012):
- Both factors indirectly impact learning (but are not the sole cause).
- Both factors influence the degree to which an observer exhibits a learned behavior.
- The expectation of reinforcement influences cognitive processes, such as attention and learning.
Modeling & role models
The SLT demonstrates that humans learn and imitate behaviors observed in other people. The people observed are called models, and the process of learning is described as modeling.
Bandura identified three basic model types involved in observational learning (Nabavi, 2012):
- Live model
An individual is observed acting out or showing the behavior.
- Verbal instruction model
The behavior is explained or described.
- Symbolic model
A real or fictional character displays the behavior online, on TV, in a book, etc.
A lecturer who attends and enjoys a training course may imitate and model the instructor’s technique and style to improve their teaching methods and student engagement. Similar modeling occurs when children watch parents read, students see mathematical problems solved, and bystanders witness an act of bravery (Bandura, 1986, 2006).
3 Real-Life Examples
Let’s look at the application of SLT in real life.
Criminology and aggression
According to the SLT, “aggressive behaviors are learned through reinforcement and the imitation of aggressive models” (Gross, 2020, p. 489).
Bandura showed that aggressive tendencies, especially in children, are vicariously reinforced by seeing others rewarded for or benefiting from their aggressive behavior.
Are aggressive behaviors learned from violence on TV and in films? It depends on viewers’ perceptions, including factors such as (Gross, 2020):
- Are the violent portrayals in realistic settings? Violence in news and documentary programs is typically more upsetting.
- Is the violence justified or rewarded?
- Does the viewer closely identify with the characters?
- Is there a graphic and realistic depiction of the victim’s pain and suffering?
The SLT is also valuable in understanding criminal and deviant behavior. A review of existing studies found that the SLT could make sense of events at both a micro and a macro level, considering the temporal and ecological context (Akers & Jensen, 2006).
Social learning theory in social work
The SLT has implications for social work. Indeed, “modeling is seen as one of the key factors in the development of prosocial behavior” and occurs in families, workplaces, and education (Davies, 2013, p. 74).
The theory can help social workers better understand how specific behavior has developed and how to intervene, either to act as a role model or to encourage others.
Learning from role models is a widely accepted learning method, yet in education, the term remains vague and inconsistently used (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018, p. 1).
A 2018 study studied the effect of role modeling in teaching and learning in medical students (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018). Students reported that learning from role models was “complex and haphazard,” and the study recognized that the process of learning from role models was challenging, but could be helped by (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018):
- Ensuring proximity and repeated observation of role models’ actions and their behavior
- Providing insight into the hidden thought processes behind the observable behaviors
- Being given the opportunity to reproduce and practice behavior accompanied by reflection
Fascinating Experiments and Studies
The SLT has been studied through several fascinating and memorable studies, including:
Bobo doll experiment
In 1973, Bandura set out to understand the role of modeling in learning and aggression. To test the hypothesis that imitation played a large part in behavior, he created situations where children between three and five years old watched adults acting aggressively toward a large plastic doll, known as a ‘Bobo’ doll (Davies, 2013; Gross, 2020).
When allowed to play with the doll themselves, the children exhibited aggression to a degree that matched the scene they had witnessed.
Subsequently, when researchers removed toys, they observed the degree of aggression in the frustrated children. Bandura found that the children who had witnessed prior aggressive behavior were more likely to display it themselves.
However, Bandura identified that the acquisition of aggressive behaviors did not necessarily mean the child would imitate what they had seen (Gross, 2020).
Introduction of TV
“Natural experiments allow the researcher to take advantage of fortuitous and naturally occurring events” (Gross, 2020, p. 491).
Two well-known studies researched the introduction of TV into communities where it hadn’t previously existed (Williams, 1986; Charlton & Hannan, 2005).
Following the arrival of television in St. Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean, Charlton and Hannan (2005) found no noticeable difference in the children’s behavior. However, the study concluded that mitigating social factors might have helped, including being part of a small population where everyone knows one another and parents maintaining a high degree of control over their children’s behavior.
Contextual and cultural factors can moderate exposure to media violence or aggressive behavior (Gross, 2020).
Promoting positive parenting
Video feedback has been used successfully as a social learning theory intervention to promote positive parenting. In a 2017 study, parents who received helpful feedback became better role models, child–parent attachment improved, and there was a reduction in behavioral problems in children (Juffer, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & van IJzendoorn, 2017).
Combining the biological perspective with the SLT
Recent research has combined new findings in biological risk factors into mainstream social learning theories of criminal behavior (Fox, 2017).
“While learning clearly has social origins among peers and conditioning in society, it is also a biochemical process” (Fox, 2017, p. 25). Research, while ongoing, suggests that “many biological factors influence our learning, and consequently our behavior” (Fox, 2017, p. 28).
An improved understanding of such underlying factors, including perception, encoding, and reinforcement, may explain why some individuals are more likely to learn from the antisocial behavior of peers.
10 Strengths & Weaknesses of the Theory
Bandura’s SLT has had a profound impact on learning theory and psychology in general.
As with all psychological theories, there are strengths and weaknesses, and research is continually adding to our knowledge (Introduction, 2020; Wortley, 2008).
Strengths of the SLT
- The SLT is incredibly flexible in explaining a person’s various ways of behaving and learning. An environmental change can lead to a behavioral one.
- The SLT explains that learning can happen in various ways, including observation and direct, hands-on experiences.
- The SLT has been applied in many settings that have consistently shown strong relationships between social learning concepts and behavior.
- The degree, probability, and frequency of reinforcement impact imitation.
- Studies involving children observing aggression have shown that it impacts their subsequent behavior in controlled situations.
Criticism and limitations
- The SLT does not consider the aspect of accountability in actions. The theory suggests that how a person behaves is primarily down to context rather than how they process information.
- The SLT ignores developmental milestones. Such development stages typically occur irrespective of the environmental setting.
- The SLT does not account for behavior when there is no role model.
- Negative behavior such as criminal activities can occur without prior exposure to such behavior.
- The SLT can be difficult to test because of ethical issues. Indeed, experiments such as the ‘Bobo’ doll study would no longer be allowed.
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A Take-Home Message
Psychologist Albert Bandura developed the SLT in response to the limitations of behavioral theories of learning.
While behaviorists focused on how the environment and reinforcement affect behavior, Bandura recognized that people learn by observing how others behave, including the rewards and punishment they receive.
Through a series of experiments, Bandura confirmed the ability of humans to acquire new behavior through observation and imitation. The SLT (later becoming the social cognitive theory) put forward the idea that learning occurs within a social environment, resulting from a shared interaction between person, environment, and behavior (Introduction, 2020).
While it has some limitations, the SLT successfully explains the acquisition of new behavior in many environments. The SLT is particularly valuable in explaining how children learn by imitating family members, friends, and other influential figures and will perform the behavior if the reward is sufficient.
Whether applied to education, social work, or criminology, the SLT is a valuable theory that can be used with other ideas and practices to bring about change. Although some historical studies do not meet the ethical research standards of today, the lessons learned remain valuable and insightful for education and behavioral change.
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