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Most often associated with the work of Albert Bandura, social learning theory incorporates principles of both behaviorism and cognitive theories of learning. In its simplest form, social learning theory explains how people learn by observing the behavior of others. Bandura suggests that this process has four component parts – attention, retention, motor reproduction and motivation. Environmental and cognitive factors can influence the process as well. The theory has many practical applications for understanding behavior in the classroom, and in society more generally. However, despite its far-reaching impact, social learning theory is not without its critics.

Keywords Bandura, Albert; Behaviorism; Cognitive Theory; Imitation; Modeling; Operant Conditioning; Reciprocal Determinism; Self-Efficacy; Self-Regulation; Vicarious Reinforcement

Educational Theory: Social Learning Theory


Social learning theory is often characterized as a stepping stone between two diametrically opposed theories of learning (Ormrod, 1990). By defining human learning as a function of both the environment and mental processes, social learning theory blended behaviorism – the dominant theory of learning in the 1950s and 1960s – and cognitive theories of learning, which gained prominence in the 1970s and have remained popular today. Although many individuals contributed to the development of social learning theory, Albert Bandura – a Stanford professor whose career has spanned more than 60 years – is most often recognized as its creator. The following summary will outline Bandura's work, showing that what began as a blending of behaviorism and cognition, has shifted more heavily toward the latter, following the lead of larger trends in psychology and education (Ormrod, 1990).


Bandura's shift toward a more cognitive orientation, however, began very late in his career. When he first started as a professor at Stanford in 1953, behaviorism was in its heyday. In many ways, then, social learning theory developed in reaction to behaviorism – or to what Bandura perceived as its limitations in explaining human learning. Bandura observed, for example, that human learning occurred much more rapidly than behaviorists had proposed. Whereas behaviorists suggested that learning occurs gradually – through trial and error and with the aid of reinforcement– Bandura believed learning could take place all at once, without any practice or reinforcement whatsoever, simply by observing other people (Crain, 2000). Bandura also wanted to leave room for individual agency, and found behaviorists' emphasis on the role of the environment limiting (Bandura, 1977). Emphasizing certain factors – like the environment – to the exclusion of others – like cognition, led to what he called "a truncated image of the human potential" (Bandura, 1977, p. vi).

Operant Conditioning

More specifically, Bandura didn't believe observational learning – that is, learning that occurs by observing a model exhibit a particular behavior, and then imitating that behavior oneself – could be explained by operant conditioning, the mechanism behaviorists suggest explains most changes in behavior. According to the operant conditioning paradigm, voluntary behaviors exhibited by either an animal or a human are modified by the consequences that follow; reinforcement increases the frequency of a behavior, whereas punishment decreases the frequency. The voluntary behavior, or response, typically occurs in the presence of a discriminative stimulus, and the consequence, either reinforcement or punishment – immediately follows. According to behaviorists, observational learning fits neatly into this paradigm (Mazur, 1994); the behavior to be imitated (the model) serves as the discriminative stimulus, and the imitation of the behavior is the response itself. Whereas a rat might learn to press a lever in the presence of a red light, and is then rewarded with food, for example, a young boy might imitate the behavior of his father, when in his father's presence, and receive a reward, such as verbal praise.

Examples of operant conditioning in the classroom, write Lineros and Hinojosa (2012), might include the instructor’s granting a higher grade for quality writing and a lower one for the inverse. Or, the authors write, the instructor’s “consistently smiling [at] and asking easier questions of the left side of a classroom. As the left side contributes to class discussion, the positive instructor reinforcement tends to push students towards that side” (Lineros & Hinojosa, 2012).

Lineros and Hinojosa add that instructors can also inadvertently create these behaviors through subconscious positive and negative reinforcement. “This can insidiously harm diversity as instructors unknowingly reward through positive body language or speech tone those who mirror their espoused beliefs,” they write (2012).

Why did Bandura feel operant conditioning was an insufficient theory for explaining observational learning? Why did he feel it was an adequate model for explaining some types of behavior, and not others? Bandura's criticisms were threefold (Ormrod, 1990). Because operant conditioning suggests a behavior must be emitted first, and then shaped by the subsequent reinforcement or punishment, Bandura wondered how it could explain behaviors that are emitted correctly the first time. As Ormrod (1990) writes, "The learning of an entirely novel response – responses that an individual has seen but never previously emitted in any form – is difficult to explain from a Skinnerian perspective" (p. 164). Secondly, according to behaviorists, the discriminative stimulus, response, and reinforcement occur immediately after one another; Bandura pointed out, however, that imitation of behavior and subsequent reinforcement is often delayed. Such delayed imitation suggests that learning occurs at the time the discriminative stimulus – in this case, at the time the individual observes the model –and importantly, occurs even in absence of reinforcement. Thus, unlike behaviorists, Bandura didn't believe reinforcement was a necessary component of learning. He also demonstrated that learning and behavior are distinct from one another. Finally, Bandura pointed out that people often imitate behavior for which they are never reinforced; simply watching other people reinforced for their behaviors is often enough incentive for an individual to exhibit the behavior herself. Again, operant conditioning falls short in explaining this phenomenon, too.

Principles of Social Learning Theory

Given the limitations of behaviorism, and operant conditioning more specifically, Bandura's theory of social learning – which he first called a theory of observational learning - began to take shape. Before delving into the specific mechanisms through which people learn by observing others, the key elements of social learning theory – as discussed by Ormrod (1990) – are outlined below.

• People can learn by observing the behavior of others, as well as from the consequences of those behaviors.

• Learning and performance are not necessarily the same thing; people can learn behaviors at the time they observe them, but not perform them until a later time, or not at all.

• Reinforcement plays a role in learning, although is not a necessary component of the learning process.

• Cognitive processes play a role in learning. As Crain (2000) elaborates, "When new behavior is acquired through observation alone, the learning appears to be cognitive. Thus, Bandura, unlike Skinner, believes that learning theory must include internal cognitive variables" (p. 194).

Bandura (1977) identifies four components to observational learning:

• Attention

• Retention

• Motor reproduction

• Motivation / Reinforcement

Bandura writes, "people cannot learn much by observation unless they attend to, and perceive accurately, the significant features of the modeled behavior" (p. 24). Secondly, the observer must remember what was observed. Thus, the behavior observed must be retained, and this occurs, Bandura argues, by using two different symbolic systems – by representing the behavior in image form, as a visual picture, or by representing it in verbal form, as a series of instructions. If a child is learning how to play tennis, for example, she may retain an image of her instructor demonstrating the proper forehand technique, and she might also retain a series of instructions, such as "I step forward with my left foot, turning my body perpendicular to…" Next, as the previous example suggests, one must be able to replicate the behavior. In other words, the individual must have the motor reproduction skills to enact the behavior she observed. If the tennis student doesn't have the strength to swing a racquet, she might not be able to reproduce the behavior. The final component of observational learning is motivation; people do not imitate all the behavior they learn but rather must be motivated to do so. Two points deserve emphasis; again, the distinction between learning and performance – people don't perform all behaviors they have learned, only those they are motivated to perform. And secondly, expectation of reward can be as motivating as the reward itself. Bandura (1977) writes, "Reinforcement does play a role in observational learning, but mainly as an antecedent rather than a consequent influence. Anticipation of reinforcement is one of several factors that can influence what is observed and what goes unnoticed" (p. 37). It also influences what is performed, and what is not.


Why do some people pay attention to certain models and not others? Why do people imitate the same behavior differently? These are the questions Bandura (1977) attempted to answer in identifying some of the variables that influence the modeling process. Characteristics of the model, for example, determine to some extent whether or not they will be imitated (Ormrod, 1990). Models who are more similar to the person observing the behavior are more likely to be imitated, thus girls tend to imitate others of their same gender, and boys, vice versa. Models who are competent--perceived to have power and prestige--are also more likely to be imitated. Movie stars and athletes, as a result, often find their behavior and appearance imitated. Finally, when the model's behavior is relevant to the observer, the model is more likely to be imitated (Ormrod, 1990). Characteristics of the observer can also influence the process; younger...

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