“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”
-Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977
Cited by almost 24,000 scholars, Albert Bandura‘s social learning theory has become perhaps the most influential theory of learning and development. While rooted in many of the basic concepts of traditional learning theory, such as Behaviorism, Bandura believed that simple reinforcement could not account for all types of learning.
Bandura’s social learning theory posited that learners gain information and change behaviors by watching other people. Known as observational learning (or modeling), this type of learning can explain a variety of behaviors, which up to that point, had been unaccounted for (Bandura, 1977).
Three Core Concepts of Social Learning Theory
- People can learn through observation.
- Internal mental states are an essential part of this process.
- Just because something has been learned, it does not mean that it will result in a change in behavior.
Let’s explore each of these concepts in greater depth.
1. Observational Learning: People can learn through observation.
We deduce from Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961) that children absorb and imitate behaviors they see in others. Illustrated in the video below, the children in Bandura’s studies observed an adult acting violently toward a Bobo doll. When the children were later allowed to play in a room with the Bobo doll, they began to imitate the aggressive actions they observed previously.
Bandura identified three models that can be learned from:
- A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior.
- A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior.
- A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.
2. Intrinsic Reinforcement: Mental states are important to learning.
Learning and behavioral change does not occur through Pavlovian influence alone. Intrinsic reinforcement, such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment, also play a significant role in influencing learning and behavior. This emphasis on internal thought helps connect learning theories to cognitive developmental theories. While many textbooks place social learning theory with behavioral theories, Bandura himself describes his approach as a ‘social cognitive theory’ (Bandura, 1977).
3. The Modeling Process: Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behavior.
While behaviorists believed that learning led to a permanent change in behavior, observational learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviors.
Bandura teaches that not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Factors involving both the model and the learner can play a role in whether social learning is successful. Certain requirements and steps must also be followed. The following steps are involved in the observational learning (modeling) process:
- Attention: In order to learn, you need to be paying attention. Anything that detracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning. If the model interesting or there is a novel aspect to the situation, you are far more likely to dedicate your full attention to learning.
- Retention: The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning.
- Reproduction: Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement.
- Motivation: Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled. Reinforcement and punishment play an important role in motivation. While experiencing these motivators can be highly effective, so can observing other experience some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for being to class on time, you might start to show up a few minutes early each day.
In addition to influencing other psychologists, Bandura’s social learning theory has had important implication in the field of eduction and the corporate world. Today, both teachers and parents recognize the importance of modeling appropriate behaviors. Other classroom strategies such as encouraging children and building self-efficacy are also rooted in social learning theory. Additionally, companies like VitalSmarts—the authors of Influencer and Crucial Conversations—rely on Bandura’s research for many of their trainings on promoting behavioral change and human performance modification.
Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross, S. A (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Cherry, K. (n.d.). Social Learning Theory. In Psychology.about.com. Retrieved June 24, 2013, from http://psychology.about.com/od/developmentalpsychology/a/sociallearning.htm