Discuss the Social Learning Theory of Behaviour

Essay on the SLT for the PSYB4 exam

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Discuss the Social Learning Theory of behaviour. Refer to at least one topic/other
approach in your answer. (12 marks)
In the early 1940's, people like Dollard and Miller proposed a social learning
theory, arguing that for human beings most learning is social ­ ie acquired by
observing people in social contexts. Like the rabbit or pigeon, human beings are
subject to the laws of classical and operant conditioning, but unlike these animals,
humans are full of attitudes, beliefs and expectations that affect the way they
acquire information, make decisions, reason and solve problems. All these mental
processes are integral to the learning required.
The key assumptions are that humans learn via observation of what others do
and the consequences of these actions, for example, a young girl watching her
mother doing the housework and then doing it too. A child may imitate any
behaviour seen, which is simple copying. It may also identify with specific role models
and because of a particular feature of the model, choose to imitate them rather than
others, for example little boys copying David Beckham's hair.
Reinforcement in social learning theory involves cognition ­ the individual
decides whether to imitate a behaviour or not based on what happened when the
behaviour was produced. This type of reinforcement is vicarious and indirect, for
example what happened to X when he took money from the table will affect whether
I take money that I see on the table. This approach involves reciprocal determinism ­
the learning and behaviours acquired are affected by both external factors like
rewards and mediational factors like thoughts and expectations.
The idea of placing cognitions at the heart of human learning is sensible. This
can be shown by comparison with Behaviourism. The behaviourists say that learning
and performance are the same thing, and what is observed is what has been learned.
We know the rat in the Skinner box has learnt to press the lever when we see it
being pressed. However, the Social Learning Theory shows that we might acquire
learning but choose not to produce the evidence of our learning. This can be shown
in Bandura's BoBo doll study where all of the children were asked to show what they
had seen in the film for treats. All three groups produced the same high levels of
aggression. Therefore, in the first stage all had acquired the learning, but for other
reasons some had not performed it - this is called latent learning.
There is lots of evidence to support the idea that observational learning
occurs for example in the Hanna and Meltzoff studies in 1993 which demonstrated
that even children too young to speak will imitate their peers and this learning is
strong enough to last over time and in different situations. They designed simple
toys the babies couldn't have seen before. They used sixty 14month old babies, and
several of them became `experts' with the toys having watched the experimenter
demonstrate the toy. The `experts' then played with the toys, being praised for their
abilities. Then the `experts' each showed 3 toddlers how to play, and within 20
seconds 66% of the toddlers were successful in making the toy work.
Also there is more to the process than just copying ­ Master showed that
the appropriateness of the behaviours is more important than the sex of the model.
Children aged 4-5 were shown gender neutral toys and told that they were more
appropriate for either a girl or a boy. The children observed a girl model or a boy
model playing with the toy and were then allowed to play with the toys themselves.
The researchers found that the children were more likely to play with the toy when
they had been told it was suitable for their sex rather than if they had been told it

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it seems that ideas about gender develop from information the children acquire
rather than copying everything they see.
This demonstrates that the Behaviourist approach which states that rewards
will strengthen behaviour is not quite the whole story ­ the observer also considers
whether they feel copying is appropriate. This can account for the infinite variety of
behaviours seen ­ we can adapt our responses and choose what to do.…read more


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