The Social Learning Theory Approach

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Social learning theory is based on observational learning. This approach states that behaviour is learned by watching other people behave and observing the consequences of the behaviour for the observed person. Hence, behaviour is not learned from direct reward and punishment for the individual, as with operant conditioning.

Social learning theorists enforce that things take place within the organism that mediate between stimulus and response. Behaviourists aren't interested in what happens between stimulus and response. They don't think it matters. Social Learning Theorists emphasise that you do need to know about the person's mental processes. SLT can be viewed as a bridge between behaviourism and cognitive learning theories.

One of the most influential figures in SLT is Bandura. 

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  • Human behaviour takes place in a social context and needs to take account of the importance of other people in the learning process
  • We learn through observations of how people behave in social situations, together with rewards and punishments
  • Other people act as 'models' in the environment. Model is then imitated
  • Just because a behaviour is observed, doesn't mean it is performed. Social conditions have to be right for the learned behaviour to be performed
  • Language and other forms of symbolism allow people to turn experience into conscious thought, reflect and plan future behaviour.
  • Bandura played down classical conditioning and reflexes, emphasised observational learning and expectancy
  • Mediational processes, which lie between stimulus and response influence our behaviour
  • Observational learning has four conditions: attention, retention, motor reproduction, motivation
  • Learning can be a result of direct reinforcement or indirect, vicarious reinforcement
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Similarities and Differences with behaviourist/cog

Behaviourist approach

  • Similar to SLT in the emphasis on the role of reinforcement and the learning of behaviour.
  • Different as SLT emphasises the importance of expectancy of reward. SLT also looks to future events whilst behaviourism looks back on past situations. Learning in performance is the same thing in behaviourism, but different in SLT. Animals are not seen the same as humans in SLT.

Cognitive approach  

  • Similar in the emphasis on cognitive processes and the focus on human, rather than animal behaviour.
  • Different to SLT in that observational learning isn't part of the cognitive approach. Cognitive approach also focuses on cognitive processes such as schemas much more. SLT focuses on external behaviour, whilst cognitive is interested in internal processes.
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A distinction...

In SLT, a distinction is made between learning behaviour and the performance of the behaviour. A person may learn a behaviour from observing someone recieving an award for behaving in a certain way. However, the person may not actually perform the behaviour themselves, either because it is not appropriate or because they choose not to.

This is another way in which mental or cognitive proceses are fundamental to the social learning theory approach.

As with the behaviourist approach, SLT research has mostly employed the laboratory experiment to investigate observational learning. One distinguising feature is that most of the research is done on people, rather than animals like the behaviourist approach. 

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Four conditions

Bandura's theory of observational learning is based on four conditions:

  • Attention - the individual notices someone in their environment
  • Retention - the individual remembers what was observed
  • Motor reproduction - the individual replicates the behaviour shown by the model
  • Motivation - the presence of reinforcement or punishment motivates the individual to reproduce the observed behaviour (or not)

Two principles of SLT are:

  • Observational learning - this is learning of behaviour from observing the behaviour of others and then imitating it, or children learning through identification. Imitation is not automatic
  • Expectancy - Behaviour will only be copied if there is an expectancy of reinforcement for doing so. A child, for example, watches an aggressive adult winning a fight. This gives the child the expectancy of winning by being aggressive - the child copies the aggression for this reason. This displays the cognitive processes involved in SLT.
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Bandura (1991)

  • Because of our ability to be reflective, and have self-consciousness, we are able to decide what behaviour to perform in a specific situation
  • The terms belief, anticipation, goals, plan and desired outcomes, emphasise the central role of conscious cognitions in human behaviour
  • Bandura takes account of the persons social environment, cognition and actual behaviour performed.
  • He calld the interaction of these three features reciprical determinism (1977)
  • Whilst he used the term determinism, he did believe that people were able to exercise a degree of free will in deciding how to behave
  • Our cognitions allow us to decide what to do in different situations. Bandura called this personal agency - the belief that we are able to change things and make life better for ourselves
  • He also introduced the term collective agency - a group of people with shared beliefs can come together with the object of changing all of their lives for the better (such as joining a religious group)
  • SLT becomes the dominant approach for human learning as it takes cognitive processes into account
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Meditational processes

Meditational processes in learning, motivation and performance:

  • SLT approach of  Bandura makes an important distinction between learning a behaviour and performing that behaviour
  • A person may learn a behaviour but not perform the behaviour unless the appropriate social situation comes along.
  • Whether or not a behaviour has been learned will be performed depends on the percieved rewards or punishment for the person in a specific social situation. The person has to believe tat the performance of the learned behaviour will lead to desired outcomes and be rewarded (as in reciprocal determinism and links in with self-efficacy)
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Observational learning takes place by watching another person and observing the consequences of their behaviour for the other person.

Either way, the individual learns the behaviour from the other person, who is called the model. In performing the behaviour at a later time, the observer is said to be modelling their behaviour on the model they have observed.

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Study: Bandura (1961)

AIM- in a classical study, Bandura et al (1961) conducted an experiment with young children to demonstrate observational or imitative learning.

METHOD - Children from one group were put into a room, one at a time, with an adult who behaved in an aggressive way towards a bobo doll ( a lifelike, inflatable doll.) The adult hit the doll with a hammer and shouted abuse at it. Children from a second group, one at a time, were put in a room with an adult behaving in a subdued and non-aggressive way

Each child was then put in a playroom which contained toys, along with a bobo doll and a hammer. The researchers recorded the number of aggressive behaviours each child made towards the doll.

RESULTS - the children who had observed an adult behaving aggressively behaved much more aggressively themselves than those who had observed the non-aggressive model. They also found boys generally behaved more aggressively than girls

CONCLUSION - Mere exposure to a model behaving aggressively results in observational learning and aggressive behaviour

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Who We Imitate

Obviously, we don't imitate every person's behaviour that we observe. SLT has investigated what characteristics of the model and observer are most likely to result in behaviour being imitated. Characteristics of model most likely to influence observer are:

  • Models we see as most like ourselves, eg, same sex, same age, similar dress style
  • The likeability and attractiveness of the model
  • High status or famous people, such as pop starts or famous footballers

A key characteristic of the observer is self-esteem. This is how highly you value yourself in terms of ability, self-confidence, self-like and so on. People with low self esteem (feelings of low self-worth) are more likely to imitate a model's behaviour than people with high self-esteem.

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Not all models are copied...

Identification with a model depends upon certain characteristics, the likelihood being increased by:

  • Appropriateness of model's behaviour - particularly in relation to gender behaviour
  • Relevance
  • Similarlity
  • Warmth and friendliness
  • Model having power
  • Model being admired
  • Consistency

According to SLT theorists, there are two types of model: live models, who are physically present in our environment, such as a mother or teacher, and symbolic models, like people present in films, books etc. Symbolic modelling may be considered to have a greater impact in cultures where different forms of media, such as television, are widely avaliable.

It is important to note, however, that not all behaviours we observe can be reproduced - we may be in awe of Jimmy Page's guitar solos, but most of use would be unable to produce his level of skill!

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Characteristics of the observer

The level of self efficacy of the observer is a large factor. According to Bandura (1989), a person with a high level of efficacy believes they can excersize control over events which affect their lives. They're confident they can imitate the behaviour of a model in appropriate social situations. 

People with high self-efficacy will also feel more confident in imitating complex behaviours. The reverse is also the same. Other characteristics of the observer that result in imitation of the model's behaviour are low self confidence.

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The Media

The media has a gigantic effect on our social learning

  • Children can copy the language on the television
  • They may identify with models on TV
  • See them be rewarded for certain behaviours (vicarious reinforcement) and be motivated to perform that behaviour

For example, programmes or games like Grand Theft Auto may motivate some children to replicate such behaviour as they may see models in such games as powerful

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Key differences between SLT and OC

  • Reinforcement - SLT serves as an informative and motivational operation, rather than a mechanical response strengthener
  • Behaviouristm - works backwards from behaviour, whilst SLT works forward (eg, expected feedback)
  • Behaviourism dismesses cognitive processes but in  SLT, individuals must memorise the observed behaviour until needed
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Learning and Performance

  • Bandura drew the conclusion that learning takes place from watching or observing how other's behave. He also enforced that imitation is a result of watching observed behaviour. However, learned behaviour is only performed when the person has seen another being rewarded for acting this way. They then expect to be rewarded.
  • Bandura regarded observational learning to be a four stage process:
  • Stage one - attentional process - model features observer behaviour - watching model//seeing how they behave
  • Stage two - retention processess - behaviour encoded using language or imagery - remembering behaviour
  • Stage three - motor reproduction process - ability of the observer to perform the behaviour - reproducing behaviour
  • Stage four - motivational processes - rewards and punishments determine behaviour performed - motivation of the person to perform the behaviour
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The belief about the behaviour of a person is able to perform together with the percieved consequences of actually performing the learned behaviour.

Defined by Bandura, people's beliefs about their capabilities to exercise control over events which affect their lives

On a continuum from high to low 

Low Self efficacy |---------------------| High Self efficacy

Bandura (1995) found characteristics of people with high self efficacy:

  • They set themselves challenging goals and high standards of achievement
  • Are adventurous
  • Overcome setbacks and frustration quickly
  • Less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety
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Self - efficacy is highly researched by psychologists and evidence suggests it is related to achieving significant weight loss through dieting, getting high grades at A level, ability to cope with trauma and crisis is one's personal level

A person's self-efficacy is a product of past experience. Comparison of self with the performance of others and social influence - people telling us that we can perform well

Self-efficacy changes over a person's life span

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Vicarious reinforcement and punishment

  • Bandura makes the distinction between learning and behaviour and the actual performance of that behaviour
  • Observational learning - the person being observed is the model - imitated in the future and when appropriate 
  • Matters more complex as the observer also notices the consequences of the models behaviour. Eg, A speaker recieving a clap at the end of a speech, the observer thinks if they perform a speech as good as that, they will also be praised
  • Vicarious reinforcement- is when an observer percieves another person being rewarded or reinforced for performing a behaviour
  • A number of cognitive processes involves, observer's perception, observer remembering, expectation of the observer and the value of the reward
  • If the model got booed and hissed at they are unlikely to be imitated because of the negative consequences - this is vicarious punishment
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SLT strengths

  • Adds cognitive processes to behaviourst principles - can store and remember info
  • Based on lab experiments - rigorous method and can establish cause and effect
  • However, it uses also uses non experimental methods of research
  • Good at explaning specific imitated behaviour - trial and error learning can be dangerous for survival
  • Explains development of culture and complex behaviours eg, media influence
  • Less deterministic and reductionist as takes mediational processes/ a bit of free will into account
  • SLT has been applied to many areas of psychology and has provided effective explanations of behaviour, like acquisition of gender roles
  • SLT has used the scientific method or experimentation to study learning in people
  • It takes a less mechanical view of human behaviour, than behaviourism and has the strength that cognitive processes (how we think) are taken into account
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SLT limitations

  • Doesn't explain how cognitive processes work - how is behaviour stored and reproduced?
  • Still concentrates mostly on external behaviour - what about subjective experiences?
  • Criticisms of Bobo doll studies - lab, so too artificial, cannot be generalised
  • Not good at explaining learning of abstract ideas, such as justice and fairness are hard to learn through just imitation
  • SLT doesn't fully explain individual differences - what is percieved as reinforcement for one person, may not be for another
  • How can someone become a criminal when they have not been raised around criminal behaviour? 
  • While much focus has been placed on aggression, SLT doesn't take into account sufficently the role of genetics and biology in aggression
  • The approach ignores personlity differences such as introversion and extroversion
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  • Health psychology - eg, exercise, eating a balanced diet, alcohol in moderation, relaxation, high self efficacy
  • Atypical psychology - techniques for coping with phobic and anxiety disorders through improving self efficacy
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This is really helpful, thanks!

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