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Social Learning Theory – An Overview of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory – An Overview of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their 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

What is Social Learning Theory?

The social learning theory proposed by Albert Bandura has become perhaps the most influential theory of learning and development. While rooted in many basic concepts of traditional learning theory, Bandura believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of knowledge.

His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching others. Known as observational learning (or modeling), this type of learning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors.

Basic Social Learning Concepts

1. People can learn through observation.

Observational Learning

In his famous “Bobo doll” studies, Bandura demonstrated that children learn and imitate behaviors they have observed in other people. 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 had previously observed.

Bandura identified three basic models of observational learning:

  1. A live model involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out behavior.
  2. A verbal instructional model involves descriptions and explanations of behavior.
  3. A symbolic model involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.

2. Mental states are essential to learning.

Intrinsic Reinforcement

Bandura noted that external, environmental reinforcement was not the only factor influencing learning and behavior. He described intrinsic reinforcement as internal rewards, such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment. This emphasis on inner thoughts and cognitions helps connect learning theories to cognitive developmental theories. While many textbooks place social learning theory with behavioral theories, Bandura describes his approach as a ‘social cognitive theory.’

3. Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behavior.

While behaviorists believe that learning leads to a permanent change in behavior, observational learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviors.

The Modeling Process

Not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Factors involving both the model and the learner can determine whether social learning is successful. Specific requirements and steps must also be followed. The following steps are involved in the observational learning and 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 is 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 perform your observed behavior. 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 others experience some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for attending class on time, you might start showing up a few minutes early each day.
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