Social Cognitive Theory: How We Learn From the Behavior of Others

By Charlotte Nickerson, published May 05, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Key Points

  • Social cognitive theory emphasizes the learning that occurs within a social context. In this view, people are active agents who can both influence and are influenced by their environment.
  • The theory was founded most prominently by Albert Bandura, who is also known for his work on observational learning, self-efficacy, and reciprocal determinism.
  • One assumption of social learning is that we learn new behaviors by observing the behavior of others and the consequences of their behavior.
  • If the behavior is rewarded (positive or negative reinforcement) we are likely to imitate it however if the behavior is punished imitation is less likely. For example in Bandura and Walters’ experimen,  the children imitated more the aggressive behavior of the model who was praised for being aggressive to the Bobo doll.
  • Social cognitive theory has been used to explain a wide range of human behavior, ranging from positive to negative social behaviors such as aggression, substance abuse, and mental health problems.

History and Overview

Social cognitive theory views people as active agents who can both influence and are influenced by their environment.

The theory is an extension of social learning that includes the effects of cognitive processes — such as conceptions, judgment, and motivation — on an individual's behavior and on the environment that influences them.

Rather than passively absorbing knowledge from environmental inputs, social cognitive theory argues that people actively influence their learning by interpreting the outcomes of their action, which, in turn, affects their environments and personal factors, informing and altering subsequent behavior (Schunk, 2012).

By including thought processes in human psychology, Social Cognitive Theory is able to avoid the assumption made by radical behaviorism that all human behavior is learnt through trial and error. Instead, Bandura highlights the role of observational learning and imitation in human behavior

Numerous psychologists, such as Julian Rotter and the American personality psychologist Walter Mischel have proposed different social-cognitive perspectives.

Albert Bandura (1989) introduced the most prominent perspective on social cognitive theory.

Bandura's perspective has been applied to a wide range of topics, such as personality development and functioning, the understanding and treatment of psychological disorders, organizational training programs, education, health promotion strategies, advertising and marketing, and more.

The central tenet of Bandura's social-cognitive theory is that people seek to develop a sense of agency and exert control over the important events in their lives.

This sense of agency and control is affected by factors such as self-efficacy, outcome expectations, goals, and self-evaluation (Schunk, 2012).

Origins: The Bobo Doll Experiments

Social cognitive theory can trace its origins to Bandura and his colleagues; in particular, a series of well-known studies on observational learning known as the Bobo Doll experiments.

bobo doll experiment

In these experiments, researchers exposed young, preschool aged children to videos of an adult acting violently toward a large, inflatable doll.

This aggressive behavior included verbal insults and physical violence, such as slapping and punching. At the end of the video, the children either witnessed the aggressor being rewarded, punished, or receive no consequences for his behavior (Schunk, 2012).

After being exposed to this model, the children were placed in a room where they were given the same inflatable Bobo doll.

The researchers found that those who had watched the model either receive positive reinforcement or no consequences for attacking the doll were more likely to show aggressive behavior toward the doll (Schunk, 2012).

This experiment was notable for being one that introduced the concept of observational learning to humans.

Bandura's ideas about observational learning were in stark contrast to previous behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner.

According to Skinner (1950), learning can only be achieved through individual action.

However, Bandura claimed that people and animals can also learn through watching and imitating the models they encounter in their environment, enabling them to acquire information more quickly.

Observational Learning

Bandura agreed with the behaviorists that behavior is learnt through experience however he proposed a different mechanism than conditioning.

He argued that we learn through observation and imitation of others’ behavior.

This theory focuses not only on the behavior itself but also on the mental processes involved in learning so it is not a pure behaviorist theory.

Social Learning Theory Bandura four stages mediation process in social learning theory attention retention motor reproduction motivation in diagram flat style.

Stages of the Social Learning Theory (SLT)

Not all observed behaviors are learned effectively. There are several factors involving both the model and the observer that determine whether or not a behavior is learned. These include attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation (Bandura & Walters, 1963).

  • Attention: the individual needs to pay attention to the behavior and its consequences and form a mental representation of the behavior. Some of the things that influence attention involve characteristics of the model.

    This means that the model must be salient, or noticeable. If the model is attractive, or prestigious, or appears to be particularly competent, you will pay more attention. And if the model seems more like yourself, you pay more attention.

  • Retention: storing the observed behavior in LTM where it can stay for a long period of time. Imitation is not always immediate. This process is often mediated by symbols. Symbols are "anything that stands for something else" (Bandura, 1998).

    They can be words, pictures, or even gestures. In order for symbols to be effective, they must be related to the behavior being learned and must be understood by the observer.

  • Motor Reproduction: the individual must be able (have the ability and skills) to physically reproduce the observed behavior. This means that the behavior must be within their capability. If it is not, they will not be able to learn it (Bandura, 1998).
  • Motivation: the observer must be motivated to perform the behavior. This motivation can come from a variety of sources, such as a desire to achieve a goal or avoid punishment. Bandura (1977) proposed that motivation has three main components: expectancy, value, and affective reaction.

    Firstly, expectancy refers to the belief that one can successfully perform the behavior. Secondly, value refers to the importance of the goal that the behavior is meant to achieve. And, the last of these, Affective reaction, refers to the emotions associated with the behavior.

    If a behavior is associated with positive emotions, it is more likely to be learned than a behavior associated with negative emotions. Reinforcement and punishment each play an important role in motivation.

    Individuals must expect to receive the same positive reinforcements (vicarious reinforcement) for imitating the observed behavior that they have seen the model receiving.

Imitation is more likely to occur if the model (the person who performs the behavior) is positively reinforced. This is called vicarious reinforcement.

Imitation is also more likely if we identify with the model. We see them as sharing some characteristics with us i.e. similar age, gender, social status as we identify with them.

Features of Social Cognitive Theory

The goal of social cognitive theory is to explain how people regulate their behavior through control and reinforcement in order to achieve goal-directed behavior that can be maintained over time.

Bandura, in his original formulation of the related social learning theory, included five constructs, adding self-efficacy to his final social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986).

Reciprocal Determinism

Reciprocal determinism is the central concept of social cognitive theory, and refers to the dynamic and reciprocal interaction of people — individuals with a set of learned experiences — the environment, or external social context, and behavior — the response to stimuli to achieve goals.

Its main tenet is that people seek to develop a sense of agency and exert control over the important events in their lives.

This sense of agency and control is affected by factors such as self-efficacy, outcome expectations, goals, and self-evaluation (Bandura, 1989).

To illustrate the concept of reciprocal determinism, Consider A student who believes they have the ability to succeed on an exam (self-efficacy) is more likely to put forth the necessary effort to study (behavior).

If they do not believe they can pass the exam, they are less likely to study. As a result, their beliefs about their abilities (self-efficacy) will be affirmed or disconfirmed by their actual performance on the exam (outcome).

This in turn will affect future beliefs and behavior. If the student passes the exam, they are likely to believe they can do well on future exams and put forth the effort to study.

If they fail, they may doubt their abilities (Bandura, 1989).

Behavioral Capability

Behavioral capability, meanwhile, refers to a person's ability to perform a behavior by means of using their own knowledge and skills.

That is to say, in order to carry out any behavior, a person must know what to do and how to do it. People learn from the consequences of their behavior, further affecting the environment in which they live (Bandura, 1989).

Reinforcements

Reinforcements refer to the internal or external responses to a person's behavior that affect the likelihood of continuing or discontinuing the behavior.

These reinforcements can be self-initiated or in one's environment, and either positive or negative. Positive reinforcements increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated, while negative reinforcers decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

Reinforcements can also be either direct or indirect. Direct reinforcements are an immediate consequence of a behavior that affects its likelihood, such as getting a paycheck for working (positive reinforcement).

Indirect reinforcements are not immediate consequences of a behavior but may affect its likelihood in the future, such as studying hard in school to get into a good college (positive reinforcement) (Bandura, 1989).

Expectations

Expectations, meanwhile, refer to the anticipated consequences that a person has of their behavior.

Outcome expectations, for example, could relate to the consequences that someone foresees an action having on their health.

As people anticipate the consequences of their actions before engaging in a behavior, these expectations can influence whether or not someone completes the behavior successfully (Bandura, 1989).

Expectations largely come from someone's previous experience. Nonetheless, expectancies also focus on the value that is placed on the outcome, something that is subjective from individual to individual.

For example, a student who may not be motivated by achieving high grades may place a lower value on taking the steps necessary to achieve them than someone who strives to be a high performer.

Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to the level of a person's confidence in their ability to successfully perform a behavior.

Self-efficacy is influenced by a person's own capabilities as well as other individual and environmental factors.

These factors are called barriers and facilitators (Bandura, 1989). Self-efficacy is often said to be task-specific, meaning that people can feel confident in their ability to perform one task but not another.

For example, a student may feel confident in their ability to do well on an exam but not feel as confident in their ability to make friends.

This is because self-efficacy is based on past experience and beliefs. If a student has never made friends before, they are less likely to believe that they will do so in the future.

Modeling Media and Social Cognitive Theory

Learning would be both laborious and hazardous in a world that relied exclusively on direct experience. 

Social modeling provides a way for people to observe the successes and failures of others with little or no risk. 

This modeling can take place on a massive scale. Modeling media is defined as "any type of mass communication—television, movies, magazines, music, etc.—that serves as a model for observing and imitating behavior" (Bandura, 1998). 

In other words, it is a means by which people can learn new behaviors. Modeling media is often used in the fashion and taste industries to influence the behavior of consumers. 

This is because modeling provides a reference point for observers to imitate. When done effectively, modeling can prompt individuals to adopt certain behaviors that they may not have otherwise engaged in. 

Additionally, modeling media can provide reinforcement for desired behaviors. 

For example, if someone sees a model wearing a certain type of clothing and receives compliments for doing so themselves, they may be more likely to purchase clothing like that of the model.

Observational Learning Examples

There are numerous examples of observational learning in everyday life, in people of all ages. 

Nonetheless, observational learning is especially prevalent in the socialization of children. For example: 

  • A newer employee avoiding being late to work after seeing a colleague be fired for being late. 
  • A new store customer learning the process for lining up and checking out by watching other customers. 
  • A traveler to a foreign country learning how to buy a ticket for a train and enter the gates by witnessing others do the same. 
  •   A customer in a clothing store learning the procedure for trying on clothes by watching others. 
  •   A person in a coffee shop leaning where to find cream and sugar by watching other coffee drinkers locate the area. 
  •   A new car salesperson learning how to approach potential customers by watching others. 
  •   Someone moving to a new climate and learning how to properly remove snow from his car and driveway by seeing his neighbors do the same 
  •   A tenant learning to pay rent on time as a result of seeing a neighbor evicted for late payment. 
  •   An inexperienced salesperson becoming successful at a sales meeting, or in giving a presentation, after observing the behaviors and statements of other sales people 
  •   A viewer watching an online video to learn how to contour and shape their eyebrows, and then going to the store to do so themselves. 
  •   Drivers slowing down after seeing that another driver has been pulled over by a police officer. 
  •   A bank teller watching their more efficient colleague in order to learn a more efficient way of counting money. 
  •   A shy party guest watching someone more popular talk too different people in the crowd, later allowing them to do the same thing. 
  •   Adult children behaving in the same way that their parents did when they were young
  •  A lost student navigating a school campus after seeing others do it on their own.

Social Learning vs. Social Cognitive Theory

Social learning theory and Social Cognitive Theory are both theories of learning that place an emphasis on the role of observational learning. 

However, there are several key differences between the two theories. Social learning theory focuses on the idea of reinforcement, while Social Cognitive Theory emphasizes the role of cognitive processes. 

Additionally, social learning theory posits that all behavior is learned through observation, while Social Cognitive Theory allows for the possibility of learning through other means, such as direct experience. 

Finally, social learning theory focuses on individualistic learning, while Social Cognitive Theory takes a more holistic view, acknowledging the importance of environmental factors. 

Though they are similar in many ways, the differences between social learning theory and Social Cognitive Theory are important to understand. These theories provide different frameworks for understanding how learning takes place. 

As such, they have different implications in all facets of their applications (Reed et al., 2010).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

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Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, May 05). Social Cognitive Theory: How We Learn From the Behavior of Others. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/social-cognitive-theory.html

APA Style References

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