Social Learning Theory

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated July 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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How do we learn? How do our personalities form? How did we each acquire the basic set of skills (such as socialization, problem-solving, and communication) that allow us to function in the world? How is it that children who grow up in the same environment sometimes learn different skills or learn differently from one another? These are big questions with complicated answers that the scientific community hasn’t fully uncovered yet, though several compelling frameworks and theories have been proposed.

Over the years, many theories have been outlined by psychologists in an attempt to answer these questions and explain the complex processes of learning and personality development. However, virtually all fall short in some way. That said, each one contributes something to our broader understanding of these topics. Albert Bandura's social learning theory is one of the many models that has been presented, and it has a unique place in this canon of theories because of the potential answers it offers. Read on for an overview of the other most popular theories on this topic, followed by a more detailed examination of Bandura’s social learning theory, social learning theory’s limitations, and practical applications of this theory.

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Learned behaviors can be changed

Theories about the learning process

Some of the most popular, modern learning theories are outlined below, including Bandura’s.

Behaviorism

According to this theory, people learn through a system of positive and negative reinforcements, and all learning is the result of our environment and experiences. For example, when children do well on a task, they may be rewarded with a sticker on a sticker chart. Eventually, when they earn enough stickers, they’re given a special treat, like a trip to the amusement park or a new video game. The children come to associate the pleasurable feelings of earning a reward with accomplishing a task, and so they eventually learn to do it on their own.

Most teachers and parents have seen this idea at work in real life, but it still falls short in some ways. For one, different personalities appear to respond to reward/punishment systems in different ways. In some cases or situations, giving extrinsic rewards does not seem to be effective. Sometimes, it seems that people need to learn things as a result of feeling the motivation and the desire to do so within themselves—not for the sake of a reward.

Cognitive learning theories

This category of theories believes that learning is primarily the result of mental processes in the brain. It says that learners build knowledge by discovering new information and remembering it by relating it to what they have previously learned. These theories offer a good explanation as to why different learners respond to the same situations in different ways, filling in some of the gaps left by early behaviorist theories.

Social learning theory

Albert Bandura's work bridges the gap between behaviorism and cognitive learning theories. His social learning theory takes the strongest points of both and unites them in a way that offers a deeper and more multifaceted explanation of the complexities of the learning process. According to Bandura, behavioral, cognitive, and environmental factors influence the ways in which we adopt behaviors. Social learning theory posits that most human behavior is learned through different forms of modeling. 

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Social learning theory and human behavior

Albert Bandura was a well-known Canadian-American psychologist whose theory of learned social behaviors furthered our understanding of education and social psychology. After earning an MA and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Iowa, Bandura began teaching at Stanford University. During this time, he completed the seminal work Social Learning and Personality Development, which was based on his studies of child behavior. Building on the ideas proposed in that book—namely, that social learning can occur through a desire to imitate behaviors—Bandura wrote Social Learning Theory. Bandura’s psychological theory—along with one of its primary components, self-efficacy—continues to influence the field of developmental psychology.

His theory is unlike theories based primarily on classical or operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is related to learning through involuntary responses to a biological stimulus, whereas operant conditioning typically occurs through responses to a reward and punishment. Social learning theory proposes that learning is the result of observing and modeling others’ behavior, a complex process.

The crux of this model is the idea that we receive information about the world by observing what people around us are doing.

As opposed to learning from direct experience, we can learn by observing the experiences of others. For example, we watch how our parents speak to us and to one another. We observe the behaviors of our favorite TV characters in various situations. We also observe the consequences, whether positive or negative, of these behaviors or actions. Through our cognitive processes, we then make meaning out of our observations to help us decide how we should behave in similar situations.
Symbolic models and research
Bandura posited that there are three types of models we can learn from, depending on whether we’re observing live behavior, verbal behavior, or behavior displayed through some form of media. A live model exhibits a behavior in person. For example, when a child sees that their sibling is rewarded for completing chores, they may mimic that behavior to receive the same reward. A verbal-instructional model describes—or communicates directions for—a behavior through words. For example, students may change their approach to studying if they are told by their teacher that certain information will be tested. A symbolic model involves behaviors observed in a book, movie, or other form of media. An example of a symbolic model is illustrated by the debate over whether playing violent video games leads to violent behavior. Many experts have cited Bandura when addressing this topic, noting that violent video games may be symbolic models that promote aggression

Per social learning theory, we’re not passively acted on by our environment as behaviorist theories propose, but we’re not completely separate from it either, as cognitive learning theories propose. Rather, the idea is that learning is a process in which we interact with the world around us, constructing meaning and knowledge in our own way inside our own minds as a result of what we observe and experience externally. In other words, nature and nurture both play an important role in the learning and personality development processes according to this framework.

The stages of learning in Bandura’s theory

According to Bandura, learning is not automatic. Instead, he believed there are many factors that determine whether a behavior is learned and many steps then involved in learning it. Here are the four stages of learning according to social learning theory.

Attention

We don't learn to imitate every social behavior that we are exposed to. Only a select few of the actions of others make enough of an impression on us to become ‘worthy’ of our modeling them. For an action to become part of our learning, we first have to notice it.

Retention
Of course, we don't remember every action that we pay attention to; our memory just isn't capable of retaining that much information. Processes such as symbolic coding, mental images, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal, and motor rehearsal all help us remember certain information that we notice.
Reproduction
In order for this step to happen, we need to have the mental and physical ability to perform the same action or behavior that we have observed. For example, if you're learning French and someone begins speaking to you in that language very quickly, you may remember that it happened but you won't be able to reproduce those exact sounds right away. However, if the same person spoke slowly, using short and simple words and phrases, you might be able to reproduce that action as a step in your learning process.
Motivation

All of these steps essentially mean nothing if you don't have the desire to carry out the action or engage in the behavior as a next step. This is one area in which social learning theory intersects with behaviorism: The learner must feel that the positive reinforcement for the behavior outweighs any of the negatives in order to actually do it. This decision is based on observing any potential consequences through those we use as our models. Based on modeling theory, if observed behaviors of a model are rewarded, one’s own behavior may be altered to mirror the model. This process is called vicarious reinforcement. 

Limitations of Bandura’s theory

Our combined understanding of learning and personality development is constantly in flux as nuances of these processes are discovered. Plus, the interplay of factors that make us who we are is so complex that it defies explanation in many ways. Any theory offered by psychologists can give, at best, only a partial explanation. Still, each does provide a window through which we can view at least some aspects of these fundamental human processes.

Social learning theory can offer some fascinating insights into human learning and personality. However, like the rest, it has its limitations. For one, it still does not explain the fact that many of us learn to exhibit complex behavior independent of our environment or others around us. For example, children of abusive parents often learn to model this behavior and grow up to demonstrate violent behaviors themselves as adults. However, observing violent behavior does not necessarily lead to the development of such tendencies. Social learning theory does not explain the mechanism of this variation.

Another gap in social learning theory and others is that they don't adequately explain why some people's behavior may dramatically change in certain circumstances. Brain injury, dementia, and mental illness are all circumstances in which an individual can appear to forget some of the behaviors they learned previously. Such circumstances at least hint that other things are going on with learning and personality processes that are much deeper than the simple system of observation, recall, and modeling.

More recent research also points to biological reasons that account for at least some of our personality development and learning differences. Our brains are all unique, and different brain chemistry can account for differing levels of aggression and extraversion or introversion, to name a few. This also explains why changes in our brain chemistry as a result of illness or injury can alter our learning. Social learning theory has been criticized for not adequately accounting for such biological factors. 

While the biological perspective does explain many inconsistencies, it still leaves questions of its own. For example, consider the fact that even when a subject shows a genetic predisposition for a particular trait, they may not develop that behavior unless exposed to specific triggers in their environment. Bandura’s theory does not include a reasonable explanation for such cases.

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Learned behaviors can be changed

The learning theories

We may never fully understand the many factors that contribute to our learning and development. It may simply be that espousing just one theory is too simplistic. There are many individual instruments and notes that come together to form the symphony of our personalities: upbringing, heredity, brain structure and chemistry, health, environment, and the mechanisms of the thoughts going on in our head at any given moment. All of these interact with one another in many complex and nuanced ways to create a way of learning and behaving that’s completely unique to each individual.

Social learning theory goes a long way towards explaining some of these complexities. It presents a meaningful portrait of the way in which our outer environment and inner thought processes may interact with one another. It may be closer to the truth than we’ve ever gotten before, despite the fact that it’s still missing some pieces.

How social learning can promote positive behaviors

Social learning therapists believe that new behaviors are learned by watching other people, and that learning these new behaviors is more effective when conducted in a safe, controlled environment. Social learning therapy is sometimes used to help change certain negative behaviors—such as aggression—through behavior modification. By fostering desirable behaviors, therapists may also be able to help with reducing conflict, improving problem-solving or communication skills, boosting willpower and self-control, and encouraging empathy, among others. 

Social learning therapists may also use social learning therapy to treat a number of mental health disorders—including phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, substance use disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety disorders, among others—by modeling new behaviors in a safe environment. It’s also sometimes used to improve key skills needed for strong relationships in couples or marriage counseling.

While social learning therapists traditionally meet with clients face to face, some online therapists may also effectively implement key techniques from this school of thought in virtual sessions. Research suggests that online therapy in general can offer similar benefits to in-person sessions in many cases, so it can be worth exploring for those who can’t locate a provider in their area, are unable to leave the house, or simply prefer the convenience or comfort of attending therapy sessions from home. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing.

Takeaway

Psychologists have been striving to understand more about how our personalities form and the ways in which we learn for generations. While no theory that currently exists can adequately explain every detail and nuance of these incredibly intricate processes, social learning theory represents the progress we have made so far. This theory can be applied in individual or couples therapy to help change problematic behaviors and build new skills, whether online or in person.
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