Albert Bandura: Social Cognitive Theory

Medically reviewed by Dr. Jerry Crimmins, PsyD, LP
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Albert Bandura is considered one of the greatest psychologists and researchers of all time. He is best known for developing the social learning theory. In his experiments, Bandura sought to better understand how children learn and express emotions and behavior. Other researchers continue to consider his theories and experiments as they learn new information about social learning and behavior.

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Who was Albert Bandura?

Albert Bandura, born in 1925, was a social cognitive psychologist to whom we give credit for the social learning theory, the idea of self-efficacy and perceived self-efficacy, and the famous experiment with a Bobo doll. He is also considered to be a part of the cognitive revolution of the 1960s. Bandura's theories on developmental psychology have minor similarities with some of Freud's work related to the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus complex and the social learning theory are similar in that they both involve internalizing or adopting someone else's behavior. The main difference is that Freud's theory considers that children only identify with the same gender parent, whereas Bandura's theory claims that children will identify and mirror the behavior of any other person.

Bandura agreed with the behaviorist theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. He added that mediating processes occur between stimuli and responses and observational learning, which means that children learn behavior by observing it.

Although Bandura began his scientific career studying biological sciences at the University of British Columbia, he quickly became fascinated with psychological sciences and eventually earned his PhD in clinical psychology. As Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and the President of the American Psychological Association, Bandura received awards from the APA for his distinguished scientific contributions and outstanding lifetime contribution to psychology. He also received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2015 for his distinguished lifetime contribution in psychology. According to a survey in 2002, Bandura ranked number four as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century, placing him in the company of notable researchers such as Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, and Jean Piaget.

What was Bandura’s approach to psychology?

When someone refers to Albert Bandura’s approach to psychology, they’re referring to his theory of human learning: the social learning theory. Bandura developed a theory that children learn by what they observe in social situations and executed a famous experiment called the Bobo doll experiment to attempt to prove his predictions.

Models provide actions and behavior for children to emulate

Children are surrounded by people for them to emulate – their parents, friends, teachers, characters on television, and more. The people and characters in their lives provide models of behavior for them to imitate. The models are typically representative of all genders, and they can depict pro-social or anti-social behavior. He called this phenomenon observational learning.

The social learning theory suggests that children are more inclined to imitate those whom they believe are similar to themselves, as in the same gender. The concept is that when people are around children, they will respond to the child’s behavior by reinforcing it or by punishing it. Children will repeat behavior that others reinforce, and adults can strengthen good behavior by reinforcing it.

Reinforcements can be internal or external, positive or negative

According to the social learning theory, reinforcement can be internal or external and positive or negative. For example, parents who praise a child for good behavior provide external, positive reinforcement of the behavior. The child's sense of happiness provides internal reinforcement because they desire approval from adults and they're willing to repeat positive behavior to get it.

Positive and negative reinforcements play a significant role in social learning theory. Reinforcement will usually lead to a change in behavior whether it's positive or negative behavior. For external reinforcement to be effective, it must match the individual's needs. For example, a food reward will not be effective if the child doesn't like the food or if they aren't hungry at the time it's offered.

Vicarious reinforcement

In addition to observing others' behavior and imitating it, Bandura postulated that, as part of their learning process, children consider whether someone else's behavior gets rewarded or punished when deciding whether to copy the behavior, which is called vicarious reinforcement. For example, if a child sees a sibling or friend getting rewarded or reinforced for a particular behavior, they're likely to repeat the behavior. Similarly, if a child sees a sibling or friend receive a negative consequence for an action, they won't be likely to copy it.

The social learning theory takes into account that children won't just imitate the behavior of any random person. All children have specific models that they can identify with. The models that children most closely identify with will likely come from their immediate world and will be models that children can easily identify with their beliefs, values, and attitudes. Human behavior models may be families such as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, or close friends. Models can also be present in the form of people in the media and fantasy characters.

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Mediational processes

Bandura also theorized that there was a connection between the social learning theory and the cognitive approach. In considering that human beings are active thinkers who consider their behavior and consequences, Bandura explained that cognitive processes must be at work for children to be able to observe behaviors in a social context and make decisions about their own behavior. These factors help children to develop their own human agency and determine whether they should imitate a behavior, intervene with it, or respond in some other way.

In considering the interrelation between cognitive and social learning processes, Bandura identified four mediational processes as factors in whether children emulated another's behavior:

  1. Attention - The model must behave in such a way as to get the child's attention.
  2. Retention - The child must remember the behavior of the model and be able to recall it.
  3. Reproduction - The child must have the ability to be able to perform the modeled behavior. For example, they're not likely to go out and drive the car even if they see it modeled because they can't do it.
  4. Motivation - The child needs to make a conscious choice about whether the reward or reinforcement is worth emulating the behavior.

The evolution of the social cognitive theory

Later in his career, Bandura had some second thoughts about his research. He considered the fact that the social learning theory couldn't account for the whole range of a child's behavior, thoughts, and feelings. For example, it couldn't explain why some children lived in environments that were wrought with violence and aggression and grew up to be well-adjusted adults, or why children who grew up in poverty were able to overcome the odds and obtain a college education and a successful career as adults. 

The social learning theory couldn't fully explain or account for all behaviors. With this information in mind and his expanded research on human cognition as a whole, Bandura renamed the social learning theory to the social cognitive theory in 1986.

What was his most famous experiment?

Albert Bandura's name has become synonymous with the Bobo doll experiment, which took place in 1961. To prove that children reproduced the behavior they observed, Bandura set up an experiment and made the following predictions about it:

  1. He predicted that if children observed an adult acting aggressively, they would emulate the behavior even when the aggressive adult wasn't present.
  2. He also predicted that children who observed non-aggressive adults would be less aggressive than those who observed aggressive models. Along these lines, he theorized that the non-aggressive group would also be less aggressive than the control group.
  3. Children would be more inclined to imitate someone of the same gender.
  4. He surmised that boys would act with more aggression than girls.

To begin the experiment, Bandura recruited 36 boys and 36 girls from the Stanford University nursery school who were ages three to six years old. He grouped 24 kids into a control group with no treatment. He exposed 24 of the kids to an aggressive model and the final 24 children to non-aggressive models. He also separated the boys and girls into different groups.

The aggressive or non-aggressive adult model displayed their behaviors to the children for 10 minutes and then took them to another room with fun toys and didn't let them play with them. Then the children were taken to a third room that had aggressive and non-aggressive toys where researchers observed the results for 20 minutes.

The Bobo experiment proved three of the four predictions were correct. Children who were exposed to violent models imitated aggressive behavior even when the adult wasn't present. Boys who had an opposite-gender model who was non-aggressive were more likely to engage in violence. While boys and girls both engaged in violence, boys were twice as aggressive as girls and boys were more likely to show physical aggression, whereas girls were more verbally aggressive.

Critics of the experiment note that the laboratory of this experiment doesn't simulate the real world. They are also quick to point out that Bandura's pool of subjects wasn't diverse, so he couldn't generalize the results to a diverse population. There's also no way to know if children would act more or less aggressively toward a person than a doll. This was not a longitudinal study, so there's no way to measure the results over time. There's a possibility that the kids weren't motivated to be aggressive – they only wanted to please the adults. Perhaps most importantly, some deem Albert Bandura's experiment to be unethical because it may have taught kids to be aggressive.

Books and publications

Bandura has many publications on his life’s research and theories in social science, educational psychology, and other fields of modern psychology. In 1953, Bandura was published for the first time in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology with a paper titled 'Primary' and 'Secondary' Suggestibility. He would later go on to write 17 books including one on his research on adolescent aggression titled Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall), a book on how social and environmental factors influence psychosocial functioning called Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall), and his book on the learning and socialization of children titled Social Learning and Personality Development (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston).

Online therapy with BetterHelp

Parents often have trouble understanding their children's behavior. The therapists at BetterHelp can be of great assistance in getting treatment for children as well as support for parents. A qualified therapist will be happy to work with your family to help you understand your child's behavior and respond to it appropriately.

Online therapy can be particularly beneficial to parents. The online format is convenient, meaning you can have sessions from home or wherever you have an internet connection. Additionally, online therapy tends to be cheaper than traditional therapy since therapists can charge less as they don’t have to pay for an office space or utilities, and you don’t have to commute to sessions.

The efficacy of online therapy

The National Center for Health Research endeavored to answer whether online therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of therapy aimed at breaking down destructive thoughts and behaviors and reframing them into more positive and helpful ones) is effective. Through analyzing dozens of studies conducted over the last several years, they found that online CBT is just as effective as in-person therapy for a variety of conditions and concerns, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and mood disorders. 

Takeaway

Albert Bandura helped us learn more about child psychology and behavior, which continues to give us insight today. He developed the social learning theory, which focuses on how children learn and behave given internal, external, positive, and negative reinforcements and any combination thereof. Different approaches can help parents learn how to be effective caregivers, one of which could be Bandura’s theory. If you’re a parent wanting more information about healthy reinforcement, online therapy could be beneficial.

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