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What is the Social Learning Theory?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated May 17, 2024
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Social learning theory (SLT) focuses on learning that happens within a social environment and emphasizes the premise that people learn from one another by means of observational learning. The theory argues that individuals are strongly influenced by society's reward and punishment systems and model their behaviors accordingly. A leading proponent of social learning theory, Albert Bandura, helped to shape the conjecture by incorporating aspects of cognitive and behavioral learning.

During the 1950s, American psychologist Julian Rotter first introduced social learning theory in his work Social Learning and Clinical Psychology. Rotter argued that an expected outcome for a given behavior greatly influences the actions and motivation of the individual. Bypassing a theory rooted in behaviorism and psychoanalysis, Rotter concluded that people aspire to attain positive results for their actions, while remaining mindful of negative behaviors and their consequences.

In the 1970s, Bandura took Rotter's theory one step further by incorporating Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky's social development theory into his own theory formulation. According to Vygotsky, social interaction itself anticipates cognitive and behavioral development, which is the product of socialization. Bandura's social learning theory ultimately proposed that there is a reciprocal relationship between environmental, cognitive, and behavioral influences.

According to Bandura, there are several conditions that must be met before successful modeling of behavior can occur. The individual, also referred to as the model, must pay attention to and remember the behaviors exhibited by others. After witnessing a given behavior, the model must possess the ability to reproduce the actions witnessed and demonstrate what has been learned. Theorists and proponents of Bandura's theory insist that attention is the most significant factor in the social learning process.

The environment reinforces modeling behaviors in a number of ways. Initially, the model receives reinforcement from the person whom he is imitating, as well as, third party observers. The imitated behavior itself results in reinforcement via positive or negative consequences. Vicarious reinforcement occurs when the model's positively reinforced behavior is repeated by a third party.

Cognitive factors associated with social learning theory rest upon the model's ability to learn, comprehend, formulate expectations, and understand cause and effect. Bandura argued there is a distinction between learning via observation and the act of imitating what one has learned. The model must be capable of comprehending situations, anticipating potential outcomes, and making a correlation between response reinforcements, response punishments, and behavior.

Self-regulation and efficacy aid with further reinforcing positive behaviors on a personal level. The model develops the ability to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and makes choices accordingly. Self-regulation involves the process of setting personal standards and goals while observing, judging, and reacting to the behaviors of others. Self-efficacy encourages self confidence as the model realizes that he is capable of successfully implementing positive behaviors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon81003 — On Apr 29, 2010

Religion, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. is "Social Learning!!" I am absolutely flabbergasted that anyone could miss that!

A mind or spirit that is closed, or restricted by a prejudicial belief system, is by definition seeing the world through scaled eyes, where only certain pieces of the light of knowledge are allowed through the scales and all other light of knowledge is ignored/excluded so that the seeer remains ignorant of it and therefore in partial darkness.

Knowledge is light; ignorance (ignore-ance) is darkness. No spirit should fear any knowledge. Fear of knowledge is lack of faith in oneself and one's current belief, and fear of any challenge to it.

A true Christian is not the one who chooses to remain ignorant of any knowledge that may challenge their beliefs. A true Christian is one who welcomes the light of all knowledge - and in the face of an open, fully informed mind and spirit, still chooses Christianity/Christian principles.

This is a mind seeking truth, not only confirmation of the status quo.

By anon75731 — On Apr 07, 2010

I didn't wish to imply that a Christian doesn't learn anything from society, but the issues are filtered through their belief system and if it doesn't disagree with their faith, then it is accepted. Also, academics are valuable as long as it is sound and not contrary to Christ's teachings.

As far as reason and logic, 2 Timothy 1:7 "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind." We can have all knowledge, but wisdom comes from knowing God and embracing His word into our lives. Psalm 111:10a "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom:"

All I know is, that when Christ came into my life as my Lord and Savior, the scales were dropped from my eyes and I see things progressively as God sees them and I have new life here and for eternity.

Society or this world doesn't offer that. My prayer is that more would discover this for themselves by going to the Bible, God's Word and seeking Him. --Cainan 3

By anon75640 — On Apr 07, 2010

Before one comments on this topic they should ask themselves one question: Why do I think the way I do? I'll bet most of them will say "that's the way its always been" or "that's the way I have always thought." Most of us never give thought to why we think the way we do -- probably because we do not want to admit that we really don't know.

By anon75274 — On Apr 06, 2010

#3: The real Christians are also not affected by reason and logic.

What would they be learning then if they are isolated from such knowledge?

A person's belief system can allow new thoughts and examinations of such new thoughts.

According to your example, there would be no deserters or converts 'out' who are called heretics, of which there are many.

By cainan3 — On Mar 31, 2010

My humble opinion profoundly disagrees with the Social learning Theory. A person's belief system propels their behavior in spite of what society tries to teach them.

Observe that, for example, Christianity adheres to the teachings of Christ and is so deeply embedded in their belief system that if they are genuine Christians, they will not be swayed by society or the world system.

By anon74072 — On Mar 30, 2010

Great article. It seems to point toward an underlying revisionist conceit that belies the article's emotional attachment to the subject matter, however.

I've been accused of being cynical, but come on folks; people do tend to get emotional over the subject of money, and how it is spent to attain status.

Maybe the revision part should be in the intro. to this article: "Formal Lecture hall' education vs. O.J.T." --SK

By anon73974 — On Mar 30, 2010

Sounds like an AA meeting.

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