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Social Learning Perspective

Social Learning Perspective


From the 1930s through the 1950s the behavioral theory of operant conditioning, with its emphasis on the application of consequences to influence behavioral change, was the dominant perspective in U.S. psychology. With the reintroduction of a cognitive perspective in the 1950s (e.g., Miller 1956; Miller, Galanter, and Pribram 1960), researchers began to look for ways to integrate the behavioral and cognitive perspectives. Social learning theory, as developed by Neal Miller and John Dollard (1941), Robert Sears (1951), and Albert Bandura (1977), contributed to connecting behavioral and cognitive approaches to learning and is an important step toward modern versions of learning theory.

Bandura (1962), building on the earlier work of Miller and Dollard (1941), proposed that learning first occurs cognitively through imitation and then is modified through the application of consequences. In contrast to a purely behavioral approach, social cognitive theorists propose that individuals are active participants in their own learning. Based on a series of studies during the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Bandura 1963, 1965a), Bandura in 1977 proposed a four-step process for how individuals learn through observing others behavior. This process has been referred to as observational learning, or modeling, and involves:

attentionthe individual notices something in the environment;

retentionthe individual remembers what was noticed;

reproductionthe individual produces an action that is a copy of what was noticed;

motivationthe environment delivers a consequence that changes the probability that the behavior will occur again (reinforcement and punishment).

Through the careful observation of others, individuals learn numerous new behaviors such as emotional reactions and how to use tools in their environments. Bandura (1965b) demonstrated that individuals modify their own behaviors based on the consequences (e.g., reinforcement or punishment) that others receive. He called this phenomenon vicarious learning. Individuals tend to model their behavior on persons who are similar to themselves, persons who are of higher status than themselves, and persons who are either reinforced for their behavior or not punished for it. One example of the power of imitation is found in the results of the infamous Bobo doll study (Bandura, Ross, and Ross 1961). In this study preschool children who observed adults mistreating a Bobo doll were more likely to engage in similar aggressive behavior than children who had not observed the adults aggressive behavior.

In more recent years, Bandura turned his attention to the importance of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the desire of individuals to develop agency over their lives (Bandura 1986, 1989, 2001). To describe the learning process from this perspective, Bandura developed a concept called reciprocal determinism, which details a three-way relationship between a person, his or her behavior, and the environment. In the social-cognitive model each of the three elements are equally important and influence the other elements. Thus, an individuals unique characteristics interact with overt behaviors and environmental models and feedback.

SEE ALSO Bandura, Albert; Behaviorism; Determinism, Reciprocal; Motivation; Psychology, Agency in; Self-Efficacy; Social Cognition; Social Cognitive Map


Bandura, Albert. 1962. Social Learning Through Imitation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Bandura, Albert. 1963. The Role of Imitation in Personality Development. Journal of Nursery Education 18 (3): 207215.

Bandura, Albert. 1965a. Influence of Models Reinforcement Contingencies on the Acquisition of Imitative Responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28 (2): 117148.

Bandura, Albert. 1965b. Vicarious Processes: A Case of No-Trial Learning. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, vol. 2, 155. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Bandura, Albert. 1977. Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bandura, Albert. 1986. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social-Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, Albert. 1989. Social Cognitive Theory. In Six Theories of Child Development. Vol. 6 of Annals of Child Development, ed. Ross Vasta, 160. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Bandura, Albert. 2001. Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review of Psychology 52: 126.

Bandura, Albert, Dorothea Ross, and Sheila A. Ross. 1961. Transmission of Aggression Through Imitation of Aggressive Models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63: 575582.

Miller, George. 1956. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review 63: 8197.

Miller, George, Eugene Galanter, and Karl Pribram. 1960. Plans and the Structure of Behavior. New York: Holt.

Miller, Neal, and John Dollard. 1941. Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sears, Robert R. 1951. A Theoretical Framework for Personality and Social Behavior. American Psychologist 6: 476483.

William G. Huitt

David M. Monetti

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"Social Learning Perspective." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 23 Oct. 2017 <>.

"Social Learning Perspective." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (October 23, 2017).

"Social Learning Perspective." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 23, 2017 from

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory

An approach to personality that emphasizes the interaction between personal traits and environment and their mediation by cognitive processes.

Social learning theory has its roots in the behaviorist notion of human behavior as being determined by learning, particularly as shaped by reinforcement in the form of rewards or punishment . Early research in behaviorism conducted by Ivan Pavlov , John Watson , and B. F. Skinner used animals in a laboratory. Subsequently, researchers became dissatisfied with the capacity of their findings to fully account for the complexities of human personality . Criticism centered particularly on the fact that behaviorism's focus on observable behaviors left out the role played by cognition .

The first major theory of social learning, that of Julian B. Rotter, argued that cognition, in the form of expectations, is a crucial factor in social learning. In his influential 1954 book, Social Learning and Clinical Psychology, Rotter claimed that behavior is determined by two major types of "expectancy": the expected outcome of a behavior and the value a person places on that outcome. In Applications of a Social Learning Theory of Personality (1972), Rotter, in collaboration with June Chance and Jerry Phares, described a general theory of personality with variables based on the ways that different individuals habitually think about their experiences. One of the major variables was I-E, which distinguished "internals," who think of themselves as controlling events, from "externals," who view events as largely outside their control. Correlations have since been found between I-E orientations and a variety of behaviors, ranging from job performance to attitudes toward one's health.

The social learning theories of Albert Bandura emphasize the reciprocal relationship among cognition, behavior, and environment , for which Bandura coined the term reciprocal determinism . Hostile thoughts can result in hostile behavior, for example, which can effect our environment by making others hostile and evoking additional hostile thoughts. Thus, not only does our environment influence our thoughts and behaviorour thoughts and behavior also play a role in determining our environment. Bandura is especially well known for his research on the importance of imitation and reinforcement in learning. His work on modeling has been influential in the development of new therapeutic approaches, especially the methods used in cognitive-behavior therapy. Bandura also expanded on Rotter's notion of expectancy by arguing that our expectations about the outcome of situations are heavily influenced by whether or not we think we will succeed at the things we attempt. Bandura introduced the term self-efficacy for this concept, arguing that it has a high degree of influence not only on our expectations but also on our performance itself.

Most recently, Walter Mischel, building on the work of both Rotter and Bandura, has framed the determinants of human behavior in particular situations in terms of "person variables." These include competencies (those things we know we can do); perceptions (how we perceive our environment); expectations (what we expect will be the outcome of our behavior); subject values (our goals and ideals); and self-regulation and plans (our standards for ourselves and plans for reaching our goals).

Further Reading

Bandura, Albert. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

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