Social Cognitive Theory and Media Effects

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Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on direct experience to tell them what to do. Direct experience is a toilsome, tough teacher. Fortunately, humans have evolved an advanced capacity for observational learning that enables them to expand their knowledge and competencies through the power of social modeling.

Much human learning relies on the models in one's immediate environment. However, a vast amount of knowledge about styles of thinking and behaving and the mores and structures of social systems is gained from the extensive modeling in the symbolic environment of the electronic mass media. A major significance of symbolic modeling lies in its tremendous reach, speed, and multiplicative power. Unlike learning by doing, which requires shaping the actions of each individual laboriously through repeated consequences, in observational learning a single model can transmit new ways of thinking and behaving simultaneously to countless people in widely dispersed locales. Electronic delivery systems feeding off telecommunications satellites are now rapidly diffusing new ideas, values, and styles of conduct worldwide.

Symbolic modeling can have diverse psychosocial effects. Such influences can serve as tutors, motivators, inhibitors, disinhibitors, social promoters, emotion arousers, and shapers of the public consciousness. The determinants and mechanisms governing these many effects are addressed in some detail by Albert Bandura in Social Foundations of Thought and Action (1986) and by Ted Rosenthal in "Observational Learning Effects" (1984).

Observational learning of behavioral and cognitive competencies is governed by four component subfunctions. Attentional processes determine what people observe in the profusion of modeling influences and what information they extract from what they notice. A second subfunction involves an active process of transforming the information conveyed by modeled events into rules and conceptions for memory representation. In the third subfunction, symbolic conceptions are translated into appropriate courses of action. The fourth subfunction concerns motivational processes that determine whether people put into practice what they have learned.

Modeling is not simply a process of response mimicry as commonly misbelieved. Observers extract the rules underlying the modeled style of thinking and behaving, and those extracted rules enable the observers to generate new behaviors in that style that go beyond what they have seen or heard.

Much of the research on media effects has centered on the effect of televised violence. Exposure to televised violence has at least three distinct effects. It teaches aggressive styles of conduct. It also reduces restraints over aggressive conduct. This occurs because violence is portrayed as a preferred solution to conflict that is often successful, and relatively clean. Superheroes are doing most of the killing. When good triumphs over evil by violent means, such portrayals legitimize and glamorize violence. In addition, heavy exposure to televised violence desensitizes and habituates people to human cruelty.

With live global broadcasts of societal conflicts, televised modeling is becoming an influential vehicle for political and social change. In his analytic article "A Sociology of Modeling and the Politics of Empowerment" (1994), John Braith-waite provides evidence that the speed with which Eastern European rulers and regimes were toppled by collective action was greatly accelerated by televised modeling. The tactic of mass action modeled successfully by East Germans was immediately adopted by those living under oppressive rule. Televised modeling of civic strife is a double-edged sword, however. Modeling of punitive countermeasures can also curb social change, as when the Chinese watched on Cable News Network (CNN) as the army broke down doors and arrested student activists following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The actions of others can also serve as social prompts in activating, channeling, and supporting previously learned styles of behavior that are unencumbered by restraints. By social exemplification one can get people to behave altruistically, to volunteer their services, to delay or seek gratification, to show affection, to select certain foods and drinks, to choose certain kinds of apparel, to converse on particular topics, to be inquisitive or passive, to think creatively or conventionally, or to engage in other permissible courses of action. Thus, the types of models that prevail in a social setting partly determine which human qualities, from among many alternatives, are selectively activated. The fashion and taste industries rely heavily on the social prompting power of modeling. The actions of models acquire the power to activate and channel behavior when they are good predictors for observers that positive results can be gained by similar conduct.

In her article "Fright Reactions to Mass Media," Joanne Cantor (1994) reviews the literature on fear arousal and the acquisition of fearful dispositions through exposure to modeled threats. The world of television is heavily populated with unsavory and villainous characters. Consequently, people who watch a large amount of violent fare have a greater fear of being criminally victimized and are more distrustful of others than are viewers who watch only a limited amount of violent fare.

Fears and intractable phobias can be eradicated by modeling influences that convey information about effective coping strategies. In Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, Bandura and his colleagues (1997) have shown that modeling influences exert their effects partly by altering viewers beliefs in their personal efficacy to exercise control over events that affect their lives. The stronger the instilled perceived coping efficacy, the bolder the behavior. Values can similarly be developed and altered vicariously by repeated exposure to modeled preferences.

During the course of their daily lives, people have direct contact with only a small sector of the physical and social environment. In their everyday routines, they travel the same routes, visit the same familiar places, and see the same group of friends and associates. As a result, their conceptions of the wider social reality are greatly influenced by symbolic representations of society, mainly by the mass media. George Gerbner and his associates (1994) provide a comprehensive analysis of this cultivation effect through symbolic modeling in their work "Living With Television: The Dynamics of the Cultivation Process." To a large extent, people act on their images of reality. The more their conceptions of the world around them depend on portrayals in the media's symbolic environment, the greater is the media's social effect.

See Also:Advertising Effects; Cultivation theory and Media Effects; Desensitization and Media Effects; Fear and the Media; National Television Violence Study; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


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

Bandura, Albert. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.

Braithwaite, John. (1994). "A Sociology of Modeling and the Politics of Empowerment." British Journal of Sociology, 45:445-479.

Cantor, Joanne. (1994). "Fright Reactions to Mass Media." In Media Effects, eds. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillman. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gerbner, George; Gross, Larry; Morgan, Michael; and Signorielli, Nancy. (1994). "Living With Television: The Dynamics of the Cultivation Process." Media Effects, eds. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillman. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Rosenthal, Ted. (1984). "Observational Learning Effects." In Personality and the Behavioral Disorders, 2nd edition, eds. Norman Endler and J. McVicker Hunt. New York: Wiley.

Albert Bandura

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