How Social Learning Theory Works

Social learning theory, introduced by psychologist Albert Bandura , proposed that learning occurs through observation, imitation, and modeling and is influenced by factors such as attention, motivation, attitudes, and emotions. The theory accounts for the interaction of environmental and cognitive elements that affect how people learn.

The theory suggests that learning occurs because people observe the consequences of other people's behaviors. Bandura's theory moves beyond behavioral theories , which suggest that all behaviors are learned through conditioning, and cognitive theories, which consider psychological influences such as attention and memory.

According to Bandura, people observe behavior either directly through social interactions with others or indirectly by observing behaviors through media. Actions that are rewarded are more likely to be imitated, while those that are punished are avoided.


Basic Principles of Social Learning Theory

What Is Social Learning Theory?

During the first half of the 20th-century, the behavioral school of psychology became a dominant force. The behaviorists proposed that all learning was a result of direct experience with the environment through the processes of association and reinforcement.   Bandura's theory believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning.

For example, children and adults often exhibit learning for things with which they have no direct experience. Even if you have never swung a baseball bat in your life, you would probably know what to do if someone handed you a bat and told you to try to hit a baseball. This is because you have seen others perform this action either in person or on television.

While the behavioral theories of learning suggested that all learning was the result of associations formed by conditioning, reinforcement, and punishment, Bandura's social learning theory proposed that learning can also occur simply by observing the actions of others.  

His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people. Known as observational learning, this type of learning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors, including those that often cannot be accounted for by other learning theories.

Core Concepts of Social Learning Theory

There are three core concepts at the heart of social learning theory. First is the idea that people can learn through observation. Next is the notion that internal mental states are an essential part of this process. Finally, this theory recognizes that just because something has been learned, it does not mean that it will result in a change in behavior.

"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do," Bandura explained in his 1977 book Social Learning Theory .  

Bandura goes on to explain that "Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action."

Let's explore each of these concepts in greater depth.

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People Can Learn Through Observation

One of the best-known experiments in the history of psychology involved a doll named Bobo. Bandura demonstrated that children learn and imitate behaviors they have observed in other people.

The children in Bandura’s studies observed an adult acting violently toward a Bobo doll. When the children were later allowed to play in a room with the Bobo doll, they began to imitate the aggressive actions they had previously observed.  

Bandura identified three basic models of observational learning:

  • A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior.
  • A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.
  • A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior.

As you can see, observational learning does not even necessarily require watching another person to engage in an activity. Hearing verbal instructions, such as listening to a podcast, can lead to learning. We can also learn by reading, hearing, or watching the actions of characters in books and films.  

It is this type of observational learning that has become a lightning rod for controversy as parents and psychologists debate the impact that pop culture media has on kids. Many worry that kids can learn bad behaviors such as aggression from violent video games, movies, television programs, and online videos.

Mental States Are Important to Learning

Bandura noted that external, environmental reinforcement was not the only factor to influence learning and behavior. And he realized that reinforcement does not always come from outside sources.  Your own mental state and motivation play an important role in determining whether a behavior is learned or not.

He described intrinsic reinforcement as a form of internal rewards, such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment.   This emphasis on internal thoughts and cognitions helps connect learning theories to cognitive developmental theories. While many textbooks place social learning theory with behavioral theories, Bandura himself describes his approach as a 'social cognitive theory.'

Learning Does Not Necessarily Lead to Change

So how do we determine when something has been learned? In many cases, learning can be seen immediately when the new behavior is displayed. When you teach a child to ride a bicycle, you can quickly determine if learning has occurred by having the child ride his or her bike unassisted.

But sometimes we are able to learn things even though that learning might not be immediately obvious. While behaviorists believed that learning led to a permanent change in behavior, observational learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviors.  

Key Factors for Social Learning Success

It is important to note that not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Why not? Factors involving both the model and the learner can play a role in whether social learning is successful. Certain requirements and steps must also be followed.

The following steps are involved in the observational learning and modeling process:  

  • Attention: In order to learn, you need to be paying attention . Anything that distracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning. If the model is interesting or there is a novel aspect of the situation, you are far more likely to dedicate your full attention to learning.
  • Retention: The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning.
  • Reproduction: Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement.
  • Motivation: Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled. Reinforcement and punishment play an important role in motivation.
    While experiencing these motivators can be highly effective, so can observing others experiencing some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for being to class on time, you might start to show up a few minutes early each day.

Real-World Applications for Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory can have a number of real-world applications. For example, it can be used to help researchers understand how aggression and violence might be transmitted through observational learning. By studying media violence, researchers can gain a better understanding of the factors that might lead children to act out the aggressive actions they see portrayed on television and in the movies.

But social learning can also be utilized to teach people positive behaviors. Researchers can use social learning theory to investigate and understand ways that positive role models can be used to encourage desirable behaviors and to facilitate social change.

A Word From Verywell

In addition to influencing other psychologists, Bandura's social learning theory has had important implications in the field of education. Today, both teachers and parents recognize how important it is to model appropriate behaviors. Other classroom strategies such as encouraging children and building self-efficacy are also rooted in social learning theory.

As Bandura observed, life would be incredibly difficult and even dangerous if you had to learn everything you know from personal experience. Observing others plays a vital role in acquiring new knowledge and skills. By understanding how social learning theory works, you can gain a greater appreciation for the powerful role that observation plays in shaping the things we know and the things we do.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Overskeid G. Do We Need the Environment to Explain Operant Behavior ? Front Psychol. 2018;9:373. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00373

  3. Fryling MJ, Johnston C, Hayes LJ. Understanding Observational Learning: An Interbehavioral Approach . Anal Verbal Behav. 2011;27(1):191-203. doi:10.1007/bf03393102

  4. Bandura A. Social Learning Theory . Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall; 1977.

  5. Nguyen Do LLT. Bobo Doll Experiment . In: Goldstein S, Naglieri JA. Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. San Francisco: Springer; 2011. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_379

  6. Bajcar EA, Bąbel P. How Does Observational Learning Produce Placebo Effects? A Model Integrating Research Findings . Front Psychol. 2018;9:2041. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02041

  7. Cook DA, Artino AR. Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories . Med Educ. 2016;50(10):997-1014. doi:10.1111/medu.13074

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.