Learning Approaches: Social Learning Theory

– Bandura agreed with behaviourists that behaviour is learnt through experience

– However, he believes that behaviour is not learnt through conditioning  

– Argued that classical and operant conditioning could not account for all human learning

– There are important mental processes that mediate between stimulus and response

– Emerged in the 1960s

– On the nature side of the debate

– Reciprocal determinism

– Reductionist (but less than the behaviourist approach as it considers cognitive factors)


– We learn behaviour through direct experience and through observing your own and others behaviour

– People also observe the different consequences of their own and others behaviour

– Human behaviour takes place in a social context and other people are important in the learning process

– We learn through observations of how people behave in social situations, together with rewards and punishments

– Other people act as ‘models’ in the environment. Model is then imitated

– Mediational processes, which lie between stimulus and response, influence our behaviour

– Observational learning has four conditions: attention, retention, motor reproduction, motivation

– Learning can be a result of direct reinforcement or indirect, vicarious reinforcement


– In order for social learning to take place someone carries out the attitude or behaviour

– These individuals are called models

– There are two types of models: Live models and Symbolic models

– Live models might be a parent, teacher or a friend

– Symbolic models would be someone in the media, like a character on the TV

– Modelling can occur when an observer imitates a role model


– Describes the way in which an individual copies the behaviour of a role model

– More likely to imitate if:

– The Models we see are like ourselves, eg, same sex, same age and similar dress style

– They are likeable and attractive

– They are of high status or famous people, such as pop stars or famous footballers

– People with low self-esteem are more likely to imitate a model’s behaviour than people with high self-esteem.


– When an observer associates themselves with the role model because they want to be like them

– Involves internalising and adopting behaviours shown by a role model, because they have a quality the individual would like to possess.

– For example, they might be attractive or of high status.


– Learning through observation of the consequences of actions for other people.
– When a learner observes someone they identify with and they receive reinforcement, the learner is motivated to imitate the behaviour as if they had been reinforced themselves.

– A key part of imitation


– The internal mental processes that exist between environmental stimuli and the response made to those stimuli


– Paying attention to the behaviour and its consequences and form a mental representation of the behaviour


– Storing the observed behaviour in Long Term Memory where it can stay for long periods of time


– The individual must be able to reproduce the observed behaviour


– Individuals must expect to receive the same positive reinforcements for imitating the observed behaviour that they have seen the model receiving

– Imitation is more likely to occur if the model is positively reinforced

– Vicarious reinforcement

– Imitation is more likely if we identify with the model



– Demonstrate observational or imitative learning in young children


– Lab experiment

– American Children – 36 boys and 36 girls aged between 3-6 years old

– Children from one group were put into a room, one at a time, with an adult who behaved in an aggressive way towards a Bobo doll ( a lifelike, inflatable doll.)

– The adult hit the doll with a hammer and shouted abuse at it.

– Children from a second group, one at a time, were put in a room with an adult behaving in a subdued and non-aggressive way

– Each child was then put in a playroom which contained toys, along with a Bobo doll and a hammer.

– The researchers recorded the number of aggressive behaviours each child made towards the doll.

Group 1

– 12 girls and 12 boys were shown a model hitting the doll with a hammer and shooting at the doll

Group 2

– 12 girls and 12 boys were shown a non-aggressive model

Group 3

– 12 girls and 12 boys were not shown a model


– Group 1 was more aggressive

– Group 1 imitated specific aggressive acts displayed by the model

– 1/3rd of group 1 showed aggressive verbal responses whereas the other groups showed none

– Boys were more aggressive than girls


– Exposure to a model behaving aggressively results in observational learning and aggressive behaviour




– Has increased our knowledge and understanding of criminal behaviour

– Akers suggested that the probability of someone engaging in criminal behaviour increases when they are exposed to models who commit criminal behaviour

– They then identify with these models and develop the expectation of positive consequences for their own criminal behaviour

– Ulrich found that the strongest cause of violent behaviour in adolescence was associated with per delinquent groups, where violence was both modelled and rewarded

Research Support for Identification

– According to the SLT observing a model similar to the self should lead to more learning than observing a dissimilar mode

– Fox and Bailenson found evidence for this using computer generated ‘Virtual’ humans engaging in exercise or loitering

– The models looked either similar or dissimilar to the individual participants

– Participants who viewed their virtual model exercising engaged in more exercise in the 24 hours following the experiment than the participants who viewed theirs loitering or a dissimilar model

– They concluded that greater identification with a model leads to more learning because it’s easier to visualise the self in the place of the model

– So, the observer feels as if he or she is having the same experience

Adds Cognitive Processes onto the Behaviourist Approach

– Neither classical nor operant conditioning can offer an adequate account of learning on their own

– Humans and many animals store information about the behaviour of others and use this to make judgments about their own behaviour

– The SLT takes both behaviourist and cognitive theories into account

– It also takes free will into account as we are influenced by our environment but our mediational processes help us choose which behaviours to perform

– Therefore, the SLT is a middle ground on both the environment/cognitive thought processes and determinism/free will



– Focuses exclusively on the process of social learning and disregards other potential influences on behaviour

– It is limiting to describe behaviour solely in terms of either nature or nurture and attempts to do this underestimate the complexity of human behaviour.

– A child is exposed to many different influences and all of them interact in ways

– These include genetic predispositions, media portrayals, the locus of control etc.

– It is more likely that behaviour is due to an interaction between nature (biology) and nurture (environment).

– Therefore, with all of these influences, it is hard to pinpoint social influence as the main influence on behaviour

A Problem in Establishing Cause and Effect

– SLT claims that the increased associations with deviant peers increase the likelihood that an individual will adopt the same values and behaviours

– Siegel and McCormick suggest that young people who possess deviant attitudes and values seeks out peers with similar attitudes

– The cause of delinquency may not be due to social learning as the delinquent individuals could have had delinquent attitudes before joining the groups

– Therefore, it is hard to establish cause and effect