Bandura’s Social Social Learning Theory: Definition, Experiment, Process, & Applications

What is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory is behavior learning through observing other’s behaviors or simply say watching and seeing other’s behavior. It is Albert Bandura who proposed this idea. He claimed that learning isn’t only by training and reinforcing but the behavior is often acquired without reward and punishment, say by the willingness of the person.


Observational Learning: We Look and We Learn

Social learning theory also referred to as observational learning, imitational learning, and social cognitive theory promoted by Stanford University Psychologist Albert Bandura. It agrees with classical and operant conditioning but claims that these conditioning systems are too limited to value important characters of real human behavior. 

Albert Bandura and Richard Walters (1963) criticized that theories based on animal behavior and responses can not explain every aspect of human behaviors where correct responses are rewarded and incorrect responses are punished. In reality, there are several situations where we learn from watching others through observation and derive experience with or without reinforcement.

Social learning generally takes place in a social situation involving a model and an imitator. The imitator observes the model and experiences the model’s behavior and its consequences. Bandura (1967, 1977) demonstrated that modeling is the basis for a wide variety of children’s behaviors. He recognized that children acquire man’s favorable and unfavorable responses in the absence of direct rewards and punishment, simply by watching and listening to others around them. Children’s ability to learn, remember, and abstract general rules from complex behaviors affect their imitation and learning.

According to social learning theory, imitation of models is the most important element in how children learn a language, deal with aggression, develop a moral sense, and learn gender-appropriate behaviors. Imitation is one of the most powerful mechanisms to learn the rules of socialization. For example, children learn what kind of clothes, hair cut, or food dishes are fashionable and unfashionable. The characteristics of the model, the imitator, and the environment greatly influence imitation. The model may be a parent, teacher, television personality, sports figure, bandit, criminal, or an admired friend.

Bandura’s Experiment

Bandura’s experiment is also popularly known as Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment. Bandura and his colleagues (Bandura, Rose, and Rose, 1963) conducted a “Bobo doll” experiment to determine whether children learn aggressive behaviors by observing the actions of others. They hypothesized that children who observed an adult behaving aggressively would be more aggressive than children who observe an adult not behaving aggressively. Nursery school children were assigned into two groups. One group observe an aggressive adult model, where an adult sat on a doll punched it in the nose, insulted it verbally, and the other group observed a non-aggressive model, who was quiet.

After the observation, all the children were allowed to play with several toys including a Bobo doll. Bandura and his colleagues found that children who observed the aggressive model engaged in more aggressive behavior than those who observed a non-aggressive model. The observers of the aggressive model stunned verbal comments and showed actions similar to those shown by the model. In contrast, in children in the control group, the non-aggressive model showed non-such behavior.

Process of Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory assumes that modeling influences learning chiefly through four interrelated components or processes to be successful. These are also referred to as the 4 principles of Bandura’s social learning theory.

social learning process

Attention Process

The attention process is the first basic process in social learning to copy a model. The initiator must pay attention and focus on observing the model’s behavior because the imitator can not learn a lot if he/she does not focus accurately on the silent cues and distinctive features of the model’s behavior. The observer must be judgemental, analytic, and constructive to perceive the activities of the model.

The attention process is basically the initiator perceiving the model’s minute gestures, movements, and demonstrated critical features. The observer will imitate a model that is attractive, charismatic, repeatedly available, and important. The attention process depends upon several factors such as the situation, opportunity, background, characteristics of the observer and model, associational patterns, and so on. People who are not pleasing are usually ignored or rejected as possible models.

Retention Process

Retention is the second process of observational learning, which is basically remembering the model for a long time. It is not sufficient for a person merely to observe the model’s actions, but also to keep in mind the model’s speech behavior, gestures, postures, and bodily expressions.

The imitator must have the capacity to recall, the model’s behavior when the model is no longer present in the surrounding. The responses must be coded into some symbolic form as signs, symbols, images, impressive words, etc. These symbolic processes help to perceive the situation in the absence of the model, which can be later converted into action. Bandura emphasized two main representational systems through which an individual’s behavior is modeled.

The first representational system is imagery, in which easily reproducible images are formed by the imitator to recall the observed event. For example, the style of Ronaldo’s haircut during the 2002 FIFA World Cup was imitated by countless fans, his haircut can still be recalled easily due to images. The second is verbal coding, the person watching the model needs to pay attention to the subvocal materials presented by the model. These subvocal descriptions should be verbally or mentally recited to master the performance of the model.

Motor Reproduction Process

For a person to benefit from the behavior of a model, the third process of social learning is translating memories into behavior. All those symbolically coded memories must be taken into appropriate action for learning. These symbolic representations should be carefully rehearsed several times to be perfect. The reproduction of the behavior is a highly skillful and complicating task. To reenact perfectly, the imitator not only needs keen observational skills but also requires fine, delicately balanced movements repeatedly. For example, driving, playing the piano, typing, etc. are all actions that require silent repetition several times.

The ability to convert memory into action in observational learning is termed the production process, which depends upon two important factors. The first is the individual’s own physical abilities. Lacking the skill to enact on the model’s performance, the individual will less likely to develop social learning proficiency. The second is the ability to evaluate or monitor one’s own performance until it matches that of the model.

Motivational or Reinforcement Process

The fourth factor involved in observational learning is the role played by motivation in learning the behavior. A person can acquire, retain and process a behavior if he/she sees a purpose and sufficient reinforcement associated with the behavior. Learning may not occur if it is negative or unflavored by the individual needs.

Social learning is therefore influenced by reinforcement which selectively controls the type of behavior observed. Usually, if the individual sees the incentives as positive, he/she is directed into overt action through attention, retention, and motor performance. In our lives, we do not pay attention to unattractive things. The modeling process goes into deeper actions if the individual is motivated with better incentives or rewards, the greater the encouragement the better the performance.

Application of Social Learning

There are many possible uses of observational learning theory, which is a widespread phenomenon, having both negative and positive consequences.

Positive Aspects of Social Learning Theory

Promotor of Pro-Social Behavior

Observational learning is the main method used to learn about our culture, customs, traditions, and environment. Behavior that the children usually show in dealing with daily living is a result of social learning. Children learn a great deal about being helpful, loving, caring, and comforting through observing. Such positive behaviors are known as pro-social behaviors.

Social learning also advocates productive behaviors. For example, small children around the age of three can start the car easily because he/she has seen parent performing the same tasks dozen of times. Children learn coking certain dishes by observing. Likewise, pro-social behavior prompted Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to lead society with nonviolent action for social change.

Clinical Use of Social Learning

Social learning has also been used to reduce or eliminate phobias through modeling. For example, in an experiment, adults who were terrified of handling living snakes are shown as live models handling living snakes. The individuals were then encouraged to handle the snakes themselves. The study found that those that handled the snakes themselves feared snakes less than those people who had watched the film of people handling snakes and a control group who had received no treatment.

Social learning prepares people to handle “cultural shocks”. Recently, psychologists have applied the principles of social learning to train people to handle cultural shocks in this rapidly changing world. Many companies are shifting their production plants from developed countries to developing countries to reduce costs and maximize profits. The managers and employers from one culture are now hiring employees from another culture. If the employers do not understand the value systems, traditions, beliefs, etc. of the employees, the company may face serious difficulties and hurdles in an organization.

Negative Aspects Social Learning Theory

Role of Antisocial Model

Social learning may contribute to the development of unhealthy behavior, including smoking, especially among adolescents. During adolescent or group years peer acceptance is a powerful influence that makes adolescents start smoking just to be a part of the group if their peers smoke. A similar trend can be said about alcohol and drugs. Results confirm that students whose best friends smoke are twice likely to begin smoking than whose best friends do not smoke.

Social learning also reinforces antisocial models in family, or neighborhood, or on TV. Children learn a lot from their parents. Abusive parents might likely have aggressive children, and men who beat their wives often had wife-battering fathers. If the models such as the parent’s words and actions are not consistent and follow the principle ‘do’, as I say not as I do, leave the child in a confusing state. They will be-wildered to judge between right and wrong actions leading to doubts and lowering their self-concepts.

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