Social learning theory has its roots in Albert Bandura’s experiments and studies and comes to explain the fact that learning is facilitated by social context and by the models presented in that specific social context. Ever since the 1960′s, Bandura discovered that individuals are being subjected to a quick learning process when exposed to a certain type of behavior.
Using a Bobo doll, he managed to demonstrate that children immediately adopt an aggressive behavior when they witness such a behavior in a social context. Thus, a child observing an adult while he/she abuses the doll will repeat the same kind of abuse as soon as the adult clears the room (Bandura, 1969).
Main concepts in social learning theory (Ormrod, 1999):
1) Observation: People learn certain behaviors by observing them manifested by members of their social group and seeing what types of outcomes these behaviors bring.
2) Imitation: In order to develop a certain behavior merely being exposed to it is not sufficient – one needs the intention to realize it in one’s own life, of reproducing it.
3) Cognition: Even though imitating a behavior is important when actually performing it, it’s important to know that the individual has the cognitive capacity of modifying that particular behavior in such a way that it caters to the individual’s particular needs and purposes. In other words, Bandura credits the cognitive nature of the individual who adopts behaviors and is capable of judging them beforehand or modifying them once he/she has adopted them.
4) Reinforcement: In order for a behavior to be considered appropriated it is necessary for the individual to be able to manifest it in contexts that he/she deems as compatible with the specific behavior. Thus, the reinforcement and punishment mechanisms cannot be minimized when it comes to social learning. The reinforcement can be realized by the individual who stands as the model for a certain behavior (an adolescent may start smoking because the “leader” of the group smokes), a third person, not the model itself; the behavior itself (smoking produces a certain pleasure for the sensation seeker or raises self esteem for a submissive teenager, for instance).
5) Modeling: In order for an individual to learn a behavior he/she needs a model to raise his/her awareness on the matter and to elevate his/her interest to learn the specific behavior that the model displays. Even though oftentimes it has been speculated that people learn from human models by way of direct experience, Bandura’s own studies, as well as later studies, have shown that individuals can learn from more abstract or fictional models, such as models being depicted in the media (movies, music, radio, TV, video games etc) (Mae Sincero, 2011).
What types of behavior can be learned by means of social learning?
Even though the majority of Bandura’s studies have treated the way in which people learn violence and aggression through exposure to environmental factors and to models that promote such behaviors, it seems that the learning of a much broader spectrum of behaviors can be explained through social learning:
- dieting: media models that support diets and present their thinness as the beauty ideal and standard can influence body image in some viewers. As a logical progression, these viewers will turn to diets, excessive physical exercise etc. in order reach that specific body image (Grabe, 2008)
- violence learned through video games (Bushman & Anderson, 2002)
- sexism and male chauvinism (Council on Communication and the Media, 2009)
- drug use (Robinson, Chen & Killen, 1998)
- and also the pleasure for reading and moral behaviors (Ormrod, 1999).
The effects of social learning:
- the development of new behaviors
- the development of self-efficacy
- self-regulation – reaching certain goals through a lesser energetic effort (without soliciting attention and motivation too much, it somehow happens “on its own”)
- an easier alternative to learning through operant conditioning
Bandura, A. (1969). Social-learning theory of identificatory processes. In: Goslin, D. A. (Ed),
Handbook of socialization theory and research (pp. 213-262), Chicago: Rand McNally
Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2002). Violent video games and hostile expectations: A test of the General Aggression Model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1679-1686
Council on Communication and the Media (2009). Policy statement: Impact of music, music lyrics and music videos on children and youth. Pediatrics, 124, 1488-1494, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-2145
Ormrod, J.E. (1999). Human learning (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Robinson, T. N., Chen, H. L., & Killen, J. D. (1998). Television and music video exposure and risk of adolescent alcohol use. Pediatrics, 102