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Bandura's Social Learning Theory


Social learning and imitation was proposed by Miller and Dollard but rejected ideas of behaviorism related by association. It was a theory of learning, however, that did not account for new responses or the processes of delayed and non-reinforced imitations. Bandura widened the not yet developed parts of social learning theory in his book Social Learning and Personality Development written in 1963. It was not until the 1970’s, that Bandura discovered there was something missing to the present day learning theories as well as his own social learning theory. The missing link to his theory were self-beliefs. This was identified in his writing "Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change."

Albert Bandura discovered the big debate in dealing with the concept of behaviorism. He felt that it was inadequate for describing complex human functioning and that it is a person’s environment that causes behavior. He argued that the "cause and effect relationship between environmental forces and behavior outcomes are reciprocal, that people’s environments and their behavior simultaneously create and affect each other." In his publication of Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory he stresses that people have certain understandings that allow them to have a certain amount of control over their feelings, actions, and thoughts. Bandura wrote, "what people think, believe, and feel affects how they behave." This understandings or beliefs are based on five ideas: symbolizing, self-regulatory, self-reflexive, vicarious and forethought. They are also referred to as his five human competencies. As a result, human behavior is made from a combination of outside influences and these five ideas. Bandura’s social learning or cognitive theory is best explained in three categories: observational learning, self-regulation, and self-efficacy.


Observational learning is the backbone of one of Bandura's five human competencies, the ability to be vicarious. When discussing vicariousness, it is related to Bandura’s studies on child aggression. One example would be observing how aggressive children can become when they are influenced by violent media. What Bandura finds is that his results are out of place from behaviorist ideas because the children develop good behavior without obtaining rewards or getting punished. After Bandura uncovered this, he tried to find an actual interpretation to his discovery. This would lead him away from behaviorist thinking.


He started by going over the steps involved in observational learning (modeling).

Bandura wrote, "to learn anything by watching others one needs to be paying attention to them." If you watch an object closely it becomes the key element in determining how well your behavior is from observing the object or model. For example, if an observer is ill or tired this can decrease their learning ability from the model. The competing stimuli can also prevent an observer from actually learning. Attention is therefore impaired. On the other hand, a model can lure an observer into learning it’s behavior by distracting the observer. Distracting an observer can be done by using language and imagery. If I were to see a person having a blast jumping rope it would be stimulate me to try and learn his or her technique. If the object or model wants attention by using distracting or noticeable language, observers will pay more attention. The same goes if the model is pretty or handsome, and has other admiring characteristics about them. How closely models see similarities in ot!

her models also affects how they observe and identify with the model. This makes attention greatly affect how the model is observed.


Attention is immediately followed by retention. Retention is known as the ability to remember what you were paying attention to. Retention is only useful following attention. Retention is based on the capability to make and use symbols. "Symbolic activities involve the cognitive and linguistic processes that people use to internalize experiences and events, to provide means of communicating with others, to use in solving problems, to help in anticipating future events and to structure future behavior". This makes language one of the most important fundamental foundations for future behaviors and actions.


The final stage of observational learning understands that observers have to reproduce the modeled behavior. The first step in reproducing modeled behavior is actually copying what a person has observed from the model. This first requires the ability to duplicate what has been observed. I am a competitive swimmer. When I watch elite swimmers compete in the Olympics it motivates me to swim better. In turn, I study their racing strategies and stroke techniques to become a better competitive swimmer. By doing the modeled behavior and imagining that one is copying this behavior Bandura comes up with the overall idea of observational learning.

Of course, attention and retention resulting in reproduction are great but there also has to be some motivation behind it. Bandura kept in mind the behaviorist motivators, rewards and punishments, but he added more. He added promised reinforcement, the observer and his results from observing, vicariousness, and the motivation from observing a model. These motivators are the behaviorist source for learning. Behaviorist ideas base these motivators as their ultimate source of learning while Bandura defined motivation to show what was already learned.


Bandura’s theory claims that individuals have regulators that show a person can have the potential to change oneself. He also states that a person can influence their own behavior. This ability is influenced by what Bandura calls: self-observation, judgment, and self-reaction. This means "the manner and degree to which people affect their own behavior involve the accuracy and consistency of their self-observation and self-monitoring, the judgments they make regarding their actions, choices, and attributions, and, finally, the evaluative and tangible reactions to their own behavior that they develop through the self-regulatory process." This last part includes self-concept, self-esteem, values and others that motivate a person’s self. These motivators act as an incentive to behave in ways that you yourself would want to behave. Bandura states that these beliefs that people have about themselves are key elements in human behavior and motivation.


In addition to self-regulation, people have a kind of self-respecting thought. This helps in both knowledge and behavior issues. Bandura claims that this self-reverent idea is strictly a human trait. Only humans can reflect on their own thoughts, ideas, and experiences. This helps a person to understand their way of thinking and behavior therefore allowing them to change their thoughts or behavior. A person can self-evaluate their knowledge and behavior. Bandura argued, " Knowledge and skill are often poor predictors of subsequent performance, for the beliefs we hold about our abilities and about the outcome of our efforts powerfully influence the ways in which we will behave." He suggests that out of all of the beliefs, self-efficacy is the most powerful and influential. Bandura describes self efficacy as "people’s judgements of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances." Self-efficacy helps people make ch!

oices, how hard they will work on making those choices and how long they will spend on the choice or task.


Bandura wrote that self-beliefs affect behavior in four ways. First, they influence choice of behavior. People participate in tasks that make them feel confident and try to stay away from the tasks that do not. Second, self-beliefs help determine how much effort people will put into an activity and how long they will go after it. The higher the sense of efficacy, the greater the effort and persistence. The third way that self-beliefs affect behavior is by triggering a person’s thoughts and emotions. For example, a person with low efficacy can believe that things are harder than they seem. A person with high efficacy, on the other hand, may be very confident when something difficult comes along. Last but not least, a person determines his or her own behavior. For example, a person that is self-confident will in return take on challenging performances than a person that is doubtful. In conclusion, self-efficacy helps determine how we think, feel, and behave.


Albert Bandura stresses the importance of observing and modeling the attitudes, behaviors, and emotional reactions of others. Human behavior is mostly learned through modeling in many ways: when watching others one can come up with an idea of how new behaviors are performed and later this idea is used in action. Social learning theory explains human behavior by interacting between behavioral, cognitive, and environmental influences. Attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation are key processes of social learning (observational learning). Therefore, social learning theory stretches over both cognitive and behavioral ideas. Bandura’s theory is the better version of Miller and Dollard ‘s previous behavioral modeling.


In reference to Bandura’s learning through modeling, I have wondered what would happen if the attention part of the process was not triggered. If there is nothing that attracts an observer to a model then the other three processes can not take place with out it. Then learning would have to be done through a different process. Another important concept I picked up on was the self-efficacy theory. This missing link was hard to follow as a first year communication student and might be for others as well. The idea that people with high efficacy are self-confident and take on challenging tasks is not always true. There are cases where highly confident people chose not to take on a difficult task due to certain circumstances such as illness or fatigue. The same would be true for people with low efficacy. Some people take on difficult tasks but are not confident about them. They do it because someone is expecting it or because other people are doing it. Overall, I enjoyed Bandura’s t!

heories and under most circumstances believe that he provides true evidence to back up his theories.


1) In Bandura’s learning through modeling behavior he has four component processes. What are they and what is their significance in observational learning?

2) What is the difference between the old view of social learning and the new view? What is the key element that separates them?

3) Under what kind of major theory does Bandura initially classify himself

( behaviorism, neo-behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and humanism)? Which theory or theories does he later adopt?

4) Briefly explain self-efficacy. What are four ways self-beliefs affect behavior?


Motivational Theorists and their Basic Ideas

Name Theory Central element of theory Explanation of motivation

Maslow HumanisticNeeds hierarchy Needs satisfaction

Bruner Cognitive Intrinsic processes Mixed motives

Skinner Operant conditioning Reinforcement Schedules of reinforcement

Bandura Social cognitive Imitation Modeling

Structural Components Skinner Bandura Piaget

Internal Principles:-Differential reinforcement-Discriminative stimulus-Shaping -Triadic reciprocality (behavior, cognition, environment) -assimilation, accommodation, equilibration-organization and adaptation

Bridge Principles: -Schedules of reinforcement-Generalization-Chaining -Differential contributions-Temporal dynamics-Fortuitous determinants -Schemes-Operations-Cognitive structures

Change Mechanism: -Reinforcement -Production processes-Motivation processes -Equilibration (of maturation, experience, social transmission)

Theory Behaviorism Neo-behaviorism Cognitivism Constructivism Humanism

Theorists Skinner ThorndikeWatson HebbHullBandura PiagetGagnéBrunerAusubel PiagetPapert RogersMaslowKnowlesVella


Attentional Retention Motor reproduction Motivational

processes processes processes processes

-distinctiveness-cognitive organization -physical capabilities -external

-affective valence - symbolic coding -availability of component reinforcment

-complexity - symbolic rehearsal responses -vicarious

-prevalence - motor rehearsal -self observation of reproductions

-functional value -accuracy feedback reinforcement

-observer characteristics -self-

-sensory capacities reinforcement

-arousal level

-perceptual set

-past reinforcement

A Cartoon relating to Bandura and his work on aggression through television


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

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

Bandura, A. (1977).Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. and Walters, R.H. (1963). Social Learning and Personal Development. New York: Rinehart and Winston.

Griffin, E.A. (2000). A First Look at Communication Theory. United States: McGraw Hill Companies Inc.

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