What Is Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory?

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory holds that behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observation. The theory suggests that people learn from one another through imitation, observation and modeling.

In 1977, Bandura theorized that learning is not purely behavioral but is rather a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. Vicarious reinforcement, a tenet of the theory, revolves around the concept that learning can occur by observing a behavior and its consequences.

Modeling, another fundamental aspect of social learning, requires four elements: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation. In the attention stage, observers must attend to the modeled behavior. This attention can be affected by perception. Retention is remembering what was paid attention to during the first stage. In reproduction, the observer must organize responses in accordance with the modeled behavior. Motivation refers to the reason why the behavior was reproduced and includes a reward system.

Recent studies in neuroscience have found physiological support for social learning in the presence of “mirror neurons” that activate during the learning process. The theory supports the idea that children can learn from a multitude of models, both adults and other children, to acquire new skills or behavior even in the absence of direct reinforcement.