What Is Social Learning Theory?

The social learning theory, developed by Dr. Albert Bandura, proposes that learning can occur simply by observing the actions of others. While traditional theories of learning suggest that all learning is the result of associations formed by conditioning, reinforcement, and punishment, Bandura was the first to add a social element.

Three concepts make up the core of social learning theory. The first is that people can learn through observation. Dr. Bandura demonstrated this with his Bobo doll experiment, which resulted in children acting out the same aggressive behaviors they observed in adults. The second core concept is the idea that mental states, such as feelings of pride, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, reinforce certain behaviors. Finally, the social learning theory recognizes that learning does not always result in a change in behavior.

Examples of the social learning theory abound when observing the way children copy the behavior of role models. These models may be people in their immediate world, such as parents or siblings, or they could be fantasy characters or celebrities. Children are motivated to identify with a model who has a quality that the child would like to possess. This leads to the child adopting observed behaviors, values, beliefs and attitudes of the model.