What Is Social Learning Theory?

A closer look at how people learn through observation

Social learning theory and learning through observation
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Learning is a remarkably complex process that is influenced by a wide variety of factors. As most parents are probably very much aware, observation can play a critical role in determining how and what children learn. As the saying goes, kids are very much like sponges, soaking up the experiences they have each and every day.

Because learning is so complex, there are many different psychological theories to explain how and why people learn.

A psychologist named Albert Bandura proposed a social learning theory which suggests that observation, imitation, and modeling play a primary role in this process. Bandura's theory combines elements from behavioral theories, which suggest that all behaviors are learned through conditioning, and cognitive theories, which take into account psychological influences such as attention and memory.

How Does Social Learning Theory Work?

During the first half of the 20th-century, the behavioral school of psychology became a dominant force. The behaviorists proposed that all learning was a result of direct experience with the environment through the processes of association and reinforcement. While Bandura's theory is also rooted in many of the basic concepts of traditional learning theory, he believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning.

For example, children and adults often exhibit learning for things with which they have no direct experience.

Even if you have never swung a baseball bat in your life, you would probably know what to do if someone handed you a bat and told you to try to hit a baseball. This is because you have seen others perform this action either in person or on television. 

While the behavioral theories of learning suggested that all learning was the result of associations formed by conditioning, reinforcement, and punishment, Bandura's social learning theory proposed that learning can also occur simply by observing the actions of others.

His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people. Known as observational learning, this type of learning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors, including those that often cannot be accounted for by other learning theories.

Three Things You Should Know About Social Learning Theory

There are three core concepts at the heart of social learning theory. First is the idea that people can learn through observation. Next is the notion that internal mental states are an essential part of this process. Finally, this theory recognizes that just because something has been learned, it does not mean that it will result in a change in behavior.

"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do," Bandura explained in his 1977 book Social Learning Theory. "Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action."

Let's explore each of these concepts in greater depth.

1. People can learn through observation.

In one of the best-known experiments in the history of psychology, Bandura demonstrated that children learn and imitate behaviors they have observed in other people. The children in Bandura’s studies observed an adult acting violently toward a Bobo doll.

When the children were later allowed to play in a room with the Bobo doll, they began to imitate the aggressive actions they had previously observed.

Bandura identified three basic models of observational learning:

  1. A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior.
  2. A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior.
  1. A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.

As you can see, observational learning does not even necessarily require watching another person engage in an activity. Hearing verbal instructions, such as listening to a podcast, can lead to learning. We can also learn by reading, hearing, or watching the actions of characters in books and films.

As you can imagine, it is this type of observational learning that has become a lightning rod for controversy as parents and psychologists debate the impact that pop culture media has on kids. Many worry that kids can learn bad behaviors such as aggression from violent video games, movies, television programs, and online videos.

2. Mental states are important to learning.

Just observing someone else's actions is not always enough to lead to learning. Your own mental state and motivation play an important role in determining whether a behavior is learned or not.

While the behavioral theories of learning suggested that it was external reinforcement that created learning, Bandura realized that reinforcement does not always come from outside sources.

Bandura noted that external, environmental reinforcement was not the only factor to influence learning and behavior. He described intrinsic reinforcement as a form of internal reward, such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment. This emphasis on internal thoughts and cognitions helps connect learning theories to cognitive developmental theories. While many textbooks place social learning theory with behavioral theories, Bandura himself describes his approach as a 'social cognitive theory.'

3. Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behavior.

So how do we determine when something has been learned? In many cases, learning can be seen immediately when the new behavior is displayed. When you teach a child to ride a bicycle, you can quickly determine if learning has occurred by having the child ride his or her bike unassisted.

But sometimes we are able to learn things even though that learning might not be immediately obvious. While behaviorists believed that learning led to a permanent change in behavior, observational learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviors.

How Does Observational Learning Happen?

It is also important to note that not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Why not? Factors involving both the model and the learner can play a role in whether social learning is successful. Certain requirements and steps must also be followed.

The following steps are involved in the observational learning and modeling process:

  • Attention: In order to learn, you need to be paying attention. Anything that distracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning. If the model is interesting or there is a novel aspect of the situation, you are far more likely to dedicate your full attention to learning.
  • Retention: The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning.
  • Reproduction: Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement.
  • Motivation: Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled. Reinforcement and punishment play an important role in motivation. While experiencing these motivators can be highly effective, so can observing others experiencing some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for being to class on time, you might start to show up a few minutes early each day.

A Few Applications for Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory can have a number of real-world applications. For example, it can be used to help researchers understand how aggression and violence might be transmitted through observational learning. By studying media violence, researchers can gain a better understanding of the factors that might lead children to act out the aggressive actions they see portrayed on television and in the movies.

But social learning can also be utilized to teach people positive behaviors. Researchers can use social learning theory to investigate and understand ways that positive role models can be used to encourage desirable behaviors and to facilitate social change.

A Word From Verywell

In addition to influencing other psychologists, Bandura's social learning theory has had important implication in the field of education. Today, both teachers and parents recognize how important it is to model appropriate behaviors. Other classroom strategies such as encouraging children and building self-efficacy are also rooted in social learning theory.

As Bandura observed, life would be incredibly difficult and even dangerous if you had to learn everything you know from personal experience. So much of your life is rooted in your social experiences, so it is no surprise that observing others plays such a vital role in how you acquire new knowledge and skills. By better understanding how social learning theory works, you can gain a greater appreciation for the powerful role that observation can play in shaping the things we know and the things we do.


Bandura, A. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman; 1997.

Weiner, IB & Craighead, WE. Social learning theory. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, Volume 4. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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