Social cognitive theory

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Social cognitive theory (Bandura) postulates that human functioning is determined by (a) personal factors in the form of cognition, affect, and biological events, (b) behavior, and (c) environmental influences.

  • According to Frank Pajares, “With the publication of Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, Bandura (1986) advanced a view of human functioning that accords a central role to cognitive, vicarious, self-regulatory, and self-reflective processes in human adaptation and change. People are viewed as self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting and self-regulating rather than as reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by environmental forces or driven by concealed inner impulses. From this theoretical perspective, human functioning is viewed as the product of a dynamic interplay of personal, behavioral, and environmental influences.”

An important part of social cognitive theory is self-efficacy theory.

According to Kelli McCormack Brown (1999): Social cognitive Theory has three tenets:

Tenet 1: Response consequences (such as rewards or punishments) influence the likelihood that a person will perform a particular behavior again in a given situation. Note that this principle is also shared by classical behaviorists.

Tenet 2: Humans can learn by observing others, in addition to learning by participating in an act personally. Learning by observing others is called vicarious learning. The concept of vicarious learning is not one that would be subscribed to by classical behaviorists.

Tenet 3: Individuals are most likely to model behavior observed by others they identify with. Identification with others is a function of the degree to which a person is perceived to be similar to one's self, in addition to the degree of emotional attachment that is felt toward an individual.

The processes underlying observational learning are ([1], [2], [3] [4])

  1. attention towards significant features of the modeled behavior
  2. retention, i.e. coding into long-term memory (including cognitive organization and motor rehearsal)
  3. motor reproduction (including physical capabilities, self-observation of reproduction, and accuracy of feedback)
  4. motivation, through (external and self positive) reinforcement and punishement
  5. observer characteristics (such as sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, and past reinforcement).

According to Kearsley's TIP database:

  1. The highest level of observational learning is achieved by first organizing and rehearsing the modeled behavior symbolically and then enacting it overtly. Coding modeled behavior into words, labels or images results in better retention than simply observing.
  2. Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if it results in outcomes they value.
  3. Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if the model is similar to the observer and has admired status and the behavior has functional value.

Basic Social Learning Concepts

The social learning theory proposed by Albert Bandura. While rooted in many of the basic concepts of traditional learning theory, Bandura believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning. His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people. Known as observational learning (apprentissage vicariant in french), this type of learning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors.

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

1. People can learn through observation

Observational Learning: In his famous Bobo doll experiment, 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: A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior. A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior. A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media

2. Mental states are important to learning

Intrinsic Reinforcement: 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.

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.

The Modeling Process

Not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. 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 detracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning. If the model interesting or there is a novel aspect to 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 other experience 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.



  • Bandura A. Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change, Psychol Rev. 1977 Mar;84(2):191-215.
  • Bandura, A. (1978a). Reflections on self-efficacy. Advances in Behavioural Research and Therapy, 1, 237-269.
  • Bandura, A. (1978b). The self system in reciprocal determinism. American Psychologist, 33, 344-358.
  • Bandura. A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122-147.
  • Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
  • Bandura Albert (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 52:1–26
  • Kelli McCormack Brown (1999), Social Cognitive Theory, University of South Florida Community and Family Health, on-line page HTML
  • Pajares (2002). Overview of social cognitive theory and of self-efficacy. Retreived 13:10, 18 May 2006 (MEST) from HTML