Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory explains human accomplishments and well-being in terms of the interplay between individuals’ attributes, their behavior, and the influences operating in their environment. According to this view, people are contributors to their life circumstances, not just the products of them. They are characterized by a number of basic capabilities. These include cognitive, vicarious, self-regulatory, and self-reflective capabilities that play a central role in human self-development, adaptation, and change.

Symbolizing Capability

People’s extraordinary cognitive capacity provides them with a powerful means for understanding the workings of their environment and for shaping and managing it in ways that touch virtually every aspect of their lives. Cognitive factors, which constitute people’s symbolic nature, partly determine which aspects of the environment are attended to among the myriad activities, what meaning is conferred on them, what emotional impact and motivating power they have, and how the information they convey is organized for future use.

Through the medium of symbols, people transform information from transient experiences into cognitive models that serve as guides for reasoning and action. They transcend time and place in communicating with others at any distance. By symbolizing their experiences, people give coherence, direction, meaning, and continuity to their lives. The other distinctive human capabilities draw heavily on this advanced capacity for symbolization.

Vicarious Capability

Psychological theories traditionally emphasize learning through its positive and negative effects on one’s actions. Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on direct experience to tell them what to do. Direct experience is a toilsome, tough teacher. Fortunately, humans have evolved an advanced capacity for observational learning that enables them to expand their knowledge and competencies through the power of social modeling.

Much human learning relies on the models in one’s immediate environment. However, a vast amount of knowledge about styles of thinking and behaving, as well as the norms and practices of social systems, is gained from the extensive modeling in the symbolic environment of the electronic mass media. A special power of symbolic modeling lies in its tremendous reach, speed, and multiplicative power. Unlike learning by doing, which requires shaping the actions of each individual laboriously through repeated consequences, in observational learning, a single model can simultaneously convey new ways of thinking and behaving to countless people in widely dispersed locales. Observers can now transcend the bounds of their immediate environment. Electronic systems that feed off telecommunications satellites are rapidly diffusing new ideas, values, and styles of conduct worldwide.

Modeling is not merely a process of response mimicry, as is commonly believed. Modeled judgments and actions may differ in specific content but embody the same principle. For example, a model may deal with moral conflicts that differ widely in the type of predicaments but apply the same moral standard to them. Observers learn the principles underlying the modeled activity rather than the specific examples. Such abstract modeling enables them to construct new versions of the behavior that go beyond the particular examples they see.

Modeling can also promote creativity, in several ways. Modeled unconventional modes of thinking increase innovativeness in others. Creativeness rarely springs entirely from individual inventiveness; rather, it usually involves synthesizing existing knowledge into new ways of thinking and doing things. People adopt useful modeled elements, improve on them, synthesize them into new forms, and tailor them to their particular circumstances. In these ways, selective modeling serves as the mother of innovation.

Forethought Capability

Another distinctive human characteristic is the capability of forethought. Most human behavior, being purposive, is regulated by thought projected into the future. People anticipate the likely consequences of prospective actions, they set goals for themselves, and they plan courses of action that are likely to produce the desired outcomes and avoid detrimental ones. Through the exercise of forethought, people motivate themselves and guide their actions anticipatorily. Future events, of course, cannot be the cause of current motivation and action because they have no actual existence. However, through cognitive representation, visualized futures are brought into the present to serve as current motivators and regulators of behavior.

Human behavior is extensively regulated by its effects. These effects may take the form of material costs and benefits, social approval or disapproval, or self-evaluative positive and negative reactions. Behavior patterns that produce positive outcomes are readily adopted and used, whereas those that bring unrewarding or punishing outcomes are generally discarded. But external consequences are not the only outcomes that influence human behavior; people also profit from the successes and mistakes of others, as well as from their own experiences. As a general rule, people do things they have seen succeed and avoid those they have seen fail. However, observed outcomes exert their influence through perceived similarity—the belief that one is likely to experience similar outcomes for similar courses of action and that one possesses the capabilities to achieve similar performances. People also influence their own motivation and behavior by the positive and negative consequences they produce for themselves. This mode of self-regulation will be discussed next.

Self-Regulatory Capability

People are not only planners and forethinkers. They are also self-reactors with a capacity for self-direction. Successful development requires the gradual substitution of internal regulation and direction for external sanctions and mandates. Once the capability for self-direction is developed, self-demands and self-sanctions serve as major guides, motivators, and deterrents. In the absence of personal standards and self-sanctions, individuals would behave like weathervanes, constantly shifting direction to conform to whatever momentary influence happened to impinge on them.

The self-regulation of motivation, affect, and action operates partly through personal standards and evaluative reactions to one’s own behavior. The anticipated self-satisfaction gained from fulfilling a valued standard provides one source of incentive motivation for personal accomplishments. Self-dissatisfaction with substandard performance serves as another incentive for enhanced effort. The motivational effects do not stem from the standards themselves but from the fact that people care about their self-regard and respond evaluatively to their own behavior.

In activities that involve achievement and the cultivation of competencies, the personal standards selected as a mark of adequacy are progressively raised as knowledge and skills are acquired and challenges are met. In many areas of social and moral behavior, however, the personal standards that serve to regulate conduct have greater stability. People do not change from week to week what they regard as right or wrong or good or bad. After they adopt a standard of morality, their self-sanctions for actions that match or violate their personal standards serve as a regulatory influence. People do things that give them self-satisfaction and a sense of self-worth. They refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standards because it will bring self-disapproval. Thus, self-sanctions keep conduct in line with internal standards.

Moral standards do not function as fixed internal regulators of conduct. Self-regulatory influences do not operate unless they are activated, and there are many processes by which moral self-sanctions can be selectively disengaged from harmful conduct. The disengagement may center on sanctifying harmful conduct by portraying it as serving worthy purposes. It may focus on downplaying one’s role in given activities by diffusing and displacing responsibility so that perpetrators do not hold themselves accountable for the harm they cause. It may involve minimizing, distorting, or even disputing the harm that flows from detrimental actions. And the disengagement may include dehumanizing and blaming the recipients of the maltreatment. Through the selective use of these means, otherwise considerate people can perpetrate illegalities and inhumanities.

Self-Reflective Capability

The capability to reflect on oneself and the adequacy of one’s thoughts and actions is another distinctly human attribute that figures prominently in social cognitive theory. People are not only agents of action but also self-examiners of the quality of their own functioning. Effective functioning requires reliable ways of distinguishing between accurate and faulty thinking. In verifying the adequacy of thought by self-reflective means, people generate ideas and act on them or predict occurrences from them. They then judge from the results the accuracy and functional value of their thinking and use this information to improve their thinking if necessary.

Among the various types of self-referent thoughts, none is more central or pervasive then people’s beliefs in their capability to exercise influence over their own functioning and events that affect their lives. Beliefs about personal efficacy are the foundation of motivation and accomplishment. Unless people believe they can produce desired results by their actions, they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulty. Whatever other factors serve as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one can make a difference by one’s actions.

Beliefs about personal efficacy regulate human functioning through four major types of processes: cognitive, motivational, emotional, and decisional. A major function of thought is to enable people to predict events and develop ways to exercise control over them. People of high efficacy show greater cognitive resourcefulness, strategic flexibility, and effectiveness in managing their environment.

Efficacy beliefs play a central role in the self-regulation of motivation. Most human motivation is cognitively generated by goal aspirations and by the material, social, and self-evaluative costs and benefits anticipated for different courses of action. People of high perceived efficacy set motivating goals for themselves, expect their efforts to produce favorable results, view obstacles as surmountable, and figure out ways to overcome them. The functional belief system in difficult undertakings is realism about tough odds but optimism that, through self-development and perseverance, those odds can be beaten.

People’s beliefs in their coping efficacy also affect how much stress, anxiety, and depression they experience in threatening or taxing situations. Those who believe they can manage threats and adversities view them as less inimical and act in ways that reduce their aversiveness or change them for the better. People have to live with a psychic environment that is largely of their own making. Many human distresses result from failures of control over perturbing thoughts. Beliefs about coping efficacy facilitate the exercise of control over perturbing and dejecting ruminations.

People also have a hand in what they become through the types of activities and environments they choose. Beliefs about personal efficacy can, therefore, play a key role in shaping the course of one’s life by influencing the choices made at key decision points. In self-development through choice processes, destinies are shaped by selecting activities and environments that are known to cultivate valued potentialities and lifestyles.

People can also have a hand in what they become by the types of activities and environments they choose. Beliefs of personal efficacy can, therefore, play a key role in shaping the courses lives take by influencing the choices made at key decision points. In self-development through choice processes, destinies are shaped by selecting activities and environments known to cultivate valued potentialities and lifestyles.

People do not live their lives in isolation. They work together to secure what they cannot accomplish on their own. People’s shared beliefs in their collective ability to produce desired outcomes is a crucial ingredient of group attainments. Such beliefs influence the type of futures that people seek to achieve through collective action, how well they use their resources, how much effort they put into group endeavors, their staying power when collective efforts fail to produce quick results or meet forcible opposition, and their vulnerability to the discouragement that can beset those taking on tough problems that are not easily changeable.

Social Cognitive Theory in Cultural Context

Cultures are dynamic and internally diverse systems, not static monoliths. They are no longer insular; global connectivity is shrinking cross-cultural uniqueness. Transnational interdependencies and global market forces are restructuring national economies and shaping the political and social life of societies. Advanced telecommunications technologies are disseminating ideas, values, and styles of behavior transnationally at an unprecedented rate. The symbolic environment, which feeds off communication satellites, is altering national cultures and producing intercultural commonalities in some lifestyles. The growing role of electronic acculturation is fostering a more extensive globalization of culture. People are becoming increasingly enmeshed in a cyberworld that transcends time, distance, place, and national borders. In addition, the mass migration of people and the high global mobility of entertainers, athletes, journalists, academics, and employees of multinational corporations are changing cultural landscapes. These intermixing social forces are homogenizing some aspects of life and fostering cultural hybridization.

One must distinguish between inherent capacities and the way culture shapes these potentialities into diverse forms. For example, modeling, which figures prominently in social cognitive theory, is essential for self-development and functioning regardless of the culture in which one resides. Modeling is a universal human capacity. But what is modeled, how modeling influences are socially structured, and which purposes they serve vary in different cultural milieus. Similarly, a resilient sense of efficacy has generalized functional value regardless of whether one resides in an individualist-oriented culture or a collectivist-oriented one. Being immobilized by self-doubt and belief in the futility of effort has little adaptive advantage. But the way efficacy beliefs are developed and structured, the way they are exercised, and the purposes to which they are put vary cross-culturally. In short, there is a cultural commonality in basic capacities and mechanisms of operation but diversity in the culturing of these inherent capacities. In this dual-level analysis, universality is compatible with manifest cultural plurality.

Agentic Management of Fortuity

There is much that people do purposefully to exercise some measure of control over their self-development and life circumstances. But there is a lot of fortuity in the courses people’s lives take. Indeed, some of the most important determinants of life paths occur through the most trivial of circumstances. People are often inaugurated into new life trajectories, marital partnerships, and occupational careers through fortuitous circumstances. Consider the following example: An individual enters a lecture hall as it is rapidly filling up and seizes an empty chair near the entrance. He ends up marrying the woman who happened to be seated next to him. With only a momentary change in time of entry, seating constellations would have altered, and this intersect would not have occurred.

Most fortuitous events leave people untouched, whereas others have some lasting effects, and still others launch people into new trajectories of life. Fortuitous influences my be unforeseeable, but having occurred, the conditions they create contribute to causal processes in the same way that prearranged ones do. Fortuity does not mean uncontrollability. People can bring some influence to bear on the fortuitous character of life. They can make chance happen by pursuing an active life that increases the number and type of fortuitous encounters they will experience. Chance favors the inquisitive and venturesome who go places, do things, and explore new activities. People also make chance work for them by cultivating their interests, enabling beliefs, and competencies. These personal resources enable them to make the most of opportunities that arise unexpectedly. Louis Pasteur put it well when he noted that “chance favors only the prepared mind.” By these means, people can exercise some influence on the way they play the hand that fortuity deals them.


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