Social Learning

Social Learning Definition

Social learning refers to the learning that occurs in social contexts. More precisely, it refers to adaptive behavior change (learning) stemming from observing other people (or other animals), rather than learning from one’s own direct experience. People acquire and change social behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions from observing and imitating the actions demonstrated by models such as parents or peers. This learning occurs from merely observing the actions of others and from observing the consequences of their actions. For example, if you see someone else touch a hot plate and then pull his or her hand away in pain, you do not have to imitate or repeat the action yourself: You will avoid touching the hot plate as if you yourself had been burned by it.

Social Learning Background and History

Social LearningIn the first half of the 20th century, psychological theories of learning were primarily behavioral in nature, focusing on direct consequences of one’s own actions. For example, in B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory, learning occurs through the experience of rewards or reinforcements, such as studying behaviors being reinforced with good grades. The rigid adherence to environmental rewards and punishments in the behaviorist models was addressed by John Miller and Neal Dollard’s work in the 1940s on social learning that highlighted the importance of the social setting on learning. Although this research had limitations (e.g., they maintained that learning could not occur without imitation and reinforcement), it did underscore the role of internal, cognitive processes in learning and it spurred considerable theoretical work and empirical research into social learning.

Probably the most influential and comprehensive researcher and theorist in social learning is Albert Bandura. He introduced his social learning theory in the 1970s, which suggests that although humans do learn from the responses they receive when they engage in behaviors (such as a painful burn reinforcing the need to use a potholder to remove items from a hot oven), most human behavior is learned through the observation and modeling of others’ behaviors. According to social learning theory, children may learn how to behave in a restaurant setting by mimicking the behavior of their parents, and adolescents may learn their political attitudes by listening to conversations of adults. Social learning theory is a synthesis of cognitive and behavioral approaches to understanding learning: It is behavioral in its emphasis on the observation and mimicking of models, but it is cognitive in that it highlights the human ability to think, anticipate outcomes, and symbolize.

In the 1970s, Bandura expanded his theory to include an important element missing from theories on social learning: self-beliefs. He renamed his theory social cognitive theory to highlight the importance of cognition in learning, motivation, and behavior. From this theoretical perspective, human functioning is a product of the dynamic interaction between environmental, personal, and behavioral influences; this dynamic interplay is referred to as reciprocal determinism. For example, if an individual receives a poor grade on an exam (environmental factor) that may affect his or her belief (personal factor) about his or her ability in that domain, which in turn would influence his or her behavior (changed approaches to studying), and his or her behavior influences his or her environment (the individual now convenes a study group to prepare for exams).

Vicarious Learning, Modeling, Self-Regulation, and Self-Efficacy

Social learning theory contends that people do not need to imitate behavior for learning to occur. An important element of social learning is observing the consequences others receive when they engage in behaviors, which is termed vicarious learning. These consequences inform the learner about the appropriateness of the behavior and the likely outcomes of the behavior. People are more likely to model behavior that has been rewarded and is deemed appropriate than behavior that has been punished. Thus, a boy seeing his sister get punished for lying to their father is likely to learn that he shouldn’t lie, and he does not need to engage in that behavior himself for learning to occur.

Modeling, or observing others’ actions and their resultant consequences, can influence behavior in a number of ways. First, modeling can teach people new behaviors, such as how to swing a golf club properly. Next, modeling can facilitate existing behaviors, such as deciding it is time to leave a party. Modeling also changes people’s inhibitions (self-imposed restrictions on behaviors); for example, the inhibition against passing notes in the classroom can be strengthened by seeing the teacher reprimand a note-passing peer. Finally, emotional reactions can be changed by observing a model’s emotions, for example, watching an uneasy speaker will likely increase one’s own fear of public speaking.

Research into social learning has revealed that not all models are equally effective. Individuals are most likely to model behavior of those who are perceived to be similar to them (for example, same-sex models are generally more influential than opposite-sex models), to be competent, and to have high status (such as admired athletes or influential leaders). In addition, models can either be real people, such as parents or best friends, or they can be symbolic, such as a book or a film character.

Bandura’s social cognitive theory also highlights the important concepts of self-regulation and self-reflection. Self-regulation involves goal setting, self-observation, self-assessment, and self-reinforcement.

Once goals have been set, people monitor their behavior, judge it against their own standards, and reinforce or punish themselves. Importantly, standards for behavior are quite variable, and although one person may pat himself or herself on the back for a job well done after receiving a B on an exam, another may kick himself or herself for such poor performance. Self-reflection is expressed in the concept of self-efficacy, which refers to individuals’ perceptions of their competence to perform a specific task or a range of tasks within a certain domain. Self-efficacy is context dependent, and although a person may have high self-efficacy in one domain (such as math), he or she may have low self-efficacy in another domain (such as leadership). Ample empirical evidence suggests that self-efficacy is an important motivational construct that influences the choices people make, the goals they set for themselves, the effort and persistence put forth toward their goal, and their performance within a given domain.

Social Learning Processes

According to social learning theory, four subprocesses underlie the social learning process: attention, retention, production, and motivation. First, to learn from others, individuals must pay attention to the relevant aspects of the behavior being modeled. For example, a child learning to tie his or her shoelaces must pay close attention to the finger movements of the model. Next, the learner must also remember what the model did by committing the lace-tying movements into memory; often this information is committed to memory in either symbolic or verbal form. The next, likely difficult, step is for the learner to translate his or her understanding of how to tie his or her laces into overt lace-tying behaviors. Finally, people are more likely to attend to, remember, and engage in the modeled behavior if they are motivated to do so, and doing so will result in rewarding outcomes. Thus, the child is most likely to effectively engage in these social learning processes if he or she is adequately motivated to, for example, stop tripping on his or her laces or gain the approval of his or her parents.

Importance and Consequences of Social Learning

Although social learning has been thought to be particularly important for children, it has been broadly applied to learning that occurs over a person’s life span. The social learning perspective has been very important for developing techniques for promoting behavior change (such as health promotion) and reducing unwanted behaviors such as aggressive behavior. Social learning has also contributed to our understanding of a wide range of phenomena including classroom learning, the influence of groups and leaders on individual behavior, health-related issues such as medical therapy compliance and alcohol abuse, and the moral and value internalization of children.

Perhaps the area of research most influenced by the social learning perspective is the study of antisocial, aggressive behavior. Significant research in this area indicates that an array of aggressive models can elicit a wide variety of aggressive behaviors. In a set of well-known BoBo doll experiments, Bandura and colleagues successfully demonstrated that children learned behaviors by simply watching others. They examined the behavior of mildly frustrated children who were previously exposed to an adult who either kicked, threw around, and punched an inflatable BoBo doll or was quiet and reserved around the doll. Children who were exposed to the aggressive adult were themselves more aggressive with the doll than were those exposed to the docile adult. However, children were less likely to imitate the aggressive behavior when they saw the adult get punished for the behavior.

Importantly, the models do not need to be physically present to influence the learner, aggressive models on television (including cartoon characters) can serve as effective models of aggressive behavior. Children are particularly vulnerable to this influence, and they learn that violence is acceptable because they see “good” people aggress, and they learn how to aggress from models. In addition to learning specific aggressive behaviors, they also learn attitudes regarding aggression as well as “scripts” to guide social behavior in different situations that may lead people to engage in aggressive behaviors by following the scripts that have been learned. On a more optimistic note, changing the model can influence behavior such that nonaggressive models decrease aggressive behavior. In addition, social learning has also been shown to play a large role in the learning of prosocial, helping behavior.


  1. Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press.
  2. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.