Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory

13 July, 2020
According to psychologist Albert Bandura's social learning theory, people – especially children – learn significantly by observing the behavior of others.

Albert Bandura is a world-renowned psychologist from Canada, known for his contributions to personality and cognitive psychology. According to Albert Bandura‘s social learning theory, the way we observe and process behavior in others influences our learning.

“Some of the most important determinants of life paths arise through the most trivial of circumstances.”

– Albert Bandura –

What is Albert Bandura’s social learning theory?

Albert Bandura and other psychologists veered away from animal research. This type of research was popular thanks to behaviorism, the dominant model of evolutionary psychology in the mid-20th century. Authors like John B. Watson and Burrhus F. Skinner were responsible for spreading the behaviorism model.

According to behaviorism, everything we learn is the result of direct experience with one’s environment, through association and reinforcement processes. However, Albert Bandura, from the field of cognitive psychology, believed that psychological influences (attention, memory, etc) also impact learning.

Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory
Albert Bandura’s social learning theory argues that cognitive and social processes have a great influence on learning. In fact, it claims they’re even more influential than the stimulus-reinforcement relationship that behaviorism supported.

“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.”

– Albert Bandura –

That said, Bandura admits that our environment conditions us and, therefore, impacts our behavior. In fact, he speaks of reciprocal determinism. This refers to the impact of cultural, cognitive, and environmental factors on human conduct.

Vicarious learning

One of the most interesting ideas that Bandura developed was that of vicarious learning. In other words, cognitive learning based on the observation of models without the need for direct behavioral reinforcement. This learning involves a series of cognitive processes:

  • Attention. The simple act of observation doesn’t automatically imply direct success in learning. The lower a person’s attention level, the less learning that will take place.
  • Retention. In other words, the ability to store information.
  • Reproduction. In other words, the ability to reproduce an observed behavior, along with its consequent practice, which leads to improvement.
  • Motivation. This is perhaps the most important factor of all. In order for observational learning to take place, there needs to be some sort of motivation to imitate.

The Bobo doll

Albert Bandura developed a controlled experimental study – his most famous – in 1961. In the “Bobo doll” experiment, he evaluated children to discover if they could learn aggressive behavior through observation. In the end, he discovered that observing real models can lead to the acquisition of social behaviors.

“Given appropriate social conditions, decent, ordinary people can be led to do extraordinarily cruel things.”

 – Albert Bandura –

Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory

During the experiment, boys and girls had to observe how an adult behaved either aggressively or nonaggressively towards a doll. Then, after the observation time, the children had the opportunity to play with Bobo.

In the end, the findings demonstrated that the children imitated the behavior they had just observed. Those who observed aggressive behavior in the adult model were, in turn, aggressive toward the doll. What’s more, they were even creative in their aggressive behavior.

In conclusion, the results confirmed Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. More precisely, they demonstrated that children learn everyday social conduct like aggression and violence through simple observation. Whether they see it at home, school, or even in the media, they imitate what they observe in those around them.

In the past, modeling influences were largely confined to the styles of behavior and social practices in one’s immediate community. The advent of television vastly expanded the range of models to which members of society are exposed day in and day out.

– Albert Bandura –

  • Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of behavior modification. Rinehart & Winston. New York: Holt
  • Bandura, A. (1979). Social Learning Theory. Englewood. Cliffs.
  • Bandura, A. y Walters, R.H. (1963). Social Learning and Personality Development.Rinehart and Winston. New York: Holt.