Bandura’s Social Cognitive theory

Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) started as the Social Learning Theory (SLT) in the 1960s by Albert Bandura. Bandura was born in the province of Alberta, Canada. He was elected president of the American Psychological Association. He was presented with the American Psychological Foundation’s Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement. Social cognitive theory gives prominence to a self-system that enables individuals to exercise a measure of control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Bandura’s social cognitive theory of human functioning emphasizes the critical role of self-beliefs in human cognition, motivation, and behavior.


Social Cognitive/ Learning Theory (SCT/ SLT).

Social Learning theory is increasingly cited as an essential component of sustainable natural resource management and the promotion of desirable behavioral change.

This theory is based on the idea that we learn from our interactions with others in a social context. Separately, by observing the behaviors of others, people develop similar behaviors. After observing the behavior of others, people assimilate and imitate that behavior, especially if their observational experiences are positive ones or include rewards related to the observed behavior. According to Bandura, imitation involves the actual reproduction of observed motor activities. (Bandura 1977).

SLT has become perhaps the most influential theory of learning and development. It is rooted in many of the basic concepts of traditional learning theory. This theory has often been called a bridge between behaviorist learning theories and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory, and motivation.

However, Bandura believes that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning. For that reason, in his theory he added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people. According to the elements of this theory there are three general principles for learning from each other.

General principles of Social Cognitive /Learning Theory.

SLT posits that people learn from one another, via:

  • Observation;
  • Imitation; and
  • Modeling

Based on these general principles, learning can occur without a change in behavior.

Behaviors learned through modeling.

The people who are being observed are models and the process of learning is modeling.

Bandura stated that second and third stages of social learning, imitation and behavior modeling, will occur if a person observes positive, desired outcomes in the first stage. If, for example, an instructor attends and observes a course in-world and is entertained, informed, and approves of the way students act, they are more likely to want to teach a course in-world themselves. They can then use the behavior they experienced to imitate and model other instructors’ teaching styles in-world.

Modeling: The Basis of Observational Learning

Modeling is a behavior modification technique that involves observing the behavior of others (the models) and participating with them in performing the desired behavior.

Bandura’s basic idea is that learning can occur through observation or example rather than only by direct reinforcement. Bandura does not deny the importance of direct reinforcement as a way to influence behavior. But he challenges the notion that behavior can be learned or changed only through direct reinforcement.

Through modeling, by observing the behavior of a model and repeating the behavior ourselves, it is possible to acquire responses that we have never performed or displayed previously and to strengthen or weaken existing responses.

The Processes of Observational Learning in Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura conducted his famous experiment known as the Bobo doll experiment, to study patterns of behavior.

Through modeling, by observing the behavior of a model and repeating the behavior ourselves, it is possible to acquire responses that we have never performed or displayed previously and to strengthen or weaken existing responses.

The subjects in the initial studies were preschool children who watched an adult hit and kick Bobo. While attacking the doll, the adult model shouted, “Sock him in the nose!” and “Throw him in the air!” When the children were left alone with the doll, they modeled their behavior after the example they just witnessed. They compared their behavior with that of a control group of children who had not seen the model attack the Bobo doll. The experimental group was found to be twice as aggressive as the control group.

The intensity of the aggressive behavior remained the same in the experimental subjects whether the model was  live, on television, or as a cartoon character. The effect of the model in all three media was to elicit aggressive behavior, actions that were not displayed with the same strength by children who had not observed the models.

Bandura analyzed the nature of observational learning and found it governed by four related mechanisms:

  • Attentional processes,
  • Retention processes,
  • Production processes,
  • Incentive and Motivational processes.

Attentional Processes

Observational learning or modeling will not occur unless the subject pays attention to the model. Merely exposing the subject to the model does not guarantee that the subject will be attentive to the relevant cues and stimulus events or even perceive the situation accurately. The subject must perceive the model accurately enough to acquire the information necessary to imitate the model’s behavior.

Attention to modeled behavior varies as a function of the observers’ cognitive and perceptual skills and the value of the modeled behavior. The more highly developed are our cognitive abilities and the more knowledge we have about the behavior being modeled, the more carefully we will attend to the model and perceive the behavior.

When observers watch a model doing something they expect to do themselves, they pay greater attention than when the modeled behavior has no personal relevance. Observers also pay closer attention to modeled behavior that produces positive or negative consequences rather than neutral outcomes.

Retention Processes

We must be able to remember significant aspects of the model’s behavior in order to repeat it later. To retain the attended information, we must encode it and represent it symbolically. We retain information about a model’s behavior in two ways. Through an imaginal internal representational system or through a verbal system.

In the imaginal system, we form vivid, easily retrievable images while we are observing the model. This common phenomenon accounts for your being able to summon up a picture of the person you dated last week or the place you visited last summer. In observational learning, we form a mental picture of the model’s behavior and use it as a basis for imitation at some future time.

The verbal representational system operates similarly and involves a verbal coding of some behavior we have observed. For example, during observation we might describe to ourselves what the model is doing. we rehearse these descriptions or codes silently, without overtly displaying the behavior. For example, we might talk ourselves through the steps in a complicated skill, mentally rehearsing the sequence of behaviors we will perform later. When we wish to perform the action, the verbal code will provide hints, reminders, and cues.

Together, these images and verbal symbols offer the means by which we store observed situations and rehearse them for later performance.

Production Processes

Translating imaginal and verbal symbolic representations into overt behavior requires the production processes, described more simply as practice. Although we may have attended to, retained, and rehearsed symbolic representations of a model’s behavior, we  still may not be able to perform the behavior correctly. This is most likely to occur with highly skilled actions that require the mastery of many component behaviors.

For example, consider learning to drive a car. We learn fundamental motions from watching a model drive. And may consider the symbolic representations of the model’s behavior many times. But at first our translation of these symbols into actual driving behavior will be clumsy. We may apply the brakes too soon or too late or overcorrect the steering. Our observations may not have been sufficient to ensure immediate and skilled performance of the actions. Practice of the proper physical movements, and feedback on their accuracy, needed to produce the smooth performance of the behavior.

Incentive and Motivational Processes

No matter how well we attend to and retain behaviors we observe or how much ability we have to perform them. We will not do so without the incentive or motivation processes. When incentives are available, translation of observation into action is quick. Incentives also influence the attention and retention processes. We may not pay as much attention without an incentive to do so. And when we pay less attention, there is less to retain.

Bandura pointed out that although reinforcement can facilitate learning, it does not require reinforcement for learning to occur. Many factors other than the reward consequences of the behavior determine what we attend to, retain, and rehearse. For example, loud sounds, bright lights, and exciting videos may capture our interest. Even though we may not have received any reinforcement for paying attention to them.


Duane P Schultz, Sydney Ellen Schultz. Theories of Personality Loose Leaf. (10th ed). 

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