Albert Bandura and Richard Walter Social Learning theory


Albert Bandura, (born December 4, 1925, Mundare, Alberta, Canada), Canadian-born American psychologist and originator of social cognitive theory who is probably best known for his modeling study on aggression, referred to as the “Bobo doll” experiment, which demonstrated that children can learn behaviours through the observation of adults.

The social learning theory of Bandura emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. Bandura (1977) states: “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. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” (p22). Social learning theory explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, an environmental influences. The component processes underlying observational learning are: (1) Attention, including modeled events (distinctiveness, affective valence, complexity, prevalence, functional value) and observer characteristics (sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, past reinforcement), (2) Retention, including symbolic coding, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal, motor rehearsal), (3) Motor Reproduction, including physical capabilities, self-observation of reproduction, accuracy of feedback, and (4) Motivation, including external, vicarious and self reinforcement.

The Bobo Doll Experiment

In 1961 Bandura carried out his famous Bobo doll experiment, a study in which researchers physically and verbally abused a clown-faced inflatable toy in front of preschool-age children, which led the children to later mimic the behaviour of the adults by attacking the doll in the same fashion. Subsequent experiments in which children were exposed to such violence on videotape yielded similar results.

Observational Learning

Children observe the people around them behaving in various ways. This is illustrated during the famous Bobo doll experiment (Bandura, 1961).

Individuals that are observed are called models. In society, children are surrounded by many influential models, such as parents within the family, characters on children’s TV, friends within their peer group and teachers at school. These models provide examples of behavior to observe and imitate, e.g., masculine and feminine, pro and anti-social, etc.

Children pay attention to some of these people (models) and encode their behavior.  At a later time they may imitate (i.e., copy) the behavior they have observed.

They may do this regardless of whether the behavior is ‘gender appropriate’ or not, but there are a number of processes that make it more likely that a child will reproduce the behavior that its society deems appropriate for its gender.

First, the child is more likely to attend to and imitate those people it perceives as similar to itself. Consequently, it is more likely to imitate behavior modeled by people of the same gender.

Second, the people around the child will respond to the behavior it imitates with either reinforcement or punishment.  If a child imitates a model’s behavior and the consequences are rewarding, the child is likely to continue performing the behavior. 

If a parent sees a little girl consoling her teddy bear and says “what a kind girl you are,” this is rewarding for the child and makes it more likely that she will repeat the behavior.  Her behavior has been reinforced (i.e., strengthened).

Reinforcement can be external or internal and can be positive or negative.  If a child wants approval from parents or peers, this approval is an external reinforcement, but feeling happy about being approved of is an internal reinforcement.  A child will behave in a way which it believes will earn approval because it desires approval. 

Positive (or negative) reinforcement will have little impact if the reinforcement offered externally does not match with an individual's needs.  Reinforcement can be positive or negative, but the important factor is that it will usually lead to a change in a person's behavior.

Third, the child will also take into account of what happens to other people when deciding whether or not to copy someone’s actions.  A person learns by observing the consequences of another person’s (i.e., models) behavior, e.g., a younger sister observing an older sister being rewarded for a particular behavior is more likely to repeat that behavior herself.  This is known as vicarious reinforcement.

This relates to an attachment to specific models that possess qualities seen as rewarding. Children will have a number of models with whom they identify. These may be people in their immediate world, such as parents or older siblings, or could be fantasy characters or people in the media. The motivation to identify with a particular model is that they have a quality which the individual would like to possess.

Identification occurs with another person (the model) and involves taking on (or adopting) observed behaviors, values, beliefs and attitudes of the person with whom you are identifying.

The term identification as used by Social Learning Theory is similar to the Freudian term related to the Oedipus complex.  For example, they both involve internalizing or adopting another person’s behavior.  However, during the Oedipus complex, the child can only identify with the same sex parent, whereas with Social Learning Theory the person (child or adult) can potentially identify with any other person.

Identification is different to imitation as it may involve a number of behaviors being adopted, whereas imitation usually involves copying a single behavior.

But Bandura took the meaning of “observation” even further. In addition to a “live” model, he explored a “verbal” instructional model, whereby if certain explanations and descriptions were presented, then learning was enhanced. I am sure you can think of an example of when someone patiently explained something to you in a way that helped you to learn it. That’s the perfect example of a verbal instructional model.

He also studied “symbolic” models, where characters (fiction/non-fiction) in movies, television programs, online media, and books could lead to learning. This means that students could learn from watching a movie or television program, listening to any number of online media sources (e.g., podcasts), or from reading a book. They envisioned how the characters reacted and how they felt, etc.  This, in turn, taught them how to react and feel in similar life situations.

Bandura Social Learning Theory

Reciprocal Determinism

One of the most important aspects of Bandura’s view on how personality is learned is that each one of us is an agent of change, fully participating in our surroundings and influencing the environmental contingencies that behaviorists believe affect our behavior. These interactions can be viewed three different ways. The first is to consider behavior as a function of the person and the environment. In this view, personal dispositions (or traits) and the consequences of our actions (reinforcement or punishment) combine to cause our behavior. This perspective is closest to the radical behaviorism of Skinner. The second view considers that personal dispositions and the environment interact, and the result of the interaction causes our behavior, a view somewhat closer to that of Dollard and Miller. In each of these perspectives, behavior is caused, or determined, by dispositional and environmental factors, the behavior itself is not a factor in how that behavior comes about. However, according to Bandura, social learning theory emphasizes that behavior, personal factors, and environmental factors are all equal, interlocking determinants of each other. This concept is referred to as reciprocal determinism (Bandura, 1973, 1977).

The Development of Self-Efficacy

Young children have little understanding of what they can and cannot do, so the development of realistic self-efficacy is a very important process:

…Very young children lack knowledge of their own capabilities and the demands and potential hazards of different courses of action. They would repeatedly get themselves into dangerous predicaments were it not for the guidance of others. They can climb to high places, wander into rivers or deep pools, and wield sharp knives before they develop the necessary skills for managing such situations safely…Adult watchfulness and guidance see young children through this early formative period until they gain sufficient knowledge of what they can do and what different situations require in the way of skills. (pg. 414; Bandura, 1986)

During infancy, the development of perceived causal efficacy, in other words the perception that one has affected the world by one’s own actions, appears to be an important aspect of developing a sense of self. As the infant interacts with its environment, the infant is able to cause predictable events, such as the sound that accompanies shaking a rattle. The understanding that one’s own actions can influence the environment is something Bandura refers to as personal agency, the ability to act as an agent of change in one’s own world. The infant also begins to experience that certain events affect models differently than the child. For example, if a model touches a hot stove it does not hurt the infant, so the infant begins to recognize their uniqueness, their actual existence as an individual. During this period, interactions with the physical environment may be more important than social interactions, since the physical environment is more predictable, and therefore easier to learn about (Bandura, 1986, 1997). Quickly, however, social interaction becomes highly influential.

Not only does the child learn a great deal from the family, but as they grow peers become increasingly important. As the child’s world expands, peers bring with them a broadening of self-efficacy experiences. This can have both positive and negative consequences. Peers who are most experienced and competent can become important models of behavior. However, if a child perceives themselves as socially inefficacious, but does develop self-efficacy in coercive, aggressive behavior, then that child is likely to become a bully. In the midst of this effort to learn socially acceptable behavior, most children also begin attending school, where the primary focus is on the development of cognitive efficacy. For many children, unfortunately, the academic environment of school is a challenge. Children quickly learn to rank themselves (grades help, both good and bad), and children who do poorly can lose the sense of self-efficacy that is necessary for continued effort at school. According to Bandura, it is important that educational practices focus not only on the content they provide, but also on what they do to children’s beliefs about their abilities (Bandura, 1986, 1997).

As children continue through adolescence toward adulthood, they need to assume responsibility for themselves in all aspects of life. They must master many new skills, and a sense of confidence in working toward the future is dependent on a developing sense of self-efficacy supported by past experiences of mastery. In adulthood, a healthy and realistic sense of self-efficacy provides the motivation necessary to pursue success in one’s life. Poorly equipped adults, wracked with self-doubt, often find life stressful and depressing. Even psychologically healthy adults must eventually face the realities of aging, and the inevitable decline in physical status. There is little evidence, however, for significant declines in mental states until very advanced old age. In cultures that admire youth, there may well be a tendency for the aged to lose their sense of self-efficacy and begin an inexorable decline toward death. But in societies that promote self-growth throughout life, and who admire elders for their wisdom and experience, there is potential for aged individuals to continue living productive and self-fulfilling lives (Bandura, 1986, 1997).

Bandura’s 4 Pinciples Of Social Learning

social Learning Theory Mediational Processes

It is important to note that not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Why not? 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:1

Implications for Social Learning Theory on teachers and student learning

Certainly, this theory can be used to teach positive behaviors to students. Teachers can use positive role models to increase desired behaviors and thus change the culture of a school. Not only will individual students benefit from positive role models in and out of the classroom, but the entire class and student body will do so.

Other classroom strategies such as encouraging children and building self-efficacy are rooted in social learning theory. For example, if a teacher is positive with their students and they encourage them, this positive energy and verbal encouragement, in turn, helps build self-efficacy, the belief in one’s abilities to succeed in various situations.  Bandura found that a person’s self-efficacy impacts how their tasks, goals, and challenges are approached. Those individuals with strong self-efficacy view challenges as tasks to master, develop deep interests in the activities they participate in, form a strong sense of commitment to activities and interests, and bounce back from disappointments and setbacks easily. However, those with a weaker sense of self-efficacy tend to avoid challenges, think difficult tasks and situations are beyond their abilities, think negatively about their failures and outcomes, and lose confidence easily in their abilities.

Furthermore, Bandura states that learning every single thing from personal experience is hard and could be potentially dangerous. He claims that much of a person’s life is rooted in social experiences, thus observing others is naturally advantageous to gaining knowledge and skills.