Social Learning Theory

What Is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory combines cognitive learning theory, which posits that learning is influenced by psychological factors, and behavioral learning theory, which assumes that learning is based on responses to environmental stimuli. Psychologist Albert Bandura integrated these two theories in an approach called social learning theory, and identified four requirements for learning—observation (environmental), retention (cognitive), reproduction (cognitive), and motivation (both).

Bandura developed what famously became known as the Bobo Doll experiments. In these studies, children watched adults model either violent or passive behavior towards a toy called Bobo Doll, and what they saw influenced how they subsequently interacted with the dolls. Children who observed violent behavior imitated this behavior and were verbally and physically aggressive toward the doll. Children who witnessed nonviolent behavior behaved less aggressively toward the doll. Bandura concluded that children learn aggression, violence, and other social behaviors through observation learning, or watching the behaviors of others.


Learning Through Behavior

Social learning theory is at the root of many cultural and psychological questions including the influence of nature vs. nurture on human personality and behavior, the perpetuating cycle of domestic abuse, and the widely debated link between violent media and violent behavior. In recent years, some psychologists have called Bandura’s original findings into question, casting his experiments as biased, poorly designed, or even unethical. Despite the criticisms, however, his larger theory is still widely applied by psychologists seeking to understand the roots of anxiety and the importance of role models, and to glean insight into purchasing decisions.

Recent Posts