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social learning theory

Contributor(s): Sarah Lewis

The social learning theory is the philosophy that people can learn from each other through observation, imitation and modeling. The concept was theorized by psychologist Albert Bandura and combined ideas behind behaviorist and cognitive learning approaches. Behind the social learning theory is the desire to explain socialization and how it affects human behavior.

History of the social learning theory

Bandura is most widely known for his Bobo Doll study. In these experiments, Bandura had children watch adults model positive and negative behaviors towards a toy doll. After observing, the children were asked to interact with the doll. Most children that witnessed the negative behavior towards the doll also acted violently towards it while most children who witnessed the positive behavior responded less aggressively. Bandura concluded that the children learned their social behaviors through observation.

This study acted as the basis for Bandura’s theory. The social learning theory is still commonly used in social psychology today and relates with other behaviorist theories such as nature versus nurture, symbolic interaction, situated learning, reinforcement learning and social development.

Concepts of the social learning theory

The basis behind the social learning theory is that people observe the behavior, attitudes and consequences of others and then use that information to form their own actions. The key concepts behind this process include four basic learning requirements:

  1. Observation or attention- The first step in the model is to perceive social behavior. Factors that might affect attention include complexity, distinctiveness and functional value. This is the exposure piece of the theory.
  2. Retention- After behavioral actions are witnessed, the information must be retained by the observer. This is the learning piece of the theory.
  3. Reproduction- This occurs when a person has effectively paid attention to modeled behavior and repeats or demonstrates it.
  4. Motivation- This provides the inspiration behind imitation such as personal characteristics, past experiences, promised incentives, positive reinforcement or punishments.

These principles make up the social learning theory modeling process that determines whether the influence is successful or not. Behavioral models can be demonstrated live, verbally or symbolically.

Applications of the social learning theory

The social learning theory can be applied to several use cases outside of psychology:

  • Human resources (HR)- In HR, professionals can increase employee retention by applying social learning theory techniques. For example, correcting mistakes as they happen before they become routine habits, incentivizing positive behavior and giving mistakes weight.
  • Training and educational development- Social learning theory in training is similar to the concept of learning by doing. New employees may best learn their role by imitating or repeating the behaviors of their boss or someone in the same position.
  • Marketing- Advertisements and marketing materials can incorporate the social learning theory to reach target audiences and encourage the purchase of a product. For example, a company might suggest that a certain desired lifestyle or characteristic will be the outcome of buying their service.
  • Machine learning (ML)- The social learning theory can be applied in training machine learning algorithms for purposes such as cognitive computing and robotics.
  • Law enforcement- Criminal justice professionals tend to use the social learning theory to explain or identify learned illicit behavior. Additionally, it can be used to research the effect of media violence on human behavior.
This was last updated in September 2019

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