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social learning theory

Contributor(s): Laura Fitzgibbons

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. Social learning theory endeavors to study socialization and how it affects human behavior.

History of social learning theory

Bandura was a psychologist who studied human behavior. He 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 balloon resembling a clown. In some cases, the adults were aggressive and violently beat the doll. After observing this footage, the children were given hammers and asked to interact with the doll. Most children who witnessed the aggressive behavior towards the doll also acted violently towards it, while most children who witnessed positive, non-aggressive 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.

Stages of social learning theory

The basis behind 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. These four concrete stages of social learning within social learning theory include attention, retention and memory, initiation and motor behavior, and motivation.

  1. Attention. For a lesson or experience to have an impact on an observer, the observer must be actively observing their surroundings. It helps if the observer identifies well with the model or feels positive feelings about them. In addition, it helps if the observer is invested in the process of observing or feels strong feelings about the experience that they are observing. Factors that might affect attention include complexity, distinctiveness and functional value.
  2. Retention and memory. For any learned experience to make a lasting impact, the observer needs to be able to remember it later. Once the observer can recall the experience, it also helps if they go over the experience, either revisiting it cognitively in their mind or even acting it out physically. For example, a toddler may learn from an adult not to throw things and later they may be observed teaching one of their stuffed animals that it's not okay to throw.
  3. Initiation and motor capability. In order to carry out the lesson learned, the observer needs to be able to actually reenact it. Learning the necessary skills is an important part of the process before a behavior can be modeled. When a person has effectively paid attention to modeled behavior and repeats or demonstrates it, they have achieved the necessary skills.
  4. Motivation. Even if an observer has focused on a lesson, remembered all the details and learned the necessary skills to do it, they still need to have the motivation to make it happen. The source of motivation could include anything from external rewards and bribes, observations that similar behavior is rewarded, desire to be like the model who demonstrated the behavior or internal motivation to improve or learn. Other factors that impact motivation include personal characteristics, past experiences, promised incentives, positive reinforcement and punishments.

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

Applications of social learning theory
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 - Social learning theory can be applied in training machine learning algorithms for purposes such as cognitive computing and robotics.
  • Law enforcement - Criminal justice professionals often use 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. Sometimes, criminal justice professionals can discover patterns of behavior in large communities and create programs and educational tools to help intervene when a crime would likely be committed. For instance, in an area with a high rate of theft in a secluded public parking lot, simply putting up signs reminding people to take their belonging with them or lock up their cars can greatly reduce the number of thefts in that location. In other situations, helping young adults to have healthy resources to deal with loss or grief can prevent them from acting out and getting in trouble later in life.

Personality development and social learning theory

Personality development is the establishment of a set of patterns involving the behavior, temperament and character that a person displays on a regular basis. Social learning theory postulates that a large amount of the features of people's personalities may come from observing others in their family or society.

People's temperaments may be determined by their genetics as well as their environment. This includes how they approach and view the world, and how they interact with others. If a person spends a lot of time witnessing others who have a negative temperament, he or she is more likely to model those behaviors. The environment, often described as nurture, has a large impact on a child's personality. Even as a baby, a person who is loved and cared for is more likely to develop trust and optimism than an infant who is neglected or abused.
One of the richest ages for social learning is the preschool years, when a child is likely to see and observe many behaviors that will shape the way they behave adults. Play, imagination and cooperation are all important parts of this stage of development. If children are not taught how to integrate into groups at this early age, they may have a hard time joining groups when they are older.

During school years, children learn how to interact with groups in more structured environments, and through observation and learning can apply self-discipline, follow rules and trust in positive outcomes. The connectedness a person feels to his or her community is greatly influenced by how heavily the society they are raised in values things like family or nationalism. Other traits that may be learned socially in childhood include:

  • activity level
  • distractibility
  • intensity
  • regularity of sleep and appetite
  • sensory threshold
  • approachability
  • adaptability
  • persistence
  • mood

Social learning theory and personality theory measurement

Social learning theory also deals with personality theory and measurement. One established set of four main personality theories include psychoanalytic, trait, humanistic and social-cognitive. Social learning theory falls within the social-cognitive umbrella, and involves personality being shaped by a person's expectations about the world and the people he or she interact with, observing and judging the actions of others, and the environment.

Social learning theory is directly tied to social psychology, which deals with the personality traits and behaviors of members of a civilization or society.

The foundation of social learning theory involves an understanding of a person's self-concept, as well as their social cognition, attribution theory, social influence, group traditions, prejudice, discrimination, interpersonal interactions, attitudes and aggression. A person may better be able to hone these abilities by increased interactions and social behavioral observations, as well as through third-party experiences like film, reading and television.

Family and social learning theory
Social learning theory often directly influences family psychopathology. People who observe pathological behaviors in their direct family members may see them as normal and even if they don't remember observing them, may repeat them later in life.

On the flip side, families who embody strong positive traits will very likely raise offspring who demonstrate and value those same behaviors.

Social learning therapy

Social learning theory is also sometimes incorporated in psychotherapy. A method called social learning therapy uses the aspects of social learning theory along with the basic techniques of therapy treatment.

Social learning therapists may treat any number of conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, anorexia, substance abuse, anorexia, bulimia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, anxiety, phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since social learning theory is all about learning behaviors from watching other people, social learning therapy involves observing people behaving in ways that a patient finds challenging.

In social learning therapy, a model performs the behaviors that a therapist wants to teach his or her patient. The model or therapist provides verbal instruction, helping the observer to understand the desired behavior. Social learning therapists think that a patient's behavior is equally influenced by his or her environment, actions, and personality traits and patterns.

Social learning therapy also involves examining a patient's symbolic social influences -- how books, plays, poems, music, internet, movies, and television may have a large impact on a person's behavior, feelings and thoughts.

A social learning therapy session involves the four stages of social learning theory in a more concrete sense. Therapy for the four stages include:

  • Attention: The therapist directs the observer to carefully watch the behavior of a model.
  • Retention and memory: The therapist helps the observer commit their experiences and observations to memory through various questions, reinforcements and exercises.
  • Initiation and motor skills: This involves establishing the muscle memory to recreate what the observer has learned later when they are on their own. A therapist might help their patient to build up these skills through various forms of role playing, practice exercises and brainstorming activities. One example is a recovering alcoholic who may need to practice how to react in various scenarios when they may be pressured to have a drink.
  • Motivation: A therapist can work closely with a patient to plan out the best methods to keep them on track by getting to know them over time.

Social learning therapy may be used to achieve a large variety of outcomes, but some common goals include reducing aggression, increasing family unity, reducing conflicts, supporting healthy relationships or healthy coping mechanisms to deal with change, encouraging empathy or strengthening problem-solving skills. Sessions of social learning therapy are also broken up into stages of pre-treatment, followed by active treatment, then generalization and follow-up. During follow-up, the therapist makes sure that the lessons learned in treatment are maintained and that the patient does not need additional support. The sessions of social learning therapy focus on different areas of social learning. These might include willpower, support for conquering unhealthy behaviors, family, goals, communication, self-control and reinforcement of helpful behaviors.

Social learning therapy is considered a very effective kind of treatment. People who undergo this form of therapy report better self-control and ease at home, at work and in school, and in general, may default to more positive behaviors. They also experience an increase in problem-solving abilities, better connection with their families, friends and communities and fewer conflicts in their everyday lives.

Examples of social learning theory

A person might develop any number of behaviors by observing them in someone else, from anxieties and fears, to politeness or generosity, or honesty and hard work. Social learning theory may be used in education to help students remember an important lesson. Having the students repeat certain phrases or watch a skit can also help to solidify their lessons. Another example is someone who decides to pursue a job that he or she has seen portrayed by a character on TV.

Another intentional application of social learning theory may be when a company highlights an employee who put in extra hours to help a project go smoothly. Whether because they consciously or subconsciously would also appreciate that kind of recognition, other employees increase their productivity as a result.

This was last updated in December 2019

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