What is the Social Learning Approach?

Social learning theory is all about how we reason whether or not to imitate someone else's behaviour.
Social learning theory is all about how we reason whether or not to imitate someone else's behaviour. | Source

What is it?

Much like the Behaviourist Approach the Social Learning Approach is based on the idea that our behaviour is mainly sculpted by our environments.

The belief held by both behaviourists and social learning theorists is that we learn to behave differently to each other because of environmental stimuli. The difference between the two theories is that social learning theory holds the belief that conscious thought effects our learning process and therefore the way we respond to our environments.

This social element is what gives social learning theory its name and is the focus of its efforts in psychology.

Observational Learning

A view that is particular to social learning theory is that of vicarious reinforcement and punishment. This is the view that people learn through first observing and then thinking about an action's consequence.

When the likelihood of performing a behaviour increases due to witnessing positive consequences of that behaviour, it is known as vicarious reinforcement.

Similarly, the witnessing of a negative consequence for an action decreases the likelihood of a person repeating an action and this is known as punishment.

The positive or negative consequences in these scenarios do not necessarily have to be external (e.g. receiving some sort of reward) but can also be internal like the feeling of pride or satisfaction that you can get for doing something e.g. seeing someone finishing their homework or work-task two weeks early might show you the peace of mind you can achieve from not thinking about it all the time, encouraging you to do the same despite it not having any physical reward for a long time.

However, you might decide that it's still not worth doing your work so early because you've just finished work or school and need a break. Thus, in order for a person to imitate a behaviour they must themselves actively think about the behaviour and judge whether or not it is worth doing. Remember, this element of thought and reasoning is very important to social learning theory and is absent in the other approaches.

Factors Effecting Observational Learning

1. Attention
In order to learn through observation, you must of course first be paying attention to the behaviour. Therefore, distractions, a lack of interest in the subject or a lack of interest in the person (the model) performing the behaviour will reduce the likelihood that the behaviour will be learned.

2. Retention
Even if you learn a behaviour, you still need to remember it well enough to repeat it later. If you feel that you can't remember it well enough or that you don't even remember the behaviour then it is as though you never learned it in the first place and you are not likely to
imitate the behaviour.

3. Reproduction
Even if you learned how to double somersault on TV it doesn't mean you're likely to try it. Reflecting upon if you would be able to reproduce the behaviour is another important factor in whether or not you'll do the behaviour. Perhaps you feel you are not as capable physically or mentally or not trained enough to repeat a behaviour that you in theory know how to reproduce. This reflection may urge you to try to repeat the behaviour or to try easier or related tasks that you know could build you up to the behaviour you saw (like practising a single somersault on a trampoline).

4. Motivation
Of course, what is equally as important as the other factors is having the reason to actually perform the behaviour. This again is something we consciously decide and we reflect on the consequences of the behaviour that we have seen. We weigh up any vicarious reinforcement and punishment that we can associate with that behaviour and then conclude on whether or not to perform the behaviour.

Albert Bandura and the Bobo Doll Experiment

Albert Bandura's Bobo Doll experiment.
Albert Bandura is the founder of the the social learning approach and as such is very famous for his experiment involving Bobo dolls (blow up dolls) and children's interaction with them. In his first experiment he had children put in a room by themselves except for one adult (the model) who would either act aggressively, non-aggressively or not interact with the Bobo doll.

As expected, Bandura found that when the children who saw a model act aggressively were far more likely to act aggressively to the Bobo doll when they had the chance to play with it; the group with the nicer model played nicer with the Bobo doll.

Albert Bandura Explains His Experiment

Criticisms of Albert Bandura's Bobo Doll Experiment

  • Lab settings - low ecological validity
  • Selection bias - students from same socioeconomic and racial background.
  • Temporary - only shows an immediate effect of model exposure but does not consider long term effects.
  • Unfair parallel - acting aggressively to an inanimate object may say nothing about acting aggressively towards a living thing.
  • Unethical - this experiment may be seen as encouraging children to be aggressive which may have later negative effects that were not consdiered at the time.
  • Bias - children may have thought they were expected to copy the adults and so did what they saw because they were trying to please the adults and not because they got more enjoyment out of being aggressive. If this is the case, the conclusions about observational learning would be compromised, with the experiment revealing more about children's desire to do as authority members tell them to (at which point one could argue it is due to nature orconditioning and nothing to do with cognitive processes).

Dweck et Al.

To observe positive and negative reinforcement in the classroom

79 children were observed in a classroom environment for 5 weeks twice a week.
The criteria observed were whether the reinforcement was 1. positive or negative, 2. related to behaviours or work and 3. whether any feedback on work was related to content or presentation.

Boys received positive reinforcement for the content of their work whilst girls were praised on their neatness. As for negative reinforcement the reverse was true, and boys were given negative reinforcement for their neatness and girls for their content.

Fagot (1978)

Set out to see whether parents treated toddlers differently depending on their sex.

24 toddlers of between 14 and 20 months were observed playing with their presence in their own home. Reinforcement and punishment were observed and recorded and various toys were provided and available for playing with.

Toddlers were treated differently depending on their sex. Girls were given positive reinforcement for dressing up, asking for help and staying with their parents. Boys were positively reinforced for playing with 'male' appropriate toys like bricks and discouraged from playing with dolls.

Masters et al. (1979)

Investigate whether or not actually knowing that behaviour was sex appropriate or not would override the desire of a child to imitate a same-sex model.

Repeated Perrey and Bussey's experiment but told the children beforehand

Children would pick toys that they were told to be appropriate for their sex even if they saw a model of their own sex play with the sex-inappropriate toy.

Perrey and Bussey

Look at children's preference for same sex models as ours (4 male, 4 female models)

Children were made to observe four adults picking up either one of two items. They were then asked themselves to pick up one of the items.

Children were clearly preferred the item selected by the same sex adult.

Children identify and therefore model themselves after people of their own sex.

Strengths of Social Learning Theory

  • Because of the important thought processes that social learning theory relies on, animal studies are not conducted to provide evidence. This is seen by many as a strength of the approach since it can be argued the conclusions cannot be justifiably extended to an animal so sophisticated and complex as a human.
  • Much like the behaviourist approach, the social learning approach relies on scientific experiment, more specifically the experimental method, to back its theories. This is seen as a very strong point of the approaches because results can be repeated accurately and hypothesises verified.
  • Less mechanistic view of human behaviour than behaviourism.


  • Does not take into account of biology and genetics (especially in behaviours like aggression).
  • Using bobo dolls is artificial and lacks ecological validity.
  • Ignores personality factors as introversion and extroversion.

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