Social Learning Theory has a rich historical background dating back to late 1800s. In the modern times, Albert Bandura has made enormous contributions in explaining the social context in our learning process. Beginning with his social learning theory in 1977 and refining it to introduce the element of cognition in 1986, Bandura has had a major influence on learning theories. Not stopping there, Bandura then applied his theory to everything from psychotherapy to television violence and to the impact of the mass media. The range of applications of the theory is a reflection of how central it is to the human experience and learning of new behavior. Social learning theory focuses on how we learn, how we think and how the combination of these and the environment impacts on behavior. This has also resulted in the theory being applied to many other areas and merging into various other ideas on the human experience.

Theoretical and Therapeutic Aspects of Social Learning Theory

Humans are always in the process of learning. Human mind in the early stages of development is just like a blank paper. It registers what it sees, listens, or experiences. It not only gains knowledge but also learns and adapts different patterns of behavior. Besides the formal sources of learning, environment plays a major role and ironically it had been ignored for a long time. From Freud (1856-1939) onwards, various psychologists have identified childhood experiences as a leading cause to deviant behavior. John Bowlby (1907-1990) has argued that the failure of the mother to satisfy her child’s “basic human need” for emotional security can result in the production of a psychopathic personality. These sociological perspectives of human learning propose that we learn to be deviant or conform to normalcy through the family, mass media, and school, which all form part of the environment. Of all the sociologists and psychologists, Albert Bandura has contributed a great deal towards our awareness about leaning within a social context. Bandura not only processed the ingredients of learning theory conceived by previous theorists but also added the element of cognition to the social learning theory. Cognition implied that a person does not have to physically experience something to learn. The learning can also be achieved by changing an individual’s perception. Mass media came under tight scrutiny with the Bandura’s experiments and findings in this regard. Study of social learning theory enables us to be cognizant of the impact of environment on our learning and on the development of our next generations. This paper has been designed to analyze the theoretical and therapeutic aspects of social learning theory. The paper throws some light on the historical background followed by the explanation and general principles of social learning theory. After discussing the process of learning in the social context, the paper will discuss the application of social learning theory in childhood and in the field of criminology.

Historical Perspective of Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory has a rich historical background dating back to late 1800s. The first theory to originate was in 1890 and was termed as ‘The Social Self’ by William James who laid foundation for the study of person and environment interaction. In the early 1900s, Alfred Adler proposed that behavior is purposeful and motivated by pursuit of goals. He further theorized that individual perception and attitude towards social environment significantly influences behavior. According to Adler, a person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior are transactions with one’s physical and social environment. Tolman in 1930 promoted the idea that cognitions are the driving force behind behavior. It was in 1941 that the social leaning theory was officially launched by Miller and Dollard with the publication of their work ‘Social Learning and Imitation.’ Their work augmented the previous ideas that human behaviors are reinforced through environment. Thereafter, many theorists like Watson, Julian Rotter, Rober Sears, Walter Mischel and Ronald Akers expanded the work of Miller and Dollard. It was however Albert Bandura who added a cognitive component to the Social Learning Theory by stating that the behavioral change is not related to direct enforcement, but related to the cognitive processes associated with the experience.

Explanation of Social Learning Theory

The chief proposition of the social learning theory is that the production of both conforming and deviant behavior is the out come of the same learning process in a context of social structure, interaction, and situation. In simple words, whatever we learn is basically the observation and modeling of behavior, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. The theory offers an explanation of the acquisition, maintenance, and change in behavior that embraces social, nonsocial, and cultural factors operating both to motivate and control deviant behavior and both to promote and undermine conformity (Seamon & Kenrick, 1994).

Social learning theory initially emerged as a subset of the behavioral approach.  This approach remained focused on observable behaviors, but Bandura added a cognitive component to this theory. It considers that people learn from one another, including such concepts as observational learning, imitation, and modeling. In 1961 a paper was published by Bandura, Ross, and Ross describing an experiment into how children learn by observation. The experiment involved preschool children watching an adult be violent toward a large inflated clown doll.  When the children were left alone with the doll, many were observed copying the actions of the adults and being violent toward the doll. Another group of children saw the adults acting aggressively but also saw the adults punished for their actions. This group of children was less likely to copy the actions of the adults. Later, these children were offered rewards if they copied the aggressive actions of the adults. The majority of the children offered rewards did copy the actions of the aggressive adults despite the punishments they had observed (Bandura, 1977).

The observations of this experiment led to various components of Bandura’s social learning theory.  Firstly, it showed that children learn not just by their own behaviors, but also by observing the behaviors of others.  Secondly, it showed that the learning process was not just one of copying. If this was the case, the children would have been violent toward the doll whether or not they observed the adult being punished. This showed that both actions and the observed results of those actions determine what is learned, with this process requiring cognitive processes. Finally, it showed that other factors were also important in determining the resulting behavior. When children observed punishment, they did not act violently. However, when they were provided with rewards, they did. This showed that other factors have impact on the cognitive processing that occurs. These aspects are all present in the social cognitive theory described by Bandura.

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Social learning theory is also important in regards to antisocial behaviors.  One area that has received a lot of attention recently is the issue of violence in society. As noted earlier, a major component of social learning/cognitive theory is that individuals learn by observing others. In the modern world, this does not only mean observing actual events. Instead, it also means observing films, music videos, and television programs. With these as a major influence, individuals learn their behaviors from what is observed from media. A detailed discussion on this aspect will be made in the application segment of this paper.

General Principles of Social Learning Theory

Human development is a complex process which involves an intricate relationship of a person with others, the person’s behavior, and the environment. The interaction between these elements is generally referred to as the reciprocal determinism. The social learning theory emphasizes that a person’s cognitive abilities, environment, physical characteristics, personality, beliefs and attitudes influence a person’s behavior through a process of continuous learning (Bandura, 2001). This interaction is however reciprocal; not only a person’s behavior is affected by all these elements but a person’s behavior can also affect his/her feelings about these elements. As it is a common perception that the upcoming generation is always wiser than the former one, the reason is simple. The learning environment available today was not there in older times. The major environmental learning resources in the form of television, computers, and print media are providing the amount of information to the young minds which was unimaginable in the past. These environmental resources on one hand are contributing heavily to the learning of children and on the other hand are also shaping their behavior. This discussion leads us to the general principles of social learning theory which are derived from the same presumptions. The general principles of social learning theory are summarized below:

People learn the most from their environment which is generally based on observing the behavior of others and the outcomes of those behaviors.
Learning can take place even without reflecting a change in the behavior. Behaviorists generally argue that a permanent change in the behavior will represent the acquiring of new knowledge but the social learning theorists believe otherwise. The social learning theory rests on the principle that learning can even be possible without a considerable or a permanent change in the behavior. People can learn through observation alone, their learning may not necessarily be shown in their performance.
Major contribution of Bandura towards the social learning theory is adding the principle of cognition. Cognition plays a vital role in learning. Perception of a person can be modified even without any interaction with others. Awareness and expectations of future reinforcements or punishments can have a major effect on the behaviors that people exhibit.
The Process of Social Learning

The social learning theory encompasses of four processes that form the basis of learning. These processes are Attention, Retention, Motivation, and Motor Reproduction. Observational learning can not commence without acquiring attention of the learner. In our daily lives, we walk down the streets but are seldom distracted unless something catches our attention. A fight going on at some place, a scene of an accident or a distinctive billboard advertisement will force us unwittingly to stop and observe. The same human instinct is exploited by the mass media as well. A sensational news item or new themes in the commercials are all meant to get our attention. In nut shell, the first step in the process of learning is to attract the attention of the learner. Another important aspect of ‘attention’ is that besides being unique and sensational, the theme has to be appealing since different people are attracted by different things. Most people would not stop to see a fight going on, but few will do that. Similarly, most people will be attracted to a unique advertisement, but few people will not be impressed.

The second component of the process of learning is ‘Retention.’ In order to reproduce the modeled behavior, the individuals must code the information into their long-term memory. Unless a modeled behavior is registered in the memory, the process of learning does not proceed further. There may be numerous behaviors we observe each day but we do not put them in our memory for two reasons. Either the behaviors we observed did not attract out attention or we too complex/verbose to be understood and retained in the memory.  For example, a verbal description of a person performing an act by somebody may not get registered in our minds as against if we had observed the same ourselves. The process of retention is important not only for storing information in our mind but a good retention helps in accurate retrieval of the same as well. The process of retention is not related to our liking or disliking. If a certain incident or a modeled behavior has attracted our attention, it may get registered in our minds even if we did not like it.

The third and fourth components of the process of learning are closely knitted. Motor Reproduction involves the physical reproduction of the observed activity through physical capability, self-observation and feedback. The process of learning however still takes place even if we are capable of reproducing the learnt behavior but decline to adopt it. This is the essence of social learning theory. We, in fact do not only learn to follow the suit for a reward but also learn to avoid certain kinds of modeled behavior for the fear of consequences. This process of learning is called motivation or reinforcements. The reinforcements comprises of external, vicarious and/or self-reinforced motivation. In this process, the observer expects to receive positive reinforcements for the modeled behavior. Differential reinforcement refers to the balance of anticipated or actual rewards and punishments that follow or are consequences of behavior. The reproduction of modeled behavior will therefore depend upon the level of motivation which is generated by either the urge for reward or the fear of punishment, forcing us to act accordingly. Another important aspect of motor reproduction is that the balance of reinforcement may motivate a person to reproduce learnt deviant behaviors even in the face of their own definitions unfavorable to those acts. Reproduction of deviant behavior is however more likely when both the reinforcement balance and the balance of one’s own definitions are in the same deviant direction (Simons et al, 2004).

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Application of Social Learning Theory

Children who mimic various behaviors of their parents are engaged in social learning. One of the key principles of social learning theory is that individuals will be more likely to adopt modeled behavior if it is activity they value and if the model holds admired status. Major assumption of Bandura’s social learning theory is that we can learn by observing others. The most suited stage of human development for observational learning is the early childhood. Children are the finest observers of environment. They are easily attracted to every thing and they retain whatever they see. They do not require much of the motivation and hence tend to reproduce the modeled behaviors disregarding any consequences. Applicability of social learning theory on children therefore resulted in the idea of ‘prepared environment’ most suited to their learning needs.

Bandura’s main emphasis has remained on the application of social learning theory on children. In this regard, Bandura’s apprehensions of the role of mass media are of prime importance. Bandura warned that “children and adults acquire attitudes, emotional responses, and new styles of conduct through filmed and televised modeling” (Bandura, 1989). A change in behavior and attitude is very obvious in children spending too much time in front of television screens. Not paying heed to elder’s instructions, replying in a rude manner, poor education results, and preferring an isolated life are few to name the symptoms of  a changing behavior pattern. Furthering the effects of mass media, children do not spend enough time on some healthier activity resulting into gaining weight. They are also attracted to unhealthier food by watching commercials during children’s programs. By watching violence, children learn that it is okay to use force to handle aggression and settle disagreements (Paik & Comstock, 1994).

Application of social learning theory provides us enough evidence that media violence dictates children to behave aggressively toward others. They learn to use violence instead of self-control to take care of problems or conflicts. Violence in media may make children more accepting of real-world violence and less caring toward others. Children who see a lot of violence from movies, TV shows, or video games start seeing the real world as a cruel and scary place. Television also exposes children to adult behaviors, prematurely. Television programs often depict sexual activity as normal, fun, exciting, and without any risks. The children usually copy the same to feel more grown up. Casual but continuous dose of televised messaging can pollute young minds (Borgatta & Montgomery, 2000). Children are exposed to messages that say drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes or cigars are normal activities. Commercials would portray strong and sexy people indulging in such activities. They would never highlight side effects of these things. Beer and wine are some of the most advertised products on television. It is estimated that an average child sees more than 20,000 commercials each year. Constant dose of commercials can even cause changes in behavioral patterns of children. They can easily remember marketing slogans or catchy phrases and try to imitate them accordingly. An evidence of negative effects of violence on television was also provided through a series of experimental studies conducted under supervision of US Surgeon General in 1972. The experiments proved that children adopt violent behaviors in their plays if they are exposed to viewing violence on television (Borgatta & Montgomery, 2000).

The field of criminology is based on the major hypotheses of social learning theory. Sutherland, who is called as the father of American criminology was a strong proponent of the idea that the criminal behavior is learned in interaction with others in a process of communication (Sutherland, 1947). On the similar lines, Albert Bandura promoted that aggression is learned through a process called behavior modeling (Bandura, 1977). Negating the old assumptions of biological and inheritance tendencies, Bandura emphasized that people learn aggressive responses from observing others, either personally or through the media and environment. His definition of motivation or reinforcements included a reduction of tension, gaining financial rewards, gaining the praise of others, and building self-esteem.

The social learning theory explains deviancy by combining variables which encouraged delinquency with variables that discouraged delinquency. The theory declares that all behavior is learned in much the same way as other behaviors. The application of social learning theory in the field of criminology can not be narrowed down to one particular group of criminals. It can be applied to most criminals and crimes that produce a “gain” which can be psychological in the form of positive attention from other group members, or physical/material. The social learning theory is however best applied to behavior within groups which offer reinforcement, such as gangs, peer groups, or social groups (Akers, 1998).

In the field of criminology, the social learning theory has a major limitation too. It focuses solely on the interaction between the individual and the social group, and totally ignores the individual differences or social context. These individual differences may be biological, psychological, or the result of other factors, and may affect the interaction between the individual and the social group. The theory also ignores the inborn characteristics of individuals. Two individuals brought up in the same learning environment and having same social setting, may act differently in the same given situation. Various personality traits of criminals like guts (dare devils), impulsivity, lack of remorse, hyper-sexuality, and inability to resist temptation are more of neurological impairment and genetic disorders. Total disregard of such forces in the social learning context makes it difficult for the social learning theorists to explain the process of learning deviant behavior.


Social learning theory is a general theory of human behavior, which proposes that environment plays an important role in development of different behaviors in individuals. Various social scientists and particularly Bandura expanded its scope and applied it on children to explain as to how we learn from the modeled behavior. The theory helps us in understanding the negative impacts of mass media on children and adolescents who acquire attitudes, emotional responses, and new styles of conduct through filmed and televised modeling. The theory also explains the deviant behavior as the outcome of our interaction with others and our learning from the environment.