Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory – Psychology


Bandura’s social learning theory argues that gaining knowledge that result in behavior change is attained through observation, imitation and modeling. Besides, the theory postulates that the learning process is achieved through role imitations, attitudes as well as the anticipated outcomes (Bandura, 1977). In other words, individual learning abilities are enhanced through simulations, scrutiny and role enhancements. Through observation, individuals can easily create new behavior, which inform future actions. Generally, the theory provides an explanation for human behavior in relation to incessant interactive reciprocation between ecological, cognitive and conductive influences. Bandura social learning theory has often been perceived as a conduit between cognitive and behaviorist theories. The reason is that it contains the attributes of both cognitive and behaviorist theories including increased awareness, recollection and impetus. The theoretical perspective of Bandura has been widely applied in various fields ranging from psychology to medicine, particularly in the explanation of children’s cognitive developments and changes in behavior patterns.

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The Explanations of the Theory

According to the theory, learning would be impossible if individuals are left to depend wholly on the impacts of their personal actions (Bandura, 1977). Essentially, the behaviors of an individual cannot be influenced fully by the result of their personal actions. However, individual behaviors are impacted on through the process of modeling. In other words, from the observations, individuals can easily come up with an idea of the manner in which new behaviors are performed, which informs the future actions (Bandura, 1977).

Bandura’s social learning theory is one of the highly recognized theories in learning and development. The reason is that the theory is based on the traditional concepts of learning and development theories while holding the most divergent and provable ideas. In addition to the traditional concepts, Bandura added the social element where the idea of learning through observation is propagated. Bandura argued that gaining new knowledge of information and resultant change in behaviors are attained through modeling. The modeling process is similar to the observational learning, which can be applied to account for several behaviors in individuals (Bandura, 1977).

The Notions of Basic Social Learning

Three basic ideas form the core of Bandura’s social learning theory. First is the notion of observational learning. Essentially, the idea of observational learning argues that people can gain knowledge through imitating others. The second notion is that the cognitive or the mental state of an individual is a critical part of the whole process. The final concept is the fact that not all things observed and learnt result in the behavioral transformation (Bandura, 1977).

Observational Learning

From various experiments, Bandura showed that children tend to learn and imitate behaviors of other people, particularly the significant others. In most cases, children imitate the behaviors they have observed from their adult role models (Bandura, 1977). The observations of Bandura in most of his studies explain the role modeling process in behavior patterns where people tend to imitate the conducts of their significant others. In most of the behavioral theories, role models are normally termed as the significant others. Individuals’ behaviors are majorly influenced by the actions of the role models. According to the social learning theory, new behaviors are learnt through observations and imitating the actions of the significant others (Bandura, 1977). Through observations, children can create an idea of how new behaviors are performed. For instance, belligerent children have been found to imitate the aggressive actions of their parents. Essentially, such children tend to imitate the hostile actions of their parents, which they had observed in the past. However, learning through observation is not only attained through live models but also through verbal and symbolic models (Bandura, 1977).

Based on the notion, the theory acknowledged three basic models of learning process ranging from live to symbolic models. Bandura argued that the live model entails activities that are really confirmed by an individual. In the verbal instructional model, rationalizations and descriptions are given for a particular behavior (Bandura, 1977). In symbolic model, the behaviors are portrayed through illusory characters. The symbolic modeling is quite common in the current media including online, television and social networking. Learning behaviors through symbolic modeling has become common in the current social system and influenced by the advances of information technology and globalization.

Importance of Cognitive or Intrinsic Reinforcement

The theory postulates that gaining of knowledge and individual actions are not only influenced by external environmental factors but also by the cognitive corroboration. According to the theory, intrinsic reinforcement includes internal rewards such as pride, satisfaction as well as a sense of accomplishment (Bandura, 1977). Learning will be enhanced when an individual has a full internal satisfaction with the new behavior. In addition, the adoption of the new behavior is quick when it results in increased personal accomplishment. Personal accomplishment is also accompanied by pride and satisfaction. Essentially, intrinsic reinforcement or the mental state of an individual plays a critical role in the learning process of an individual (Bandura, 1977). In fact, it is the emphasis on internal rewards that forms the connection between this social learning supposition with cognitive development theories. While most scholars categorize the conjecture under behavioral theories, the approach by Bandura leans towards the social cognitive theories.

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The Relationship between Learning and Change in Behavior

Most of the behavior theorists believe that learning enhances and transforms an individual behavior permanently. However, studies indicate that learning can occur without changes in behavior patterns. In other words, new information can be leaned without transformations in the individual behavior. Bandura’s social learning theory postulates that not all individual behaviors are learned. In fact, the theory argues that the social and intrinsic factors involved in the modeling process determine the success of the learning of the new behavior (Bandura, 1977). As such, the theory proposed certain steps that must be followed in order to succeed in behavioral changes through the learning process.

One of the steps is the attention. Bandura argues that the learning process is enhanced by increased attention. In fact, any detraction from the attention may result in the negative effect on the observational learning (Bandura, 1977). Besides, attention is enhanced by intrinsic factors such as increased interest or creating new ideas. Another important factor is the retention. Retention is the ability to store the acquired information. While retention can be affected by many factors, the capability of retrieving the information later and put into practice is critical to the modeling process (Bandura, 1977).

Reproduction is the next step after retention. Reproduction is the retrieval of the retained information, which is demonstrated by actual practice. The practice of the retained information leads to behavior change through skill advancements (Bandura, 1977). The final step in the modeling process is the motivation. Motivation can either be in the form of reinforcement or punishment. Either form of motivation is critical for the success of the modeling process.

Applications of the Theory

As indicated, the theory has been widely applied in various fields ranging from psychology to medicine. In particular, the theory is mainly applied in the field of education, particularly in the explanation of the learning process of the pupils. Currently, the education stakeholders take into cognizance of the significance of the theory in establishing strategies that tend to focus on the changing behaviors of school going children. In addition, the theory has been applied in explaining errant behaviors observed in most of the children in school. Bandura’s social learning theory has also been used to come up with education policies such as classroom strategies including helping children to build self-efficacy. In other fields, the theory has mainly been applied to explain the learning and development processes in children. Further, the theory has been applied in the field of psychology and counseling to explain behavior patterns of delinquent children. Most importantly, the theory is critical in the understanding of the current observational learning process through the symbolic modeling majorly influenced by the new media.


Bandura’s social learning theory is one of the highly recognized theories in learning and development. While the theory borrows hugely from the traditional concepts of learning and development theories, it incorporates the social element in which the idea of learning through observation is propagated. The theory argues that learning process is achieved through observation, imitation and modeling. As mentioned, the theory is widely applied in the field of education especially in the explanations of the learning process.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York, NY: General Learning Press.

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