Social Learning Theory

What is the social learning theory and how does it work?

The subject of Psychology is one to be tread upon with extreme care. There are a lot of theories that were proposed by renowned psychologists and are being proposed every day. Most of these attempts to explain the working of the human brain, which, as we know, is made up of complex overlays. These theories have been proven to be true or false by various studies. While these theories may not be completely successful in explaining the working of the human brain or the behavior of people as a whole, they have impacted society in various ways. Most theories tend to stick around for a while and are accepted by the majority of people until it is then falsified by studies and surveys. Let us know more detail about ‘Social Learning Theory’.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory is one of the most popular and widely accepted theories that have been proposed by various psychologists. This particular one was proposed by psychologist Albert Bandura. The social learning theory suggests that human beings can learn and imitate the behaviors of other living creatures by modes of observation. Social behavior is learned by observing and imitating the behavior of others. 

The social learning theory was also proposed with four processes that can help one in determining whether a behavior was acquired from somewhere else. 

  • Attention: The first of the four processes is attention. It refers to the degree to which we notice a particular behavior in an individual. Only when a behavior grabs our attention, will we want to imitate it. There are a lot of behaviors that we notice, but don’t pay much attention to. These are the behaviors that we might not be imitating at any time. 
  • Retention: It is important to have something in you before you can act on it. You will have to remember a particular behavior before you can imitate it. Retention is one of the most important processes of social learning theory as how much you retain information about a particular behavior affects how much you imitate the behavior. 
  • Reproduction: The ability to reproduce or imitate the noticed behavior is called reproduction. There can be limitations on imitating a behavior, like physical or situational ones. This influences whether we can be successful in imitating behavior that we have retained or not.
  • Motivation: While we may notice, retain and be able to reproduce a lot of behaviors, there needs to be a will to imitate and reproduce that for real. Without this will, we will not be imitating the behavior that we have noticed. There can be many reasons behind a will to imitate behavior, like inspiration, or a will to imitate the behavior after observing the consequences. 

The behavior in question will be imitated by an individual only if the rewards are estimated to be greater than the costs or punishments that it entails. 

The history behind the social learning theory

From 1961 to 1963, Albert Barunda conducted a series of experiments. These were conducted to know whether social behaviors could be accrued and adopted by an individual by observation. These experiments were collectively called Bobo doll experiments. With the help of the findings from these experiments, Albert was able to propose the social learning theory in 1977. This was what developed later into the social cognitive theory in 1986. The social cognitive theory postulates that learning takes place in a social framework, with interaction happening between people, environment, and behavior. This means that the elements of society are interdependent and learn from each other in an environment that is always subject to change. 

Postulates under the social learning theory

The social learning theory has a few postulates that it is based on. 

The first of its assumptions or postulates is that people can acquire or learn a new behavior that they did not earlier have by merely observing someone who exhibits that behavior. 

The second postulate dictates that learners form expectations based on the consequences that the person exhibiting the behavior may face. In short, it is said that reinforcement and punishments have effects on the learning of behavior. 

Next, the four processes are very important in deciding whether a person acquires a behavior or not. 

The last postulate dictates that just because someone learns a behavior, it does not mean that the person’s behavior will change. There might be cases where behavior is learned but not exhibited by the learners themselves. 

Strengths and weaknesses of the social learning theory

This is widely helpful in the study of the mind as it allows for different ways of learning, either through observation or experience. It does not dictate just one way in which an individual can acquire a particular behavior. Another of the major strengths that this theory has is the flexibility it has in explaining the differences in a person’s behavior. It means that when there is a change in the environment that a person is treated, it is highly likely that there is a change in the behavior of that person. 

But a huge minus to this theory is that it does not hold an individual accountable for their actions and behaviors. Placing a huge responsibility on the society and the environment in which the person is under, diminishes the accountability of the person in taking responsibility for their actions. This means that society is far more responsible for the actions of an individual than the processing capability and ways of an individual. 

One more instance this theory fails is when there is no role model for an individual to imitate and yet they do. Not all behaviors are accounted for in this theory. There can be an entirely new behavior that an individual follows and yet there might be no role model that the individual may have looked at.

Some behaviors come on their own to individuals without any role model, these can be the behaviors that children acquire without observation, just as a part of their biology.

Examples of the social learning theory

There are a lot of examples of this theory in everyday life as we can perceive it. The concept of peer pressure can hugely be explained by this theory. Toddlers tend to imitate their elders– family members, friends, famous personalities, and even fictional characters that they see on television. We have seen children trying to imitate superheroes and dress up like them which is one of the most obvious exhibitions of this theory. The child can perceive a behavior in their beloved character, they will perform and exhibit any behavior of theirs at some point. 

The concept of people following and keeping up with trends that are up on social media is also a huge example of this theory. If there are books, movies, series, or viral videos, we see people imitating them and trying to do the same. The same applies to dance moves, songs, and social media challenges that are very popular among people. One of the major reasons social media influencers or influencers, in general, are popular among people is because they tend to influence the common people and make them exhibit their behavior of theirs. 

This is not only applicable to children but to adults as well. People at a new place of work, for example, may start behaving the same way that their colleagues behave. They can do this to adapt themselves to the new environment or maybe to feel included too. Trying to impress a superior because one of their colleagues was able to do so, or just conforming to the new work culture: are also good reasons to imitate someone’s behavior. The reasons for an individual to imitate or try to imitate someone else are plenty. 

Students are more than often encouraged to have role models and strive to be like them. This is told to them in the hope that they will inculcate some habits and behaviors of whoever they find inspirational. By repeating to students and teenagers the positive consequences of a behavior, we can hope to inculcate the same behavior in them. Students can imitate fellow students, teachers, mentors, celebrities, and anybody whose behavior manages to grab their attention.


While behaviors can get attached to someone, chances of negative behaviors being attached are also possible. We have seen children trying to imitate superheroes and meeting with accidents. These are some examples of the negative sides of social learning theory. This theory has been around for a while since it does have a firm ground on which the behavior of individuals is explained. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is an example of the social learning theory?

Copying dance moves and dressing the same way as a celebrity does are some common examples of the social learning theory. 

  • What is the main goal of social learning theory?

The social learning theory aims to explain how and whether an individual can emulate the behavior of another person through observation.