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Social Learning Theory

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Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory suggests learning occurs by observing or imitating others. Social learning theory can be considered an arch between the cognitive and behavioural approaches. It considers behavioural factors and the mediational processes involved in learning.

What are the mediational processes in the social learning theory?

The cognitive factors in the social learning theory include some mediational processes that play a role between the stimulus and response in learning. These mediational processes are as follows:

  • Attention: requires configuring a mental representation of the behaviour by paying attention to its consequences.

  • Retention: requires storing the observed behaviour in the long term memory for later retrieval. Imitation is a gradual process and might not occur immediately.

  • Reproduction: requires a person to have the ability to duplicate the observed behaviour.

  • Motivation: there should be an expectation to retrieve the same positive reinforcement that the model received for replicating the observed behaviour.

Top tip: we are more likely to imitate someone if we relate to them in similar characteristics as ours, for example, age, social status or gender.

Key factors of social learning theory

  • Most of the experiments are lab-controlled experiments to observe quantifiable behaviour.
  • Humans learn through observation and modelling, which leads to reinforcement and imitation of observed behaviour.

  • Cognitive factors such as the mediational processes (stated above) have a significant role in learning behaviours.

What is the methodology of the social learning theory?

Several studies and experiments explain the methodology of the social learning theory. One of the main researchers is Albert Bandura et al. (1961/1963).

Albert Bandura (1961) - the bobo doll study

Albert Bandura (1961) conducted a lab experiment that included 36 girls and 36 boys. All the children were in the age group of 3-6 years and divided into three groups.

  • Group 1: 12 boys and 12 girls exposed to a model hitting an inflatable “bobo” doll with a hammer and shouting at it.

  • Group 2: 12 boys and 12 girls were exposed to a model displaying non-aggressive behaviour towards the doll, such as verbally abusing the doll.

  • Group 3: 12 girls and 12 boys were not exposed to any model (placebo group).

The children were taken to a room with a Bobo doll and various toys. To check and trigger the arousal of aggression among children, the researchers asked them not to do anything.

Social learning theory [+] a hammer used as an aggressive tool in Bandura study [+] Studysmarter

Social learning theory, a hammer used as an aggressive tool in Bandura study, wikimedia

Each child was then taken to a separate room that contained a bobo doll, a hammer and pistol (aggressive tool) and farm animals and pencils (non-aggressive tools).

  • Group 1 imitated the model by showing more aggression towards the doll than the other two groups.

  • Boys were more physically aggressive towards the doll compared to girls.

  • Verbal aggression among both genders was similar.

Girls were more likely to imitate behaviour if the model was a female, and the boys would imitate the male model more. The experiment showed that behaviour could be imitated by observing behaviour. Still, gender identification (following the gender you relate to in terms of characteristics like age) was also an important factor.

Bandura and Walter (1963)

In 1963, Bandura and Walter repeated Bandura’s experiment but slightly changed it.

The children were exposed to an aggressive model who also had to face the consequences for their behaviour.

  • Group 1: children were exposed to an aggressive model, praised for their behaviour.

  • Group 2: children were exposed to an aggressive model, punished for their behaviour.

  • Group 3: children were exposed to an aggressive model who received no consequences for their behaviour.

These children were allowed to play around and were observed. Group 1 showed the most aggression, followed by group 3. Group two was the least aggressive on the scale. The experiment showed that behaviour is more likely to be imitated or reproduced when it receives positive reinforcement.

Social Learning Theory [+] a child playing with a doll [+] StudySmarter

Social Learning Theory, a child playing with a doll, Unsplash

Evaluation of the social learning theory

  • Compared to conditioning, social learning theory presents a more comprehensive example of human behaviour that also considers cognitive factors such as mediational processes.

  • Social learning theory may explain the influence of media on human behaviour.

  • It helps explain cultural differences in determining human behaviour because people imitate the behaviours they are exposed to.

  • The entire sample was children; if the experiments included adults, the results might have been different as the adults have more developed and complex moral values than children.

  • Both these experiments were lab-controlled, which implies that children might not have reacted the same way in real life, as at such an age, children’s behaviour can be guided or tamped down by their parents.

  • There might be involvement of biological factors such as high testosterone hormone levels, which may explain why boys showed more aggression than girls.

What is the application of the social learning theory?

Social learning theory outlines how media influences our behaviour. The Jamie Bulgars case in 1990 was presented in the court with support from Bandura’s theory (1961). The murderers were children who confessed that they were influenced and inspired by the movie Child Play 3.

However, these children had a troubled family life and were suspected of having witnessed social violence or deprivation in their life.

Have you ever wanted to be as cool as your favourite celebrity and slowly began to change your style to match theirs? Following the same fashion style as your favorite TV stars, such as Kpop singers BTS (Korean pop group), is an example of the social learning theory. We imitate the behavior we see around us.

Social Learning Theory - Key takeaways

  • Social learning theory suggests learning occurs by observing or imitating others.

  • Social learning theory can be considered an arch between the cognitive and behavioural approaches as it combines these different explanations.

  • Cognitive factors include mediational processes such as attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.

  • Humans learn through observation and modelling, leading to reinforcement and imitation of observed behaviour.

  • Methodological evidence was provided by Albert Bandura et al. in 1961 and Bandura and Walter in 1963. Both experiments showed that

  • The case of Jamie Bulgar in 1990 was presented in the court with support from Bandura’s theory (1961).

Frequently Asked Questions about Social Learning Theory

  • The entire sample was children; if the experiments included adults the results might have been different as the adults have more developed and complex moral values compared to children.

  • Both these experiments were lab-controlled which implies that children might not have reacted the same way in real life, as at such an age children’s behaviour can be guided or tamped down by their parents.


The main idea of social learning theory suggests that learning occurs by observing or imitating others.  It considers behavioural factors along with the mediational processes that are involved in learning.

The main key concepts of social learning theory is that learning occurs in two ways:

  • Imitation of observed behaviour
  • Involvement of mediational processes: attention, retention, reproduction and motivation

Social learning theory suggests learning occurs by observing or imitating others. 

For example, Jamie Bulgar in 1990.

Final Social Learning Theory Quiz

Question

What is the social learning theory?

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Answer

Social learning theory suggests learning occurs by observing or imitating others.

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Question

Social learning theory is an arch between the behavioural approach and the_______.

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Answer

Cognitive approach

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Question

Name the four mediational processes in social learning theory.


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Answer

They are:

  • Attention

  • Retention

  • Reproduction

  • Motivation 

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Question

What was the sample of Bandura et al (1961)?


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Answer

36 boys and 36 girls in the age group of 3-6 years.

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Question

What was the conclusion of the Bandura et al (1961) experiment?


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Answer

  • Group 1 imitated the model by showing more aggression towards the doll compared to the other two groups.
  • Boys were more physically aggressive towards the doll compared to girls.
  • Verbal aggression among both genders was similar.

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Question

Which case was supported by the Bandura et al 1961 theory of social learning?


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Answer

Jamie Bulgars in 1990.

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Question

Provide one argument in support of social learning theory.


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Answer

  • Social learning theory may explain the influence of media on human behaviour.
  • Compared to conditioning, social learning theory presents a more comprehensive example of human behaviour that also considers cognitive factors such as mediational processes.
  • It also helps in explaining cultural differences in determining human behaviour as behaviours are imitated if people are exposed to them.

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Question

Provide one argument against social learning theory.


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Answer

  • The entire sample was just children, if this experiment included adults the results might have been different as the adults have developed proper moral values compared to children.

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Question

Which type of experiment did Albert Bandura et al (1961/63) conduct?


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Answer

Lab experiment

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Question

Which group showed more aggression in the Bandura and Walters experiment (1963)?


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Answer

Group 1 showed more aggression followed by group 3.

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Question

What is true about the Bandura et al (1961) research?


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Answer

Boys were more aggressive than girls

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Question

What were the aggressive tools in the Albert Bandura et al (1961) experiment?


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Answer

Aggressive tools included a hammer and a pistol.

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Question

What were the non-aggressive tools in the Bandura et al (1961) experiment?


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Answer

Non-aggressive tools included farm animals and pencils.

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Question

Define retention as a mediational factor.


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Answer

Retention requires storing the observed behaviour in the long term memory for later retrieval. Imitation is a gradual process and might not occur immediately.

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Question

Define motivation as a mediational factor.

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Answer

Motivation implies that there should be an expectation to retrieve the same positive reinforcement that the model received, for replicating the observed behaviour.

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Question

What is social learning theory?

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Answer

Social learning theory by Bandura (1961) suggests individuals can learn by observation and imitation of role models.

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Question

Why did Bandura et al. (1961) pre-test their sample?

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Answer

The pretesting of the children helped Bandura divide the children into groups with corresponding levels of aggression.

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How did Bandura (1961) use matched pair design in his research?

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Answer

He matched participants in critical areas required for the study, such as levels of existing aggression in children.

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Question

Describe the sample size of Bandura’s (1961) experiment.

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Answer

Bandura’s (1961) sample included 72 children from Stanford university nursery school. He divided them into three groups of 24 children, with 12 girls and 12 boys aged three to six.

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Question

Why did the study contain a high inter-reliability?

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Answer

Two observers individually judged the children’s level of aggression during the pretest and matched the results to obtain a reliable agreement in their judgments.

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Question

How did Bandura (1961) divide his sample groups?

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Answer

  • Group 1: 12 girls and 12 boys were exposed to an aggressive model (male or female). The model exhibited scripted behaviour toward a reclining bobo doll in front of the children. Sometimes they hit the doll with a hammer and sometimes threw it in the air by shouting ‘pow’ or ‘boom’.
  • Group 2: 12 girls and 12 boys were confronted with a non-aggressive model. This group saw the model enter the room and play unobtrusively and quietly with a tinker toy set for ten minutes.
  • Group 3: 12 girls and 12 boys were not exposed to any model.

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Question

What was the purpose of the mild aggression arousal stage?

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Answer

This stage’s primary purpose was to induce frustration in children to be at a similar level of aggression.

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Question

Which groups displayed the most aggressive acts towards the bobo doll?

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Answer

Group 1 displayed more aggression, followed by some degree of aggression in the control group.

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Question

How did Bandura (1961) link the display of children’s aggression to cultural expectation?

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Answer

Bandura (1961) linked aggression to cultural expectations and believed that children recognise what behaviour is expected from their environment at a young age.

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Question

Which gender imitated the male role model the most?

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Answer

Boys.

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Question

Provide an argument in support of Bandura’s (1961) bobo doll experiment.

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Answer

Philip (1986) observed that the weeks following a boxing match series in the United States elicited more aggression (such as murders). This evidence suggests that people observe and imitate acts of violence or aggression.

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Question

Provide an argument against Bandura’s (1961) bobo doll experiment.

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Answer

Some researchers argued Bandura recorded results immediately after they occurred. It may be that children who learn aggressive actions from Bandura’s experiment do not imprint them in the long term, as hypothesised in his experiment. Children may imitate some actions only once and never again.

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Question

What kind of behaviour was displayed by the model for group 1?

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Answer

The model exhibited scripted behaviour toward a reclining bobo doll in front of the children. Sometimes they hit the doll with a hammer and sometimes threw it in the air by shouting ‘pow’ or ‘boom’.

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Question

What is vicarious reinforcement?

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Answer

Observing what people do and seeing what consequences follow their behaviour.

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Question

What are social inhibitions?

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Answer

Social inhibition means that actions performed in solitude are most unlikely to be repeated in front of others for fear of others’ disapproval.

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