Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory of 1977


In Albert Bandura’s social learning theory of 1977, he agreed with two specific behaviorist learning theories as the foundation of his own. There are components of operant conditioning and classical conditioning that help to define the social learning theory. Yet Bandura knew that there had to be more.

He added two more important ideas to the foundational ideas.

  1. That a process of meditating occurred between each stimulus and the response to that stimulus.
  2. That a behavior is learned from an individual’s environment because of the processes of observational learning.

Have you ever heard someone say that “Children learn how to behave because of how their parents behave?” This is a reflection of the social learning theory.

Why Are Behaviors Learned Through Observation?

Children are always in a state of learning. They are observing the people who are important to them and how those people behave because those people are considered to be their role models.

Many parents are role models, but there are many different behavioral models that a child may have in a modern society. Teachers are role models. Cartoon characters could be role models. Friends and relatives are often included. Then children take all of this information to learn through their observations about what it means to be social or non-social, masculine or feminine, and other specific behavioral traits.

It isn’t that these are their own natural behaviors. Children are learning through observation and then mimicking the behaviors they see in those that they admire in order to find their own place in society. As they mimic this behavior, however, some of it does become encoded and becomes a part of their overall personality.

What Is the Focus of the Social Learning Theory?

Bandura’s theory believes that children (and people in general) attempt to mimic those they see as being the most similar to themselves. This is how gender roles are developed. Boys imitate the behavior of other boys, girls with girls, and so forth – including non-traditional gender roles. Girls who think of themselves as boys may model boyish behavior, feel that they should have been born a boy, or even be able to recognize certain gender components within themselves that make them think they are a boy. Or vice-versa.

Then children respond to the behavior based on how their role models react to it. If the behavior is rewarded, then the child is very likely to continue that specific behavior. This reinforces the encoding that occurs with the child. If the behavior is given a consequence, then there is a greater chance that the behavior will be abandoned.

Whether the result is positive or negative, if there is no impact offered that matches the needs of the child being expressed, then the role model’s influence on that child will be minimal. It will, however, develop behavioral changes for that child.

Vicarious Reinforcement and the Social Learning Theory

Children may be watching their role model, but other children (or adults) may be watching the child and their behavior. If they see something that looks good to them, such as a reward for a specific behavior, then they may also copy that same behavior in an attempt to receive a similar reward to the one that they saw someone else getting. This is called vicarious reinforcement.

If a younger brother sees an older brother being rewarded for a specific behavior by a parent, then they are likely to copy it.

What this does on a societal level, according to Bandura, is create a specific set of behaviors that are associated with a specific set of role models. People gravitate toward rewards, so this means they will seek out role models which are able to provide them with the rewards they want. This is because they want to be seen as having the same behaviors, enabling them one day to receive the same outcome.

This means that humans are actively processing information and thinking about the connections between their relationships and their behaviors. Without this processing, observational learning would not be able to occur.

So Bandura developed four processes that support the social learning theory: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. We pay attention to the role models we admire because of their behavior. We retain that information. Then we attempt to reproduce it. This allows us to pursue our own motivational circumstances.

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory of 1977 offers evidence that we are always watching people and people are always watching us. This means we are learning from one another each and every day.