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Social Cognitive Theory, utilized both in Psychology and Communications, posits that portions of an individual's knowledge acquisition can be directly related to observing others within the context of social interactions, experiences, and outside media influences.


Social Cognitive Theory stemmed out of work in the area of social learning theory proposed by N.E. Miller and J. Dollard in 1941. Their proposition posits that if humans were motivated to learn a particular behavior that particular behavior would be learned through clear observations. By imitating these observed actions the individual observer would solidify that learned action and would be rewarded with positive reinforcement (Miller & Dollard, 1941). The proposition of social learning was expanded upon and theorized by Albert Bandura in 1962 to the present. Social cognitive theory revolves around the process of knowledge acquisition or learning directly correlated to the observation of models. The models can be those of an interpersonal imitation or media sources. Effective modeling teaches general rules and strategies for dealing with different situations (Bandura, 1988).

Bandura claims that humans are cognitive beings that actively process information to assist in their learning, behavior, and development.

As a result of the observations the individual observer can be affected in two separate ways. The inhibitory effect, a positive punishment action, occurs when an observer sees the action of another involved in a social situation being punished for that action. A disinhibitory effect, a positive reinforcement action, is when an individual is praised for an action and the observer learns from and imitates that action (Miller, 2005). Vicarious reinforcement explains that the observer does not expect actual rewards or punishments but anticipates similar outcomes to his/her imitated behaviors and allows for these effects to work. This portion of social cognitive theory relies heavily on outcome expectancies.

Identification and Self-Efficacy

Further development in social cognitive theory posits that learning will most likely occur if there is a close identification between the observer and the model and if the observer also has a good deal of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy beliefs function as an important set of proximal determinants of human motivation, affect, and action [which] operate on action through motivational, cognitive, and affective intervening processes (Bandura, 1989). Identification allows the observer to feel a one-to-one connection with the individual being imitated and will be more likely to achieve those imitations if the observer feels that they have the ability to follow through with the imitated action (Bandura, 1988).


Social Cognitive Theory is applied today in many different arenas. Mass media, public health, education, and marketing are just a very few. An example of this is the use of celebrities to endorse and introduce any number of products to certain demographics is one way in which social cognitive theory encompassed all four of these domains. By choosing the proper gender, age, and ethnicity the use of social cognitive theory could help ensure the success of an AIDS campaign to inner city teenagers by letting them identify with a recognizable peer, have a greater sense of self-efficacy, and then imitate the actions in order to learn the proper preventions and actions for a more informative AIDS aware community.

See also


  • Bandura, A. (1988). Organizational Application of Social Cognitive Theory. Australian Journal of Management, 13(2), 275-302.
  • Bandura, A. (1989). Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. American Psychologist, 44, 1175-1184.
  • Miller, N. E., & Dollard, J. (1941). Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Miller, Katherine (2005). Communication Theories: Perspectives, Processes, and Contexts (2nd ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.

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