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Social learning theory (SLT) is a theory to explain how people learn behavior. People learn through observing others' behavior. If people observe positive, desired outcomes in the observed behavior, they are more likely to model, imitate, and adopt the behavior themselves. As Bandura observed:

"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action." (Bandura (1977)p22)


Modern theory is closely associated with Julian Rotter and Albert Bandura.


Social learning theory is derived from the work of Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) which proposed that social learning occurred through four main stages of imitation:

  • close contact,
  • imitation of superiors,
  • understanding of concepts
  • role model behaviour

Julian Rotter moved away from theories based on psychoanalysis and behaviorism, and developed a social learning theory. In Social Learning and Clinical Psychology (1954), Rotter suggested that the effect of behavior has an impact on the motivation of people to engage in that behaviour. People wish to avoid negative consequences, while desiring positive results or effects. If one expects a positive outcome from a behavior, or thinks there is a high probability of a positive outcome, then they will be more likely to engage in that behaviour. The behaviour is reinforced, with positive outcomes, leading a person to repeat the behaviour. This social learning theory suggests that behaviour is influenced by these environmental factors or stimuli, and not psychological factors alone.[1]

Albert Bandura (1977)[2] expanded on the Rotter's idea, as well as earlier work by Miller & Dollard (1941),[3] and is related to social learning theories of Vygotsky and Lave. This theory incorporates aspects of behavioral and cognitive learning. Behavioral learning assumes that people's environment (surroundings) cause people to behave in certain ways. Cognitive learning presumes that psychological factors are important for influencing how one behaves. Social learning suggests a combination of environmental (social) and psychological factors influence behavior. Social learning theory outlines four requirements for people to learn and model behavior include attention: retention (remembering what one observed), reproduction (ability to reproduce the behavior), and motivation (good reason) to want to adopt the behavior.

The processes underlying observational learning are:

  1. Characteristics of the modelled behaviour. How distinct is it? how complex? how often is it available for observation?
  2. Observer characteristics How attentive are they? What are their expectations in the situation? How stressed are they
  3. Post learning encoding and practice, How easy is it to symbolically encode the information, and togo through both symbolic and motor rehearsal),
  4. Subsequent motor reproduction, How physically capable is the learner? Is quality feedback available?
  5. Motivation, including external, vicarious and self reinforcement.

Application of Social learning Theory to different areas of psychology

Main article: The application of Social Learning Theory in developmental psychology
Main article: The application of Social Learning Theory in personality psychology
Main article: The application of Social Learning Theory in Criminology

See also

References & Bibliography

  1. Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social Learning and Clinical Psychology, Prentice-Hall.
  2. Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory, General Learning Press.
  3. Miller, N. & Dollard, J. (1941). Social Learning and Imitation, Yale University Press.

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