How Social Learning Theory Works

Social Learning Theory Explained

How Social Learning Theory Works

It’s common knowledge that kids often mimic adults and peers. Parents have been delighted but also embarrassed when their kiddo modeled their behavior in public. Social learning theorists have proposed various theories about the complexity of learning. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory expanded on the available learning theories of the time.

He believed the behaviorists didn’t have a complete theory that social learning required, and neither did the cognitive models. According to him, they didn’t take into consideration how social variables influenced behavior.

Bandura saw the disparity in most models learning theories that didn’t consider the effect of the social environment on learning new behaviors.

Years later, Albert Bandura would revise his model because it didn’t incorporate and explain all behaviors.

His Bobo doll experiments helped him make the connection between social observation and new behavior responses from individuals who had not learned the behavior before.

What Is The Main Idea of Social Learning Theory?

With the Social Learning Theory, Bandura describes how people can learn something new by observing the behavior of other people and applying rational mental behavior.

Observational learning is the first step in the social learning process. The famous Bobo doll experiment supported the social learning theory of observational learning.

The results of the observational learning experiment showed that kids mimicked the behavior of the adults they observed. Follow-up results also showed that the children were more ly to learn the behavior where they saw the adults were rewarded for aggressive or non-aggressive actions than those that were punished for their aggression.

People desire approval in life, and therefore they function in ways to receive approval. During the experiment, it was noted that the children preferred repeating actions of the models who gained approval by being rewarded. They are also more ly to continue the behavior that results in positive consequences than negative consequences.

When kids imitate a model, it may be one type of behavior they reproduce. Kids may also identify with multiple models in their environment. Models could be parents, teachers, siblings, friends, peers, cartoon characters, or celebrities.

They identify with these people because they have talents, abilities, or qualities the child wants to possess.

When they identified with a model, they were more motivated to adopt various behaviors of that model than just mimicking one behavior.

Bandura’s theory was three main ideas.

  • People learned through observing role models. He identified the three types of models in his experiment: a live model physically demonstrating an action, a live model using language to display a behavior verbally, and a symbolic model showing behaviors in online media, movies, television programs, and books.
  • Internal psychology influences the learning process. Intrinsic reinforcements satisfy the psychological needs a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, a form of success, or pride.
  • Learning a behavior doesn’t automatically mean the person will execute it. Changing or applying a new behavior must be of value to the person to want to apply what they’ve learned.

You might also be interested in: Blooms Taxonomy

What are the Four Steps in Social Learning Theory?

The four steps in the Social Learning Theory of Bandura are attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

Step 1: Attention

The behavior of the model must grab the learner’s attention for them to notice the behavior and to implement observational learning. People are exposed to lots of behaviors in their immediate environment daily, and they don’t learn everything that is happening around them.

It must grab the person’s attention to become an unusual behavior to observe e.g., a parent rewarding a sibling for a specific behavior opposed to punishment or sitting still while listening to a lecture that doesn’t interest you. They pay attention to that which they deem important.

Step 2: Retention

Retention is how well the behavior is remembered. If there is no memory of the behavior observed, there is nothing to be retained for reproducing the behavior. Retention is an internal memory event that is essential for learning a new behavior.

Imitation of the behavior immediately after seen, is not enough to establish a behavior. People may soon forget it as needless information, and there won’t be any memory to refer to in the future. No change will occur if they don’t remember how to imitate the action.

Step 3: Reproduction

Reproduction is the ability to execute the model’s behavior. You may want to reproduce the behaviors of a person you admire. Still, if you don’t have the ability, you won’t be able to irrespective of how often you observe the model’s behavior, how much reinforcement occurs, and how well you retain it as a memory.

If you don’t have the ability, it doesn’t matter how many times you try to enact what you observed, e.g., a Kindergarten student may reproduce their teacher’s friendly attitude. Still, they don’t have the ability or skill to jump as high as an Olympian athlete.

Step 4: Motivation

Even though a person may have the ability to reproduce the behavior, they must have the desire or will to do it. People are more motivated to mimic the behavior if the behavior is rewarded with something that has more value than the effort to reproduce the behavior. If the behavior is followed by punishment, people are less ly to imitate the behavior.

During the Bobo Dolls experiment, the kids were more inclined to repeat the aggressive modeling when the adults were rewarded for their behavior than when punished. Receiving a reward may motivate them to copy what they had observed, but punishment had the opposite effect.

Bandura’s research also showed kids were motivated to imitate the psychical and verbal actions of others. They also saw that kids were more inclined to imitate people similar to them as the same gender.

The retention and reproduction steps of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory resembles cognitive concepts. Paying attention to the model’s behavior is typical of a behavioral learning theory social role, the first step of observing before they imitate.

What are the Two Types of Social Learning?

The Social Learning Theory combines or acts as a bridge between two types of learning theories. Behavioral learning believes that learning is how the individual responds to environmental stimuli. Cognitive learning, however, assumes that psychological factors determine to learn.

Behaviorist Model

Behaviorism is the traditional theory social learning models use to explain the way people learn. It was assumed behavior is learned when a person observes the behavior of someone, the model, and then replicate it. The theory is external stimulus-response to the environment but does not consider internal human behavior.

Bandura’s social theory of learning overlapped, including some of the behaviorist learning theories, he also included principles from the cognitive understanding of the learning processes.

Cognitive Theory

Thought, understanding, and perception are cognitive functions that influence the intrinsic reinforcement of learning. The cognitive theory attempts to understand the relationship between mental activities and physical actions of behavior. Theorists believed that existing knowledge in memory might guide and help students to make new knowledge meaningful.

The model includes a mediational process where a mental event occurs the input received. The result is a behavior seen outwardly. Responding to the stimulus requires a step of thinking occurring related to what was observed. Motivation to respond is decided internally, whether it is worthwhile to practice the new behavior or not.

Who Came Up With the Social Learning Theory?

Albert Bandura is a Canadian-born American psychologist who is best known for the Social Learning Theory, which was later published in book form by Englewood Cliffs in 1977. He revised it in 1986, calling the new Social Learning Theory, Social Cognitive Theory. He is also known for his famous Bobo experiments.

When he graduated from high school, his parents gave him the option to stay and work in a small town or achieve and make every effort for further education. While studying biology at the University of British Columbia, he accidentally stumbled on psychology.

He was working at a woodwork plant in the afternoon and attended class in the morning. He was commuting with other students who had classes earlier in the morning. Bandura chose psychology as a filler course to bide time.

Within three years, he graduated with the Bolocan Award in psychology.

“The Psychology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths” was an article he published in 1982 where he spoke how personal initiative could shape circumstances and the direction their life takes.

He earned his MA degree and Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. He accepted a position at Stanford University where studies on aggression interested him and led him to his social learning theory.

How is Social Learning Theory Applied in the Classroom?

Students in a classroom may imitate another classmate or the teacher, depending on what motivates them.

Teachers may present themselves as good role models teaching kids with good behavioristic characteristics through their reactions to class incidents. If a teacher is neat and tidy, doesn’t get angry, and is always friendly, the children may follow the teacher’s lead and imitate the behavior.

Working in groups may cause new behaviors. A student who tends to procrastinate may observe another hardworking student. They may conclude that the student has better test results and receives approval and rewards they desire. It may motivate the child to imitate that student.

For More Reading:

Bandura, A. & Walters, R. (1963). Social Learning and Personality Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.


A skill to be worked at: using social learning theory to explore the process of learning from role models in clinical settings

How Social Learning Theory Works

Having presented the codes, themes and illustrative quotes from the interview transcripts, these will now be discussed in further detail.

Being present and involved

Despite needing to be physically present and able to see the action some students reported feeling in the way ‘lemons’ or ‘ghosts’, suggesting they needed their participation to be legitimised. They described that legitimacy as coming from being given a specific role, such as taking a history from a patient.

Anita, for example, described being asked by a consultant to sit and chat with a patient whilst she ate her breakfast. For the student this proved to be a rich and memorable learning experience. This purposeful role gave her an involved perspective from which to observe and maintained her attention.

Lave and Wenger [14] refer to the way that newcomers to a community of practice learn by participating as legitimate peripheral participation.

But opportunities for legitimate peripheral participation need to be created for medical students and the value of this should not be underestimated as the quotes from students’ demonstrated.

Teachers were also aware of this need to actively involve students, particularly those less confident ones, but due to time pressures this was not always possible. Most teachers agreed that some role models were easy to identify — what Abigail referred to as ‘superstars’.

But there was an acknowledgement that other role models might be more useful, particularly in the early stages.

Therefore, as has been found in other research [8] signposting less obvious behaviours, such as at what point and how junior doctors involve senior colleagues was important.

Continuity of and exposure to role models

Barriers to paying attention included lack of continuous exposure to any one role model or patient, meaning that students could not truly analyse role model’s behaviours or evaluate the impact of that behaviour on others. Attending to patterns in role models’ practice takes time and for some the short phases that tend to characterise medical students’ clinical rotations made this difficult.

Where role models had facilitated more continuous observations of their practice the educational value of this could be recognised by students.

For some students, their experience aligned well with Gioia and Manz assertion that “if an observer is to learn effectively from a model it is important for the model to be credible, reasonably successful, clearly display the behaviour to be learned, and otherwise facilitate the attention process.” ([15]: 528).

Teachers also commented on the fragmented nature of clinical rotations.

Difficulty in identifying patterns in behaviour and forming relationships created by lack of continuous exposure to role models seemed to be disruptive and demotivating for both students and teachers.

Being aware of these challenges to attendance and opportunities to observe was important. Faculty also needed to be present in order for students to observe their practice, although as Iris pointed out, clinical teachers were still role modelling even if absent.

Aligned values

The students reported paying close attention when they observed a behaviour that aligned with their views of what was important about being a doctor. For Emily, the positive reactions she observed from her role model’s patients were more important than them having a long list of publications.

The artificial separation of scientific and medical knowledge from skills and attitudes within medical curricula can be confusing and students saw clinical rotations as a place to learn how to bring these elements of a doctor’s practice together, although they found it difficult.


There is an enormous amount for a learner to take on board when in a clinical setting and they cannot possibly be expected to retain everything they observe. In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed learners seek cues to work out what is important to retain and develop strategies for doing so.

Learning the language

Students spoke about comprehending and retaining the unfamiliar clinical language that they heard their role models use. This sometimes involved looking it up later or consulting peers.

Particularly useful role models deliberately helped students to learn the language and develop the way they communicated in the clinical setting.

Understanding thought processes

Students talked about how they valued their role models giving insight into their thought processes as this enabled them to understand the reasoning behind the behaviours they were observing, including coping with uncertainty, and helped them to make sense of and retain the particular learning point.

Liam, who other students talked about the importance of being able to relate to their role models, attributed this relatability, in part, to him and his role models thinking a. This seems connected to the point made earlier about the attractiveness of aligned values between role models and observers.

Meaningful reflection

Reflection is widely acknowledged as aiding development, but how do learners make use of reflection when learning from their role models? Even though Jason claimed not to be ‘a fan of formal reflection’ he had clearly developed a critically reflective approach to help him extract personal value from what he had observed and imitate aspects of it before deciding what to retain.

Stefan also talked about the importance of authentic reflection and the role of teachers in creating space and support for students to evaluate what has been observed in clinical settings.

Writing it down

Liam described a particularly systematic approach to aid retention and processing of what had been observed, clearly guided by his role model.

Such strategies were encouraged and signposted by teachers, with Melanie referring to use of an advanced organiser [16] to help students consciously retain what they observed.

She described an example in which she asked students who were observing her on a busy labour ward to write down a few things they noticed her doing or questions she asked the patient and then, importantly, got them to reflect on why they noticed these specific things or why they thought them important.

Facilitating this metacognitive process, whereby students are required to think about what and how they are learning through observation, may also enable teachers to reinforce or ‘correct’ important take away messages.

Opportunity to practice

The opportunity for hands-on practice has been reported as lacking from some clinical-based learning experiences [17] In our study students talked about being given the opportunity to put into practice the behaviours and strategies that they had observed in their role models. Some needed help to recognise opportunities or to be given permission to take advantage of opportunities and to participate in a legitimate and meaningful way.

Giving students opportunity to legitimately participate in the team may involve considering the roles and expectations of the existing clinical team.

Most students recognised the need to be proactive about identifying and creating their own opportunities for practice and some had strategies for arranging these.

Students’ also highlighted the value of being supported by a role model to identify in advance, in a systematic way, tasks and skills that they could learn through modelling and observation with opportunity for practice.


When referring to opportunities to put into practice the techniques that they had observed, students highlighted the value of feedback that both reinforced desired behaviours and suggested aspects for development, especially where it was highly contextualised and immediate.

Shivani talked about making use of the student perspective and adopting a more dialogic approach to feedback [18] on what has been observed in way that could offer suggestions for development for both teachers and students.

Observing other’s responses — vicarious reinforcement and punishment

Two further interesting and useful concepts from Bandura’s social learning theory are vicarious reinforcement and vicarious punishment.

Bandura proposed that when observing others we not only learn from their behaviour but also from the reactions of other people to the role model’s behaviour. This is potentially a very efficient way to learn as it allows us to learn from others’ mistakes.

Our student interviewees identified a number of examples of being vicariously reinforced or punished and described how the reactions of patients, colleagues or fellow students influenced their decisions to reproduce behaviours they observed.

For example, Liam, who was vicariously reinforced having closely observed this paediatrician, chose to adopt his communication technique as a result of the calming effect it appeared to have on children.

Conversely an example of vicarious punishment refers to what Jason considered to be brusque treatment of a patient. He was vicariously punished by the interaction between a role model and patient and as a result talked about wanting to deliberately avoid reproducing this behaviour in his own practice because of the patient’s reaction.

Jason also highlighted barriers that interruptions in exposure to patients and clinicians poses for students wanting to convert observation into practice. It appears to be important to create opportunities for students to observe outcomes of interactions (or for them to be discussed), as well as seeing the behaviour that led to them.

Students reported receiving mixed messages about appropriate behaviour through vicarious reinforcement.

As Iris commented the less desirable behaviours observed in clinical settings can have a powerful influence, a view supported by Gibson [5], who highlights the value of learning from negative traits as well as positive aspects of role models.

Furthermore Bucher and Stelling [19] found, to their surprise, that rather than identifying complete roles models amongst their senior colleagues, as had been assumed, medical students actively identified specific attributes to emulate and to reject, in a process of creating a vision of their ‘ideal selves’.

Clinical teachers recognised that students made decisions about who were useful role models on the basis of vicarious reinforcement. in the form of successful clinical outcomes, and/or positive reactions from patients and colleagues. Stefan spoke about how students might use clinical outcomes to judge the value of a particular behaviour when deciding whether to adopt or adapt them.


Student also saw satisfaction and reward in being part of the reciprocal role model cycle themselves and referred regularly to the culture of peer support in medical school.

In terms of closing the reciprocal loop Liam, for example, also talked about how he sent a letter, email or card to his role models to thank them.

However, in general it is unclear how aware role models are of the influence they have on those observing them and indeed how they could be more effective.

Clinical teachers commented that they seldom received direct feedback on the impact of their role modelling but Shivani recalled that students had commented on how she had interacted with a patient thus highlighting for her the value medical students derived from being able to closely observe a role model in action. Feedback on how role models have influenced those around them is potentially an important of untapped source of evaluation data.


Whilst this paper has emphasised the benefits of modelling and observational learning, students also highlighted the limitations. This included that the ability to imitate the actions of others and carry out clinical tasks might not be accompanied by underpinning clinical knowledge or rationale in the mind of the learner.

Another limitation is created by the lack of constructive alignment [20] between the formal undergraduate medical curricula, often with an emphasis on gaining knowledge and exam-based assessment, and the authentic, skills-based learning in the clinical setting. This resulted in some learners prioritising revision for their exams over taking the opportunity to learn from observation in the clinical setting.

Finally the unfamiliar and haphazard nature of observational learning opportunities in the clinical settings proved challenging for students to identify and follow to their logical conclusion thus limiting the learning process that Bandura describes.

Even when student interviewees described successful learning having taken place it became apparent that they were often not in control of, or even conscious of, the process occurring, let alone able to guide themselves through the four stages identified by Bandura.


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