Social Cognitive Theory: 10 Examples and Overview

Article Summary

  1. Key Idea: SCT examines the influence of cognitive processes and environmental factors on behavior.
  2. Origins: SCT evolved from Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment, which demonstrated that children learn aggressive behavior through observing and imitating adults.
  3. Competing Theory: SCT differs from behaviorism in that it accounts for cognitive processes in learning, unlike behaviorism that focuses only on observable behaviors.
  4. Applicability: SCT finds application in various fields, including health behavior and promotion and mass media studies. For example, it informs understanding of the influence of media portrayals on viewer behavior and attitudes.

Social-cognitive theory (SCT) is a theory of learning that examines how cognitive processes and environmental factors influence behavior.

The theory considers how the individual’s past experiences, including reinforcements and interpretations of the environment through individual-specific cognitive processes, combine to shape expectations and behavior in any given situation.

An individual’s behavior shapes the environment, which in turn has a reciprocating influence on the person’s cognitions and behavior.

The theory emphasizes the interaction between behavioral, environmental, and individual factors.

This interaction is sometimes referred to as reciprocal determinism or triadic determinism.

SCT has widespread applications in psychology, education, and health promotion.

Origins of Social Cognitive Theory

Albert Bandura is usually identified as the creator of social-cognitive theory as it stems from his work on observational learning and was further delineated in his 1977 book, Social Learning Theory.

As Bandura stated:

“Social learning theory approaches the explanation of human behavior in terms of a continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental determinants. Both people and their environments are reciprocal determinants of each other” (p. vii).

The name changed from social learning theory to social cognitive theory in 1986 to emphasize the role of cognitive factors.

At the heart of SCT is the concept of observational learning. In the 1960s Bandura and colleagues conducted a series of experiments known today as the Bobo Doll studies (Bandura et al., 1963).

Children watched a video of an adult either acting very aggressively or passively towards a large inflatable doll, called a Bobo doll at the time.

In the aggressive condition, the adult hit the doll with a mallet and kicked it several times. In the passive condition, the adult carried the doll around the room and played with it gently.

Afterward, each child was taken to another room that had a Bobo doll. The results showed that children that observed the aggressive adult were also aggressive. They imitated the adult’s behavior. However, the children that observed the passive adult, also played gently with the doll.

In addition to helping form the foundation of Bandura’s social learning theory, and subsequent social-cognitive theory, the study helped spark intense debate in society regarding the impact of television violence.

The study also had implications for the debate within psychology regarding the role of cognitive processes.

social cognitive theory examples and definition, explained below

10 Social Cognitive Theory Examples

  • Teacher Expectations: Students that a teacher expects to do well often do. The teacher interacts them differently when expectations are high than when expectations are low. In turn, this affects the student’s behavior and academic performance.
  • Poor Leadership Style: When a supervisor has a negative impression of their employees they tend to talk to them in an unfriendly and cynical tone. This demotivates the staff and makes them less productive, which in turn, confirms the supervisor’s theory about the staff and perpetuates their demeanor.
  • Instilling Confidence in the Team: Even when facing overwhelming odds against tough competition, a coach keeps the tone positive and optimistic. They try to build confidence in the team so they believe they can win. This will affect their performance on the field and perhaps cascade into victory.
  • Reinforcing Attention-Seeking Behavior: A student wants attention from the teacher so they act-out and disrupt class. This leads to the teacher scolding the student. Although scolding is a form of punishment, for the child it is a reward because they are receiving the attention they wanted. Hence, they act-up more frequently.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A student lacks confidence and is dreading an upcoming chemistry exam. Because they feel that their effort will be useless, they don’t study much at all. They end up failing the exam, which simply confirms what they expected.
  • Banning Cigarette Ads: Because observational learning is so powerful and media advertising so effective, television commercials advertising smoking were banned in the U. S. in 1971.     
  • Infant Temperament and Maternal Bonding: Babies with fussy temperaments cry easily. This can make it difficult for the mother to form a positive emotional bond with their baby. This makes the infant feel less secure, which may lead to more crying.
  • In Dating: A young man that lacks confidence approaches a prospective date. He is nervous and starts to stutter. The young lady is unimpressed and responds accordingly. This shakes his confidence even further and makes his next attempt even more challenging.
  • Paying it Forward: One customer in a drive-thru just won a small amount of money in the lottery. So, they tell the cashier they want to pay for the meal of the next customer. The next customer feels surprised and delighted, and decides to continue the gesture and pay for the next car in line. This chain of events continues as each customer affects the actions of those that follow.
  • Reciprocal Negativity: One spouse makes an unflattering remark about their partner’s work habits. This leads to a return criticism regarding a recent career setback. The exchange of hostilities quickly escalates into a full-blown argument and threats of relationship termination.

See More: Social Cognition Examples

Key Components of Social Cognitive Theory

1. Observation and Modeling

A central tenet of SCT is that human beings learn by observing others; others being referred to as models. Models can be observed directly or through the media (see also: behavior modeling theory).

Taking note of the actions of models and the consequences they experience can affect the likelihood that the individual will engage in similar action.

If the model is rewarded for their behavior, then the individual is more likely to imitate them; whereas if the model is punished, then the individual is less likely to follow.

Furthermore, characteristics of the model are also important. Models that are similar to the observer, respected and admired, or considered experts are more likely to affect behavior.

2. Mediating Factors in Observation

SCT identifies four primary factors in observational learning: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

  • Attention: First, in order for learning to occur, a person must be paying attention. If distracted or inattentive to the model’s behavior, then learning will not occur.
  • Retention: Secondly, the information must be retained and stored in memory(i.e., retention).
  • Reproduction: Next, the observer must be capable of performing the behavior. An individual may, or may not, have the skills or knowledge to reproduce the model’s actions.
  • Motivation: Finally, the observer must want to reproduce the model’s behavior. Motivation can come from wanting to attain a reward or avoid a punishment.

3. Outcome Expectancies

Even if the individual is both capable and motivated to reproduce an observed action, they may still not attempt to do so because of their expectations regarding the outcome.

If an individual believes that reproducing the observed action will lead to negative or undesirable consequences, they are less likely to mimic it.

Similarly, even when an action is within the individual’s abilities and they are driven to perform it, they may refrain if they expect that the action will not result in any significant reward or benefit. In other words, our decisions to enact certain behaviors are not solely determined by our capabilities or motivations, but also by our predictions about the potential outcomes.

As Bandura argues:

“Response consequences affect the motivation to perform given activities by creating beliefs about the effects actions are likely to have under different circumstances. People select courses of action within their perceived capabilities and sustain their efforts partly on the basis of such outcome expectations” (Bandura, 1986, p. 230).

4. Self-Efficacy

Outcome expectancies are directly tied to self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to exert control over a particular situation.

Individuals with a high degree of self-efficacy regarding the outcome of a particular situation are more likely to act. When experiencing a setback, they are more resilient and likely to persist.

Individuals that lack self-efficacy are more likely to avoid a challenging situation all together, and if attempted, they are more likely to give-up after experiencing failure.

Social Cognitive Theory vs Behaviorism

In the mid-20th century, the dominant theory of learning in psychology was behaviorism, based on the work of Pavlov and Skinner. This theory was directly challenged by SCT. Behaviorism argued that psychologists should only study observable behaviors, while SCT holds that we can also study unobservable cognitive thought.

A core tenet of behaviorism is that if psychology was to be a scientific discipline, then it should only concern itself with the study of observable behavior.

References to thoughts and feelings, and especially ids and egos, were to be avoided because it was not possible to measure those constructs in a scientific manner.

As Watson (1913) put it so directly,

“Psychology, as the behaviorist views it, is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics” (p. 176).

However, Bandura’s research clearly showed that behavior could be learned through observation alone, a purely cognitive exercise. The children in the Bobo doll studies did not need to directly experience reinforcement to learn.

Bandura’s research demonstrated that cognitive processes could in fact be studied scientifically and have proven value as a psychological construct.

As research on cognitive processes became more prevalent, the field of cognitive psychology emerged.

Ulric Neisser helped usher in the field in his 1967 book Cognitive Psychology and once stated that:

“Cognitive processes surely exist, so it can hardly be unscientific to study them” (p. 5).  

He offered an elaborate definition of cognitive psychology, with key points quoted below:

“The term cognition refers to all processes by which sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, recovered, and used…Giving such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do” (p. 4).

Although cognitive processes and behaviorism may be viewed as dichotomous, SCT can be viewed as a bridge between the two theoretical orientations (Mimiaga et al., 2009).

SCT allows for the interaction between internal cognitive factors and external determinants such as rewards and punishments in determining behavior.

Applications of Social Cognitive Theory

1. In Health Behavior and Promotion

SCT has been utilized as a valuable theoretical framework for studying predictors of health behavior and promoting healthy habits.

For example, SCT helps predict adherence to doctor’s treatment recommendations in patients suffering from cardiac disease (Clark & Dodge, 1999) and diabetes (Stewart et al., 2003; Williams & Bond, 2002).

Self-efficacy predicts physical activity in adolescents as determined by objective measures (Strauss et al., 2001), in young adults based on self-report (Dishman et al. 1992), and senior citizens (Booth et al., 2000).

In a thorough literature review, Luszczynska and Schwarzer (2015) outlined the results of numerous other studies that applied SCT to nutrition and weight control, detective behaviors such as breast self-examination (BSE), and overcoming addictive behaviors such as smoking.

2. In Mass Media Studies

The role of observational learning has particular application to media studies. Observed models can affect the attitudes and behaviors of viewers, which may have intended and unintended affects (Pajares et al., 2009).

Gidwani et al. (2002) surmised that the positive correlation between television viewing and smoking was due to the prevalence of smoking behavior being portrayed as positive, while rarely portraying the negative consequences.

Harrison and Cantor (1997) point to distorted body images that appear in mass media as a driving force behind unhealthy dietary behavior and eating disorders of young females.

Other research has examined media portrayals of gender and racial stereotypes (Graves, 1999; Mastro & Stern, 2003), including Asian males and black females (Schug et al. 2017).

At the same time, the media can also build self-efficacy to engage in positive health behaviors by presenting step-by-step instructions, encouragement, and modeling appropriate target behaviors to prevent drunk-driving (Anderson, 1995), and breast self-examination (Anderson & McMillon, 1995).


Bandura’s social cognitive theory provides a comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding and predicting social behavior. The model incorporates principles of behaviorism and cognitive psychology.

The concept of reciprocal determinism is a central component of SCT which postulates that characteristics of the individual, their behavior, and the environment, all have bidirectional influences that continuously affect each other.

Key components of SCT, especially modeling of observed behavior and self-efficacy, have been applied to the study of health behavior and promotion, as well as the positive and negative effects of the media.


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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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