Social Learning Theory postulates that people can learn by observing others. For example, we learn table manners by observing our parents at the dinner table.
Today, the theory is widely taught to educators in order to demonstrate how modelling, demonstrating, and being a role-model are vital in the educational process.
Social Learning Theory Definition
The social learning theory is a theory in social psychology that was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura (1977) at a time when classical conditioning and operant conditioning were the most prominent perspectives on human behavior.
Bandura thought that these theories were valuable, but failed to take into account the role of cognitive processes and social factors.
According to social learning theory there are four primary factors in learning (Sherry & Berge, 2012):
- Attention – First, in order for learning to occur, a person must be paying attention. If they are distracted or unable to input the information from the environment, then learning will not occur.
- Retention – Then, the information must be retained and stored in memory (i.e., retention).
- Reproduction – Next, being able to perform an observed behavior is not always possible. Each person has limitations and may need practice in order to reproduce the actions they have observed.
- Motivation – Finally, a person must be motivated to perform the observed behavior. Motivation can come from wanting a reward or to avoid punishment.
The characteristics of the person being observed are also important. Models that are experts, important to the observer, or rewarded for their actions are much more likely to be imitated.
Social Learning Theory Examples
1. The Bobo Doll Study
By far the most famous example of Bandura’s social learning theory was his research involving a Bobo doll.
Bandura had different children watch a video of an adult playing with a Bobo doll. In one version of the video, the adult struck the doll with a mallet and kicked it several times. In another version, the adult carried the doll around the room and played gently.
Afterwards, each child was taken to another room that happened to have a Bobo doll. The results showed that children that observed the adult be aggressive towards the doll, were also aggressive.
They imitated the adult’s social behavior. However, the children that watched the video of the adult playing gently with the doll, imitated their behavior.
This type of study demonstrates that children learn by observing. The study also helped start a very intense debate in society about television violence.
In later decades, social learning theory merged with cognitive approaches to develop the social cognitive theory.
2. Social Media Trends
A more modern example of social learning theory happens on social media all over the world.
First, one person does some kind of interesting trick and posts a video of themselves doing it. For example, maybe someone unscrews the cap on a water bottle by doing a round-house kick to spin the cap and make it fall off.
It’s not an easy thing to do. You have to swing your foot precisely, grazing the cap enough to make it spin, but not so hard as to knock the bottle over.
After the video goes all over the internet, there will be tons of other people, even celebrities, doing the same trick and posting a video proving that they can do it too; a perfect example of learning, and reproducing behavior, by observing.
3. The New Employee
Whenever someone is new on the job, there are a lot of things to learn. In addition to learning the basics of performing one’s job, there are also unwritten rules to follow, which are learned through observation.
For example, how often do people chat with each other, does everyone leave exactly at 5:00 o’clock, is it common for people to bring their own coffee or does everyone use what is supplied by the company.
Unfortunately, there is usually no handbook for the new guy to read so that they can quickly fit in. So, new employees need to be observant; watch what others do and take a lot of mental notes.
No one wants to go against the grain of the office culture, so observing colleagues is a great way to learn. It’s also a great example of Bandura’s social learning theory.
4. Perfect Form at the Gym
Not everyone at the gym knows what they’re doing. Believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to lift weights. To learn the right way, we need to observe!
If your feet are not positioned properly, or your back not straight and firm enough, somebody could get hurt. That person could be you or the person whose toes you just dropped a dumbbell on.
So, one good way to learn the right form is to watch a trainer who is working with one of their clients. By watching how the trainer is positioning their client’s feet and other body parts, a person can learn proper technique.
Although this kind of learning is cheating the trainer out of their fee, it is something that a lot of people do to learn proper form.
5. Cooking Shows
The number of cooking shows on television is staggering. There must be hundreds. You can learn how to cook just about any meal from any culture just by watching the right episode.
The chef will take viewers through the entire process of preparing a great dish. They demonstrate the proper way to chop and slice, or how thick or thin one should cut. The chef always shows how much of this or that kind of seasoning go in the pan and when.
Viewers at home can literally follow along in their own kitchen if they want. All they have to do is turn on the tele and imitate the steps demonstrated by the chef. When all is done, you will have a meal that tastes just as fantastic as if it were prepared by Gordon Ramsay himself.
6. Playdough in the Classroom
Every kindergarten teacher knows how much children love to play with playdough. But of course, most kids this age really don’t know how to make anything other than a lumpy wad. So, it’s up to the teacher to show the class how to make something. It’s up to the kids to pay attention.
The teacher will demonstrate how much dough to start with and how to make the basic shape. Then they will show how to use one of the tools to add some features. Eventually the teacher will have demonstrated the entire process step-by-step.
Of course, most children will need a little help, but some will be able to imitate the teacher’s actions surprisingly well.
7. Computer Class in the Lab
Learning by observing plays a key role in many computer classes. A typical computer lab will include the teacher’s computer screen being projected to the front of the classroom.
The teacher will demonstrate how to perform various functions and the students will follow along at their individual stations.
It is a much better way of learning than a relying on a verbal mode of instruction or reading about the steps in a thick textbook. Learning how to do something by observing another person demonstrating the actions is incredibly efficient.
It is also a purely cognitive process, and for this reason, it offers an explanation of learning that operant and classical conditioning cannot.
8. Chimpanzee Tool Use
Social learning theory is not just limited to explaining human behavior. As it turns out, lots of other animal species learn through observation as well. For example, chimp mothers show their offspring how to use a variety of tools.
They demonstrate a technique of harvesting termites by using a twig like a fishing pole. First, they insert the twig down the tunnel of a termite hill. When they pull the twig out, it is covered in termites, which the chimps then consume.
Chimps also use rocks to crack open nuts. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Scientists have noted that the younger chimps will observe their mother for quite some time before mastering the technique themselves.
9. Cultural Habits and Customs
There are some aspects of human behavior which are clearly examples of our biology, such as eating and sleeping. We all do it in pretty much the same way no matter where we were born. However, we are also products of our culture.
There are many examples of human behavior which vary greatly from culture to culture. Take for example, the way people greet others, the variations in gender roles, or differences in musical preferences.
Although many of these behaviors are becoming quite similar due to globalization, the differences can still be very pronounced.
This is because of cultural factors that people are exposed to as they are raised in a particular country. As we grow, we observe the nuances of the culture in which we live. As time progresses, we begin to internalize those cultural practices and then display them ourselves.
Imitating cultural habits and customs is process of learning by observing.
10. Language Acquisition
When children begin to learn how to speak, they do so through observational learning.
Long before going to school and learning grammar rules about dangling participles, children have built a vocabulary of thousands of words and are already speaking in grammatically correct sentences.
This is all accomplished by observing those around them. When the adults or older siblings speak, the young child is processing the sounds cognitively and imitating what they hear. More than likely, their pronunciation or sentence structure will be corrected by a parent, and their language skills will improve.
Language acquisition meets all of the conditions of social learning theory.
11. Workplace Learning
Workplace learning is very different from learning in a classroom. In the workplace, we do a lot more learning through social interaction and observation.
Scholars like Lave and Wegner argue that this approach is beneficial for learners because they learn within a context. They don’t just learn academic jargon; they actually know why they’re doing things and how to do them in real life.
For example, an electrician can spend all day studying electrical circuits on a piece of paper, but he (or she!) only really gets a good idea of how to run wires through a wall, and the dexterity to tie wires together, when he gets in there and learns as an apprentice from an experienced electrician who has developed tricks and tips over decades of practice.
12. YouTube Tutorial Videos
You can learn how to do just about anything on YouTube. Want to know how to prepare a leaky faucet or refinish hardwood floors? YouTube is the place to look. Want to pick up some useful tips on Photoshop or video editing? Give YouTube a try.
Having trouble understanding multivariate analysis of variance and regression coefficients? There is a YouTube video for that as well.
Watching a video is a fantastic and incredibly efficient way to learn. There was a time that if you wanted to learn how to do something, you had to either go to a school or hire a professional to teach you. Not any longer.
YouTube contains millions of examples of social learning theory in action.
13. Athlete Training
Certain elite sports require a degree of finesse. Gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming, all involve going through a carefully scripted sequence of movements. The more precise the routine, the better the performance.
To achieve this level of precision requires a lot of practice and some very special training techniques. For example, coaches will almost always tape their athletes during rehearsals or actual performances.
The coach and athlete will watch the footage and try to identify which movements were performed well and which need modifying. By observing themselves on video the athlete learns how to improve. Then, they will rehearse again and make another recording to study. It is a long and arduous process.
Although this is an example in which the model demonstrating the behavior is not another person, but the learner themselves, it’s still an example of social learning theory.
14. Learning How to Hunt
Lion cubs can’t exactly listen to their mom and dad’s lectures on how to hunt. They can, however, watch carefully.
By observing the stalking movements of their mother, young cubs can learn how to approach prey in a stealth-like silence. Inching forward bit-by-bit, staying low in the tall grass, and getting as close as possible before springing into action are all learned by observing.
Although Bandura probably did not intend for his social learning theory to apply to the animal kingdom, it clearly has explanatory value. In fact, there are probably examples of social learning theory in action in nearly all mammalian species.
15. Handling Conflict
The socio-emotional development of a child is highly dependent on the adults in their lives. Children learn almost everything from mom and dad. They watch carefully and then imitate everything they see.
Sometimes parents are amazed when a child repeats something they said while they were in the other side of the house.
Sometimes this is lighthearted, and sometimes it’s not. For example, when parents fight, children are well aware of what is happening. Even if they are in another room, they seem to have a sixth sense about what’s going on.
So, when mom and dad have disagreements that are destructive and involve yelling loudly and hurling insults, you can be absolutely sure that the children are absorbing those patterns of behavior.
They might not repeat those actions for years, maybe even not until they are adults and in relationships themselves, but those actions do have an impact.
Bandura’s social learning theory was an attempt to include the whole human being in our theories of behavior. The dominant theories of the time, classical and operant conditioning, almost viewed people as computers that were programmed through associations and rewards.
Social learning theory says that one very fundamental way that people learn, is by simple observation. Of course, rewards and associations are also important, but a more complete understanding of human behavior must also take into account cognitive processes.
We can see examples of learning by observation every day of our lives, from how children learn to talk or make things out of playdough, to the dangers of watching role models smoke on television. Social learning theory has explanatory value for so much of our behavior.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Prentice Hall.
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Sherry, D. L., & Berge, Z. L. (2012). Social Learning Theory. Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning, 3116-3118. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_1257
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