Registration for Inspire 2024 is now open!

Register now

Social learning

Social learning

Table of Contents

    In today’s knowledge economy, people talk a lot about learning: learning culture, learning organization, and learning management systems. 

    But how do we learn?  

    This is a question that learning theorists have tried to answer for a very long time.

    Learning is a complex phenomenon, and naturally, there are many theories on how people observe new behaviors and imitate them. 

    One of the more enduring explanations is Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. 

    We break down this complex idea and give you:

    • The definition of social learning theory 
    • Its four basic principles  
    • Examples of social learning in action 
    • Strengths and weaknesses of social learning theory 
    • Real-life applications of social learning theory
    • The main criticisms of Albert Bandura’s work 

    Now, let’s get right into it and see what exactly Bandura brought to the table and why it matters.


    What is social learning theory?

    Social learning theory was first proposed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s. It emphasizes the importance of the social and cognitive aspects in the process of learning. 

    Now, that sounds quite academic. But don’t worry—we’ll break it down now. 

    As a child, you probably often observed what your parents were doing and then tried to do it yourself.

    Or, perhaps you observed the consequences of a behavior (let’s say something negative such as touching a hot stove and decided against it. 

    This is observational learning, and it’s one of the basic components of the social learning theory. 

    In the latter half of the 20th century, the most influential school in learning theory was behaviorism, advanced by social psychologists such as B.F. Skinner. 

    They thought that learning is a result of direct experience with the environment and the processes of conditioning, reinforcement, and punishment.  

    On the other hand, Albert Bandura believed that this type of direct reinforcement can’t fully explain how people learn new behaviors. 

    To prove this, he designed the now-famous Bobo doll experiment. A group of children observed the interactions of an adult with a clown doll named Bobo. When the adult acted aggressively toward the doll and hit it, the children imitated this observed behavior.

    The key thing here is that the children were not told what to do with the doll and were not given any positive or negative reinforcement.  

    The experiment shows that learning is possible just by observing what others do. 

    Then, Bandura outlined the four basic assumptions of social learning theory:

    • People learn through observation: they do not have to participate directly in something for a learning experience to take place. 
    • Reinforcement and punishment have an indirect role in learning: people can form expectations about the consequences of future behavior based on the negative and positive reactions to current behavior.
    • Mediational processes influence human behavior: cognitive and social processes contribute to whether or not we’ll adopt a new behavior. 
    • Learning doesn’t always lead to a change in behavior: just because we learned something doesn’t mean we’ll adopt it. 

    In the next section, we’ll discuss the four basic principles of social learning theory. 

    What are the 4 principles of social learning theory?

    The main idea of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory is that people learn by observing others, known as models, and imitating their behavior. 

    However, this process isn’t automatic. 

    The main contribution of Albert Bandura to theories of learning, and the difference compared to classic behavioral theories, is that he examined what happens between someone observing the model and the decision to imitate or not imitate the behavior of others. 

    To understand this, and the cognitive factors at play, we need to look at the principles of social learning theory which are: 

    • Attention: paying attention to certain social behaviors based on the relevance and value of the behaviors and our cognitive abilities and preconceptions. 
    • Retention: retaining the sequence of behaviors and consequences, and retrieving them for future imitation.
    • Production: repeating the behavior in different social contexts and getting feedback from others so we can adjust our behavior in the future. 
    • Motivation: motivation to repeat learned behaviors based on social responses and positive or negative consequences we receive from others. Behavior can also change based on observing the consequences of the behavior of others in a process called vicarious reinforcement. 

    Up next, are some examples of how all this shakes out in practice.

    Examples of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory

    Social learning is happening all around you. For instance, when children learn new behaviors by observing their parents or peers or when people repeat behaviors they saw in movies or on social media. 

    Since social learning theory explains the very basics of the learning process, you can find examples of it across different social contexts. 

    One of the most basic and important examples of social learning in real life is the process through which children learn. 

    While children are often directly instructed in right and wrong behaviors, they also learn a lot just by observing role models. These role models can be their parents, other adults, their peers, or even fictional characters. 

    Children observe behaviors and copy them, then change the learned behaviors based on positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. 

    Additionally, they can learn through vicarious reinforcement—if a child observes their older sibling punished for a certain behavior they don’t need someone to tell them to avoid it or suffer the consequences themselves. 

    This is why most child development experts consider positive role models so important in a child’s life. 

    The world of social media offers a lot of examples of social learning theory in action. Consider how TikTok dances spread from user to user and various viral YouTube challenges. 

    On social media, users can see what others are doing and, in the form of likes and shares, the consequences of that behavior. 

    It’s an especially good example of social learning in action because there’s no one telling people to eat cinnamon or douse themselves in cold water to raise awareness for ALS. 

    Instead, observational learning spreads these behaviors. 

    Not all examples of social learning theory in action are as benign as a TikTok dance, however. This theory explains a lot of criminal behavior too.

    When people see that criminal acts can bring some kind of benefit or that punishments for crimes are too lenient, they might have more motivation to engage in crime themselves. 

    More examples come from the corporate world where workplace social learning often takes place.

    Each company has its own culture, and new employees learn it by observing what others do. This is especially true for those unspoken parts of workplace culture that are not part of corporate training. 

    Similarly to learning about a new job, people also learn when they move to a new country. The social environment is too complex for any verbal instruction to ever truly capture it. 

    This is why immigrants and expats must observe and learn what’s appropriate and what isn’t from the behaviors of others. Of course, when they apply those behaviors themselves, they’ll receive further reinforcement from other people’s reactions. 

    All these examples prove that a person’s behavior doesn’t only come from direct experience. Instead, we can learn and model our behavior on what we see from others or what people tell us through verbal instruction. 

    Whether or not we adopt the behaviors has to do with our mental state and motivation. 

    Up next, are the strengths and weaknesses of the social learning theory.

    Social learning theory: strengths and weaknesses

    No scientific theory is perfect or can explain everything. 

    Here, we weigh up the most important strengths and weaknesses of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. 

    To start with, here are the strengths. Social learning theory:

    • Is empirical (based on experience or observation)
    • Emphasizes social environment 
    • Can explain many different things such as aggressive behavior
    • Has useful real-life applications

    Social learning theory is based on actual experiments (like the Bobo doll experiment), making it deeply rooted in the real world.

    What’s more, it’s one of the first learning theories to recognize the role of social context and cognitive processes in learning. 

    It goes beyond both classical conditioning and operant conditioning, letting researchers look at the internal motivation of learners. 

    Explaining different kinds of behavior is another strength, especially how people pick up positive behaviors as well as negative ones. This is very useful in the field of criminology, for instance.

    Last but not least, it allows for different types of learning—people can learn both through direct experience and observation or vicarious reinforcement. This is especially relevant to corporate training, where employees learn through both formal and informal training.

    On the other hand, there are also some weaknesses in Albert Bandura’s theory:

    • It ignores the role of biological factors
    • It ignores life-span changes
    • It downplays the role of personal accountability
    • It doesn’t account for all behavior 

    Social learning theory is primarily concerned with cognitive processes and the social context. As such, it doesn’t offer any biological explanations of human behavior. 

    Nor does it do much to explain how behaviors change during one’s lifetime. 

    Social learning theory also leans heavily on social explanations for behavior, downplaying the role of personal choice. 

    Finally, it cannot account for all human behavior, such as when people adopt those behaviors even without having a role model to imitate. 

    In the next section, we go over some real-world applications of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. 


    Real-world applications of social learning theory

    Education, social work, and criminology have primarily applied social learning theory since its inception. 

    Scientists have used social learning theory to research how aggressive behavior spreads through observational learning, especially among children. 

    The research looked, for instance, at how violent video games or music can affect behavior through social learning

    Children today have exposure to many different types of behavior through video games, music, TV, and social media. So understanding how they choose which behaviors to imitate can help with promoting positive role models. 

    Remember Captain Planet? That was SLT in action.

    These questions are also useful for social workers who can use insight from Bandura’s theory to design interventions for negative behavior. These interventions take the form of altering reinforcement for different behaviors of children. 

    In the classroom, SLT underpins practices such as encouraging learners or trying to build self-efficacy. 

    Self-efficacy is also interesting in the context of corporate learning. People with high self-efficacy believe they can succeed in various situations. For them, any problem is a challenge to overcome. 

    Those with low self-efficacy avoid difficult problems, don’t develop a keen interest in the things they are participating in, and have less confidence. 

    Any organization that wants a learning culture should look into how it can foster self-efficacy within its ranks. 

    Social learning is an excellent way to turn learning from a top-down activity into a social experience that can boost learner engagement. 

    So, how can you inject social learning into your L&D strategy?

    It all starts with the right tools. 

    A Learning Management System (LMS) with robust social learning capabilities will empower employees to engage in social and informal learning. 

    Take Vision Hospitality Group. This leading hotel management and development group delivers training to a large workforce across multiple states. 

    With Docebo’s Coach and Share solution, it was able to tap into the power of social learning. Employees can now use the LMS to upload their own user-generated training content, such as tutorial videos, how-to guides, and sales meeting recordings, driving peer-to-peer learning.

    This turned learning into a social activity, rather than something pushed from the home office. 

    In general, SLT has been widely applied to many different fields. Anywhere humans interact with other humans, social learning is taking place through processes such as observation and vicarious reinforcement. 

    Social learning theory does a lot to help make sense of how all this works and provides useful and actionable insight for researchers, learning experience designers, and many other professionals. It’s crucial for organizations that want to make a behavioral change or promote certain desired behaviors.

    Up next, we discuss the critique of social learning theory.

    Criticism of the social learning theory

    Like any scientific theory, social learning theory has received its share of criticism over the years. 

    As we mentioned briefly in the strengths and weaknesses section, most of these critiques have to do with its focus on social context over biological factors. Secondly, SLT received criticism for failing to explain how learning takes place in the absence of any role models. 

    Instead, SLT has focused primarily on social context and the cognitive processes in the individual that decide. 

    This focus on cognitive learning is why Bandura renamed the theory the social cognitive learning theory in 1986.

    Nevertheless, the criticisms of SLT or SCT remain. 

    By emphasizing the role of the environment (nurture), SLT ignores potential biological (nature) factors that govern human behavior. Nature versus nurture is a very old debate in social science and one that is far from solved.

    However, the recent discovery of mirror neurons does point to a possible neurological basis for social learning. Research in primates has proved the existence of these mirror neurons that fire both when the animal is doing something itself or is observing the actions of another. 

    While mirror neurons might provide a biological explanation for observational learning, they still cannot explain precisely how people adopt all behaviors.

    Some behavior seems to come out of nowhere; that’s to say, learned without observing a role model. 

    This is likely due to the complex psychological and cognitive processes that exist within every individual. 

    The question of personal responsibility also plagues social learning theory. 

    In the most basic form, observational learning posits that a human being learns which behaviors to adopt based on observation. Whether or not they’ll imitate depends on reinforcement—direct and vicarious. 

    And yet, not all people who grew up in violent environments end up being violent themselves. Not all adolescents in environments with normalization of gang membership actually join a gang. 

    Social learning theory cannot answer these questions well. 

    Still, it remains one of the most influential theories of learning because the points it explains, it explains well. People can indeed learn through observation with vicarious reinforcement as a proven result. 

    Up next, time to recap. 


    Key takeaways

    Social learning theory (or social cognitive theory) explains how people learn by observing the behavior of others. 

    It’s an important update to behaviorist learning theories and has many practical applications in fields such as criminology, education, and corporate learning and development

    While it has received criticism over the decades, it remains one of the best frameworks for understanding human behavior and the learning process.

    If you’d like to know more about different learning theories, take a look at our glossary where you can find a wealth of information on the subject.