Albert Bandura is an influential social cognitive psychologist who is perhaps best known for his social learning theory, the concept of self-efficacy, and his famous Bobo doll experiments. He is a Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and is widely regarded as one of the greatest living psychologists.
One 2002 survey ranked him as the fourth most influential psychologist of the twentieth century, behind only B.F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget.
Albert Bandura’s Early Life
Albert Bandura was born on December 4, 1925, in a small Canadian town located approximately 50 miles from Edmonton. The last of six children, Bandura’s early education consisted of one small school with only two teachers for high school. According to Bandura, because of this limited access to educational resources, “The students had to take charge of their own education.”
He realized that while “the content of most textbooks is perishable…the tools of self-directedness serve one well over time.” These early experiences may have contributed to his later emphasis on the importance of personal agency.
Bandura soon became fascinated by psychology after enrolling at the University of British Columbia. He had started out as a biological sciences major and his interest in psychology formed by accident. While working nights and commuting to school with a group of students, he found himself arriving at school earlier than his courses started.
To pass the time, he began taking “filler classes” during these early morning hours, which led him to eventually stumble upon psychology.1
Bandura explained, “One morning, I was wasting time in the library. Someone had forgotten to return a course catalog and I thumbed through it attempting to find a filler course to occupy the early time slot. I noticed a course in psychology that would serve as an excellent filler. It sparked my interest and I found my career.”
He earned his degree from the University of British Columbia in 1949 after just three years of study and then went on to graduate school at the University of Iowa. The school had been home to Kenneth Spence, who collaborated with his mentor Clark Hull at Yale University, and other psychologists including Kurt Lewin.
While the program took an interest in social learning theory, Bandura felt that it was too focused on behaviorist explanations. Bandura earned his MA degree in 1951 and his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1952.
Career and Theories
After earning his Ph.D., he was offered a position at Stanford University and accepted it. He began working at Stanford in 1953 and has continued to work at the university to this day. It was during his studies on adolescent aggression that Bandura became increasing interested in vicarious learning, modeling, and imitation.
Albert Bandura’s social learning theory stressed the importance of observational learning, imitation, and modeling. “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,” Bandura explained in his 1977 book on the subject.
His theory integrated a continuous interaction between behaviors, cognitions, and the environment.
Social Learning Theory:
Social learning theory, introduced by psychologist Albert Bandura, proposed that learning occurs through observation, imitation, and modeling and is influenced by factors such as attention, motivation, attitudes, and emotions. The theory accounts for the interaction of environmental and cognitive elements that affect how people learn
The theory suggests that learning occurs because people observe the consequences of other people’s behaviors. Bandura’s theory moves beyond behavioral theories, which suggest that all behaviors are learned through conditioning, and cognitive theories, which consider psychological influences such as attention and memory.
According to Bandura, people observe behavior either directly through social interactions with others or indirectly by observing behaviors through media. Actions that are rewarded are more likely to be imitated, while those that are punished are avoided.
What Is Social Learning Theory?
During the first half of the 20th-century, the behavioral school of psychology became a dominant force. The behaviorists proposed that all learning was a result of direct experience with the environment through the processes of association and reinforcement.2 Bandura’s theory believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning.
For example, children and adults often exhibit learning for things with which they have no direct experience. Even if you have never swung a baseball bat in your life, you would probably know what to do if someone handed you a bat and told you to try to hit a baseball. This is because you have seen others perform this action either in person or on television.
While the behavioral theories of learning suggested that all learning was the result of associations formed by conditioning, reinforcement, and punishment, Bandura’s social learning theory proposed that learning can also occur simply by observing the actions of others.3
His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people. Known as observational learning, this type of learning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors, including those that often cannot be accounted for by other learning theories.
Core Concepts of Social Learning Theory
There are three core concepts at the heart of social learning theory. First is the idea that people can learn through observation. Next is the notion that internal mental states are an essential part of this process. Finally, this theory recognizes that just because something has been learned, it does not mean that it will result in a change in behavior.
“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,” Bandura explained in his 1977 book Social Learning Theory.4
Bandura goes on to explain that “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.”
People Can Learn Through Observation
One of the best-known experiments in the history of psychology involved a doll named Bobo. Bandura demonstrated that children learn and imitate behaviors they have observed in other people.
The children in Bandura’s studies observed an adult acting violently toward a Bobo doll. When the children were later allowed to play in a room with the Bobo doll, they began to imitate the aggressive actions they had previously observed.5
Bandura identified three basic models of observational learning:
- A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior.
- A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.
- A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior.
As you can see, observational learning does not even necessarily require watching another person to engage in an activity. Hearing verbal instructions, such as listening to a podcast, can lead to learning. We can also learn by reading, hearing, or watching the actions of characters in books and films.6
It is this type of observational learning that has become a lightning rod for controversy as parents and psychologists debate the impact that pop culture media has on kids. Many worry that kids can learn bad behaviors such as aggression from violent video games, movies, television programs, and online videos.
Mental States Are Important to Learning
Bandura noted that external, environmental reinforcement was not the only factor to influence learning and behavior. And he realized that reinforcement does not always come from outside sources.3Your own mental state and motivation play an important role in determining whether a behavior is learned or not.
He described intrinsic reinforcement as a form of internal rewards, such as pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment.7 This emphasis on internal thoughts and cognitions helps connect learning theories to cognitive developmental theories. While many textbooks place social learning theory with behavioral theories, Bandura himself describes his approach as a ‘social cognitive theory.’
Learning Does Not Necessarily Lead to Change
So how do we determine when something has been learned? In many cases, learning can be seen immediately when the new behavior is displayed. When you teach a child to ride a bicycle, you can quickly determine if learning has occurred by having the child ride his or her bike unassisted.
But sometimes we are able to learn things even though that learning might not be immediately obvious. While behaviorists believed that learning led to a permanent change in behavior, observational learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviors.3
Key Factors for Social Learning Success
It is important to note that not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Why not? Factors involving both the model and the learner can play a role in whether social learning is successful. Certain requirements and steps must also be followed.
The following steps are involved in the observational learning and modeling process:3
- Attention: In order to learn, you need to be paying attention. Anything that distracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning. If the model is interesting or there is a novel aspect of the situation, you are far more likely to dedicate your full attention to learning.
- Retention: The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning.
- Reproduction: Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement.
- Motivation: Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled. Reinforcement and punishment play an important role in motivation.
While experiencing these motivators can be highly effective, so can observing others experiencing some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for being to class on time, you might start to show up a few minutes early each day.
Real-World Applications for Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory can have a number of real-world applications. For example, it can be used to help researchers understand how aggression and violence might be transmitted through observational learning. By studying media violence, researchers can gain a better understanding of the factors that might lead children to act out the aggressive actions they see portrayed on television and in the movies.
But social learning can also be utilized to teach people positive behaviors. Researchers can use social learning theory to investigate and understand ways that positive role models can be used to encourage desirable behaviors and to facilitate social change.