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Social learning theory was developed in the 1950s by Albert Bandura to explain the reciprocal influence of environmental cues on an individual’s behavior, and the impact of the individual’s behavior on the environment. In addition, social learning theory places an emphasis on individuals’ cognitive processes as they decide upon future courses of action. Thus, social learning theory takes a middle-ground position between social psychological theories that stress either environmental or internal cognitive processes as the sole components of learning.
Social learning theory posits that people learn about their social worlds in two distinct ways. First, following in the tradition of behaviorism, individuals learn through direct experience with their environments, and the rewards and consequences that follow. Reinforcement contingencies encourage an individual to keep repeating a task. Punishment contingencies serve to diminish a particular behavior. Both behaviorism and social learning theory assume that individuals attempt to maximize their rewards and avoid punishments. For example, Carrie may learn that hitting her brother Bill is unacceptable when she is punished by her mother for that act. Here we would expect Carrie to stop hitting Bill to avoid the negative sanction (punishment contingency). Similarly, Carrie might learn that putting her clothes in the hamper is good when her mother praises her for that act. Here we would expect Carrie to keep putting her clothes in the hamper in order to continue receiving praise (reinforcement contingency).
In addition to recognizing the importance of direct experience on learning, social learning theory also stresses the importance of observational learning, or modeling the actions of others. Social learning theory posits that individuals do not have to experience consequences directly to determine the value of a particular action if they have been able to observe the consequences somebody else has received. Thus, in reference to the first example above, if Carrie watches her older sister Margaret get in trouble for hitting Bill, she will learn that hitting Bill has negative consequences without experiencing the negative consequences for herself. Given this information, Carrie will be less likely to hit Bill in the future unless the reward for hurting him is greater than the punishment she receives from her mother. In reference to the second example, if Carrie sees Margaret get rewarded for putting her clothes in the hamper, she may model Margaret’s behavior and put her clothes in the hamper to get a reward. The concept of modeling is intrinsic to the discussion of observational learning. Whenever we learn by observing someone else’s rewards/consequences, they become a model for that behavior, whether we choose to reenact that behavior ourselves or not.
Adding observational learning to behaviorism’s focus on operant conditioning was a great advance for social learning theory. However, both direct and observational learning still emphasize the environment when predicting the behaviors of individuals. Social learning theory extends this to include individual cognitions as part of the learning process. Given the assumption that individuals desire to maximize rewards and minimize punishments, social learning theory posits that they learn to regulate themselves in order to obtain desired rewards; when observing the response consequences of others, individuals begin to understand the future consequences of various actions they could take, and plan for them.
- Akers, R. L. (1998) Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance. Northeastern University Press, Boston, MA.
- Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.