What are the key principles and applications of Social Learning Theory?

Social Learning Theory is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the impact of social experiences on an individual’s behavior. It was first proposed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s and has since become a widely studied and applied theory in various fields such as education, psychology, and sociology. This theory suggests that individuals learn through observing, imitating, and modeling the behavior of others, particularly those in their social environment. In this introduction, we will explore the key principles and applications of Social Learning Theory, and how it has contributed to our understanding of human behavior and development.

Social learning theory is derived from the work of Albert Bandura which proposed that social learning occurred through four main stages of imitation:

  • close contact,
  • imitation of superiors,
  • understanding of concepts,
  • role model behavior

For the article on social learning theory in psychology and education see social cognitive theory. It consists of three parts: observing, imitating, and reinforcements

Julian Rotter moved away from theories based on psychosis and behaviorism, and developed a learning theory. In Social Learning and Clinical Psychology (1954), Rotter suggests that the effect of behavior has an impact on the motivation of people to engage in that specific behavior. People wish to avoid negative consequences, while desiring positive results or effects. If one expects a positive outcome from a behavior, or thinks there is a high probability of a positive outcome, then they will be more likely to engage in that behavior. The behavior is reinforced, with positive outcomes, leading a person to repeat the behavior. This social learning theory suggests that behavior is influenced by these environmental factors or stimulus, and not psychological factors alone.

Albert Bandura (1977) expanded on Rotter’s idea, as well as earlier work by Miller & Dollard (1941), and is related to social learning theories of Vygotsky and Lave. This theory incorporates aspects of behavioral and cognitive learning. Behavioral learning assumes that people’s environment (surroundings) cause people to behave in certain ways. Cognitive learning presumes that psychological factors are important for influencing how one behaves. Social learning suggests a combination of environmental (social) and psychological factors influence behavior. Social learning theory outlines three requirements for people to learn and model behavior include attention: retention (remembering what one observed), reproduction (ability to reproduce the behavior), and motivation (good reason) to want to adopt the behavior.



In criminology, Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess (1966) developed social learning theory to explain deviancy by combining variables which encouraged delinquency (e.g. the social pressure from delinquent peers) with variables that discouraged delinquency (e.g. the parental response to discovering delinquency in their children).

The first two stages were used by Edwin Sutherland in his Differential Association Theory. Sutherland’s model for learning in a social environment depends on the cultural conflict between different factions in a society over who has the power to determine what is deviant. But his ideas were difficult to put into operation and measure quantitatively. Burgess, a behavioral sociologist, and Akers revised Sutherland’s theory and included the idea of reinforcement, which increases or decreases the strength of a behavior, and applied the principles of Operant Psychology, which holds that behavior is a function of its consequences and can be really bad in some cases.(Pfohl, 1994).

Functionalism had been the dominant paradigm but, in the 1960s, there was a shift towards Social Control Theories, Conflict Criminology, and Labeling Theories that tried to explain the emerging and more radical social environment. Moreover, people believed that they could observe behavior and see the process of social learning, e.g., parents watched their own children and saw the influence of other children on their own; they could also see what kind of effect they had on their own children, i.e. the processes of differential association and reinforcement. The conservative political parties were advocating an increase in punishment to deter crime. Unlike Labeling Theory, Social Learning Theory actually supports the use of punishment which translates into longer sentences for those convicted, and helps to explain the increase in the prison population that began in the early 1970s (Livingston, 1996).

Unlike situational crime prevention, the theory ignores the opportunistic nature of crime (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2). To learn one must first observe criminal behavior, but where was this behavior learned? The theory does explain how criminal behavior is ‘transmitted’ from one person to another, which can explain increases in types of crimes, but it does not consider how criminal acting can be prevented (Jeffery, 1990: 252) although it may be fairly assumed that the processes of learning behaviors can be changed.

There is also a definite problem. What may be reinforcement for one person may not be for another. Also, reinforcements can be both social involving attention and behavior between more than one person, and non-social reinforcement would not involve this interaction (Burgess & Akers: 1966) Social Learning Theory has been used in mentoring programs that should, in theory, prevent some future criminal behavior. The idea behind mentoring programs is that an adult is paired with a child, who supposedly learns from the behavior of the adult and is positively reinforced for good behavior (Jones-Brown, 1997). In the classroom, a teacher may use the theory by changing the seating arrangements to pair a behaving child and a misbehaving child, but the outcome may be that the behaving child begins not satisfying


Serial Murder and Social Learning Theory

Hale (1993) applied the social learning theory to serial murder using Amsel’s frustration theory. In frustration theory, humiliation is the result of a nonreward situation, which is a reward that is not given when a reward had been given in the past. When an individual is conditioned to be rewarded they anticipate it to happen in the future, but when they are presented with a nonreward situation this creates an unconditioned frustration response, otherwise called humiliation. Signs associated with the humiliating experience form a conditioned anticipatory frustration response, which triggers specific internal stimuli. These stimuli prevent an individual from future humiliation. During childhood, serial killers experience many humiliating situations and with unbalanced nonreward situations and no reward situations, they perceive all situations as nonreward and develop the inability to distinguish between the two. They anticipate humiliation in every encounter that they come across. When it comes to choosing their victims serial killers do not go back to the person who caused the humiliation. According to Dollard and Miller’s (1939, 1950) theory of learning, the individual is “instigated” toward a behavior, which is some antecedent condition of which the predicted response is the consequences. For a serial killer, frustration gets in the way of an instigated goal and their built up aggression must be released. Their behavior is seen as a delayed and indirect release of aggression. They are unable to release their aggression on their source of frustration and are forced to choose more vulnerable individuals to act on (Singer and Hensley, 2004). The child learns to expect humiliation or a negative situation from the past, which then causes frustration or aggression. Jerome Henry Brudos felt he was never accepted by his mother. Brudos transferred his hatred for his mother to other women through his mutilation of their bodies. For Brudos, the murder of strange women served as a catharsis for the humiliation he endured through his mother’s rejection (Hale, 1993). In all of these instances the serial killer was presented with some form of humiliation as a child, and learned to vent their anger through aggression.



The applications of social learning theory have been important in the history of education policies in the United States. The zone of proximal development is used as a basis for early intervention programs such as Head Start. Social learning theory can also be seen in the TV and movie rating system that is used in the United States. The rating system is designed to let all parents know what the programs that their children are watching contain. The ratings are based on age appropriate material to help parents decide if certain content is appropriate for their child to watch. Some content may be harmful to children who do not have the cognitive ability to process certain content, however the child may model the behaviors seen on TV.

Locus of Control is an important consideration when helping students in higher education environments perform better academically. Cassandra B. Whyte indicated in the 1970s and 1980s that by encouraging students to accept personal responsibility for their educational outcomes, better academic performance will usually be forthcoming if ability levels are present. More frequent successful academic performance will result as thoughts and belief in the need for personal effort toward the academic task is rewarded. As successful experiences increase in frequency, the student usually incorporates the confidence that hard work often can be rewarded with positive academic outcomes.

Guided participation is seen in schools across the United States and all around the world in language classes when the teacher says a phrase and asks the class to repeat the phrase. The other part to guided participation is when the student goes home and practices on their own. Guided participation is also seen with parents who are trying to teach their own children how to speak.

Portraitising is another technique that is used widely across the United States. Most academic subjects take advantage of portraitising, however mathematics is one of the best examples. As students move through their education they learn skills in mathematics that they will build on throughout their scholastic careers. A student who has never taken a basic math class and does not understand the principles of addition and subtraction will not be able to understand algebra. The process of learning math is a portraitising technique because the knowledge builds on itself over time.

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