What Is Social Learning?

Introduction to Social Learning: Definition and Origins

Psychologist Albert Bandura developed this theory as a different option from the earlier work of Burrhus Frederic Skinner on behaviorism. Skinner originated the principle of reinforcement and was of the view that the consequences of previous actions helped in molding behaviors.

Those who utilize behavioral learning theory (behaviorism) agree that learning is a part of conditioning and supports a system of objectives and rewards in an educational setting. For example, awarding digital certificate for classroom accomplishments.


It is crucial to find the right theory or combination of theories to explain certain behaviors. This is where our theory of major focus comes in. So let us define it: Social learning theory is referred to as a behavioral theory which states that social behavior is learned by observing and copying other peoples’ behaviors.

The theory is underpinned by the thought that learning is a cognitive activity that happens in social settings. Also, it is the potential of social relations in the future that inspires the desire to acquire knowledge and satisfy one’s curiosity.


Albert Bandura performed some experiments in the early 60s to ascertain whether social behaviors—particularly aggression—could be learned by observing and copying. The tests were called the Bobo doll experiments and they were aimed at proving the notion that children learn behaviors by copying other people. The studies involved children watching somebody punch an inflatable doll.

Bandura’s results from the Bobo doll experiments helped him develop the social learning theory in 1977. It was further developed to put forward the social cognitive theory (SCT) in 1986. SCT states that learning occurs in a social framework with a constantly changing and shared relation between the individual, environment, and behavior.

Note: Apart from Bandura and Skinner; other major contributors are Clark Leonard Hull, Julian Rotter, and Ronald Akers.

Observational Learning: The Four Steps of Imitation

Observational learning takes place via watching how others behave and it needs a social model to be possible. For example; parent, friend, sibling, or teacher with the environment. For children, the model is usually a person of authority or higher status.

However, Bandura asserted that a person may only learn from the behavior without imitating it. He also stressed that four conditions that needed to be met in any form of behavior observation and emulation  They are our four steps of imitation as described below.

Step 1: Attention

One has to be paying total attention to the person to properly observe and learn what the model is doing. The observer’s attention may be hindered by illness, sleepiness, distractions, and so on. Also, the model’s attributes can determine the observer’s attentiveness.

Bandura and other social learning researchers discovered that individuals are typically more attentive to models that are similar in features, attractive, prominent, or rewarded for their achievements. For example, celebrities.

Step 2: Retention

The second step involves the ability to remember the information learned through observation. There is a low chance for an inattentive or distracted observer to recall what they learned. This could mean that the first stage would have to be repeated. Retention can be strengthened by various means such as studying the model daily if possible.

Step 3: Reproduction

Copying of the memorized behavior occurs in this stage. You may have to attempt the action multiple times to be able to reproduce or complete it well. But your success will depend on factors like age, physical features, ability level (mental and physical), difficulty level of behavior, etc.

Step 4: Motivation

This may be considered as the most important step in observational learning because the individual may not be driven to imitate the behavior. And when this is the case; attention will most likely not lead to retention and reproduction. The potential to be rewarded for an action may motivate the observer. However, the observer would want to avoid copying a behavior that has negative consequences.

Modeling Behavior: Examples and Real-Life Applications

Take a look at the following examples of modeling behavior in social learning:

Example 1: Positive Model Behavior in a Family Setting

When a younger sibling sees that an older sibling is being rewarded for doing house chores, the motivation to do such work will be built. And the child will understand that rewards could await the fulfillment of a duty.

Example 2: Negative Model Behavior in a School Setting

We can also use the scenario of siblings in a house for this example. Imagine a student watching a classmate getting punished for hitting another student. The observer will understand that such an action will not go unpunished and will see the need to avoid it in the future.

Example 3: Modeling Behavior for Adults in a Public Setting

This scenario involves a married couple visiting a restaurant to have sushi for the first time. They may watch how other customers are handling their chopsticks and will try to emulate them.

There are many real-life applications for modeling behavior. An example is when a teacher walks students through a math problem step by step so that they can follow it and do the same. Other use cases of modeling behavior include the following:

  • Human resources management
  • Vocational training
  • Marketing (encouraging purchases)
  • Machine learning
  • Law enforcement (criminal investigations)

Social Learning in Early Childhood Education

Observational learning occurs in infants when babies learn almost everything while growing by watching their parents or siblings. The child might see a parent doing things that yield rewards such as money, praise, or status and may want to copy the action. In pre-kindergarten settings, teachers tell toddlers to imitate their movements when singing nursery rhymes. The teacher repeats and corrects the children until everyone can get it right.


Social learning should be seen as a lifelong process for people of all ages. There will always be opportunities to undergo new learning processes when you meet new people or go to a new location, especially another country. The people that individuals are likely to learn from more include parents, guardians, siblings, teachers, and prominent people.

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