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The Peculiarities Of Social Learning Theory

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Social Learning Theory, theorized by Albert Bandura, is the idea that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation and modelling (Bandura, 1971). It states that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation (Bandura and Walters, 1963). It began as an attempt by Robert Sears and others to merge psychoanalytic and stimulus-response learning theory into a detailed explanation of human behaviour. Albert Bandura, on the other hand, focused on how children and adults operate cognitively on their social experiences and with how the cognitive and information-processing capacities then come to mediate social behaviour (Grusec, 1992).

Bandura proposed his concept of learning through the observation of human models (Grusec, 1992). Observational learning therefore involves observing the behaviour of others (Walker, 1999). An example of this is the Bobo Doll experiment. The experiment comprised of 36 boys and 36 girls with their ages ranging from 37 months to 69 months. Half of the experimental subjects were exposed to aggressive models and the other half were exposed to models that were subdued and non-aggressive. The subjects placed in the aggressive environment showed a lot of physical and verbal aggressive behaviour similar to that of the models, whereas the subjects in the non-aggressive and control groups showed virtually no imitative aggression (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963). As seen with this example, the environment is one factor that influences behaviour. According to Bandura, environmental influences, behaviour and internal personal factors all operate as interlocking determinants of each other, also known as reciprocal determinism. However, in some cases, the environment can have such powerful constraints on behaviour, that it emerges as the overriding determinant. This may be seen if children are dropped into deep water, where they will promptly engage in swimming activities, regardless of how uniquely varied their cognitive and behavioural skills might be (Bandura, 1978).

On the basis of the Bobo Doll experiment, Banduras social learning theory states that there are four stages involved in observational learning namely; attention, retention, initiation, and motivation (Bandura, 1986). Firstly, the observer must pay attention to what is going on around them. This may be determined by a variety of factors such as the power and attractiveness of the model as well as the conditions under which the behaviour is presented to the child. If the behaviour is being viewed on television, for example, it is likely that the attention of the viewer will be captured and held. After the material has been attended to, the observer must be able to retain and remember the observed behaviour for use at a later time. This process depends on the observer’s ability to code or structure the information in a form that can easily be remembered or to mentally or physically rehearse the model’s actions. In the third stage, the observer must be able to reproduce the actions in a similar way to the originally modelled behaviour. However, at times, the observer may not be able to reproduce the model’s actions simply because they have not acquired the necessary skills to do so, thereby making motoric reproduction of complex actions less successful. The fourth and final process governing observational learning involves inducing motivation. The observer must be given sufficient incentive in order to produce actions from learned behaviour. This motivation can come from external reinforcement. External reinforcement occurs when the child receives approval for their actions. For example, in a formal study of social stimulus control carried out by Redd and Birnbrauer, a group of seclusive children were rewarded by one adult for cooperative play, while another adult rewarded them equally regardless of their behaviour. Later, the appearance of the contingently rewarding adult evoked cooperative play, but the non-contingent adult had no influence on the children’s behaviour (Bandura, 1971).

Alternatively, motivation may also come from vicarious reinforcement based on the observation that models are rewarded (Marston, 1966). Vicarious reinforcement is defined as a change in the behaviour of observers resulting from seeing the response consequences of others (Barnwell & Sechrest, 1965). For example, suppose a shy child at school observes that the teacher praises another student for speaking in class. The student being observed is the model being reinforced. If the shy child wants to be praised by the teacher and therefore speaks up personally in the class in the future, there has been vicarious reinforcement (Ollendick, Dailey & Shapiro, 1983). Vicarious punishment, on the other hand, is indicated when negative effects are observed to reduce the tendency of people to act in similar or related ways. In everyday situations, reinforcement typically occurs within a social context. This means that people will continually observe the actions of others and the occasions on which they are rewarded, ignored or punished (Bandura, 1971).

Apart from reinforcement, Bandura further suggested that the internal mental state of the learner plays a role in determining the willingness to perform the behaviour/actions learnt from the model (Bandura and Schunk, 1981). The learner would perform the action even when he receives no apparent reward except for the activity itself. This is known as intrinsic motivation. The intrinsic motivation might either be innate or learned. Therefore, the learners’ interest in the activity is what encourages them to perform it (Deci, 1971).

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While looking at the internal mental state of the learner, Bandura also considered self-regulation and self-efficacy to be important. Self-regulation is the idea that individuals do not shift their behaviour according to momentary influences. Rather, they hold to ideological positions regardless of a changing situation. They can do this because they bring judgmental self-reactions into play whenever they perform an action. Actions that measure up to internal standards are given positive judgement, while those that fall short of these standards are judged negatively (Bandura, 1991).

Modelling and direct tuition are the source of self-regulative function (Bandura, 1991). Adults respond differently to the behaviours of children, and this differential responsiveness is one type of information that children take into account when formulating personal standards or ideas about behaviours worthy of self-blame or self-praise. Children note that individuals prescribe self-assessment standards for themselves as well and take this behaviour into consideration whenever they formulate personal standards (Grusec, 1992).

A major determinant of self-regulation is self-efficacy. By determining what they are trying to achieve and how much effort they put into their performance in that particular situation or domain, people develop domain-specific beliefs about their own abilities and characteristics that guide their behaviour. When people have negative self-perceptions about a situation, believe they are ineffective and do not have the ability to perform well, they become concerned about themselves as well as being emotionally excited, two conditions that distract them from effectively performing (Grusec, 1992). Beliefs about self-efficacy arise from the accomplishment history of the individual in a domain, from observing what others are capable of accomplishing, from attempts by others to shape feelings of self-efficacy through persuasion, and from considering one’s own physiological state during a task as a reflection of personal capabilities (Bandura, 1977).

The theory of self-efficacy has guided research in various fields such as academic achievement, parenting styles and self-concept for children. In the case of infants, Bandura suggests that their highly developed sense of self-efficacy results in the social and cognitive skill observed in infants who are classified as securely attached in the Infant Strange Situation (Grusec, 1992). This sense of self-efficacy is fostered by responsive parents who respond to their babies’ communicative behaviour and provide enriched environments that enable babies to see how effective their environmental actions can be. This will promote accelerated social and cognitive development (Coleman & Karraker, 1998).

Overall, social learning theory brings about sufficient evidence to explain children’s behaviour, but the research in relation to practical day-to-day living needs to be considered. The results of Bandura’s study highlight children’s impressionable nature, and the ability for modelled behaviours to be adopted into a child’s actions via vicarious reinforcement. In other words, children will quickly adopt negative or aggressive behaviours especially when awarded for them. So, when raising children, unwanted behaviours should be punished to avoid the child developing this behaviour with increasing intensity. Parents and also teachers may want to express calm, productive or peaceful behaviours, rather than aggressive or unwanted behaviours, to avoid imprinting the same negative behaviour into their child’s life. Many classroom and teaching strategies also draw on the principles of social learning theory to try and enhance students’ ability to acquire and retain knowledge. For example, using the technique of guided participation whereby a teacher says a phrase and asks the students to repeat the phrase. Thus, students both imitate and reproduce the teacher’s action, aiding retention. Additionally, teachers can shape the classroom behaviour of students by modelling appropriate behaviour and visibly rewarding students for good behaviour. Therefore, Banduras experiments support his hypothesis and his aim to extend knowledge relating to Social learning theory and modelling, as well as contributing to our understanding of children’s behaviour, as seen with the applications above, has been successful.


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  9. Barnwell, A., & Sechrest, L. (1965). Vicarious reinforcement in children at two age levels. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 56(2), 100-106. doi: 10.1037/h0021781
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