Is Social Learning Theory a Cognitive Theory?


Martha Robinson

Social Learning Theory (SLT) is a theory that explains how people learn through observation, imitation, and modeling. It was developed by Albert Bandura in the 1960s and is often viewed as a cognitive theory due to its emphasis on mental processes. However, there is some debate about whether SLT can truly be classified as a cognitive theory.

The Basic Principles of Social Learning Theory
According to SLT, people learn by observing others and imitating their behavior. This process is known as modeling.

The theory suggests that individuals are more likely to model behavior that they perceive as rewarding or beneficial. Additionally, SLT posits that the consequences of behavior influence the likelihood of its recurrence.

SLT and Cognition
While SLT places significant emphasis on observation and modeling, it also recognizes the role of cognition in learning. Bandura argued that individuals engage in four key cognitive processes while observing and imitating behavior:

  • Attention: Individuals must pay attention to the behavior they wish to imitate.
  • Retrieval: Individuals must be able to recall the observed behavior at a later time.
  • Motor Reproduction: Individuals must have the physical ability to reproduce the behavior.
  • Motivation: Individuals must be motivated to reproduce the observed behavior.

These cognitive processes are seen as integral components of social learning. Therefore, some argue that SLT can be classified as a cognitive theory.

The Debate Over Whether Social Learning Theory is Truly Cognitive

There are those who argue that while SLT does recognize cognition as an important part of learning, it does not fully qualify as a cognitive theory. One reason for this argument is that SLT places greater emphasis on observable behaviors than on internal mental processes.

Additionally, some argue that SLT fails to account for the ways in which individuals actively construct their own knowledge. Cognitive theories, such as Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, emphasize the role of active construction in learning.


While there is some debate over whether social learning theory is truly a cognitive theory, it is clear that cognition plays an important role in the theory. By recognizing the importance of mental processes such as attention, retrieval, motor reproduction, and motivation, SLT provides a more nuanced understanding of how people learn through observation and modeling. Ultimately, whether SLT is classified as a cognitive theory may depend on one’s interpretation of what constitutes a cognitive theory.