What Are Limitations of the Social Learning Theory?


Jane Flores

In the field of psychology, the social learning theory has been widely discussed and debated. Developed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s, this theory proposes that individuals learn through observation and imitation of others’ behaviors. While the social learning theory has made significant contributions to our understanding of human behavior, it also has its limitations.

1. Overemphasis on External Factors

One limitation of the social learning theory is its overemphasis on external factors as the primary source of learning. Bandura argued that individuals acquire new behaviors by observing others, but this perspective tends to neglect individual differences and internal factors that may influence learning.

2. Lack of Clarity on Cognitive Processes

The social learning theory emphasizes the importance of cognitive processes in learning.

However, it does not provide a clear explanation of how these processes occur or how they interact with observational learning. This lack of clarity hinders our understanding of how exactly individuals acquire new behaviors through observation.

3. Difficulty in Measuring Observational Learning

Another limitation is related to the measurement of observational learning.

Unlike other forms of learning, such as classical conditioning or operant conditioning, observational learning is difficult to measure objectively. While researchers can observe behavior changes after exposure to models, it is challenging to determine whether these changes are a result of observation or other factors.

4. Limited Scope

The social learning theory primarily focuses on explaining behavior acquisition through observation and imitation.

However, it may not account for all types of human behavior. For example, complex behaviors like moral development or creativity may involve factors beyond mere observation and imitation.

5. Lack of Attention to Individual Agency

One criticism of the social learning theory is its failure to adequately address individual agency.

The theory suggests that individuals are passive recipients of learned behaviors, rather than active participants in their own learning process. This overlooks the role of personal motivation, intentionality, and self-regulation in behavior acquisition.

6. Insufficient Consideration of Cultural Context

The social learning theory does not sufficiently account for cultural differences in observational learning.

Cultural norms and values may influence the types of behaviors that are observed, imitated, and reinforced within a specific society. Failing to consider these cultural contexts limits the applicability and generalizability of the theory.


In conclusion, while the social learning theory has provided valuable insights into how individuals learn through observation and imitation, it is essential to recognize its limitations. The overemphasis on external factors, lack of clarity on cognitive processes, difficulty in measuring observational learning, limited scope, lack of attention to individual agency, and insufficient consideration of cultural context all pose challenges to fully understanding human behavior through this theoretical framework.

Despite these limitations, the social learning theory remains a significant contribution to psychology and serves as a foundation for further research and exploration into how individuals acquire new behaviors.