What Are the Criticisms of Social Learning Theory?


Vincent White

Social learning theory is a widely accepted psychological approach that suggests that people learn through observation, modeling, and imitation. This theory has been used to explain a variety of human behaviors, including aggression, addiction, and even the acquisition of language.

However, like any theory, social learning theory is not without its criticisms. In this article, we will explore some of the most common criticisms of social learning theory.

Criticism 1: Overemphasis on Reinforcement

One of the main criticisms of social learning theory is that it places too much emphasis on reinforcement as a mechanism for behavior change. According to this theory, people are more likely to imitate behaviors that are rewarded or reinforced in some way. However, critics argue that this oversimplifies human behavior and ignores other factors that contribute to learning.


For example, let’s say a child sees their parents smoking cigarettes and observes them being rewarded with stress relief or pleasure. The child might imitate this behavior because they see it being reinforced in some way. However, critics argue that there are many other factors at play here – such as genetic predisposition, cultural norms around smoking, or even peer pressure – that may also influence the child’s decision to smoke.

Criticism 2: Neglecting Biological Factors

Another criticism of social learning theory is that it neglects the role of biological factors in shaping behavior. This theory assumes that all behavior is learned through observation and modeling alone. However, biological factors such as genetics and brain chemistry can also play a significant role in determining how people behave.

For example, research has shown that certain genetic variations can make people more susceptible to addiction or aggression. These biological factors can interact with environmental influences like reinforcement to shape behavior in complex ways.

Criticism 3: Lack of Empirical Support

Finally, some critics have argued that social learning theory lacks empirical support. While the theory has been influential in shaping our understanding of human behavior, some researchers have questioned whether the evidence actually supports its central tenets.

For example, a meta-analysis of studies on aggression found that while some research supports the idea that aggression is learned through observation and modeling, other studies suggest that biological factors like genetics and brain chemistry may play a more important role.


In conclusion, social learning theory is a useful framework for understanding how people learn through observation and modeling. However, it is not without its criticisms.

Critics have argued that the theory places too much emphasis on reinforcement, neglects biological factors, and lacks empirical support. As with any theory, it is important to consider these criticisms and evaluate the evidence for ourselves before accepting its claims as fact.