What Is Social Cognitive Theory in Psychology?


Vincent White

Social cognitive theory is a popular psychological framework that explains how people learn and develop through observation, imitation, and experience. Developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, this theory emphasizes the importance of both environmental and personal factors in shaping human behavior.

What Is Social Cognitive Theory?

According to social cognitive theory, individuals learn by observing others and their surroundings. Bandura used the term “modeling” to describe this process of learning from others. Modeling can involve direct observation of a behavior or the consequences of that behavior.

For example, a child who watches their parents buckle their seatbelts every time they get into the car is likely to imitate that behavior. Similarly, a teenager who observes their friends being rewarded for good grades may be motivated to study harder and achieve academic success.

Key Concepts in Social Cognitive Theory

There are several key concepts in social cognitive theory that help explain how learning occurs:

  • Observational Learning: This refers to learning by observing others.
  • Self-Efficacy: This refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to succeed at a task or achieve a goal.
  • Reciprocal Determinism: This refers to the dynamic interaction between an individual’s behavior, environment, and personal factors.
  • Vicarious Reinforcement: This refers to the process of learning from the rewards or punishments experienced by others.

The Role of Self-Efficacy

One of the most important concepts in social cognitive theory is self-efficacy. Bandura believed that an individual’s belief in their own abilities plays a significant role in determining their behavior and level of motivation.

For example, if someone believes they are capable of performing well in a job interview, they are more likely to prepare thoroughly and present themselves confidently. On the other hand, if someone lacks confidence in their abilities, they may be less motivated to put in effort and may perform poorly as a result.

Applying Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory has been applied to a wide range of fields, including education, health psychology, and business management. In education, teachers can use modeling to demonstrate desired behaviors and provide feedback to students. In health psychology, social cognitive theory has been used to promote healthy behaviors such as exercise and smoking cessation.

In business management, social cognitive theory can be used to understand the factors that motivate employees and shape organizational culture. By using rewards and punishments effectively and providing opportunities for skill development, managers can encourage employees to perform at their best.


Social cognitive theory is an important framework for understanding how people learn and develop. By emphasizing the role of observation, self-efficacy, and environmental factors in shaping behavior, this theory provides insights into how individuals can be motivated and supported in achieving their goals.