What Is the Basis of Social Learning Theory?


Vincent White

Social learning theory is a psychological theory that explains how people learn from observing others. It suggests that individuals acquire new behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions through observation and imitation of others. This theory was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s and has since become an influential framework in understanding human behavior.

The Basis of Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory is based on several key principles:

  • Observation: People learn by observing the behavior of others. This can occur through direct observation or by watching media portrayals.
  • Imitation: Individuals imitate the actions of those they observe if they perceive them to be rewarding or if they identify with the model.
  • Vicarious Reinforcement: The consequences experienced by others for their behavior can influence an individual’s likelihood of imitating that behavior.

    If someone observes a model being rewarded for a specific action, they are more likely to imitate it.

  • Self-efficacy: Social learning theory emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy, which refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to successfully perform a particular behavior. Bandura argued that people are more likely to imitate behaviors if they believe they have the skills necessary to perform them.

The Role of Observational Learning

In social learning theory, observational learning plays a significant role in shaping human behavior. Observational learning involves four key processes:

  1. Attention: Individuals must pay attention to the model’s behavior and its consequences to learn from it effectively.
  2. Retention: People must retain the information they have observed. This can be done through mental imagery or verbal coding.
  3. Reproduction: Individuals need to be capable of reproducing the behavior they observed.

    This requires both physical and cognitive abilities.

  4. Motivation: Finally, individuals must have the motivation to imitate the observed behavior. This motivation can be influenced by factors such as expected outcomes, incentives, and personal values.

Applications of Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory has been applied in various fields, including education, psychology, and criminology. It offers insights into how behaviors are acquired and modified through observation and reinforcement.

In education, social learning theory suggests that students can learn not only from their teachers but also from observing their peers. It emphasizes the importance of positive role models and provides a basis for understanding the influence of social interactions in learning environments.

In psychology, social learning theory has been used to explain the development of personality traits and behaviors. It highlights that individuals learn not only through direct experiences but also through observing others’ actions and their consequences.

In criminology, social learning theory has contributed to understanding criminal behavior. It suggests that individuals may learn deviant behaviors by observing others who engage in criminal activities. This insight has led to interventions focused on providing positive role models and promoting prosocial behaviors.


Social learning theory is an essential framework for understanding how individuals acquire new behaviors and attitudes through observation and imitation. By emphasizing the role of observation, imitation, vicarious reinforcement, and self-efficacy, this theory provides valuable insights into human learning processes across various domains.