What Is the Difference Between Behavioral Theory and Social Cognitive Theory?


Martha Robinson

Behavioral theory and social cognitive theory are two psychological theories that aim to explain human behavior. While they share some similarities, there are also key differences between the two. In this article, we will explore these theories and highlight their distinctions.

Behavioral Theory

Behavioral theory, also known as behaviorism, was developed by psychologists such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. It focuses on the idea that all behaviors are learned through conditioning.

Key Concepts

  • Stimulus-Response: According to behavioral theory, behavior is a response to a stimulus.
  • Classical Conditioning: This type of conditioning involves associating a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to create a conditioned response.
  • Operant Conditioning: This type of conditioning involves associating behaviors with consequences – positive reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again, while punishment decreases it.

Main Focus

The main focus of behavioral theory is on observable behaviors rather than internal mental processes. It suggests that by studying how individuals respond to stimuli in their environment, we can understand and predict their behavior.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, goes beyond the concepts of classical and operant conditioning found in behavioral theory. It emphasizes the role of cognitive processes in learning and shaping behavior.

Key Concepts

  • Vicarious Learning: Social cognitive theory proposes that individuals can learn by observing others’ behaviors and their consequences.
  • Self-Efficacy: This concept refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to successfully perform a specific behavior.
  • Reciprocal Determinism: According to this concept, behavior, personal factors (such as thoughts and emotions), and the environment all influence and interact with each other.

Main Focus

Social cognitive theory places a significant emphasis on the role of cognition in learning and behavior. It suggests that individuals actively engage with their environment and use cognitive processes, such as attention, memory, and motivation, to learn from observations and experiences.

Differences between Behavioral Theory and Social Cognitive Theory


Behavioral theory primarily focuses on observable behaviors, while social cognitive theory recognizes the importance of internal mental processes.

Learning Mechanisms:

In behavioral theory, learning occurs through classical conditioning (association of stimuli) and operant conditioning (association of behaviors with consequences). Social cognitive theory adds vicarious learning (learning by observation) as an additional mechanism.

Role of Cognition:

Social cognitive theory places a greater emphasis on cognition than behavioral theory. It highlights the role of cognitive processes in learning, such as attention, memory, and motivation.

Reciprocal Determinism:

Social cognitive theory introduces the concept of reciprocal determinism – the dynamic interaction between behavior, personal factors, and the environment. Behavioral theory does not explicitly address this concept.

In Conclusion

While both behavioral theory and social cognitive theory aim to explain human behavior, they have distinct differences. Behavioral theory focuses on observable behaviors learned through conditioning mechanisms.

In contrast, social cognitive theory incorporates cognition and emphasizes learning through observation. Understanding these theories can provide valuable insights into how individuals learn and behave in various contexts.