What Is the Main Difference Between Social Learning and Social Cognitive Theory?


Diego Sanchez

There are various theories that seek to explain how individuals learn and develop their understanding of the world. Two prominent theories in the field of psychology are Social Learning Theory and Social Cognitive Theory. While these two theories overlap in many ways, there are also key differences between them.

The Basics

Social Learning Theory, proposed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s, suggests that people learn by observing others and imitating their behaviors. According to this theory, individuals acquire new knowledge and skills through a process called observational learning. This means that we learn not only from direct experiences but also from watching others.

Social Cognitive Theory, on the other hand, expands upon Social Learning Theory by emphasizing the role of cognitive processes in learning. Proposed by Bandura himself in the 1980s, this theory posits that people not only observe and imitate others but also actively think about and process information before deciding whether or not to imitate a behavior.

Key Differences

While both theories share similarities, there are several important differences that set them apart:

  • Emphasis on Cognition: Social Cognitive Theory places a greater emphasis on cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and decision-making compared to Social Learning Theory. It highlights the idea that individuals actively think about and evaluate observed behaviors before deciding whether or not to imitate them.
  • Reciprocal Determinism: Social Cognitive Theory introduces the concept of reciprocal determinism, which suggests that behavior is influenced by both personal factors (such as thoughts and beliefs) and environmental factors (such as social norms).

    This bidirectional relationship between individuals and their environment is not explicitly addressed in Social Learning Theory.

  • Self-Efficacy: Social Cognitive Theory introduces the concept of self-efficacy, which refers to an individual’s belief in their own ability to successfully perform a particular behavior. This belief plays a crucial role in determining whether or not someone will imitate a behavior. Social Learning Theory does not explicitly address this concept.


Both Social Learning Theory and Social Cognitive Theory have important applications in various fields:

Social Learning Theory Applications:

  • Education: Understanding how students learn from observing teachers and peers can help educators create effective learning environments.
  • Behavior Modification: By understanding the influence of observational learning, therapists and counselors can design interventions to change maladaptive behaviors.
  • Media Influence: Analyzing how media influences behavior and attitudes can help media producers create more responsible content.

Social Cognitive Theory Applications:

  • Health Behavior Change: By Targeting an individual’s self-efficacy beliefs, health professionals can design interventions to promote healthy behaviors.
  • Career Development: Understanding the role of self-efficacy in career decision-making can assist individuals in making informed choices about their professional paths.
  • Leadership Development: Recognizing the importance of cognitive processes in leadership development can help organizations train effective leaders.

In conclusion, while both Social Learning Theory and Social Cognitive Theory share the common goal of explaining how individuals learn from observing others, they differ in terms of their emphasis on cognition, reciprocal determinism, and self-efficacy. Understanding these differences is crucial for researchers and practitioners alike as they seek to apply these theories to various fields of study.