DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Social Learning Theory

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

by Devon Cain

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.


Social Learning Theory (SLT) combines concepts of cognitive learning theory (which states that learning is influenced by psychological factors) and behavioral learning theory (which assumes that learning is based on responses to environmental stimuli).


Albert Bandura integrated these two theories and came up with one that explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral and environmental influences. The four principles of social learning are: 1) attention and focus matter, 2) retention depends on context, 3) reproduction occurs on demand and 4) motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic (1).


The SLT makes the following assumptions about learning:

  • Learning is not purely behavioral; rather, it is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context
  • Learning can occur by observing a behavior and by observing the consequences of the behavior (vicarious reinforcement)
  • Learning involves observation, extraction of information from those observations, and making decisions about the performance of the behavior (modeling)
  • Reinforcement plays a role in learning, but is not entirely responsible for learning
  • The learner is a not a passive recipient for information; cognition, environment and behavior all mutually influence each other

Descriptive Figure:

Bandura’s concept is found in the diagram of triadic reciprocal causation. Behavioral, cognitive and environmental factors all influence learning behavior (2). 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.
User-uploaded Content
DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Figure 1. Bandura's Model of Reciprocal Determinism.



Albert Bandura is architect of the SLT. He is known as the originator of SLT as well as the theoretical construct of self-efficacy. He is also responsible for the influential 1961 Bobo doll experiment, in which children observed adults as they modeled either violent or passive behavior towards a doll, and this observation was found to influence the manner in which the children subsequently interacted with the dolls (1).


Applications to Global Health Planning and Practice:  

The principles of the SLT can be applied to almost any behavior change program. For example, one could apply the SLT in a program that is seeking to help overweight women boost their level of physical activity in order to prevent the onset of diabetes. The person designing the program must understand that the woman must believe in her capability to perform the habits of healthy eating and exercise (behavioral: self efficacy), she must perceive an incentive to do so (cognitive: the person’s positive expectations about performing the behavior must outweigh the negative expectations) and she must have access to resources that would allow her to become healthier (environmental: able to exercise in a safe space). SLT emphasizes the importance of changing cues that could act as barriers to adopting new behaviors and developing positive reinforcement to sustain new behaviors (3). 


Limitations: The theory assumes that changes in the environment will automatically lead to changes in the person, when this may not always be true.  It is unclear regarding the extent to which cognitive, behavior and environment each play into actual behavior (whether one is more influential than another). SLT is also broad, so it can be difficult to operationalize in entirety (4).


Works Cited:

(1) Social Learning Theory | Psychology Today [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 17]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/social-learning-theory


(2) Social Learning Theories [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 17]. Available from: http://cla.calpoly.edu/~cslem/101/8-F.html


(3) Wing RR, Crane MM, Thomas JG, Kumar R, Weinberg B. Improving weight loss outcomes of community interventions by incorporating behavioral strategies. Am J Public Health [Internet]. 2010 Dec [cited 2015 Mar 17];100(12):2513–9. Available from: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2978171&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract

(4) Boston University: The Social Cognitive Theory [Internet]. [cited 2015 Apr 27]. Available from: http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/SB721-Models/SB721-Models5.html 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.