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Social Cognitive Theory

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

by Emily Villas

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.


Social Cognitive Theory uses a dynamic, reciprocal model to explain human behavior in terms of continuous interactions of personal factors, environmental influences, and behavior (1).  SCT can be used as an intervention strategy for disease prevention and management at all levels of public health. The foundation of this theory is that people learn not only from their own experiences, but also through observing the actions of others and the results from those actions (1). The following determinants and mechanisms translate this model into effective health practices:


  • The knowledge of health risks and benefits create the necessity for changing lifestyle habits that affect their health.
  • Belief of self-efficacy, that one can produce desired effects through their own actions, is also needed for one to adopt new habits.
  • Outcome expectations, physically, socially, and individually, of the costs and benefits of different health habits also regulate one’s ability to change their behavior.
  • Long and short-term personal goals help people succeed and provide self-incentives. Personal change is also influence by perceived facilitators and obstacles that have the ability to deter one’s performance of healthful behavior (2). 
DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.
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DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Figure 1. Reciprocal interactions of Social Cognitive Theory (3).


SCT hypothesizes there are three mutual interactions for the causal structure of human functioning (4). Bandura included perceived self-efficacy to show that humans are motivated also by social and self-evaluative incentives (4). This belief of one’s capability can influence the choices they make, effort put forth in daily activities, length of perseverance amidst setbacks, and individual resiliency (5). The bidirectional influences of the determinants are shown in Figure 1.



Albert Bandura formed Social Cognitive Theory through research on the existing Social Learning Theory that is rooted in psychology. SLT proclaims that “people learn not only from their own experiences, but by observing the actions of others and the benefits of those actions” (6). Bandura then expanded it to add the construct of self-efficacy and updated it to Social Cognitive Theory. SCT integrates concepts and processes from cognitive, behaviorist, and emotional models to be used as a theory for behavior change (6). Originally, it was meant for clinical psychologists to help patients understand their experiences and perceptions in a new way. Today, SCT is widely used in the public health field because it can be adapted to the community level, in large and small populations.


Global Health Application:

Bandura states that the effectiveness of Social Cognitive Theory is due to its explicit guidelines on how to equip people with the competencies, self-regulatory capabilities, and resilient sense of efficacy that enables them to enhance their psychological well-being and personal accomplishments (5).  These key constructs of observational learning, reinforcement, self-control, and self-efficacy make SCT very relevant to developing interventions for behavior change in all areas of the world (7). The theoretical understanding of methods involved in changing a specific behavior, such as contraceptive use, HIV prevention, and dietary behaviors, can help public health officials formulate a better educational and behavioral intervention (8). For example, in New South Wales, Australia, 357 girls attending 12 different secondary schools completed SCT scaled surveys with the intent to explain dietary behaviors. The participants were assessed in “nutrition related self-efficacy, intention, behavioral strategies, family support, situation, outcome expectations, and outcome expectancies” (9). Results showed self-efficacy positively associated with healthy eating and inversely associated with unhealthy eating, allowing the researchers to recommend a better campaign to overcome unhealthy eating habits (9).



The over emphasis on intrapersonal influences and lack of recognition of relational and cultural influences has been posed as a limitation of SCT (5).  In addition, it disregards genetic predispositions that may play a factor in influencing behaviors. The theory is based on the assumption that environmental changes will automatically lead to changes in the person, when this is not always the case. Due to the wide-ranging nature of this model, it can be hard to operationalize in its entirety, and individual components are more frequently used instead (10). 


Works Cited:

(1) The Role of Behavioral Science Theory in Development and Implementation of Public Health Interventions [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 16]. Available from: http://www.med.upenn.edu/chbr/documents/Glanz-BishopARPH31_399-418_2010.pdf


(2) Health Promotion by Social Cognitive Means [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 15]. Available from: http://heb.sagepub.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/content/31/2/143.full.pdf


(3) Zimmerman BJ, Schunk DH, editors. Self-Regulated Learning and Academic Achievement [Internet]. New York, NY: Springer New York; 1989 [cited 2015 Mar 16]. Available from: http://www.springerlink.com/index/10.1007/978-1-4612-3618-4


(4) Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume One [Internet]. SAGE Publications; 2011 [cited 2015 Mar 15]. 


(5) Bandura A. Organization Applications of Social Cognitive Theory [Internet]. Australian Journal of Management. 1988 [cited 2015 Mar 16]. Available from: http://web.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/bandura/pajares/Bandura1988AJM.pdf


(6) Theory at a Glance [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 15]. Available from: http://www.sneb.org/2014/Theory at a Glance.pdf


(7) Behavioral and Social Sciences Research [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 16]. Available from: http://www.esourceresearch.org/portals/0/uploads/documents/...


(8) WHO | Theory-based interventions for contraception. World Health Organization; [cited 2015 Mar 16]; Available from: http://apps.who.int/rhl/fertility/contraception/cd007249_warrineri_com/en/


(9) Lubans DR, Plotnikoff RC, Morgan PJ, Dewar D, Costigan S, Collins CE. Explaining dietary intake in adolescent girls from disadvantaged secondary schools. A test of Social Cognitive Theory. Appetite [Internet]. 2012 Apr [cited 2015 Mar 15];58(2):517–24. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666311006842


(10) Behavioral Change Models [Internet]. [cited 2015 Mar 16]. Available from: http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/SB721-Models/SB721-Models_print.html




Useful Resources


Theory at a Glance: A Guide for Health Promotion Practice. NCI. http://www.sneb.org/2014/Theory%20at%20a%20Glance.pdf


Health Promotion by Social Cognitive Means. Bandura, Albert. http://heb.sagepub.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/content/31/2/143.full.pdf+html


Social Cognitive Theory in Cultural Context. Bandura, Albert.


DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.