Differences between social learning & behaviorism

Written by bryant harland
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Behaviorism and social learning theory are two psychological theories used for explaining behaviour. Although the two both deal with behaviour, they focus on somewhat different elements in their attempts to explain why people behave the way they do. Behaviorism and social learning have strong bases of support, so there is no clear answer to which one does a better job at explaining behaviour.

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Behaviorism is a psychological theory that attempts to explain why people behave the way they do. Behaviorism focuses on what can be observed. To behaviourists, all behaviour can be traced back to an external stimuli. Further, behaviourists believe that behaviour can be modified through reinforcements and punishments. Reinforcements are stimuli designed to encourage a particular behaviour to occur again; punishments are stimuli designed to discourage a particular behaviour. Early behaviourists, such as John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner, developed behaviorism to move the focus of psychology into the observable.

Social Learning

Social learning theory expands the ideas found presented by behaviorism. Like behaviorism, social learning attempts to explain why people behave the way they do; however, social learning says that behaviour is based on a combination of observable stimuli, and internal psychological processes. Social learning suggests three requirements for someone to learn a behaviour: retention, reproduction and motivation. Retention is the individual's ability to remember behaviour that he observed, and reproduction is the individual's ability to reproduce that behaviour. Motivation is the individual's desire to engage in that behaviour.

Behaviorism vs. Social Learning

Although social learning theory shares some similarities with behaviorism, it adds an element of internal thought processes to behaviour, which behaviorism does not study. Social learning says that, in addition to behaviorism's external reinforcements, individuals learn through observation, and by imitating the behaviour of the people around them.


Both behaviorism and social learning theory have applications for society, and for everyday life. For example, parents who give their children an allowance for doing chores are using the behaviour-modification process that behaviorism outlines. Similarly, parents choosing not to smoke in front of their children are following the tenants of social learning theory; they don't want their children to observe them engaging in an unhealthy habit because their children may want to imitate what they observe.

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