Theory on Social Learning

Social learning is a theory of human development that says humans learn through observation of model behaviours and reinforcement for imitated behaviours. This suggests that environment has a prevailing effect on a person's behaviour.


Social learning theory began with the studies of Jean Gabriel Tarde, and his theory on the "imitation of deviance." Tarde outlined "three laws of imitation:" 1) Law of close contact. We imitate those with whom we have close contact. 2) Law of imitation of superiors by inferiors. We imitate those who have higher status or greater power than we do. 3) Law of insertion. New behaviours are superimposed on old ones.

In the 20th century, Tarde's theory on imitation of deviance evolved into modern social learning theory.


In 1959, Albert Bandura and Richard Walters began conducting landmark research on social learning theory. In 1961, they studied the effect of aggressive models on children's behaviour.

The 72 children in the sample were divided into groups: the experimental aggressive group and the control group.

Each child in the groups entered a playroom with an adult model. The playroom contained various appealing activities. A child was seated in one corner with toys to play with. The adult model sat in another corner with a mallet and an inflatable Bobo clown doll. In the experimental group, the adult model hit the doll with a mallet, threw it in the air, kicked it and beat it. They used "novel hostile language." The control group model did not play with the Bobo doll in these aggressive ways.

Children exposed to aggressive modelling imitated this behaviour, and also developed novel ways of attacking the doll (for example, beating the doll with another toy) while children in the control group did not exhibit this behaviour.


For a teacher or a parent, the findings suggest that adults must be conscious of the behaviour he models: "do as I say, not as I do" does not hold up as an effective behavioural teaching technique.


Social learning theory, particularly as it pertains to aggressive behaviours, has been corroborated in numerous research studies. In their 2001 study on the effect of violent video games and other violent media, Anderson and Bushman found a connection between aggressive behaviours and exposure to violent modelling in media.

Albert Bandura's criticism of social learning theory was that it was not a holistic theory of human behaviour: some behaviours were easily learnt, while others persisted even without reinforcement. In his analysis, Bandura suggested that three factor influenced social learning: the individual, the individual's behaviour and the environment.

Evolution of Social Learning Theory

As he continued researching Social Learning theory, Albert Bandura began to develop a related social cognitive theory. Social cognitive theory sees humans as active agents in their own development with a set of beliefs about themselves that affects their behaviour. That set of beliefs, which Bandura termed "self-efficacy," comes from an individual's belief in his ability to effect change. People with optimistic self-efficacy in a certain task are more resilient when met with failure, will be more likely to put greater effort into a task, and will persevere despite challenges.