5.4 Social Learning Theory

The last model of learning we will examine is noted psychologist Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. Social learning theory is defined as the process of molding behavior through the reciprocal interaction of a person’s cognitions, behavior, and environment (Bandura, 1977). This is done through a process that Bandura calls reciprocal determinism. This concept implies that people control their own environment (for example, by quitting one’s job) as much as the environment controls people (for example, being laid off). Thus, learning is seen as a more active, interactive process in which the learner has at least some control.

Social learning theory shares many of the same roots as operant conditioning. Like Skinner, Bandura argues that behavior is at least in part controlled by environmental cues and consequences, and Bandura uses observable behavior (as opposed to attitudes, feelings, etc.) as the primary unit of analysis. However, unlike operant conditioning, social learning theory posits that cognitive or mental processes affect our response to the environmental cues.

Social learning theory has four central elements: attention, retention, reproduction, and incentives. Before someone can learn something, they must notice or pay attention to the thing that is to be learned. For example, you probably would not learn much as a student in any class unless you paid attention to information conveyed by the text or instructor. Retention is the process by which what you have noticed is encoded into your memory. Reproduction involves the translation of what was recorded in your mind into overt actions or behaviors. Obviously, the higher the level of attention and the greater the retention, the better the reproduction of what was learned. Finally, incentives can influence all three processes. For example, if you are rewarded (say, praised) for paying attention, you will pay more attention. If you are rewarded for remembering what you studied (say, good grades), you will retain more. If you are rewarded for reproducing what you learned (say, a promotion for effectively motivating your subordinates), you will produce that behavior more.

Central to this theory is the concept of vicarious learningVicarious learning is learning that takes place through the imitation of other role models. That is, we observe and analyze what another person does and the resulting consequences. As a result, we learn without having to experience the phenomenon firsthand. Thus, if we see a fellow employee being disciplined or fired for being disruptive in the workplace, we might learn not to be disruptive ourselves.

A model of social learning processes is shown in Figure 5.4 As can be seen, three factors—the person, the environment, and the behavior—interact through such processes as vicarious learning, symbolic representations, and self-control to cause actual learned behaviors.

A Basic Model of Social Learning Theory
Figure 5.4 A Basic Model of Social Learning Theory. Adapted from “A Social Learning Approach to Behavioral Management: Radical Behaviorists ‘Mellowing Out,’ ” by Robert Kreitner et al. Organizational Dynamics. Image: Rice University. Organizational Behavior, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Color altered from original. [click to enlarge]


This section is adapted from:

4.1 Basic Models of Learning in Organizational Behaviour, Rice University. OpenStax which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, unless otherwise noted.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Prentice-Hall.


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Psychology, Communication, and the Canadian Workplace Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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