Albert Bandura – Social Learning Theory

Published on July 2nd, 2020

Updated on January 2nd, 2024

Albert Bandura - Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory is a theory developed by Dr. Albert Bandura in the 1960’s. It is a behavioral theory that challenges previous theories of behavioral psychology. These previous theories maintained that reinforcement and punishment were the motivators for behavior.

Unlike behaviorists like Skinner, Pavlov and Watson, Bandura believed that human behavior was reinforced through observational learning. Concepts of classical conditioning and operant conditioning were challenged with social learning theory.

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The social learning theory supported the idea that people and animals learn through observation. Imitating models of behavior are significant methods of learning. The social learning theory supports that people can learn through observing others. According to the theory, people use what they observe as a standard or guide for their own behavior.

Albert Bandura

Dr. Albert Bandura
Dr. Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura was an American cognitive psychologist, who received his degree in the 1950’s. His focus of study was based on the concept of social learning. Bandura’s most influential work was the social learning theory. He is also well known for his Bobo Doll studies, observational learning, and self-efficacy.

Bandura’s professional career began with studies of social learning. Bandura’s research focused on vicarious learning, and how modeling influenced behavior in others. Bandura’s research indicated that imitation was often exhibited between people. This trend is particularly prevalent in children and adolescents.

The work of Albert Bandura emphasized the importance of social learning. He believed that learning and cognitive development relies heavily on social influence. Learning through observation and influence is a major part of human development. People would not be able to effectively develop social cognitive skills without the following:

Observational Learning

A major contributor to how we learn is through socializing. Socializing teaches people many different behaviors through observation. Observational learning is a critical component of behavioral psychology.

Observational learning occurs through different methods. Modeling, imitation, and shaping are major methods of observational learning. People also learn through methods of vicarious reinforcement. Each of these methods are used by people to learn patterns of behavior and interacting with other people and the world around them.

Modeling and Imitation

Modeling refers to children observing the actions of others around them to learn how to behave. Modeling was discovered through Bandura’ Bobo doll experiment, which demonstrated how children may observe and imitate the actions of adults.


Shaping is the process of modifying a child’s behavior. This process is performed through instructing a child how to behave, and rewarding them when they have behaved in the favorable manner.

Example: Lucy’s mother always instructs her to kiss her grandparents hello. Lucy is given praise when she greets her grandparents with a kiss. This reinforces the behavior of kissing her grandparents hello.

Vicarious Reinforcement

Vicarious reinforcement is displayed when a child sees another person being rewarded for a behavior, and then copying that behavior. The copying is completed with the intention of getting the same reward.

Example: Andrew saw Samantha get a gold star from the teacher when she pushed in her chair. Andrew then pushed in his chair. After pushing in his chair, he expected to get a gold star as well.

Stages of Observational Learning

In his research, Bandura broke down observational learning into four stages. These stages reflect the process of observing a behavior in someone else, and adopting the observed behavior.

The four stages of observational learning include:

  1. Attention
  2. Retention
  3. Reproduction
  4. Motivation

Each stage is a critical component to observational learning. They each indicate a point of processing that may lead to the replication of a behavior.


Attention is the first stage of observational learning. In order for a person to learn a behavior through social learning, the behavior must first catch their attention. In order for the behavior to attract a person’s attention, it must be attractive to them in some form.

The attraction that leads to attention may be one of many things. Sometimes a person sees a behavior that they feel is attractive. Sometimes they see a person who is attractive performing a behavior. Sometimes people are drawn to the consequence of the behavior they are seeing.

Example: Hailey was walking through the park when she saw skateboarders in the street. She found it interesting and engaging to watch them ride their skateboards. Their behavior caught her attention, so she stopped and watched them skate.

Example: Bill was loading his car when he saw his attractive neighbor planting in his garden. He had never thought about a garden before, but when he saw someone who he found attractive planting, he began thinking about how the garden. He looked around at Bill’s garden and admired the work that his neighbor had put into it. He otherwise would not have paid attention if he did not see his attractive neighbor putting the work in.

Attention may be won if the observer related to the behavior as well. If they are seeing a behavior that resonates with them, or a person they relate to them, they may be more inclined to give the behavior their attention.


Once a person’s attention has been caught, they may or may not retain what they saw. The term ‘retention’ refers to whether the observer will remember what they observed. The more the person remembers the behavior, the more likely they are to imitate it.

Example: Suzy and Kate watched Cassie tie her shoes. Suzy was paying closer attention than Kate because Suzy looked up to Cassie, while Kate did not. Cassie did not keep Kate’s attention for long, so Kate did not remember watching Cassie tie her shoes. Cassie did keep Suzy’s attention while she tied her shoes, so Suzy remembered the process Cassie used to make a bow.


Reproduction occurs after the observer has watched and remembered a model for behavior. If the observer appreciated the behavior, they may try to recreate it. In most cases, an observer will possess the skills needed to reproduce the observed behavior. However, it is up to the observer to practice and enhance the behavior for themselves.

Example: Lauren used to watch her older sister Liz ride her bike up and down the street. Lauren looked up to her older sister, so she would watch closely and remember the behaviors she saw Liz model for her. One day, Lauren decided to try and ride a bike on her own. She was able to recreate the behavior. At first, Lauren’s performance was wobbly, as she tried to maintain balance. As she continued to reproduce the behavior that Liz modeled on her bike, she became more proficient in her ability to ride.


Motivation is the final stage of observational learning. Motivation is a huge component in observational learning. In order for a behavior to be reproduced regularly, there must be incentive for the behavior. Motivators could include to gain reward or to avoid punishment. For as long as the learned behavior elicits the desired effect the behavior will continue. Once the behavior stops getting the desired effect, it will be extinguished.

Example: Timmy noticed that every time Leah pressed a button she would get a candy. Timmy started pushing the blue button himself, and as a result he would also get a candy. After 7 tries, Timmy stopped getting a candy after pushing the button. Eventually, Timmy stopped pushing the button. His motivation to push the button was extinguished because the desired result stopped occurring.

The Bobo Doll Study

Bobo Doll
Bobo Doll

Among Bandura’s most influential studies was that of the Bobo doll. It is an experiment that illustrated the influence of modeling behavior. The Bobo doll was a blow up doll that stood as a life size clown. In the study, a sample of children witnessed an adult acting aggressively toward the Bobo doll. They saw adults punching, kicking and beating the doll.

After witnessing the way the adult acted toward the doll, they were placed in the room with it themselves. When presented with the doll, the kids acted aggressively toward it themselves. Some children even used tools, such as toys or mallets, to express their aggression toward the doll.

What is interesting about this study is the sample of children who did not witness an adult beating the doll acted differently. Children who were shown either:

Both samples showed significantly less aggression.

This finding supported the social learning theory. It also supported the significance of modeling toward learning behavior. The study challenged previous beliefs that people learned through reward and punishment. The Bobo doll illustrated that people also learn through modeling, or the observation of the behavior of other people.

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