Social cognitive theory

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Social cognitive theory, used in psychology, education, and communication, posits that portions of an individual's knowledge acquisition can be directly related to observing others within the context of social interactions, experiences, and outside media influences. In other words, people do not learn new behaviors solely by trying them and either succeeding or failing, but rather, the survival of humanity is dependent upon the replication of the actions of others. Depending on whether people are rewarded or punished for their behavior and the outcome of the behavior, that behavior may be modeled. Further, media provide models for a vast array of people in many different environmental settings.


Social cognitive theory stemmed out of work in the area of social learning theory proposed by Neal E. Miller and John Dollard in 1941. Identifying four key factors in learning new behavior, 1) drives, 2) cues, 3) responses, and 4) rewards, they posit that if one were motivated to learn a particular behavior, then that particular behavior would be learned through clear observations. By imitating these observed actions the individual observer would solidify that learned action and would be rewarded with positive reinforcement. The proposition of social learning was expanded upon and theorized by Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura, along with his students and colleagues conducted a series of studies to find out why and when children display aggressive behaviors. These studies demonstrated the value of modeling for acquiring novel behaviors. In 1986, Bandura proposed Social cognitive theory with more emphasis on the cognitive processes that mediate learning. SCT works on the assumption that learning and behaviour (cognition)have a triadic reciprocal relationship with environment. Further studies have been done since then and SCT has continued to grow and expand especially with regard to the work on self-efficacy, self-regulation, and agency.[1] SCT has been applied to many areas of human functioning such as career choice and organizational behavior[2] as well as in understanding classroom motivation, learning, and achievement.


Social Cognitive Theory is a learning theory based on the ideas that people learn by observing others. These learned behaviours can be central to one’s personality. While social psychologists agree that environment in which one grows up contributes to behaviour, the individual person (and therefore cognition) is just as important.

People learn by observing others, with the environment, behavior, and cognition all as the chief factors in influencing development in a reciprocal triadic relationship. For example, each behavior witnessed can change a person's way of thinking (cognition). Similarly, the environment one is raised in may influence later behaviors, just as a father's mindset (also cognition) will determine the environment in which his children are raised.[2]

There are five core concepts associated with the SCT framework. These core concepts are observational learning/modeling, outcome expectations, self-efficacy, goal setting and self-regulation.

It is important to note that learning can occur without a change in behavior. According to J.E. Ormrod's general principles of social learning, while a visible change in behavior is the most common proof of learning, it is not absolutely necessary. Social learning theorists say that because people can learn through observation alone, their learning may not necessarily be shown in their performance.[3]

Observation of models[edit]

Social cognitive theory revolves around the process of knowledge acquisition or learning directly correlated to the observation of models. The models can be those of an interpersonal imitation or media sources. Effective modeling teaches general rules and strategies for dealing with different situations.[3]

To illustrate that people learn from watching others, Albert Bandura and his colleagues constructed a series of experiments using a Bobo doll. In the first experiment, children were exposed to either an aggressive or non-aggressive model of either the same sex or opposite sex as the child. There was also a control group. The aggressive models played with the Bobo doll in an aggressive manner, while the non-aggressive models played with other toys. They found that children who were exposed to the aggressive models performed more aggressive actions toward the Bobo doll afterward, and that boys were more likely to do so than girls.[4] Following that study, in order to test whether the same was true for models presented through media, Albert Bandura constructed an experiment entitled "Bobo Doll Behavior: A Study of Aggression." In this experiment Bandura exposed a group of children to a video featuring violent and aggressive actions. After the video he then placed the children in a room with a Bobo doll to see how they behaved with it. Through this experiment, Bandura discovered that children who had watched the violent video subjected the dolls to more aggressive and violent behavior, while children not exposed to the video did not. This experiment displays the social cognitive theory because it depicts how people reenact behaviors they see in the media. In this case, the children in this experiment reenacted the model of violence they directly learned from the video.[5]

As a result of the observations the reinforcement explains that the observer does not expect actual rewards or punishments but anticipates similar outcomes to his/her imitated behaviors and allows for these effects to work. This portion of social cognitive theory relies heavily on outcome expectancies. These expectancies are heavily influenced by the environment that the observer grows up in; for example, the expected consequences for a DUI in the United States of America are a fine, with possible jail time, whereas the same charge in another country might lead to the infliction of the death penalty.

In education, teachers play the role as model in a child's learning acquisition. Teachers model both material objectives and underlying curriculum of virtuous living. Teachers should also be dedicated to the building of high self-efficacy levels in their students by recognizing their accomplishments.

Identification, self-efficacy, and vicarious learning[edit]

Albert Bandura also stressed that the easiest way to display moral development would be via the consideration of multiple factors, be they social, cognitive, or environmental.[6] The relationship between the aforementioned three factors provides even more insight into the complex concept that is morality. Further development in social cognitive theory posits that learning will most likely occur if there is a close identification between the observer and the model and if the observer also has a good deal of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy beliefs function as an important set of proximal determinants of human motivation, affect, and action which operate on action through motivational, cognitive, and affective intervening processes.[7] Identification allows the observer to feel a one-to-one connection with the individual being imitated and will be more likely to achieve those imitations if the observer feels that they have the ability to follow through with the imitated action.[3]

Self-efficacy has also been used to predict behavior in various health related situations such as weight loss, quitting smoking, and recovery from heart attack. In relation to exercise science, self-efficacy has produced some of the most consistent results revealing an increase in participation in exercise as self-efficacy increases.[8]

Vicarious learning, or the process of learning from other people's behavior, is a central idea of social cognitive theory and self-efficacy. This idea asserts that individuals can witness observed behaviors of others and then reproduce the same actions. As a result of this, individuals refrain from making mistakes and can perform behaviors better if they see individuals complete them successfully.

Vicarious learning is a part of social modeling which is one of the four means to increase self-efficacy. Social modeling refers not just to observing behavior but also to receiving instruction and guidance of how to complete a behavior. The other three methods include, mastery experience, improving physical and emotional states and verbal persuasion. Mastery experience is a process in which the therapist or interventionist facilitates the success of an individual by achieving simple incremental goals. With the achievement of simple tasks, more complex objectives are introduced. The person essentially masters a behavior step by step. Improving physical and emotional states refers to ensuring a person is rested and relaxed prior to attempting a new behavior. The less relaxed, the less patient, the more likely the goal behavior will not be attained. Finally, verbal persuasion is providing encouragement for a person to complete a task or achieve a certain behavior.[9]


Social cognitive theory is applied today in many different areas. Mass media, public health, education, and marketing are just a very few. An example of this is the use of celebrities to endorse and introduce any number of products to certain demographics: one way in which social cognitive theory encompasses all four of these domains. By choosing the proper gender, age, and ethnicity the use of social cognitive theory could help ensure the success of an AIDS campaign to inner city teenagers by letting them identify with a recognizable peer, have a greater sense of self-efficacy, and then imitate the actions in order to learn the proper preventions and actions for a more informative AIDS aware community.[10]

Both intended and unintended media effects stem from social cognitive theory because they illustrate the influence the media possesses in shaping audience behaviors and actions. Intended media effect stress positive behaviors and actions from audiences and can be achieved through education-based entertainment and health campaigns. Through these the media can educate people on dangerous behaviors that are typically not displayed with consequences or punishment in the media. Unlike intended media effects, unintended media effects are typically negative as consequences and punishments for risky behaviors are not displayed. As a result of this, audiences might be more willing to engage risky behaviors they witness in the media, such as smoking. When unhealthy actions are displayed with no consequences it can also reinforce these unhealthy behaviors.


Social cognitive theory emphasizes a large difference between an individual's ability to be morally competent and morally performing. Moral competence involves having the ability to perform a moral behavior, whereas moral performance indicates actually following one's idea of moral behavior in a specific situation.[6] Moral competencies include:

As far as an individual's development is concerned, moral competence is the growth of cognitive-sensory processes; simply put, being aware of what is considered right and wrong. By comparison, moral performance is influenced by the possible rewards and incentives to act a certain way.[6] For example, a person's moral competence might tell them that stealing is wrong and frowned upon by society; however, if the reward for stealing is a substantial sum, their moral performance might indicate a different line of thought. Therein lies the core of social cognitive theory.

Variations in morality[edit]

For the most part, social cognitive theory remains the same for various cultures. Since the concepts of moral behavior did not vary much between cultures (as crimes like murder, theft, and unwarranted violence are illegal in virtually every society), there is not much room for people to have different views on what is morally right or wrong. The main reason that social cognitive theory applies to all nations is because it does not say what is moral and immoral; it simply states that we can acknowledge these two concepts. Our actions in real-life scenarios will be based on whether or not we believe the action to be moral and whether or not the reward for violating our morals is significant enough, and nothing else.[6]

Education and Social Cognitive Theory[edit]

Observation learning/Models: One of the core concepts of SCT is that learning occurs through observation. Teachers, parents and peers can all act as models for the students to observe and learn behaviour. The models have to make sure that they model the behaviour in such a way that the four inter-related processes attention, retention, production, and motivation are touched upon. Modeling does not limit to only live demonstrations but also verbal and written behaviour can act as indirect forms of modeling. Modeling not only allows students' to learn behaviour that they should repeat but also to inhibit certain behaviours. For instance, if a teacher glares at one student who is talking out of turn, other students may suppress this behavior to avoid a similar reaction

Outcome Expectations: In order to learn a particular behaviour, people need to understand what the potential outcome will be when they repeat that behaviour. In the case of a student, the instructions provided by the teacher, will help the students see what outcome a particular behaviour will lead to. It is the duty of the teacher to teach a student that when a behaviour is successfully learned what, the outcomes will be meaningful and worthy to the students. Outcome expectations are important in SCT because they shape the decisions people make about what actions to take and which behaviors to suppress. Whether a particular behaviour gets rewards or punished will lead to the behaviour being repeated or not.

Perceived self-efficacy: Self –efficacy is the belief of an individual about themselves whether they have mastered a particular skill or not. Generally students will become more effortful, active, pay attention, highly motivated and better learners when they perceive that they have mastered a particular task.[11] It is the duty of the teacher to allow student to perceive in their efficacy by providing feedback to understand their level of proficiency. Teachers should ensure that the students have the knowledge and strategies that are needed to be successful at completing the tasks.

Goal setting: This is another core concept in the SCT framework. Goals reflect cognitive representations of future desired outcomes. According to SCT, teachers can provide helpful instructions that help the students form effective goals which can lead to better learning.

Self-regulation: Self-regulated learning is the idea that a student can take control and evaluate his/her own learning behaviour. This is dependent on goal setting, in that students are thought to manage their thoughts and actions in order to reach particular outcomes. The skills needed to manage one's behavior, as well the beliefs and attitudes that serve to motivate self-regulation, can be obtained through modeling. Teachers need to make sure they teach the students how to self evaluate themselves and see their progress over time. This can be done using progress report over a year among other ways.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bandura, Albert (February 2001). "SOCIAL COGNITIVE THEORY: An Agentic Perspective". Annual Review of Psychology 52 (1): 1–26. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.1. 
  2. ^ Lent, Robert; Steven D. Brown; Gail Hackett (August 1994). "Toward a Unifying Social Cognitive Theory of Career and Academic Interest, Choice, and Performance". Journal of Vocational Behavior 45 (1): 79–122. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1994.1027. 
  3. ^ a b Bandura, A. (1988). Organizational Application of Social Cognitive Theory. Australian Journal of Management, 13(2), 275–302.
  4. ^ Bandura, Albert; Ross, D.; Ross, S. (1961). "Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63: 575–582. doi:10.1037/h0045925. PMID 13864605. 
  5. ^ Bandura, Albert; Ross, D.; Ross, S. (1963). "Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66: 3–11. doi:10.1037/h0048687. 
  6. ^ a b c d Santrock, J.W. (2008). A Topical Approach to Lifespan Development (M. Ryan, Ed., 4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. (Original work published 2002), pp. 26, 30, 478
  7. ^ Bandura, A. (1989). Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. American Psychologist, 44, 1175–1184.
  8. ^ Weinberg, Robert S., Gould, Daniel: Foundation of Sport and Exercise Psychology 4th Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2007 p.422.
  9. ^ McAlister AL, Perry CL, Parcel GS. How Individuals, Environments, and Health Behaviors Interact: Social Cognitive Theory. In: Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice 4th Edition. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2008: 169–188.
  10. ^ Miller, Katherine (2005). Communication Theories: Perspectives, Processes, and Contexts (2nd ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.
  11. ^ Bandura, Albert (1993). "Perceived Self Efficacy in Cognitive Development and Functioning". Educational Psychologist 28 (2): 117–148. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep2802_3. 

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