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Social learning theory posits that knowledge acquisition is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement. In addition to the observation of behavior, learning also occurs through the observation of rewards and punishments, a process known as of vicarious reinforcement.
Prior to 1960, published theories of learning were heavily influenced by theories of classic conditioning, operant conditioning, and the psychoanalytic concept of drives. In 1959, Noam Chomsky published his criticism of B.F. Skinner's book Verbal Behavior. In his review, Chomsky stated that pure stimulus-response theories of behavior could not account for the process of language acquisition, an argument that contributed significantly to psychology's cognitive revolution.
Within this context, Albert Bandura studied learning processes that occurred in interpersonal contexts and were not adequately explained by theories of operant conditioning or existing models of social learning, such as the work of Julian Rotter. Specifically, Bandura argued that "the weaknesses of learning approaches that discount the influence of social variables are nowhere more clearly revealed than in their treatment of the acquisition of novel responses." Skinner's explanation of the acquisition of new responses relied on the process of successive approximation, which required multiple trials, reinforcement for components of behavior, and gradual change. Rotter's theory proposed that the likelihood of a behavior occurring was a function of the subjective expectancy and value of the reinforcement. This model assumed a hierarchy of existing responses and thus did not (according to Bandura) account for a response that had not yet been learned. Bandura began to conduct studies of the rapid acquisition of novel behaviors via social observation, the most famous of which were the Bobo doll experiments.
In 1961, Bandura and colleagues published the first paper on the results of the now-famous Bobo doll experiments. The Bobo doll is a child-sized inflatable doll with a weighted bottom that causes it to pop back up after being knocked down. In the first iteration of these studies, preschool-aged children were divided into three groups: one group that observed an adult behaving aggressively towards the Bobo doll (punching, kicking, striking with a mallet, yelling), another group that observed the adult playing peacefully, and a control group.
To control for possible peer influences, each participant viewed their assigned scenario individually. Later, the child was allowed to play independently in the play room which contained a variety of aggressive and non-aggressive toys, including the Bobo doll. Participants’ acts of verbal and physical aggression toward the Bobo doll were then recorded. Results revealed significant group differences, such that children exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to imitate what they had seen and behave aggressively toward the doll. Bandura and colleagues argued that the results supported that children could rapidly acquire novel behaviors through the process of observation and imitation, and this occurred even in the absence of any kind of reinforcement.
Subsequent variations on the original experiment provided additional insights into the social nature of learning. In a 1963 paper, Bandura and colleagues demonstrated that children imitated aggressive behavior witnessed on video, in addition to live observation, and children also imitated aggressive behaviors enacted by a cartoon character. An additional study, published in 1965, showed that witnessing the model being punished for the aggressive behavior decreased the likelihood that children would imitate the behavior, a process he referred to as vicarious reinforcement.
Social learning theory integrated behavioral and cognitive theories of learning in order to provide a comprehensive model that could account for the wide range of learning experiences that occur in the real world. As initially outlined by Bandura and Walters in 1963 and further detailed in 1977, key tenets of social learning theory are as follows:
Social learning theory draws heavily on the concept of modeling, or learning by observing a behavior. Bandura outlined three types of modeling stimuli:
Exactly what information is gleaned from observation is influenced by the type of model, as well as a series of cognitive and behavioral processes, including:
An important factor in social learning theory is the concept of reciprocal determinism. This notion states that just as an individual’s behavior is influenced by the environment, the environment is also influenced by the individual’s behavior. In other words, a person’s behavior, environment, and personal qualities all reciprocally influence each other. For example, a child who plays violent video games will likely influence their peers to play as well, which then encourages the child to play more often. This could lead to the child becoming desensitized to violence, which in turn will likely affect the child’s real life behaviors.
Social learning theory has been used to explain the emergence and maintenance of deviant behavior, especially aggression. Criminologists Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess integrated the principles of social learning theory and operant conditioning with Edwin Sutherland's Differential Association Theory to create a comprehensive theory of criminal behavior. Burgess and Akers emphasized that criminal behavior is learned in both social and nonsocial situations through combinations of direct reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement, explicit instruction, and observation. Both the probability of being exposed to certain behaviors and the nature of the reinforcement are dependent on group norms.
In her book Theories of Developmental Psychology, Patricia H. Miller lists both moral development and gender-role development as important areas of research within social learning theory. Social learning theorists emphasize observable behavior regarding the acquisition of these two skills. For gender-role development, the same-sex parent provides only one of many models from which the individual learns gender-roles. Social learning theory also emphasizes the variable nature of moral development due to the changing social circumstances of each decision: "The particular factors the child thinks are important vary from situation to situation, depending on variables such as which situational factors are operating, which causes are most salient, and what the child processes cognitively. Moral judgments involve a complex process of considering and weighing various criteria in a given social situation." 
For social learning theory, gender development has to do with the interactions of numerous social factors, involving all the interactions the individual encounters. For social learning theory, biological factors are important but take a back seat to the importance of learned, observable behavior. Because of the highly-gendered society in which an individual might develop, individuals begin to distinguish people by gender even as infants. Bandura's account of gender allows for more than cognitive factors in predicting gendered behavior: for Bandura, motivational factors and a broad network of social influences determine if, when, and where gender knowledge is expressed.
Principles of social learning theory have been applied extensively to the study of media violence. Akers and Burgess hypothesized that observed or experienced positive rewards and lack of punishment for aggressive behaviors reinforces aggression. Many research studies have discovered significant correlations between viewing violent television and aggression later in life, as well as playing violent video games and aggressive behaviors. The role of observational learning has also been cited as an important factor in the rise of rating systems for TV, movies, and video games.
Another important application of social learning theory has been in the treatment and conceptualization of anxiety disorders. The classical conditioning approach to anxiety disorders, which spurred the development of behavioral therapy and is considered by some to be the first modern theory of anxiety, began to lose steam in the late 1970s as researchers began to question its underlying assumptions. For example, the classical conditioning approach holds that pathological fear and anxiety are developed through direct learning; however, many people with anxiety disorders cannot recall a traumatic conditioning event, in which the feared stimulus was experienced in close temporal and spatial contiguity with an intrinsically aversive stimulus. Social learning theory helped salvage learning approaches to anxiety disorders by providing additional mechanisms beyond classical conditioning that could account for the acquisition of fear. For example, social learning theory suggests that a child could acquire a fear of snakes by observing a family remember express fear in response to snakes. Alternatively, the child could learn the associations between snakes and unpleasant bites through direct experience, without developing excessive fear, but could later learn from others that snakes can have deadly venom, leading to a re-evaluation of the dangerousness of snake bites, and accordingly, a more exaggerated fear response to snakes.
Many classroom and teaching strategies draw on principles of social learning to enhance students' knowledge acquisition and retention. For example, using the technique of guided participation, a teacher says a phrase and asks the class to repeat the phrase. Thus, students both imitate and reproduce the teacher's action, aiding retention. An extension of guided participation is reciprocal learning, in which both student and teacher share responsibility in leading discussions. Additionally, teachers can shape the classroom behavior of students by modelling appropriate behavior and visibly rewarding students for good behavior. By emphasizing the teacher's role as model and encouraging the students to adopt the position of observer, the teacher can make knowledge and practices explicit to students, enhancing their learning outcomes.