Social Learning Theory

Children that grow up in violent households might be more prone to violence not only because of the physiological effects of the trauma that may have altered their brain and/or cognitive development, they may have also learned to be violent from watching their parents. Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura proposed the Social Learning in the 1960s…

Key Theory: Social Learning Theory

Background Information

In the 1960s and 1970s, Social Psychologist Albert Bandura devised a theory of learning called Social Learning Theory. As the name suggests, Bandura’s theory was a theory that explained how humans learn.

It’s no coincidence that it was during this time TV watching the United States was becoming more and more popular. Prior to the 1960s TVs were no in many households but as this changed TV exec’s rapidly realized the potential market in children. Animated shows (The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Road Runner, Looney Tunes, etc.) became very popular with children. But these shows were also blamed for causing children to act violently.

Episode 9 of Season 2 of The Simpsons deals with this issue as Marge campaigns against the makers of “Itchy and Scratchy” after she realizes Maggie is learning all sorts of violent acts from this show (including hitting Homer over the head with a mallet). It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

What is Social Learning Theory (SLT)

According to Bandura’s theory, learning happens through:

  1. Direct experience/s of the learner
  2. Observing the behaviour of others (modelling)

For the purposes of applying Bandura’s theory to an explanation of how the media can cause violence we will only focus on the role of learning through the observation of a model (b).

Learning Through Modelling

SLT is often over-simplified in its understanding and people think that just by watching someone else there is a chance that the behaviour will be copied and thus, learned. This is not the case. There are a few factors that increase the likelihood that the viewer will a) copy the behaviour and b) continue to copy the behavior (i.e. “learn” something).

Here are the four processes that SLT claims influence the likelihood that observation of a model’s behaviour will result in learning:

  • Attentional processes
  • Retention processes
  • Motor reproduction processes
  • Reinforcement and motivational processes
  1. I) Attention Processes

Basically, if we’re not paying attention to the model there’s little chance we’ll learn from them.

  1. II) Retention processes

Retention means to retain, or remember. If we can’t remember what we’ve observed there’s little chance we’ll learn the behaviour.

III) Motor reproduction processes

Motor skills refer to physical co-ordination. If someone doesn’t have the physical skills to copy the behaviour, this will influence learning. For instance, if a young child watches someone swing a golf club, they might not learn from this observation if they don’t have the physical coordination to replicate this behaviour.

  1. IV) Reinforcement and motivational processes

Motivation is important in copying the observed behaviour. If we watch someone be rewarded (or punished) for their behavior, that will reinforce the likelihood of us wanting to do it. Also, if we copy the behavior and are then rewarded or punished, that always influences motivation to continue to do the behaviour Additional research has also shown that liking and identifying with the model are important motivational influences as well.


Social Learning/Cognitive Theory summary.