Individual Differences


Social Learning & Social Cognitive
Perspectives on Personality

Last updated:
23 Dec 2003

Social Learning and Social Cognitive theories accept and expand on conditioning principles.  Social Learning emphasizes the particularly power of learning through social rewards and punishments, including vicarious reinforcements and modeling.  Social Cognitive theories build on behavioral theories and show that  people’s cognitive processes influence and are influenced by behavioral associations.  Conditioning theories assume direct connection between behaviour and learning WHEREAS Cognitive theories allow for the learning process to be modified by cognitions

Social Learning and Social Cognitive Theories include study of:






        vicarious emotional arousal

        vicarious reinforcement

        semantic generalization

        rule-based learning

Social learning theories arose in an attempt to retain behaviourism’s empirical rigour and some of its basic principles whilst trying to expand beyond what behaviourism could explain and predict. Three important aspects that behaviourism ignores are motivation, emotion and cognition.

Furthermore, it came to be realized that so many of the things that reinforce our behaviour are not related to physical needs but to psychological needs.  SOCIAL REINFORCERS such as acceptance, hugs, approval, interest, praise, attention etc are extremely important in making people continue to perform a particular behaviour. In this sense the learning theory became very socially oriented.

People also often reward themselves for “good behaviour” with a new CD or even just internal praise or potentially you punish yourself with no new CD or self-blame. In this way, these theories see internal states of being of real importance in the learning process.

Social learning theorists claim that they way that people think, plan, perceive and believe is an important part of learning. They also point out that many experiments are carried out on animals and that therefore the laws of learning they discover, whilst having some relevance to humans, are not complete or complex enough to account for more complex human behaviour and learning. Social learning  theorists also claim that behaviourism ignores the social dimensions of learning, treating us as though we are individual animals. In humans, however, many reinforcements are social in nature. In behaviourist experiments, the animal cannot choose its environment and the environment doesn’t changes as a result of the animals presence -as it does with humans.

Another elaboration concerns self reinforcement - we reward and punish ourselves - so there are internal versus environmental sources of reinforcement.

Social Reinforcement: A particularly powerful form of reinforcement which shapes human personality and behaviour is social e.g. approval, touch, smiling, encouragement, etc.

Self Reinforcement: Refers to both the act of giving one’s self actual real life rewards for certain acts (e.g. If I study for one hour, I can have that piece of cake.), as well as giving oneself internal positive self-talk and feelings, etc. in response to a desired behaviour (or likewise negative self-talk in response to non-desired behaviour)

Vicarious Emotional Arousal: The experience of empathy when observing someone else’s situation creates an opportunity for emotional conditioning based on the actual behavioural conditioning of the person being observed.

Vicarious Reinforcement: Observing other people’s behaviours being rewarded or punished leads to vicarious reinforcement of those behaviours in an observer, e.g. seeing people who train hard win gold medals at the olympics reinforces physical exercise in observers.

Semantic Generalization: Learning is not restricted to specific situations where semantic links or generalizations can be made to similar situations.  e.g. having an unpleasant experience going to a football match may also make someone less likely to attend a cricket match

Rule-based Learning: People learn sets of principles or rules which can be applied across situations (e.g. overregularisation or overgeneralisation).

Go to "Locus of Control: Rotter 1954"

Bandura (1971; 1977)

Bandura view of social learning builds directly upon Rotter’s work. Bandura does not give as much attention to individual differences as did Rotter but pays more attention to the social nature of learning and the way that people interact with situations in their lives.

Bandura called Rotter’s expectancies Efficacy Expectations = perceived nonconditional probability that you can do something. Rotter’s expectancy is a belief about the reinforcement/ Bandura’s is a belief about self, and is thus a step further from behaviourism. Bandura stresses a match between ability and efficacy expectation leads to a more productive, rational and fulfilling life.

e.g. Self efficacy has been found to be associated with positive health behaviour change and perceived control.

People with behavioural problems generally have a low self efficacy e.g. therapy works if it restores/creates a person’s confidence in his/her ability to function. The individual’s sense of self -efficacy

Bandura: Observational Learning

• Efficient learning method which involves:

– Attention

– Retention

– Production

– Performance (Motivation)

Observational Learning: this is a key concept - one can learn vicariously e.g. Bandura’s bobo dolls. Humans can also learn emotions vicariously e.g. empathy/sympathy

* more prevalent and efficient than classical or operant learning

* most human behaviours and attitudes learned through observation intentionally or accidentally

* begins at a very early age e.g. basis of most early language acquisition

* can exceed imitation: the observer can learn from the model’s mistakes as well as successes

* can result in synthesis of different behaviours, which then lead to innovative and creative behaviours

* can acquire internal standards for evaluating own and other’s behaviours

* behaviour is maintained by expectancies or anticipated consequences


Learning by modelling

ATTENTION:  Pay attention if: Similarity; status; competence; power; attractive; simpler behaviours more readily imitated; and aggressive behaviours readily copied by young children.

RETENTION: Use imagery, language and rehearsal to encode.

PRODUCTION: capacity to produce response

MOTIVATION: Is the observer motivated to perform the behaviour. What are the consequences associated with the behaviour for the model? Vicarious reinforcement influences whether the behaviour performed (in Bobo Doll case (1965), particularly punishment of the model) What are the likely outcomes for the observer?

Attributes of the Observer:

* People are more like to imitate when they:

* lack self esteem

* are incompetent

* highly dependent

* have been rewarded previously for conforming

* are highly motivated to master a desired behaviour

* substantial short or long term rewards

Modelling & sex role acquisition. Some studies have shown that children model same-sex parents/characters more than different sex parents/characters.

And of course there’s still a lot of social reinforcement for gender-specific behaviours. Little girls are often told how sweet they are when they comply and are quiet or help mummy with the cooking. Little boys are encouraged and praised to help dad with the car and go out and kick a football with dad.As with other learning, this sex-role acquisition can be strongly influenced by portrayals of males and females in the media.

Modelling & Aggression: modelling of aggression occurs e.g.:via observing aggression within the home; via observing aggression on TV.  Of course on television this violence is often not just permitted but also rewarded (video games) and this results in the promotion of beliefs that aggression is an appropriate way to deal with conflict.  It doesn’t matter whether the model is in real life, on television and is a real person or an animated character!

Intervention Approaches

Inappropriate and maladaptive behaviours can be be the result of prior reinforcement patterns i.e. inappropriate behaviour has been conditioned. Maladaptive behaviour can have been learned from models. People can have inappropriate or maladaptive expectancies for their behaviour e.g. always expecting to do badly in exams or always expecting to be REWARDED for bullying. People can suffer from skills deficits which might be due to a lack of models with appropriate skills.

All these things can be reversed by the same processes. Thus new behaviour can be conditioned via reinforcing appropriate behaviour; by modelling appropriate behaviour (often used for teaching social skills and assertiveness for example). People can be helped to increase their expectancies via observational learning as well.  When a model shows they can overcome fear for example this helps the observer overcome their fear. Furthermore self-instructions can help people change their expectancies about outcomes. Cognitive behaviour therapy works on the assumption that many problems stem from ineffective and disruptive thoughts that slip into peoples minds. People often tell themselves they can’t cope; they’re no good etc. They often expect bad things.  The goal of CBT is to get the client to recognize instances of maladaptive thinking and to make suitable adjustments. (Test anxiety: Prepare for the stressor: plan for the test, no negative self-statements, don’t worry. Confront and cope with the stressor: Take it one step at a time break, remember to use your relaxation exercises; pause when the anxiety comes; relax and keep focused on the bit at hand. After the coping attempt: pat yourself on the back for your progress. Tell yourself you can do it.