Social cognitive theory

Suppose you wanted to teach your pet dog to "sit" on command.  How could you do it?  The easiest way would be to train your dog with rewards and punishments.  When your dog sits on command, you give her a treat as a reward.  If she disobeys, however, you might scold her with a firm voice.  Before long, your dog will be well-trained to sit whenever you ask her to.

For a long time, Psychologists believed that human learning worked in much the same way, and that rewards and punishments were also all that mattered when it came to acquiring new skills.  If you want to motivate a child to complete his homework or an employee to work extra hard on a project, simply offer rewards for those behaviors, whether it be a "Well done!" sticker on a notebook or a six figure cash bonus.  On the other hand, to get rid of unwanted behaviors, like students talking in class or employees using Facebook at work, you should punish the violators every time they break the rules.

During the 1960's and onwards, however, Psychologist Albert Bandura challenged the notion that rewards and punishments were sufficient to explain human learning.  Bandura argued that a good deal of learning occurs by observing and learning from others.  Furthermore, how we think about our actions, and the rewards and punishments they entail, is also vitally important.  Carrots and sticks alone can't explain why some teens devote themselves to doing well in school, while others might become absorbed by skateboarding or music, and still others might drop out and become addicted to drinking or drugs.  A great deal of learning comes from our social enviornment, and how we think about ourselves and our capabilities.

Video Activity

  • Watch the clip below from the film "Big Daddy"

  • How does the boy learn undesirable behaviors (in the first half of the video)?

  • How does the boy learn desirable behaviors (in the second half of the video)?

  • Do you think this video is realistic in showing how kids learn?

  • What lessons or insights about human learning can be seen from this video?
Social cognitive theory

As suggested in the "Big Daddy" video, a great deal of learning comes from observing and imitating others.  When the boy's father modelled behaviors like tripping roller bladers with sticks or peeing in public, the boy imitated his father because he admired and looked up to his dad.  On the other hand, later on the video, the father used "Scuba Sam" as an alter ego to model more positive behaviors.

Of course, we don't imitate all of the behaviors that we observe, and we choose to follow the example of some people, and not others.  If you want to become a doctor someday, you might observe and learn a great deal from an uncle who works as a surgeon, while paying less attention to the work that your aunt does as a legal secretary.  And most of us can observe bad behaviors without imitating them - you probably won't go on a crime spree in real life just because you play some Grand Theft Auto.

So what factors determine what we learn from our social environment?  Social cognitive theory outlines some of these factors:

  • Observing a model.  To learn a new behavior, one must first observe someone else (a "model") performing that behavior.  For the observation to result in learning, you must pay attention to the behavior, remember the behavior, and be physically capable of reproducing the behavior.

  • Outcome expectancies.  Outcome expectancies are the rewards or punishments you expect to receive if you imitate the observed behavior.  Outcome expectancies are strongly influenced by observing what rewards or punishments the model gets for that behavior.  For example, if you notice that your best friend instantly becomes more popular after getting into extreme sports, you might expect to receive the same rewards if you do the same.  Outcome expectancies can lead to both desirable and undesirable behaviors, depending on the social environment you are embedded it.  For example, if you notice that your uncle, who words as a physican, gets lots of rewards from his work - social admiration, fulfillment, and a great salary, for instance - you might be motivated to become a doctor too.  However, if you grow up in a crime-filled and poverty-stricken neighborhood, you might notice that the only people in your neighborhood that have money and power are drug dealers - and you might also be inclined to follow suit. 

  • Self efficacy.  Self efficacy refers to the extent to which you think you can reproduce the behavior that you have observed, mastering that particular skill.  In simple terms, it is the extent to which you "believe in yourself".  Millions of people observe Cristiano Ronaldo score beautiful goals in the World Cup, and of course know that becoming a professional footballer delivers fabulous rewards (money, fame, social status, etc.)  But most of us don't seriously consider the possibility of becoming a professional football player ourselves, because we don't believe that we are capable of doing so.  Only people who have high self-efficacy in football - who really believe they have the potential to become a professional football player - are likely to devote thousands of hours to the training and practice that are necessary to have a chance at professional sports.

  • Identification with the model.  Lastly, a final factor that goes into social learning is the extent to which you identify with the model you observe.  Identifying with a model means feeling a strong bond with the model, feeling that you have many things in common with the model, and having a sense of emotional attachment to the model.  For instance, in the "Big Daddy" video clip, it is clear that the boy has a strong attachment to his father, and this contibutes to his imitation of his father's behavior.  On a basic level, we are more likely to identify with models that we share commonalities with - for instance, sharing the same gender, race, age, and values.  On a deeper level, having a strong emotional connection with a role model can be a powerful factor in learning, leading a person to intensively study the role model's behavior and to follow closely in their footsteps. 

Research: Bandura

Aim:  Investigate whether aggression can be learned simply by observing others 


  • This experiment was performed on three groups of UK nursery children.  The children were rated according to how aggressive they tended to be, and each group was matched to have the same average aggression rating

  • The children in group 1 observed an adult behave aggressively towards a "Bobo doll" - for instance, kicking, hitting and using objects to smash the doll

  • The children in group 2 observed an adult assemble toys, and group 3 was the control group (they did not observe an adult model)

  • Afterwards, the children were taken into a room (one at a time) with a bobo doll and their behavior was observed 


  • Children in group 1 (who had seen the aggressive model) were more likely to behave aggressively towards the bobo doll, imitating the adult model they had observed

  • Boys were more likely to be aggressive towards the Bobo doll if the adult model they observed was male, rather than female


  • This study supports social cognitive theory, in the sense that behavior can be learned simply observing and imitating others

  • This study supports the prediction of social cognitive theory that behavior will be imitated when there is identification with the model - and that's why boys were more likely to imitate aggression when the model was male


  • This study utilized an experimental design, which allows for a causal relationship to be established between the independent variable (the behavior of the model) and the dependent variable (the behavior of the child)

  • This study may have had demand characteristics - children may have imitated the model by beating up the doll because that's what they thought they were supposed to do

  • This study may have low ecological validity - it is questionable whether hitting a doll is equivalent to actual aggression which causes harm to another person

  • All participants in this study were nursery-aged, so there is limited generalizability - it is uncertain whether older children, teenagers, or adults would behave the same way

​Think Critically: Social cognitive theory & media

Social cognitive theory has led to many debates over violence and sex in the media.  If people learn behavior simply by observing and imitating others, then perhaps children who observe violent and sexual behavior on TV or movies will be negatively influenced.  This concern has led ratings agencies to restrict certain movies to ages 18 and over, as well as to a great deal of worry amongst parents and educators over the media content that children are exposed to.

On the other hand, some TV producers have explored the possibility that media can have a positive influence, rather than a negative one.  For example, television programs could show the negative consequences of certain behaviors, serving as a "cautionary tale", by changing the outcome expectancies for those behaviors.  For instance, a television program which depicts the struggles of drug addicts as they grapple with withdrawal symptoms, depleted finances and destroyed relationships might discourage teenagers from trying drugs.

Read this article about the creation of the MTV show "16 and Pregnant", and critically reflect on the following:

  • What does the show "16 and Pregnant" depict?

  • The creator of the show, Lauren Dolgen, believes that the show could help reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy.  Why?

  • Some critics of the show believe that the show might actually glamorize teen pregnancy, rather than reducing it.  Why?

  • Based on social cognitive theory, do you think the show will increase, decrease, or have no impact on teen pregnancy?  Use specific terms from the theory to support your answer

Research: Carney & Levine

Aim:  Assess the impact of the show "16 and Pregnant" on teen sexual behavior and the rate of teen pregnancy


  • Identified geographic areas (ex. particular cities) where the TV show "16 and Pregnant" was particularly popular

  • Measured whether these geographic areas had greater decreases in teen pregnancy compared to other areas where the show was less popular

  • Analyzed Google searches immediately following a new episode of "16 and Pregnant"


  • Geographic areas where "16 and Pregnant" was particularly popular had greater decreases in teen pregnancy compared with other areas

  • After a new episode of "16 and Pregnant" was shown, there was a spike in Google searches for terms like "how to get birth control"


  • The show "16 and Pregnant" had a positive impact in reducing the rate of teen pregnancy


  • This study supports social cognitive theory, particularly the role of outcome expectancies on behavior.  By observing negative outcomes of teenage pregnancy (financial problems, difficulty completing school) teens are less likely to have unprotected sex

  • This study has high ecological validity, as it measured actual rates of teen pregnancy

  • As this was a correlational study, it is difficult to establish with certainty that it was "16 and Pregnant", and not other factors, that led to decreases in teen pregnancy.  There may have been other differences in the geographical areas compared which might explain the decrease in teen pregnancy

​Evaluating Social Cognitive Theory
  • Explains how people can learn by observing and imitating others.  As such, it is a significant improvement over earlier theories of learning, which assumed that learning only occurs with rewards and punishments

  • Social cognitive theory has high real-world applicability.  It can be used to teach children and teens positive behaviors through role models, or show the negative consequences of undesirable behaviors as in the TV show "16 and pregnant"

  • On the other hand, observing a behavior does not always lead to imitating it, and it can be difficult to predict when an observed behavior will be imitated or not.  For example, will watching a violent movie lead children to imitate the violence, or to learn the negative consquences of violence?

  • Finally, some of the research supporting social cognitive theory, such as the Bobo doll experiment, has been criticized on methodological grounds, such as lack of ecological validity

  • I can contrast social cognitive theory with earlier theories of learning

  • I can explain factors that contribute towards social learning (observing a model, outcome expectancies, self-efficacy, identification with a model)

  • I can describe the Aim, Procedure, Findings and Conclusion of Bandura's Bobo doll experiment, and can also evaluate the study

  • I can explain how social cognitive theory can be applied to model positive behaviors, including through the media

  • I can describe the Aim, Procedure, Findings and Conclusion of Carney and Levine's research into the effects of 16 and Pregnant, and can also evaluate the study

  • I can evaluate social cognitive theory
​Quiz Yourself!

1.  Which of the following examples of learning can only be explained by social cognitive theory, as opposed to earlier theories of learning?

(a) Mice which succesfully complete a maze, receiving cheese at the end of the maze, then are able to complete the maze faster the second time

(b) Sally notices that two of the most popular girls in her year group got their naval pierced, so decides to get her naval pierced as well

(c) Jack gets a bonus for selling above his monthly target, which makes him work even harder to beat his target again next month

(d) Tom is called into the principal's office after he is caught smoking behind the school grounds, which convinces him keep a greater distance from school the next time he smokes

2.  Which factor explains why most people don't record a demo of themselves singing and send it to record companies in hopes of becoming the next top 40 pop star?

(a) Observing the model

(b) Self-efficacy

(c) Outcome expectancies

(d) Identification with the model

3.  Which statement is not true about Bandura's bobo doll experiment?

(a) Nursery children tended to imitate the model, but teenagers were less likely to do so

(b) Boys were more likely to imitate same-sex models

(c) Participants who observed a model assemble toys were less likely to be aggressive towards the Bobo doll than those who observed a model hitting the doll

(d) Participants were British nursery-aged children, who were assigned to three groups based on matched levels of aggressiveness

​4.  One criticism of Bandura's Bobo doll study is that it may have had demand characteristics.  Explain why

(a) Participants all came from a single culture

(b) Participants were all nursery-aged children, with no older children, teenagers or adults represented

(c) Aggression towards a Bobo doll may not be equivalent to aggression which truly harms another person

(d) The children may have thought that hitting the doll was what they were supposed to do for this study

5.  What research method was used by Carney and Levine in their analysis of the effects of the show "16 and Pregnant"?

(a) Laboratory experiment

(b) Field experiment

(c) Observational (correlational) study

(d) Case study
1 - B, 2 - B, 3 - A, 4 - D, 5 - C