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Social Learning Theory

An approach to personality that emphasizes the interaction between personal traits and environment and their mediation by cognitive processes.

Social learning theory has its roots in the behaviorist notion of human behavior as being determined by learning, particularly as shaped by reinforcement in the form of rewards or punishment. Early research in behaviorism conducted by Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, and B. F. Skinner used animals in a laboratory. Subsequently, researchers became dissatisfied with the capacity of their findings to fully account for the complexities of human personality. Criticism centered particularly on the fact that behaviorism's focus on observable behaviors left out the role played by cognition.

The first major theory of social learning, that of Julian B. Rotter, argued that cognition, in the form of expectations, is a crucial factor in social learning. In his influential 1954 book, Social Learning and Clinical Psychology, Rotter claimed that behavior is determined by two major types of "expectancy": the expected outcome of a behavior and the value a person places on that outcome. In Applications of a Social Learning Theory of Personality (1972), Rotter, in collaboration with June Chance and Jerry Phares, described a general theory of personality with variables based on the ways that different individuals habitually think about their experiences. One of the major variables was I-E, which distinguished "internals," who think of themselves as controlling events, from "externals," who view events as largely outside their control. Correlations have since been found between I-E orientations and a variety of behaviors, ranging from job performance to attitudes toward one's health.

The social learning theories of Albert Bandura emphasize the reciprocal relationship among cognition, behavior, and environment, for which Bandura coined the term reciprocal determinism. Hostile thoughts can result in hostile behavior, for example, which can effect our environment by making others hostile and evoking additional hostile thoughts. Thus, not only does our environment influence our thoughts and behavior—our thoughts and behavior also play a role in determining our environment. Bandura is especially well known for his research on the importance of imitation and reinforcement in learning. His work on modeling has been influential in the development of new therapeutic approaches, especially the methods used in cognitive-behavior therapy. Bandura also expanded on Rotter's notion of expectancy by arguing that our expectations about the outcome of situations are heavily influenced by whether or not we think we will succeed at the things we attempt. Bandura introduced the term self-efficacy for this concept, arguing that it has a high degree of influence not only on our expectations but also on our performance itself.

Most recently, Walter Mischel, building on the work of both Rotter and Bandura, has framed the determinants of human behavior in particular situations in terms of "person variables." These include competencies (those things we know we can do); perceptions (how we perceive our environment); expectations (what we expect will be the outcome of our behavior); subject values (our goals and ideals); and self-regulation and plans (our standards for ourselves and plans for reaching our goals).

Further Reading

Bandura, Albert. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

——. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaLearning & Memory