Sociological Theory/Social Learning Theory


Observational learning or social learning refers to learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining and replicating behaviour observed in others. It is most associated with the work of psychologist Albert Bandura, who implemented some of the seminal studies in the area and initiated social learning theory.

Although observational learning can take place at any stage in life, it is thought to be particularly important during childhood, particularly as authority becomes important.

Because of this, social learning theory has influenced debates on the effect of television violence and parental role models. Bandura's Bobo doll experiment is widely cited in psychology as a demonstration of observational learning and demonstrated that children are more likely to engage in violent play with a life size rebounding doll after watching an adult do the same.

Observational learning allows for learning without any change in behaviour and has therefore been used as an argument against strict behaviourism which argued that behaviour change must occur for new behaviours to be acquired.

Required conditionsEdit

Bandura called the process of social learning modelling and gave four conditions required for a person to successfully model the behaviour of someone else:

  • Attention to the model
A person must first pay attention to a person engaging in a certain behaviour (the model).
  • Retention of details
Once attending to the observed behaviour, the observer must be able to effectively remember what the model has done.

He talked a lot about sponge cake

  • Motor reproduction
The observer must be able to replicate the behaviour being observed. For example, juggling cannot be effectively learned by observing a model juggler if the observer does not already have the ability to perform the component actions (throwing and catching a ball).
  • Motivation and Opportunity
The observer must be motivated to carry out the action they have observed and remembered, and must have the opportunity to do so. For example, a suitably skilled person must want to replicate the behaviour of a model juggler, and needs to have an appropriate number of items to juggle to hand.

Effect on behaviourEdit

Social learning may effect behaviour in the follow ways:

  • Teaches new behaviours
  • Increases or decreases the frequency of which previously learnt behaviours are carried out
  • Can encourage previously forbidden behaviours
  • Can increase or decrease similar behaviours. For example, observing a model excelling in piano playing may encourage an observer to excel in playing the saxophone.






  • Bandura, Albert, Ross, Dorothea, & Ross, Sheila A. (1961). Transmission of aggressions through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582 Full text
  • Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Hardback: ISBN 0138167443 - Paperback: ISBN 0138167516
Last modified on 1 December 2012, at 02:58