It’s common knowledge that kids often mimic adults and peers. I find it adorable when little boys walk behind their dads, copying the stance. Parents have been delighted but also embarrassed when their kiddo modeled their behavior in public. We all have stories to tell. I remember visiting friends one time, and their young daughter repeated a word her dad had used when he hit his finger with the hammer. Needless to say, everyone packed up laughing, and his red face was hilarious.

Psychologist Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory is one explanation of how people learn from observing and mimicking others.

He believed the behaviorists didn’t have a complete theory that social learning required, and neither did the cognitive models. According to him, they didn’t take into consideration how social variables influenced behavior. Bandura saw the disparity in most models learning theories that didn’t consider the effect of the social environment on learning new behaviors. Years later, Albert Bandura revised his model because it didn’t incorporate and explain all behaviors.

His Bobo doll experiments helped him make the connection between social observation and new behavior responses from individuals who had not learned the behavior before.

What Is The Main Idea of Social Learning Theory?

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory describes how people can learn something new by observing the behavior of other people and applying rational mental behavior.

Observational learning is the first step in the social learning process. The famous Bobo doll experiment supported the social learning theory of observational learning.

bobo the clown doll being punched

The Bobo Doll Experiment

In this experiment, groups of children were exposed to adults acting aggressively (attacking the clown punching doll by throwing it in the air or hitting it with a hammer), adults ignoring the doll or no adult modeling at all. The children were then allowed to play with a toy and immediately told they couldn’t continue to play with that toy because they were the best toys and reserved for other children.

The children were then led into another room, in which there were both non-aggressive and aggressive toys. Among the aggressive toys were a mallet & peg board, dart guns, and a Bobo doll.

There was much more imitative aggressive behavior towards the Bobo doll in the group that had seen adults acting out in that manner than in either the control or the “passive” adult behavior groups.

Vicarious Reinforcement Experiment

The results of the observational learning experiment showed that kids mimicked the behavior of the adults they observed. Follow-up results also showed that the children were more likely to learn the behavior where they saw the adults were rewarded for aggressive or non-aggressive actions than those that were punished for their aggression.

In this experiment, the former Bobo doll outline was followed, but with a twist.

Children were separated into three groups. Kids were able to watch the adult model either rewarded (with treats and a drink), scolded, or ignored for their aggressive behavior.

Children that saw the aggressive behavior or were in control were more likely to act out in the same aggressive ways as the adult than children that witnessed punishment.

People desire approval in life, and therefore they function in ways to receive approval. During the experiment, it was noted that the children preferred repeating the actions of the models who gained approval by being rewarded. They are also more likely to continue the behavior that results in positive consequences than negative consequences.

When kids imitate a model, it may be one type of behavior they reproduce. Kids may also identify with multiple models in their environment. Models could be parents, teachers, siblings, friends, peers, cartoon characters, or celebrities. They identify with these people because they have talents, abilities, or qualities the child wants to possess. When they identified with a model, they were more motivated to adopt various behaviors of that model than just mimicking one behavior.

Bandura’s theory was based on three main ideas.

  • People learn through observing role models. He identified the three types of models in his experiment: a live model physically demonstrating an action, a live model using language to display a behavior verbally, and a symbolic model showing behaviors in online media, movies, television programs, and books.
  • Internal psychology influences the learning process. Intrinsic reinforcements satisfy psychological needs like a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, a form of success, or pride.
  • Learning a behavior doesn’t automatically mean the person will execute it. Changing or applying a new behavior must be of value to the person to want to apply what they’ve learned.

You might also be interested in: Blooms Taxonomy Verbs

What are the Four Steps in Social Learning Theory?

The four steps in the Social Learning Theory of Bandura are attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

Step 1: Attention

The behavior of the model must grab the learner’s attention for them to notice the behavior and to implement observational learning. People are exposed to lots of behaviors in their immediate environment daily, and they don’t learn everything that is happening around them.

It must grab the person’s attention to become an unusual behavior to observe, e.g., a parent rewarding a sibling for a specific behavior as opposed to punishment or sitting still while listening to a lecture that doesn’t interest you. People pay attention to experiences that they deem important.

Step 2: Retention

Retention is how well past behavior is remembered. If there is no memory of the behavior observed, there is nothing to be retained for reproducing the behavior. Retention is an internal memory event that is essential for learning a new behavior.

Imitation of the behavior immediately after seen is not enough to establish a behavior. People may soon forget it as needless information, and there won’t be any memory to refer to in the future. No change will occur if they don’t remember how to imitate the action.

Step 3: Reproduction

Reproduction is the ability to execute the model’s behavior. You may want to reproduce the behaviors of a person you admire. Still, if you don’t have the ability, you won’t be able to, irrespective of how often you observe the model’s behavior, how much reinforcement occurs, and how well you retain it as a memory.

If you don’t have the ability, it doesn’t matter how many times you try to enact what you observed, e.g., a Kindergarten student may reproduce their teacher’s friendly attitude. Still, they don’t have the ability or skill to jump as high as an Olympian athlete.

Step 4: Motivation

Even though a person may have the ability to reproduce the behavior, they must have the desire or will to do it. Without this motivation, there will be no behavior change.

People are more motivated to mimic the behavior if the behavior is rewarded. The reward needs to be more valuable than the effort it takes to copy the behavior.

The opposite is also true: criticism or punishment after action will make someone less likely to repeat the action. Past negative reinforcement can bring about behavior change.

During the Bobo Dolls experiment, the kids were more inclined to repeat the aggressive modeling when the adults were rewarded for their behavior than when punished. Receiving a reward may motivate them to copy what they have observed, but punishment has the opposite effect.

Bandura’s research also showed kids were motivated to imitate the psychical and verbal actions of others. They also saw that kids were more inclined to imitate people similar to them as the same gender.

The retention and reproduction steps of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory resemble cognitive concepts. Paying attention to the model’s behavior is typical of a behavioral learning theory social role, the first step of observing before they imitate.

What are the Two Types of Social Learning?

The Social Learning Theory combines or acts as a bridge between two types of learning theories. Behavioral learning believes that learning is based on how the individual responds to environmental stimuli. Cognitive learning places more weight on the idea that psychological factors determine learning ability.

Behaviorist Model

Behaviorism is the traditional theory social learning models use to explain the way people learn. It was assumed behavior is learned when a person observes the behavior of someone, the model, and then replicates it. The theory is based on external stimulus-response to the environment but does not consider internal human behavior.

Bandura’s social theory of learning overlapped, including some of the behaviorist learning theories; he also included principles from the cognitive understanding of the learning processes.

Cognitive Theory

Thought, understanding, and perception are cognitive functions that influence the intrinsic reinforcement of learning. The cognitive theory attempts to understand the relationship between mental activities and physical actions of behavior. Theorists believed that existing knowledge in memory might guide and help students to make new knowledge meaningful.

The model includes a mediational process where a mental event occurs based on the input received. The result is a behavior seen outwardly. Responding to the stimulus requires a step of thinking occurring related to what was observed. The motivation to respond is decided internally whether it is worthwhile to practice the new behavior or not.

Who Came Up With the Social Learning Theory?

Albert Bandura is a Canadian-born American psychologist who is best known for the Social Learning Theory, which was later published in book form by Englewood Cliffs in 1977. He revised it in 1986, calling the new Social Learning Theory Social Cognitive Theory. He is also known for his famous Bobo experiments.

When he graduated from high school, his parents gave him the option to stay and work in a small town or achieve and make every effort for further education. He went on to college.

While studying biology at the University of British Columbia, he accidentally stumbled on psychology. He was working at a woodwork plant in the afternoon and attended class in the morning. He was commuting with other students who had classes earlier in the morning. Bandura chose psychology as a filler course to bide time. Within three years, he graduated with the Bolocan Award in psychology.

“The Psychology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths” was an article he published in 1982 where he spoke about how personal initiative could shape circumstances and the direction their life takes.

He earned his MA degree and Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. He accepted a position at Stanford University, where studies on aggression interested him and led him to his social learning theory.

How is Social Learning Theory Applied in the Classroom?

Students in a classroom may imitate another classmate or the teacher, depending on what motivates them.

Teachers may present themselves as good role models teaching kids with good behavioristic characteristics through their reactions to class incidents. If a teacher is neat and tidy, doesn’t get angry, and is always friendly, the children may follow the teacher’s lead and imitate the behavior.

Working in groups may cause new behaviors. A student who tends to procrastinate may observe another hardworking student. They may conclude that the student has better test results and receives the approval and rewards they desire. It may motivate the child to imitate that student.

Social Learning Theory Explained

For More Reading:

Bandura, A. & Walters, R. (1963). Social Learning and Personality Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.


  1. This paper really helped me a lot.. And I had to note down many relevant points. It truly shed more light about psychology of teaching and learning Bandura.. Thanx a thousand times.

  2. at first I found it hard to understand Bandura’s learning theory but right after reading this page I now understand everything, I really appreciate it.

  3. This article really helped and I kind of understand the whole concept of motivation and how you decide on what you are going to do to motivate yourself and I understand and learned the differences between behavioral learning and cognitive learning. I’ve really learned a lot by reading this article and I’m glad to know the history of Albert Bandura. Thank You

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