Social Learning Theory: Observational Learning

Sonja Ann Miller; Laura Overstreet; and Diana Lang

Learning Objectives
  • Describe the Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) by Albert Bandura
  • Describe the concept of reciprocal determinism
Man playing chess while children gather around to learn.
Figure 1. Children observing a social model (an experienced chess player) to learn the rules and strategies of the game of chess. (Image Source: David R. Tribble, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Social Cognitive Theory (SCT), originally known as the Social Learning Theory (SLT), began in the 1960s through research done by Albert Bandura. The theory proposes that learning occurs in a social context. It takes into consideration the dynamic and reciprocal interaction of the person, environment, and their own behavior.[1]

Not all forms of learning are accounted for entirely by classical and operant conditioning. Imagine a child walking up to a group of children playing a game on the playground. The game looks fun, but it is new and unfamiliar. Rather than joining the game immediately, the child opts to sit back and watch the other children play a round or two. Observing the others, the child takes note of the ways in which they behave while playing the game. By watching the behavior of the other kids, the child can figure out the rules of the game and even some strategies for doing well at the game. This is called observational learning.[2]

Observational learning is a component of Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory,[3] which posits that individuals can learn novel responses via observation of key others’ behaviors. Observational learning does not necessarily require reinforcement, but instead hinges on the presence of others, referred to as social models. Social models are normally of higher status or authority compared to the observer, examples of which include parents, teachers, and police officers. In the example above, the children who already know how to play the game could be thought of as being authorities—and are therefore social models—even though they are the same age as the observer. By observing how the social models behave, an individual is able to learn how to act in a certain situation. Other examples of observational learning might include a child learning to place her napkin in her lap by watching her parents at the dinner table, or a customer learning where to find the ketchup and mustard after observing other customers at a hot dog stand.

Bandura theorizes that the observational learning process consists of four parts. The first is attention—one must pay attention to what they are observing in order to learn. The second part is retention: to learn one must be able to retain the behavior they are observing in memory. The third part of observational learning, initiation, acknowledges that the learner must be able to execute (or initiate) the learned behavior. Lastly, the observer must possess the motivation to engage in observational learning. In our vignette, the child must want to learn how to play the game in order to properly engage in observational learning.

In this experiment, Bandura[4] had children individually observe an adult social model interact with a clown doll (Bobo). For one group of children, the adult interacted aggressively with Bobo: punching it, kicking it, throwing it, and even hitting it in the face with a toy mallet. Another group of children watched the adult interact with other toys, displaying no aggression toward Bobo. In both instances, the adult left and the children were allowed to interact with Bobo on their own. Bandura found that children exposed to the aggressive social model were significantly more likely to behave aggressively toward Bobo, hitting and kicking him, compared to those exposed to the non-aggressive model. The researchers concluded that the children in the aggressive group used their observations of the adult social model’s behavior to determine that aggressive behavior toward Bobo was acceptable.

While reinforcement was not required to elicit the children’s behavior in Bandura’s first experiment, it is important to acknowledge that consequences do play a role within observational learning. A future adaptation of this study[5] demonstrated that children in the aggression group showed less aggressive behavior if they witnessed the adult model receive punishment for aggressing against Bobo. Bandura referred to this process as vicarious reinforcement because the children did not experience the reinforcement or punishment directly yet were still influenced by observing it.

Do parents socialize children or do children socialize parents?

Bandura’s[6] findings suggest that there is interplay between the environment and the individual (Figure 1). We are not just the product of our surroundings, rather we influence our surroundings. There is interplay between our personality and the way we interpret events and how they influence us. This concept is called reciprocal determinism. An example of this might be the interplay between parents and children. Parents not only influence their child’s environment, perhaps intentionally through the use of reinforcement, etc., but children influence parents as well. Parents may respond differently to their first child than with their fourth. Perhaps they try to be the perfect parents with their firstborn, but by the time their last child comes along, they have very different expectations of themselves and their child. Our environment creates us and we create our environment. Today there are numerous other social influences, from TV, games, the Internet, i-pads, phones, social media, influencers, advertisements, etc.

Video Example

Watch this clip to better understand Bandura’s research on social learning.

You can view the transcript for “The Bandura Bobo Doll Experiment” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Key Terms
  • reciprocal determinism: the interplay between our personality and the way we interpret events and how they influence us
  • social-cognitive learning theory: learning by observing the behavior of another person, called a model

  1. LaMonte, W. W. (2019). Behavioral Change Models. The Social Cognitive Theory.
  2. This chapter was adapted from Lumen Learning's Lifespan Development, developed by Sonja Ann Miller and available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Portions of the Lumen text were adapted from Laura Overstreet's Lifespan Psychology, Noba Psychology, Lumen Learning, OpenStax College, and Wikipedia.
  3. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191–215.
  4. Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575–582.
  5. Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(1), 3–11.
  6. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice Hall.


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Individual and Family Development, Health, and Well-being Copyright © 2022 by Sonja Ann Miller; Laura Overstreet; and Diana Lang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.