Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory 

Observation of other’s behaviour may play a leading role in learning and acquiring various things concerning one’s environment. The cognitive psychologists who appreciate the role of observation in learning are termed as social psychologists and the theory of learning they propagate is known as the social learning theory. Albert Bandura was a prominent American social learning theorist and the social learning theory is often designated as Bandura’s social learning theory.

Introducing his theory Bandura (Lewin, 1978) writes: We do not blindly respond to environmental stimuli. Rather, we pick and choose from many environmental options, basing our decisions on our own insights and past experiences. This we do through vicarious or observational learning, by incorporating and imitating the behaviour of those around us.

Observational or vicarious learning (learning through indirect experiences) rather than the learning based on direct experiences is thus the base of the social learning theory. The advocates of this theory emphasize that most of what we learn is acquired through simply watching and listening to other people. The children from the very beginning keenly observe the behaviour of others, most commonly of the people nearest to them like parents, members of the family, teachers, the older members of society, etc. In turn, they try to imitate and do what they observe. The power of observational learning can be confirmed through laboratory experiments as well as through observation in our daily life. A child who sees his father throwing utensils around it’s simply because he has not been served food of his taste, learns such behaviour and reproduces it in similar circumstances. He may also incorporate and imitate the behaviour of the characters he reads about in novels, hears about over the radio or sees on TV or in movies. The persons whose behaviour he observes and often imitates are known as models and observational learning is referred to as modelling.

Direct experiences no doubt constitute the most effective and powerful sources of one’s learning but the role of indirect experiences leading to observational learning can also not be underestimated. In many cases, they prove more desirable, less expensive and more beneficial than the direct experiences. Commenting on this aspect Bandura (1977) writes:

One does not teach children to swim, adolescents to drive automobiles, and novice medical students to perform surgery by having them discover the appropriate behaviour through the consequences of their successes or failures. The more costly and hazardous the possible mistakes, the heavier is the reliance on learning from competent examples.

Observational learning can thus provide extra dimensions and opportunities for the learners in addition to their learning through self-experience and direct involvement with environmental consequences. It has certainly reduced the need of an individual going through every experience himself and thus helped him to learn from the examples of others.

How does learning take place?

According to the social learning theory, one learns through observations by incorporating and imitating the behaviours of others taken as models belonging to one’s social environment. According to Bandura (1977), the following processes or steps are usually involved in this kind of learning:

  1. Attending to and perceiving the behaviour-

    In this step the learner is made to observe the behaviour of the person acting as a model. Here the total behaviour or a particular aspect of it may attract attention and become the subject of close attention.

  2. Remembering the behaviour-

    In this step, what the learner observes is filed away in his memory in the form of mental images.

  3. Converting the memory into action-

    In this step, a behaviour observed and remembered by the learner is analysed in terms if its acceptability to the learner with reference to the demands of his self and his environment. It is transformed into action only afterwards and thus the observed relevant and accepted aspects of the model’s behaviour are imitated by the learner.

  4. Reinforcement of the imitated behaviour-

    In this final step, the behaviour of the model imitated by the learner is reinforced for proper adoption and further continuance.

These steps may work in one’s learning. Suppose a young girl happens to watch a T.V. programme concerning the preparation of some new dishes. She takes keen interest and is greatly influenced by the demonstration on the T.V. screen. She tries to keep in her memory all that she has observed on the screen and then enters her kitchen to convert the remembered observation into action. The new dishes are thus prepared by her in accordance with her observation of the performance on T.V. of the home science specialist. Her learning of the preparation of the new dishes may then be reinforced by the response she gets from the members of her family who taste the new dishes.

In this way, social learning i.e., learning through observation and modeling proves to be an effective means of learning many things concerning ones behaviour. The way one displays love and anger, shows sympathy and prejudices, speaks and writes, dresses and eats, takes initiative or shies away, all depend upon what has been observed, remembered, imitated and reinforced in context of the vicarious or model learning as propagated by the social learning theory.

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