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Social cognitive theory

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Title: Social cognitive theory  
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Social cognitive theory

Social cognitive theory (SCT), used in psychology, education, and communication, holds that portions of an individual's knowledge acquisition can be directly related to observing others within the context of social interactions, experiences, and outside media influences. The theory states that when people observe a model performing a behavior and the consequences of that behavior, they remember the sequence of events and use this information to guide subsequent behaviors. Observing a model can also prompt the viewer to engage in behavior they already learned.[1][2] In other words, people do not learn new behaviors solely by trying them and either succeeding or failing, but rather, the survival of humanity is dependent upon the replication of the actions of others. Depending on whether people are rewarded or punished for their behavior and the outcome of the behavior, the observer may choose to replicate behavior modeled. Media provides models for a vast array of people in many different environmental settings.


  • History 1
  • Current status 2
  • Overview 3
  • Theoretical components 4
    • Modeling 4.1
    • Outcome expectancies 4.2
    • Self-efficacy 4.3
    • Identification 4.4
  • Applications 5
  • Morality 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


The conceptual roots for social cognitive theory come from Edwin B. Holt and Harold Chapman Brown's 1931 book theorizing that all animal action is based on fulfilling the psychological needs of “feeling, emotion, and desire”. The most notable component of this theory is that it predicted a person cannot learn to imitate until they are imitated [3]

In 1941, Neal E. Miller and John Dollard presented their book with a revision of Holt’s theory called Social Learning and Imitation Theory. They argued four factors contribute to learning: drives, cues, responses, and rewards. One driver is social motivation, which includes imitativeness, the process of matching an act to an appropriate cue of where and when to perform the act. A behavior will be imitated depending on whether the model receives a positive or negative response consequences [4] Miller and Dollard argued that if one were motivated to learn a particular behavior, then that particular behavior would be learned through clear observations. By imitating these observed actions the individual observer would solidify that learned action and would be rewarded with positive reinforcement.

The proposition of social learning was expanded upon and theorized by Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura, along with his students and colleagues conducted a series of studies, known as the Bobo doll experiment, in 1961 and 1963 to find out why and when children display aggressive behaviors. These studies demonstrated the value of modeling for acquiring novel behaviors. These studies helped Bandura publish his seminal article and book in 1977 that expanded on the idea of how behavior is acquired, and thus built from Miller and Dollard’s research [5] In Bandura’s 1977 article, he claimed that Social Learning Theory shows a direct correlation between a person’s perceived self-efficacy and behavioral change. Self-efficacy comes from four sources: “performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological states” [6]

In 1986, Bandura published his second book which expanded and renamed his original theory; he called the new theory Social Cognitive Theory. Bandura changed the name of his theory to emphasize the major role cognition plays in encoding and performing behaviors. In this book, Bandura argued that human behavior is caused by personal, behavioral, and environmental influences [1]

In 2001, Bandura brought SCT to mass communication in his journal article that stated the theory could be used to analyze how “symbolic communication influences human thought, affect and action”. The theory shows how new behavior diffuses through society by psychosocial factors governing acquisition and adoption of the behavior [7]

SCT has been applied to many areas of human functioning such as career choice and organizational behavior[8] as well as in understanding classroom motivation, learning, and achievement.

Current status

SCT originated in psychology but based on an unofficial November 2013 Google Scholar search only 2 percent of articles published on SCT are in the psychology field. About 20 percent of articles are from Education and 16 percent from Business. The majority of publications using SCT, 56 percent, come from the field of Health Communication.

The majority of current research in Health Communication focuses on testing SCT in behavioral change campaigns as opposed to expanding on the theory. Campaign topics include: increasing fruit and vegetable intake, increasing exercise, HIV education, and breastfeeding.

Already in his 80s, Bandura is still influencing the world with expansions of SCT. His recent work, published May 2011, focuses on how SCT impacts areas of both health and population effects in relation to climate change. He proposes that these problems could be solved through television serial dramas which show models similar to viewers performing the desired behavior. Specifically on Health, Bandura writes that currently there is little incentive for doctors to write prescriptions for healthy behavior, but he believes the cost of fixing health problems will start to outweigh the benefits of being healthy. Bandura argues that we are on the cusp of moving from a disease model (focusing on people with problems) to a health model (focusing on people being healthy) and SCT is the theory that should be used to further a healthy society. Specifically on Population, Bandura states population growth is a global crisis because of its correlation with depletion and degradation of our planet’s resources. Bandura argues that SCT should be used to get people to use birth control, reduce gender inequality through education, and to model environmental conservation to improve the state of the planet.[9]


Social Cognitive Theory is a learning theory based on the idea that people learn by observing others. These learned behaviors can be central to one’s personality. While social psychologists agree that environment in which one grows up contributes to behavior, the individual person (and therefore cognition) is just as important. People learn by observing others, with the environment, behavior, and cognition all as the chief factors in influencing development in a reciprocal triadic relationship. For example, each behavior witnessed can change a person's way of thinking (cognition). Similarly, the environment one is raised in may influence later behaviors, just as a father's mindset (also cognition) will determine the environment in which his children are raised.

The core concepts of this theory can be explained by Bandura's schematization of triadic reciprocal causation in his book chapter,[2] The schema shows how the reproduction of an observed behavior is influenced by the interaction of the following three determinants: 1) Personal: Whether the individual has high or low self-efficacy toward the behavior (i.e. Get the learner to believe in his or her personal abilities to correctly complete a behavior). 2)Behavioral: The response an individual receives after they perform a behavior (i.e. Provide chances for the learner to experience successful learning as a result of performing the behavior correctly). 3) Environmental: Aspects of the environment or setting that influence the individual’s ability to successfully complete a behavior (i.e. Make environmental conditions conducive for improved self-efficacy by providing appropriate support and materials).[10]

It is important to note that learning can occur without a change in behavior. According to J.E. Ormrod's general principles of social learning, while a visible change in behavior is the most common proof of learning, it is not absolutely necessary. Social learning theorists say that because people can learn through observation alone, their learning may not necessarily be shown in their performance.

Theoretical components


Social cognitive theory revolves around the process of knowledge acquisition or learning directly correlated to the observation of models. The models can be those of an interpersonal imitation or media sources. Effective modeling teaches general rules and strategies for dealing with different situations.[11]

To illustrate that people learn from watching others, Albert Bandura and his colleagues constructed a series of experiments using a Bobo doll. In the first experiment, children were exposed to either an aggressive or non-aggressive model of either the same sex or opposite sex as the child. There was also a control group. The aggressive models played with the Bobo doll in an aggressive manner, while the non-aggressive models played with other toys. They found that children who were exposed to the aggressive models performed more aggressive actions toward the Bobo doll afterward, and that boys were more likely to do so than girls.[12]

Following that study, in order to test whether the same was true for models presented through media, Albert Bandura constructed an experiment entitled "Bobo Doll Behavior: A Study of Aggression." In this experiment Bandura exposed a group of children to a video featuring violent and aggressive actions. After the video he then placed the children in a room with a Bobo doll to see how they behaved with it. Through this experiment, Bandura discovered that children who had watched the violent video subjected the dolls to more aggressive and violent behavior, while children not exposed to the video did not. This experiment displays the social cognitive theory because it depicts how people reenact behaviors they see in the media. In this case, the children in this experiment reenacted the model of violence they directly learned from the video.[13]

Observations should include: Attention, which is when observers selectively give attention to specific social behavior depending on the accessibility, relevance, complexity, functional value of the behavior, or some observer’s personal attributes such as cognitive capability, value preference, preconceptions. Retention, which is being able to observe a behavior and subsequent consequences, then converting that observation to a symbol that can be accessed for future reenactments of the behavior. Note: When a “positive behavior” is shown a positive reinforcement should follow, this parallel is similar for “negative behavior”. Production, is when the symbolic representation of the original behavior is translated into action through reproduction of the observed behavior in seemingly appropriate contexts. During reproduction of the behavior a person will receive feedback from others and can adjust their representation for future references. Motivational Process, is when a behavior will be reenacted depending on the responses and consequences the observer receives when reenacting the behavior.[1][2]

Modeling does not limit to only live demonstrations but also verbal and written behaviour can act as indirect forms of modeling. Modeling not only allows students' to learn behaviour that they should repeat but also to inhibit certain behaviours. For instance, if a teacher glares at one student who is talking out of turn, other students may suppress this behavior to avoid a similar reaction. Teachers model both material objectives and underlying curriculum of virtuous living. Teachers should also be dedicated to the building of high self-efficacy levels in their students by recognizing their accomplishments.

Outcome expectancies

In order to learn a particular behaviour, people need to understand what the potential outcome will be when they repeat that behaviour. The observer does not expect the actual rewards or punishments incurred by the model, but anticipates similar outcomes when he or she imitates the behavior (called outcome expectancies), which is why modeling impacts cognition and behavior. These expectancies are heavily influenced by the environment that the observer grows up in; for example, the expected consequences for a DUI in the United States of America are a fine, with possible jail time, whereas the same charge in another country might lead to the infliction of the death penalty.

For example, in the case of a student, the instructions provided by the teacher will help the students see what outcome a particular behaviour will lead to. It is the duty of the teacher to teach a student that when a behaviour is successfully learned, the outcomes will be meaningful and worthy to the students.


Social cognitive theory posits that learning will most likely occur if there is a close identification between the observer and the model and if the observer also has a good deal of self-efficacy. Self –efficacy is the belief of an individual about themselves whether they have mastered a particular skill or not. Self-efficacy beliefs function as an important set of proximal determinants of human motivation, affect, and action which operate on action through motivational, cognitive, and affective intervening processes.[14]

According to Bandura, self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations”.[15] Bandura and other researchers have found an individual’s self-efficacy plays a major role in how goals, tasks, and challenges are approached. Individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to believe they can master challenging problems and they can recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments. Individuals with low self-efficacy tend to be less confident and don’t believe they can perform well, which leads them to avoid challenging tasks. Therefore, self-efficacy plays a central role in behavior performance. Observers who have high level of self-efficacy are more likely to adopt observational learning behaviors.

Self-efficacy can be developed or increased by: Mastery experience, which is a process aiding an individual in achievement of simple tasks initially that lead to more complex objectives. Social modeling, which is providing an identifiable model showing the processes in which to accomplish a behavior. Improving physical and emotional states refers to ensuring a person is rested and relaxed prior to attempting a new behavior. The less relaxed, the less patient, the more likely the goal behavior will not be attained. Verbal persuasion is providing encouragement for a person to complete a task or achieve a certain behavior.[16]

For example, students will become more effortful, active, pay attention, highly motivated and better learners when they perceive that they have mastered a particular task.[17] It is the duty of the teacher to allow student to perceive in their efficacy by providing feedback to understand their level of proficiency. Teachers should ensure that the students have the knowledge and strategies that are needed to be successful at completing the tasks.

Self-efficacy has also been used to predict behavior in various health related situations such as weight loss, quitting smoking, and recovery from heart attack. In relation to exercise science, self-efficacy has produced some of the most consistent results revealing an increase in participation in exercise.[18]


Identification allows the observer to feel a one-to-one similarity with the model, and can thus lead to a higher chance of the observer following through with the modeled action.[11] People are more likely to follow behaviors modeled by someone with whom they can identify with. The more commonalities and/or emotional attachments perceived between the observer and the model, the more likely the observer will learn and reenact the modeled behavior.[15]


Social cognitive theory is applied today in many different areas. Mass media, public health, education, and marketing are just a very few. Examples of the theory in application: The use of celebrities to endorse and introduce any number of products to certain demographics: one way in which social cognitive theory encompasses all four of these domains. In Miller's 2005 study,she found that choosing the proper gender, age, and ethnicity for models ensured the success of an AIDS campaign to inner city teenagers. This occurred because participants could identify with a recognizable peer, have a greater sense of self-efficacy, and then imitate the actions in order to learn the proper preventions and actions for a more informative AIDS aware community.[19] A study by Azza Ahmed in 2009 looked to see if there would be an increase in breastfeeding by mothers of preterm infants when exposed to a breastfeeding educational program guided by SCT. Sixty mothers were randomly assigned to either participate in the program or they were given routine care. The program consisted of SCT strategies that touched on all three SCT determinants: personal – showing models performing breastfeeding correctly to improve self-efficacy, behavioral –weekly check-ins for three months reinforced participants’ skills, environmental – mothers were given an observational checklist to make sure they successfully completed the behavior. The author found that mothers exposed to the program showed significant improvement in their breastfeeding skills, were more likely to exclusively breastfeed, and had fewer problems then the mothers who were not exposed to the educational program.[20]


Social cognitive theory emphasizes a large difference between an individual's ability to be morally competent and morally performing. Moral competence involves having the ability to perform a moral behavior, whereas moral performance indicates actually following one's idea of moral behavior in a specific situation.[21] Moral competencies include:

  • what an individual is capable of
  • what an individual knows
  • what an individual's skills are
  • an individual's awareness of moral rules and regulations
  • an individual's cognitive ability to construct behaviors

As far as an individual's development is concerned, moral competence is the growth of cognitive-sensory processes; simply put, being aware of what is considered right and wrong. By comparison, moral performance is influenced by the possible rewards and incentives to act a certain way.[21] For example, a person's moral competence might tell them that stealing is wrong and frowned upon by society; however, if the reward for stealing is a substantial sum, their moral performance might indicate a different line of thought. Therein lies the core of social cognitive theory.

For the most part, social cognitive theory remains the same for various cultures. Since the concepts of moral behavior did not vary much between cultures (as crimes like murder, theft, and unwarranted violence are illegal in virtually every society), there is not much room for people to have different views on what is morally right or wrong. The main reason that social cognitive theory applies to all nations is because it does not say what is moral and immoral; it simply states that we can acknowledge these two concepts. Our actions in real-life scenarios will be based on whether or not we believe the action to be moral and whether or not the reward for violating our morals is significant enough, and nothing else.[21]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Bandura, A., Social foundations of thought and action : a social cognitive theory. 1986, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  2. ^ a b c Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (pp. 94-124). New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. ^ Holt, E.B. and H.C. Brown, Animal drive and the learning process, an essay toward radical empiricism. 1931, New York: H. Holt and Co.
  4. ^ Miller, N.E., J. Dollard, and R. Yale University. Institute of Human, Social learning and imitation. 1941, New Haven; London: Pub. for the Institute of human relations by Yale university press; H. Milford, Oxford university press.
  5. ^ Evans, R.I. and A. Bandura, Albert Bandura, the man and his ideas--a dialogue. 1989, New York: Praeger.
  6. ^ Bandura, A., Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 1977. 84(2): p. 191-215.
  7. ^ Bandura, A., Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. Media Psychology, 2001. 3(3): p. 265-299.
  8. ^ Lent, Robert; Steven D. Brown; Gail Hackett (August 1994). "Toward a Unifying Social Cognitive Theory of Career and Academic Interest, Choice, and Performance". Journal of Vocational Behavior 45 (1): 79–122.  
  9. ^ Bandura, A. (2011). The Social and Policy Impact of Social Cognitive Theory. In M. Mark, S. Donaldson, & B. Campbell (Eds.), Social Psychology and Evaluation. (pp. 33-70). New York, NY:Guilford Press.
  10. ^ Self-efficacy theory. Edutech Wiki. Accessed Nov 2011:
  11. ^ a b Bandura, A. (1988). Organizational Application of Social Cognitive Theory. Australian Journal of Management, 13(2), 275–302.
  12. ^ Bandura, Albert; Ross, D.; Ross, S. (1961). "Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63: 575–582.  
  13. ^ Bandura, Albert; Ross, D.; Ross, S. (1963). "Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66: 3–11.  
  14. ^ Bandura, A. (1989). Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. American Psychologist, 44, 1175–1184.
  15. ^ a b Bandura, A. Self-efficacy in changing societies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  16. ^ McAlister AL, Perry CL, Parcel GS. How Individuals, Environments, and Health Behaviors Interact: Social Cognitive Theory. In: Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice 4th Edition. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2008: 169–188.
  17. ^ Bandura, Albert (1993). "Perceived Self Efficacy in Cognitive Development and Functioning". Educational Psychologist 28 (2): 117–148.  
  18. ^ Weinberg, Robert S., Gould, Daniel: Foundation of Sport and Exercise Psychology 4th Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2007 p.422.
  19. ^ Miller, Katherine (2005). Communication Theories: Perspectives, Processes, and Contexts (2nd ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.
  20. ^ Ahmed, A. (2009). Effect of Breastfeeding Educational Program Based of [sic] Bandura Social Cognitive Theory on Breastfeeding Outcomes among Mothers of Preterm Infants. Midwest Nursing Research Society Conference. Accessed November 2011.
  21. ^ a b c Santrock, J.W. (2008). A Topical Approach to Lifespan Development (M. Ryan, Ed., 4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. (Original work published 2002), pp. 26, 30, 478

Further reading

  • Bandura, Albert (1976). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0138167448
  • Bandura, Albert (1985). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0138156145
  • Berg, Insoo Kim; Miller, Scott D. (1992). Working with the Problem Drinker: A Solution-focused Approach (pp. 733–735). New York: Norton. ISBN 978-0393701340
  • Pajares, Frank; Prestin, Abby; Chen, Jason; Nabi, L. Robin. "Social Cognitive Theory and Media Effects". In Nabi, Robin L.; Oliver, Mary Beth, The SAGE Handbook of Media Processes and Effects. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009. 283-297. ISBN 978-1412959964
  • Bandura, Albert (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review of Psychology.

External links

  • , Web. 29 Mar. 2010YouTube"Albert Bandura Bobo Doll Experiment: A Study of Aggression."
  • , (1h33)YouTube"Albert Bandura speaking at Everett M. Rogers Award Colloquium 2007"
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