Albert Bandura: Social-Cognitive Theory and Vicarious Learning

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Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Albert Bandura's social-cognitive theory relates to vicarious experiences and learning. Explore Bandura's theory, the reciprocal causation model, the role of consequences in learning from models, and the four ways of developing self-efficacy. Updated: 08/23/2021


Do you have a fear of snakes or perhaps other animals? Do you think that you could get over this fear by observing other people that had snake phobias? This is exactly the experiment that was conducted years ago to help the psychologist Albert Bandura understand the importance of behavioral models.

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Social Cognitive Theory and Bandura

Bandura formed his social cognitive theory while observing patients with snake phobias
Bandura Snake Example

The psychologist Albert Bandura discovered the importance of behavioral models when he was working with patients with snake phobias. He found that the patients' observation of former patients handling snakes was an effective therapy. The patients in treatment abstracted the information that others who were like them handled snakes with no ill effects. These patients considered that information in reflecting on their own behavior. Bandura found that these observations were more effective in treating their phobias than persuasion and observing the psychologist handle the snakes.

Bandura's social learning theory stresses the importance of observational learning, imitation and modeling. His theory integrates a continuous interaction between behaviors, personal factors - including cognition - and the environment referred to as reciprocal causation model.

However, Bandura does not suggest that the three factors in the triadic model make equal contributions to behavior. The influence of behavior, environment and person depends on which factor is strongest at any particular moment.

In the model, B, or behavior, refers to things like complexity, duration, skill, etc. The E stands for environment, and it's comprised of the situation, roles, models and relationships. P, or person, is comprised mainly of cognition but also other personal factors such as self-efficacy, motives and personality.

Here's a classroom example to help make this point more clear. In the classroom as a teacher presents a lesson to the class, students reflect on what the teacher is saying. This is where the environment influences cognition, a personal factor. Students who don't understand a point raise their hands to ask a question. This is where personal factors influence behavior. So, the teacher reviews the point (behavior influences environment).

Bandura's most famous experiment was the 1961 Bobo Doll study. Briefly, he made a video in which an adult woman was shown being aggressive to a Bobo doll, hitting and shouting aggressive words.

Diagram of the reciprocal causation model
Reciprocal Causation Model

The film was shown to groups of children. Afterwards, the children were allowed to play in the room with the same doll. The children began imitating the model by beating up the doll and using similar, aggressive words. The study was significant because it departed from behaviorism's insistences that all behavior is directed by reinforcement or rewards. The children received no encouragement or incentives to beat up the doll; they were simply imitating the behavior they had observed.

Through the Bobo doll experiment and others, Bandura grounded his understanding of a model's primary function, which is to transmit information to the observer. This function occurs in any of three ways:

  1. Modeled behaviors serve as cues to initiate similar behaviors in others.
  2. They also serve to strengthen or weaken the learner's existing restraints against the performance of a modeled behavior.
  3. They're used to demonstrate new patterns of behavior.

An example of behavior serving as a social prompt is the hostess at an elaborate dinner party. A guest, unfamiliar with the array of silverware, observes the hostess to select the correct utensil appropriate for each course.

Another example for strengthening or weakening behavior is when an observer's restraints against imitating a behavior are strengthened when the model is punished. For example, if a classmate violates a school rule and is punished, this will make the observer think twice before attempting to break the rule. In contrast, observers' restraints are weakened in one of two ways. One is lack of punishment for reprehensible behaviors. The other is the modeling of defensible violence, which adds legitimacy to the use of violence as a solution to a problem. Unfortunately, we see violence daily on TV and in media, which may lead to weaken the observer's behavioral restraints toward violent behavior.

The third influence of modeling is to demonstrate new patterns of behavior. Models are particularly important in the socialization of both children and adults. Language, social values and family customs, as well as educational, social and political practices, are modeled in countless situations. Examples for children of symbolic models that portray both socially appropriate behaviors and sensitivity to others are Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.

The 1961 Bobo Doll Study is Banduras most famous experiment
Bobo Doll Study

The Role of Consequences in Learning from Models

Although Bandura believed that learning is not facilitated by reinforcement, behaviors enacted by others often do either reinforce or punish. These outcomes of the modeled behavior are referred to as vicarious because they arouse emotional reactions in the observer. For example, a teacher acknowledges a child who shares her crayons with others at a table, and a child who observed the situation experiences positive feelings.

The two components of vicarious reinforcement are: the behavior of a model produces reinforcement for a particular behavior, and second, positive emotional reactions are aroused in the observer.

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Additional Activities

Social-Cognitive Theory Activities

Writing Prompt 1:

Have you ever wondered why the old trope 'Do as I say and not as I do' is ineffective? Social-cognitive learning theorists explain that people learn far more by observing other's behavior than by a person's words. In fact, when observed behavior conflicts with words, it is the behavior that will be emulated. With this in mind, think of three actions that you would like children (your own, nieces/nephews, in a classroom, etc.) to learn. Write an essay on how you would explain these actions and behaviors to them, and how you would demonstrate them. For example, you may want to instill the importance of helping others in the children. You could use your words to explain to them in words how it is nice to help people, or you could take them to a soup kitchen where they could observe you helping the homeless.

Writing Prompt 2:

Bandura's research demonstrated that when children watch models get punished for a behavior, they are less likely to engage in that behavior, and when children watch models get rewarded for a behavior, they are more likely to engage in that behavior. For this activity, pretend that you are an elementary school teacher. How would you structure your classroom such that the children in the class are able to observe the rewards and punishments you dole out so that they can be influenced by them? Think of two behaviors that you want to reward (e.g., paying attention) and two that you want to punish (e.g., yelling), and write a two to three paragraph essay describing how you would do so such that the other children in the class would observe the outcome and be influenced by it.

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