Social Cognition: Definition, Approach & Models

Instructor: Ninger Zhou

Ninger has taught in teacher education programs and has received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.

How can cognition be a social process? How do people learn by observing others? In this lesson, we will identify the major social cognitive theories and models on observational learning and self-regulation.

Riding an Elevator

When was the last time someone taught you that upon entering an elevator, you should turn around and make sure that you face the door side rather than the wall side? Almost never? Exactly! We almost never learned how to ride an elevator from explicit teaching or direct reinforcement, but mostly from observing others' behaviors and willingly assimilated those behaviors as our own. To put this process in social cognitive terms, we can say that we have learned how to ride elevators through observational learning.

Observational Learning

Back in the 1950s when behaviorism was still the mainstream psychological theory, Albert Bandura had a different perspective and proposed social cognition theory to highlight observational learning: people can learn by observing and imitating others' behaviors. Social cognition differs from behaviorism by showing that our behaviors are not just shaped by direct consequences; we are able to take the agency in interacting with our social environment and voluntarily observe, select and acquire new behaviors.

According to Bandura, students' observational learning typically go through the following four phases:

  • Attentional phase: Students pay attention to the models who are often the successful, interesting or relevant individuals in the social environment. For example, students usually observe and imitate the behaviors of teachers they respect and admire.
  • Retention phase: After students have paid attention to role models, they need the opportunities to rehearse what they have observed and learned from the models. For example, if teachers have got students' attention, teachers can repeat the behaviors that they want the students to adopt or provide exercises for students to rehearse the skills they have learned.
  • Reproduction: Students need opportunities to demonstrate that the behaviors they have learned match the behaviors of the models. For example, teachers can use assessments to examine if students have successfully acquired the behaviors.
  • Motivational phase: Teachers need to motivate students' observational learning. For example, teachers can praise students' effort when students demonstrate that they have acquired a new behavior.

Bandura also highlighted the concept of vicarious learning. Vicarious learning points out that people can learn new behaviors by observing the consequences others receive for their behaviors. Bandura demonstrated vicarious learning through an experiment famously referred to as the Bobo doll experiment (See Figure 1). In this experiment, preschool children who observed adults get rewarded for being physically or verbally aggressive with Bobo dolls were more likely to act aggressively towards the dolls, compared to children who did not observe adults being aggressive with the dolls. This experiment is an example of how humans learn behaviors by observing others' behaviors and consequences, without directly experiencing the consequences themselves.

Figure 1. Bobo doll experiment by Albert Bandura
Bobo dolls

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