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Social-Cognitive Learning Theory: Definition and Examples

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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.

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Jennifer Levitas

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

The social-cognitive learning theory is a theoretical perspective that focuses on the learning that occurs within a social context. Explore this theory, its definition and examples, the models that play a role in the learning process, and the functions of models. Updated: 07/01/2022


Do you know how to do the Electric Slide dance? Come on…admit it. Even if you aren't proud of knowing it, you probably learned the dance at some point in time. Do you remember how you learned it? I doubt you read each step in a book and then tried it alone. You probably observed others dancing and then joined in when you thought you had a good understanding of the moves. There are many ways to gain new knowledge and learn behaviors and skills, and observation is one method.

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  • 0:12 Introduction
  • 0:40 Social-Cognitive Theory
  • 3:59 Modeling
  • 7:06 Lesson Summary
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Social Cognitive Theory

The social-cognitive theory is a theoretical perspective in which learning by observing others is the focus of study. Social-cognitive theory is grounded by several basic assumptions.

One is that people can learn by observing others. Learners can acquire new behaviors and knowledge by simply observing a model. A model is a person who demonstrates behavior for someone else. In our Electric Slide example, the observer watched the models perform the dance in order to learn it.

Assumption two: learning is an internal process that may or may not lead to a behavior. Learning may not occur immediately. The observer could process the new behavior, but his/her learning may not be affected until a later point or never at all. In our dance example, it may take our observer multiple parties at which the Electric Slide is being danced until he joins in, or he may never join in.

There's also an assumption of goal-directed behavior. Social-cognitive theorists propose that people set goals for themselves and direct their behavior accordingly. They are motivated to accomplish those goals. In our dance example, the observer is motivated to learn the dance or else he wouldn't be observing it time and time again. In the classroom, learners are motivated by goals, such as a high GPA, popularity with classmates or even being the class clown. These goals direct behavior.

Another assumption of the social-cognitive theory is behavior eventually becomes self-regulated. Social-cognitivists, unlike behaviorists, believe that people eventually begin to regulate their own learning and behavior. Let's take our dancer for example. Behaviorists would say the best way for him to learn the dance would be through continual reinforcement from other people encouraging him to continue to improve. Social-cognitivists theorists, however, would say that he should observe the models, perfect his own moves, and compare them to the models moves. And then, give himself a pat on the back when he has mastered the entire dance.

Our final assumption deals with reinforcement and punishment. Social-cognitivists believe reinforcement and punishment have indirect (rather than direct) effects on learning and behavior. People form expectations about the likely consequences of future responses based on how current responses are reinforced or punished. People's expectations are also influenced by the observation of the consequences that follow other people's behavior. This is referred to as vicarious experiences. The non-occurrence of an expected consequence may also have a reinforcing or a punishing effect.

For example, our wannabe dancer may think that if he learns the dance, the audience will clap for him because he has observed this reinforcement while watching the others dance. However, if he does not see clapping or, perhaps, he sees everyone laughing at the other dancers, he may choose to not participate in the dance at all. We will discuss how the environment and cognitive factors enter into the social-cognitive learning in another lesson.


We have discussed the assumptions of social-cognitive theory and that models play a critical role in the learning process. Now we will review the different types of models.

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Additional Activities

Social-Cognitive Learning Theory Activities

Writing Prompt 1:

Think of a time that you have learned a skill or behavior from observing another person. For example, you may have learned altruistic behavior from seeing your parents bring food to a homeless person, or you may have learned how to train a dog from watching The Dog Whisperer. In two to three paragraphs, describe the behavior you learned and how you learned it. Also address whether your emulation of the behavior was intentional, such as using specific techniques learned from watching a dog trainer or unintentional, such as behaving in an altruistic way because it 'feels' right but not necessarily to mimic a behavior you observed.

Writing Prompt 2:

People can learn both positive and negative behaviors from observing the actions of people in their environment, or models. For example, being polite and courteous is often learned through models, as is behaving in a rude, inconsiderate way. Do you think that most behavior learned through modeling is positive in nature or negative in nature? Write a journal entry about this topic, reflecting on your own observations about the types of positive and negative behaviors learned through modeling, providing examples of each. Wrap up the entry by stating whether you think most behaviors learned through modeling are positive, negative, or about the same of each.

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