Social-Cognitive Learning Theory: Definition and Examples

Social-Cognitive Learning Theory: Definition and Examples
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  • 0:12 Introduction
  • 0:40 Social-Cognitive Theory
  • 3:59 Modeling
  • 7:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst
Have you learned behaviors or skills from observing others? Maybe you have learned from observing a teacher, friend, or supervisor. We acquire new knowledge and skills from a variety of methods. This lesson will introduce the concepts of the social-cognitive theory, which focuses on the learning that occurs within a social context.


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.

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.

Most of the models we learn from and observe are live models. These are individuals whose behavior is observable in real life. For example, teachers, peers, and supervisors - these are real people. Our second type of model is the symbolic model. These are real or fictional characters that influence an observer's behavior. These types of models could be real or fictional characters portrayed in books, movies, and other media. Researchers do not indicate which type of model is best, as long as the model possesses certain characteristics to make them effective. Let's talk about those characteristics of an effective model now.

The model must be competent. People will typically try to imitate behaviors of models who do something well, not poorly. In the classroom, a teacher could either demonstrate correct behavior or choose student models that are at or above the observer's skill level to display these skills correctly.

A model must have prestige and power. These are often qualities observers look for. For example, students may look to renowned athletes or world figures for behavioral cues. In the classroom, a teacher might highlight popular actors or sports figures as models for certain behaviors.

Models are also more effective if they are engaging in gender-appropriate behaviors. Students, especially in lower grades, are more likely to adopt behaviors from models that are engaging in gender-appropriate behaviors.

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