What is Social Learning in Abnormal Psychology Treatment?

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  • 0:08 Social Learning Theory
  • 1:49 Reinforcement
  • 3:57 Skills Acquisition
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

In this lesson, we'll examine the effect that society has on individuals by looking at how social learning theory can explain the cause and treatment of some mental disorders.

Social Learning Theory

Why do people act the way they do? How do people learn that certain behaviors are good and others aren't? That's a question that Albert Bandura wanted to answer.

Bandura was a famous psychologist in the middle of the 20th century. He was interested in what caused people's behaviors. Most people realized that behaviors were learned in some way. For example, if you have an itch on your arm and you scratch it, you'll feel some sort of relief. You have just learned that scratching an itch feels good. The next time you have an itch, you will be likely to scratch it.

But Bandura wondered if people only ever learned through trial and error, or if there was some other way that people learned their behaviors. In other words, is the only way that you might learn to scratch an itch by actually scratching it? Or could you learn from someone else?

Bandura believed that people learn from observing the behaviors of others, an idea he called social learning theory. To test his social learning theory, Bandura ran a famous experiment involving a life-sized clown doll called a 'Bobo doll.' In the experiment, he let kids watch a video of an adult kicking, punching and cursing at the doll.

Afterwards, he left each kid alone in the room with the Bobo doll and some other toys. The children who had seen the video of the adults beating up the Bobo doll were more likely to kick, punch or curse at the doll themselves. In other words, they had learned from watching the adults beating up on Bobo.


That's all very interesting, but what does it have to do with the real world? How can it help people who struggle with psychological problems?

Social learning theory can explain some types of mental disorders. Let's look at an example. Tyler goes to college and sees everyone around him getting drunk several times a week. All of the people who are popular and have lots of friends go out drinking, and they seem to be doing okay. From watching them, Tyler learns that drinking and getting drunk on a regular basis is a good thing.

So Tyler begins drinking with all of the other kids. He has a lot of fun, but something isn't quite right with him. He discovers that he can't function without drinking. He doesn't know when or how to stop drinking. Tyler has developed alcoholism, a type of substance use disorder, which is considered a psychological disorder.

But if social learning theory can help explain how Tyler became an alcoholic, can it also help him break his addiction? To answer that, we have to examine social learning theory a little more closely. There are two types of learning in social learning theory:

  1. Negative reinforcement is when a person learns not to do something because the consequences are bad. For example, if the children in Bandura's experiment saw the adult who beat up the Bobo doll get punished, they were less likely to beat up the Bobo doll themselves.
  2. Positive reinforcement is when a person learns to do something because the consequences are good. Tyler learned to drink because all he saw was positive reinforcement. The people who drank were being rewarded for their actions by having lots of friends.

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