The Learning Process

Social Cognitive Learning Theory

Albert Bandura disagreed with Skinner’s strict behaviorist approach to learning and development because he felt that thinking and reasoning are important components of learning. He presented a social-cognitive theory that emphasizes that the environment and cognitive factors influence behavior. In social-cognitive theory, the concepts of reciprocal determinism, observational learning, and self-efficacy all play a part in learning and development.

Reciprocal Determinism

In contrast to Skinner’s idea that the environment alone determines behavior, Bandura (1990) proposed the concept of reciprocal determinism, in which cognitive processes, behavior, and context all interact, each factor influencing and being influenced by the others simultaneously. Cognitive processes refer to all characteristics previously learned, including beliefs, expectations, and personality characteristics. Behavior refers to anything that we do that may be rewarded or punished. Finally, the context in which the behavior occurs refers to the environment or situation, which includes rewarding/punishing stimuli.

Three boxes are arranged in a triangle. There are lines with arrows on each end connecting the boxes. The boxes are labeled “Behavior,” “Situational factors,” and “Personal factors.”
Figure 4.4.1.  Bandura proposed the idea of reciprocal determinism: Our behavior, cognitive processes, and situational context all influence each other.

Video 4.4.1. Reciprocal Determinism explains the interactions between behavior, cognition, and the environment.

Consider, for example, that you’re at a festival and one of the attractions is bungee jumping from a bridge. Do you do it? In this example, the behavior is bungee jumping. Cognitive factors that might influence this behavior include your beliefs and values, and your past experiences with similar behaviors. Finally, context refers to the reward structure for the behavior. According to reciprocal determinism, all of these factors are in play.

Observational Learning

Bandura’s key contribution to learning theory was the idea that much learning is vicarious. We learn by observing someone else’s behavior and its consequences, which Bandura called observational learning. Just as we learn individual behaviors, we learn new behavior patterns when we see them performed by other people or models. Drawing on the behaviorists’ ideas about reinforcement, Bandura suggested that whether we choose to imitate a model’s behavior depends on whether we see the model reinforced or punished. Through observational learning, we come to learn what behaviors are acceptable and rewarded in our culture, and we also learn to inhibit deviant or socially unacceptable behaviors by seeing what behaviors are punished.

We can see the principles of reciprocal determinism at work in observational learning. For example, personal factors determine which behaviors in the environment a person chooses to imitate, and those environmental events in turn are processed cognitively according to other personal factors. One person may experience receiving attention as reinforcing, and that person may be more inclined to imitate behaviors such as boasting when a model has been reinforced. For others, boasting may be viewed negatively, despite the attention that might result—or receiving heightened attention may be perceived as being scrutinized. In either case, the person may be less likely to imitate those behaviors even though the reasons for not doing so would be different.

Humans and other animals are capable of observational learning. As you will see, the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” really is accurate. The same could be said about other animals. For example, in a study of social learning in chimpanzees, researchers gave juice boxes with straws to two groups of captive chimpanzees. The first group dipped the straw into the juice box, and then sucked on the small amount of juice at the end of the straw. The second group sucked through the straw directly, getting much more juice. When the first group, the “dippers,” observed the second group, “the suckers,” what do you think happened? All of the “dippers” in the first group switched to sucking through the straws directly. By simply observing the other chimps and modeling their behavior, they learned that this was a more efficient method of getting juice (Yamamoto, Humle, and Tanaka, 2013).

Figure 4.4.2. This spider monkey learned to drink water from a plastic bottle by seeing the behavior modeled by a human. (credit: U.S. Air Force, Senior Airman Kasey Close)

Imitation is much more obvious in humans, but is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery? Consider Claire’s experience with observational learning. Claire’s nine-year-old son, Jay, was getting into trouble at school and was defiant at home. Claire feared that Jay would end up like her brothers, two of whom were in prison. One day, after yet another bad day at school and another negative note from the teacher, Claire, at her wit’s end, beat her son with a belt to get him to behave. Later that night, as she put her children to bed, Claire witnessed her four-year-old daughter, Anna, take a belt to her teddy bear and whip it. Claire was horrified, realizing that Anna was imitating her mother. It was then that Claire knew she wanted to discipline her children in a different manner.

Like Tolman, whose experiments with rats suggested a cognitive component to learning, psychologist Albert Bandura’s ideas about learning were different from those of strict behaviorists. Bandura and other researchers proposed a brand of behaviorism called social learning theory, which took cognitive processes into account. According to Bandura, pure behaviorism could not explain why learning can take place in the absence of external reinforcement. He felt that internal mental states must also have a role in learning and that observational learning involves much more than imitation. In imitation, a person simply copies what the model does. Observational learning is much more complex. According to Lefrançois (2012), there are several ways that observational learning can occur:

  1. You learn a new response. After watching your coworker get chewed out by your boss for coming in late, you start leaving home 10 minutes earlier so that you won’t be late.
  2. You choose whether or not to imitate the model depending on what you saw happen to the model. Remember Julian and his father? When learning to surf, Julian might watch how his father pops up successfully on his surfboard and then attempt to do the same thing. On the other hand, Julian might learn not to touch a hot stove after watching his father get burned on a stove.
  3. You learn a general rule that you can apply to other situations.

Bandura identified three kinds of models: live, verbal, and symbolic. A live model demonstrates a behavior in person, as when Ben stood up on his surfboard so that Julian could see how he did it. A verbal instructional model does not perform the behavior, but instead explains or describes the behavior, as when a soccer coach tells his young players to kick the ball with the side of the foot, not with the toe. A symbolic model can be fictional characters or real people who demonstrate behaviors in books, movies, television shows, video games, or Internet sources.

Photograph A shows a yoga instructor demonstrating a yoga pose while a group of students observes her and copies the pose. Photo B shows a child watching television.
Figure 4.4.3. (a) Yoga students learn by observation as their yoga instructor demonstrates the correct stance and movement for her students (live model). (b) Models don’t have to be present for learning to occur: through symbolic modeling, this child can learn a behavior by watching someone demonstrate it on television. (credit a: modification of work by Tony Cecala; credit b: modification of work by Andrew Hyde)

Of course, we don’t learn a behavior simply by observing a model. Bandura described specific steps in the process of modeling that must be followed if learning is to be successful: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. First, you must be focused on what the model is doing—you have to pay attention. Next, you must be able to retain, or remember, what you observed; this is retention. Then, you must be able to perform the behavior that you observed and committed to memory; this is reproduction. Finally, you must have motivation. You need to want to copy the behavior, and whether or not you are motivated depends on what happened to the model. If you saw that the model was reinforced for her behavior, you will be more motivated to copy her. This is known as vicarious reinforcement. On the other hand, if you observed the model being punished, you would be less motivated to copy her. This is called vicarious punishment. For example, imagine that four-year-old Allison watched her older sister Kaitlyn playing in their mother’s makeup, and then saw Kaitlyn get a time out when their mother came in. After their mother left the room, Allison was tempted to play in the make-up, but she did not want to get a time-out from her mother. What do you think she did? Once you actually demonstrate the new behavior, the reinforcement you receive plays a part in whether or not you will repeat the behavior.

Figure 4.4.4. Observational learning model.

Video 4.4.2. Observational Learning explains the steps in the modeling process for observational learning to occur.

Bandura researched modeling behavior, particularly children’s modeling of adults’ aggressive and violent behaviors (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961). He conducted an experiment with a five-foot inflatable doll that he called a Bobo doll. In the experiment, children’s aggressive behavior was influenced by whether the teacher was punished for her behavior. In one scenario, a teacher acted aggressively with the doll, hitting, throwing, and even punching the doll, while a child watched. There were two types of responses by the children to the teacher’s behavior. When the teacher was punished for her bad behavior, the children decreased their tendency to act as she had. When the teacher was praised or ignored (and not punished for her behavior), the children imitated what she did, and even what she said. They punched, kicked, and yelled at the doll.

The antisocial effects of observational learning are also worth mentioning. As you saw from the example of Claire at the beginning of this section, her daughter viewed Claire’s aggressive behavior and copied it. Research suggests that this may help to explain why abused children often grow up to be abusers themselves (Murrell, Christoff, & Henning, 2007). In fact, about 30% of abused children become abusive parents (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2013). We tend to do what we know. Abused children, who grow up witnessing their parents deal with anger and frustration through violent and aggressive acts, often learn to behave in that manner themselves. Sadly, it’s a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break.

Bandura’s Bobo doll Experiment

Video 4.4.3. Albert Bandura Bobo Doll Experiment is explained by Dr. Bandura.


Bandura (1977, 1995) has studied a number of cognitive and personal factors that affect learning and personality development and most recently has focused on the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our level of confidence in our own abilities, developed through our social experiences. Self-efficacy affects how we approach challenges and reach goals. In observational learning, self-efficacy is a cognitive factor that affects which behaviors we choose to imitate as well as our success in performing those behaviors.

People who have high self-efficacy believe that their goals are within reach, have a positive view of challenges see them as tasks to be mastered, develop a deep interest in and a strong commitment to the activities in which they are involved, and quickly recover from setbacks. Conversely, people with low self-efficacy avoid challenging tasks because they doubt their ability to be successful, tend to focus on failure and negative outcomes, and lose confidence in their abilities if they experience setbacks. Feelings of self-efficacy can be specific to certain situations. For instance, a student might feel confident in her ability in English class but much less so in math class.

Video 4.4.4. Self-Esteem, Self-Efficacy, and Locus of Control explains these three psychological phenomena and how they are related.

Locus of Control

Julian Rotter (1966) proposed the concept of locus of control, another cognitive factor that affects learning and personality development. Distinct from self-efficacy, which involves our belief in our own abilities, locus of control refers to our beliefs about the power we have over our lives. In Rotter’s view, people possess either an internal or an external locus of control. Those of us with an internal locus of control (“internals”) tend to believe that most of our outcomes are the direct result of our efforts. Those of us with an external locus of control (“externals”) tend to believe that our outcomes are outside of our control. Externals see their lives as being controlled by other people, luck, or chance. For example, say you didn’t spend much time studying for your psychology test and went out to dinner with friends instead. When you receive your test score, you see that you earned a D. If you possess an internal locus of control, you would most likely admit that you failed because you didn’t spend enough time studying and decide to study more for the next test. On the other hand, if you possess an external locus of control, you might conclude that the test was too hard and not bother studying for the next test because you figure you will fail it anyway. Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control perform better academically, achieve more in their careers, are more independent, are healthier, are better able to cope, and are less depressed than people who have an external locus of control (Benassi, Sweeney, & Durfour, 1988; Lefcourt, 1982; Maltby, Day, & Macaskill, 2007; Whyte, 1977, 1978, 1980).

A box is labeled “Locus of Control.” An arrow points to the left from this box to another labeled “Internal” containing “I am in control of outcomes: belief that one’s effort and decisions determine outcomes.” Another arrow points to the right from the “Locus of Control” box to another box labeled “External” containing “Outcomes are beyond my control: belief that luck, fate, and other people determine outcomes.”
Figure 4.4.5. Locus of control occurs on a continuum from internal to external.

Video 4.4.5. Locus of Control, Learned Helplessness, and Tyranny of Choice are explained.

“Self-regulation is the process of identifying a goal or set of goals and, in pursuing these goals, using both internal (e.g., thoughts and affect) and external (e.g., responses of anything or anyone in the environment) feedback to maximize goal attainment.”. Self-regulation is also known as willpower. When we talk about willpower, we tend to think of it as the ability to delay gratification. For example, Bettina’s teenage daughter made strawberry cupcakes, and they looked delicious. However, Bettina forfeited the pleasure of eating one, because she is training for a 5K race and wants to be fit and do well in the race. Would you be able to resist getting a small reward now in order to get a larger reward later? This is the question investigated in his now-classic marshmallow test.

Video 4.4.6. Self-Control explains self-regulation’s influence on one’s ability to delay gratification and control desires.

The marshmallow test is a well-known study to assess self-regulation in young children. In the marshmallow study, Mischel and his colleagues placed a preschool child in a room with one marshmallow on the table. The children were told they could either eat the marshmallow now, or wait until the researcher returned to the room, and then they could have two marshmallows (Mischel, Ebbesen & Raskoff, 1972). This was repeated with hundreds of preschoolers. What Mischel and his team found was that young children differ in their degree of self-control. Mischel and his colleagues continued to follow this group of preschoolers through high school, and what do you think they discovered? The children who had more self-control in preschool (the ones who waited for the bigger reward) were more successful in high school. They had higher SAT scores, had positive peer relationships, and were less likely to have substance abuse issues; as adults, they also had more stable marriages (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989; Mischel et al., 2010). On the other hand, those children who had poor self-control in preschool (the ones who grabbed the one marshmallow) were not as successful in high school, and they were found to have academic and behavioral problems. A more recent study using a larger and more representative sample found associations between early delay of gratification (Watts, Duncan, & Quan, 2018) and measures of achievement in adolescence. However, researchers also found that the associations were not as strong as those reported during Mischel’s initial experiment and were quite sensitive to situational factors such as early measures of cognitive capacity, family background, and home environment. This research suggests that consideration of situational factors is important to better understand behavior.

Video 4.4.7. Resisting the Marshmellow and the Success of Self-Control explains the implications of self-regulation, as demonstrated by the marshmallow test.

Self-Regulation and School Success

Read more about Self-Regulation and School Success including how self-regulation impacts academic outcomes and how schools can promote self-regulation in students (Duckworth & Carlson, 2013).

Self-Regulation Questionnaire (SRQ)

The Self-Regulation Questionnaire (SRQ) Self-regulation is the ability to develop, implement, and flexibly maintain planned behavior in order to achieve one’s goals. Building on the foundational work of Frederick Kanfer (Kanfer, 1970a, 1970b), Miller and Brown formulated a seven-step model of self-regulation (Brown, 1998) (Miller & Brown, 1991). In this model, behavioral self-regulation may falter because of failure or deficits at any of these seven steps:

  1. Receiving relevant information
  2. Evaluating the information and comparing it to norms
  3. Triggering change
  4. Searching for options
  5. Formulating a plan
  6. Implementing the plan
  7. Assessing the plan’s effectiveness (which recycles to steps 1 and 2)
Item Strongly Disagree Disagree Unsure Agree Strongly Agree
I usually keep track of my progress toward my goals 1 2 3 4 5
My behavior is not that different from other people’s. 1 2 3 4 5
Others tell me that I keep on with things too long. 1 2 3 4 5
I doubt I could change even if I wanted to. 1 2 3 4 5
I have trouble making up my mind about things. 1 2 3 4 5
I get easily distracted from my plans. 1 2 3 4 5
I reward myself for progress toward my goals. 1 2 3 4 5
I don’t notice the effects of my actions until it’s too late. 1 2 3 4 5
My behavior is similar to that of my friends. 1 2 3 4 5
It’s hard for me to see anything helpful about changing my ways. 1 2 3 4 5
I am able to accomplish goals I set for myself. 1 2 3 4 5
I put off making decisions. 1 2 3 4 5
I have so many plans that it’s hard for me to focus on any one of them. 1 2 3 4 5
I change the way I do things when I see a problem with how things are going. 1 2 3 4 5
It’s hard for me to notice when I’ve “had enough” (alcohol, food, sweets). 1 2 3 4 5
I think a lot about what other people think of me. 1 2 3 4 5
I am willing to consider other ways of doing things. 1 2 3 4 5
If I wanted to change, I am confident that I could do it. 1 2 3 4 5
When it comes to deciding about a change, I feel overwhelmed by the choices. 1 2 3 4 5
I have trouble following through with things once I’ve made up my mind to do something. 1 2 3 4 5
I don’t seem to learn from my mistakes. 1 2 3 4 5
I’m usually careful not to overdo it when working, eating, drinking. 1 2 3 4 5
I tend to compare myself with other people. 1 2 3 4 5
I enjoy a routine, and like things to stay the same. 1 2 3 4 5
I have sought out advice or information about changing. 1 2 3 4 5
I can come up with lots of ways to change, but it’s hard for me to decide which one to use. 1 2 3 4 5
I can stick to a plan that’s working well. 1 2 3 4 5
I usually only have to make a mistake one time in order to learn from it. 1 2 3 4 5
I don’t learn well from punishment. 1 2 3 4 5
I have personal standards, and try to live up to them. 1 2 3 4 5
I am set in my ways. 1 2 3 4 5
As soon as I see a problem or challenge, I start looking for possible solutions. 1 2 3 4 5
I have a hard time setting goals for myself. 1 2 3 4 5
I have a lot of willpower. 1 2 3 4 5
When I’m trying to change something, I pay a lot of attention to how I’m doing. 1 2 3 4 5
I usually judge what I’m doing by the consequences of my actions. 1 2 3 4 5
I don’t care if I’m different from most people. 1 2 3 4 5
As soon as I see things aren’t going right I want to do something about it. 1 2 3 4 5
There is usually more than one way to accomplish something. 1 2 3 4 5
I have trouble making plans to help me reach my goals. 1 2 3 4 5
I am able to resist temptation. 1 2 3 4 5
I set goals for myself and keep track of my progress. 1 2 3 4 5
Most of the time I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing. 1 2 3 4 5
I try to be like people around me. 1 2 3 4 5
I tend to keep doing the same thing, even when it doesn’t work. 1 2 3 4 5
I can usually find several different possibilities when I want to change something. 1 2 3 4 5
Once I have a goal, I can usually plan how to reach it. 1 2 3 4 5
I have rules that I stick by no matter what.

If I make a resolution to change something, I pay a lot of attention to how I’m doing.

1 2 3 4 5
Often I don’t notice what I’m doing until someone calls it to my attention. 1 2 3 4 5
I think a lot about how I’m doing. 1 2 3 4 5
Usually I see the need to change before others do. 1 2 3 4 5
I’m good at finding different ways to get what I want. 1 2 3 4 5
I usually think before I act. 1 2 3 4 5
Little problems or distractions throw me off course. 1 2 3 4 5
I feel bad when I don’t meet my goals. 1 2 3 4 5
I learn from my mistakes. 1 2 3 4 5
I know how I want to be. 1 2 3 4 5
It bothers me when things aren’t the way I want them.

I call in others for help when I need it.

1 2 3 4 5
Before making a decision, I consider what is likely to happen if I do one thing or another. 1 2 3 4 5
I give up quickly. 1 2 3 4 5
I usually decide to change and hope for the best. 1 2 3 4 5

> 239 High (intact) self-regulation capacity (top quartile)

214-238 Intermediate (moderate) self-regulation capacity (middle quartiles)

< 213 Low (impaired) self-regulation capacity (bottom quartile)

Sourse: Adapted from Brown, Miller, & Lawendowski, 1999.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book