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Social Learning Theory: Key ideas

Learn more about the key ideas surrounding Social Learning Theory - from the role of cognition to different model types and beyond.

Modelling and Imitation

Modelling and imitation are terms that go hand in hand and are both core factors in observational learning. Modelling can be defined as “the observation of a model performing a certain behaviour and the attempt to replicate this behaviour by another person”. Imitation can be defined as “the act of copying someone else’s behaviour” and it can come in the form of exact replication of the behaviour, or a more general imitation of that type of behaviour. For example, In Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment some children displayed the same physical and verbal aggression demonstrated by the model and others exhibited a more generic increase in aggressive behaviours that were not originally modelled, such as using other toys to hit the Bobo doll. Reinforcement has a strong influence over whether the behaviour will be imitated or not and this has been supported by replications of the Bobo doll experiment.

Vicarious Reinforcement

Early behaviourist theories believed that behaviour is learnt through being directly reinforced for your behaviour. For example, when a child cleans up after dinner they may be rewarded by their parents by being given some extra pocket money, thus they are receiving the reward directly. However, SLT proposes that people can also learn behaviours indirectly, by observing other people receive positive consequences for their actions. For example, if a child watches their sibling tidy up after dinner and be rewarded with extra pocket money they may imitate this behaviour at future dinner times in order to be rewarded themselves. The same process can occur when a model is observed behaving badly and being punished for a behaviour. After observation, the likelihood that the child will imitate this behaviour will decrease because it has been shown to have negative consequences. The importance of vicarious learning has been demonstrated in a number of research studies that will be discussed in later sections.

Role of Cognition

SLT was the first behaviourist theory to consider the role of cognitive factors in the acquisition of learning. Before imitation occurs, the individual will assess the model for their status and/or wealth to help them to decide if the behaviour is worth imitating. They will also assess their similarity with the individual e.g. gender, age. If there are similarities between the observer and the model it increases their sense of self-efficacy and the observer will feel more confident that they can carry out the behaviour themselves. Self-efficacy was defined by Bandura as “one's belief in one's ability to succeed in specific situations”.

Memory and attention also play an important part in observational learning. If an observer is not attending to a situation or a model sufficiently then it is unlikely that this behaviour will be imitated. Similarly, if the observer does not retain the details of the event and the consequences of the behaviour then they are also less likely to imitate it in the future. This memory is referred to as a mental representation. If they do not remember the event they cannot judge effectively whether this behaviour will be useful to them in situations of a similar nature.


According to SLT the behaviour we observe is more likely to be imitated if it is a role model that we observe. Role models are people whom we identify with or admire in some way. Therefore behaviours are far more likely to be imitated if it is a role model, such as a parent, who performs it. Imitation is also more likely to occur if the model if known to the observer as this makes it easier for the observer to judge if the person has power/status or whether they are a person of importance to them. A model who is seen as powerful or having high status are likely to have these characteristics as a result of their behaviour and thus would be beneficial for the observer to imitate. Another factor that increases the likelihood of imitation is if the model is deemed to be similar to the observer. This allows the observer to identify with them, in terms of gender, age or occupation and gives them more confidence to behave in a similar way to the model e.g. “if they can do it then so can I”. This helps explain why children are more likely to copy behaviours of their same-sex parent, as demonstrated in Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment. This has implications for other important adults that children aspire to from television, films or pop music as they are more likely to imitate their behaviour as well.