Social Cognitive Theory

Social Cognitive Theory

You must have seen or heard about several examples that a person who has been shy and introverted in his/her childhood turns out to be bold and extroverted in his/her adulthood or vice-versa; well, chances are you are also one of those people who went through this personality shift. Human personality is a complex topic, thereby understanding the factors that guide our behaviour, and causes that influence our action is necessary to get an insight into human personality. Numerous theories have been proposed by researchers that attempt to explain the concepts of human personality. Here in this article, we’ll focus on the social cognitive theory of human personality.

What is Social Cognitive Theory?

Social learning theory or social cognitive theory was proposed by the Canadian-American psychologist, Albert Bandura in 1960. This theory states that people learn through observation by paying keen attention to what and how do other people behave in different situations. This theory is different from the other personality theories because it focuses on social influence and both internal and external social reinforcement. According to the social cognitive theory, the personality of an individual does not only depends upon the kind of environment you are living in, but it also depends upon the individual’s differences in grasping the information around them, i.e., the cognition factor. Hence, to determine the personality and moral development of an individual, both the environment and the cognitive abilities of an individual play key roles. This theory argues that the learning of the people depends upon the reciprocal interaction of the three factors, i.e., behaviour, cognition, and environment; the reciprocal determinism model of social learning theory is further explained in this article.

Reciprocal Determinism Model of Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura was born in Canada on 4 December 1925. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in psychology in the year 1949 from the University of British Columbia. Later, he completed his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1952. He started working as a professor at Stanford University in 1953. Albert Bandura became the president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1973, and in 1980 he received the Award from APA for his scientific contribution. Bandura has mentioned his theory of social learning in his book  ‘Social Learning and Personality Development (1963).’ He died from congestive heart failure on 26 July 2021 at Stanford.

Main Assumptions of the Social Cognitive Theory

  • This theory focuses on observational learning. Learning brings changes in human behaviour, but people don’t need to apply every learned behaviour in real. The person’s choice whether to apply the learned behaviour or not, in reality, depends upon the consequences of the observed behaviour.
  • People tend to adapt the behaviour of other people (model), with whom they can relate. The observer is more likely to follow the model if the observer has any emotional connection or other commonalities with the model.
  • The ability of the observer to learn a new behaviour also depends upon his/her self efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to the belief of the person in achieving the set goals. If the person believes that he/she can learn the observed behaviour, it becomes easier for the person to do so.

Understanding Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura’s social cognitive theory is unique from the earlier proposed theories on personality, for example, Bandura’s theory focuses on mechanisms like self-efficacy and the motivational factors that determine the personality of the person instead of focusing only on the environmental factor. This cognition factor differentiates Albert bandura’s theory from the B.F. Skinner’s theory as Skinner’s theory is completely focused on the behaviouristic approach. Let us understand the Social cognitive theory through the three main concepts of this theory, i.e., reciprocal determinism, self-esteem, and observational learning.

1. Reciprocal Determinism

In the theories that came before the social cognitive theory, human behaviour has been explained through unidirectional causation, i.e., one factor causes the changes in the personality. However, the social cognitive theory focuses on the triadic reciprocal determinism model of causation. According to this model, the three factors, i.e., cognition, behavioural, and environmental factors all operate in a bidirectional manner rather than unidirectional. For example, the cognition changes can result in behavioural changes, in the same manner, the behavioural changes can result in cognition changes. Also, in the reciprocal causation model, all the sources of influence do not necessarily of the same strength, some might be stronger and some might be weaker, and, they do not necessarily occur simultaneously. This theory emphasises that these three factors are all reciprocal and not independent of each other. For example, every incident that you encounter can change your thinking or cognition, similarly, the behaviour of the person can influence his/her environment, for example, the parents’ mindset determines the children’s environment.

Let us understand the interlink between the three factors (as shown in figure A), cognition factor and behavioural factor interaction represent that the beliefs, thoughts, and intentions of the person guide his/her behaviour. The interaction between the environmental factor and the cognition factors represent that the cognition or the personal characteristics of an individual affects its environment (social influence), likewise, the environment (social influence) impacts the personal characteristics or the cognition abilities of the person. The interaction between the behavioural factor and the environmental factor represents that the impacts of the behaviour of the person alter the environment and vice-versa, i.e., an individual can be both the producer and the product of their surroundings. To sum up, the personality of the individual is the result of the bidirectional interaction between the three factors, i.e., behavioural, cognitive and environmental.

Understanding Social Cognitive Theory

Figure A

2. Self-System

As discussed above, the three factors, i.e., behavioural, cognitive, and environmental are mutually interactive. According to Albert Bandura, Self-system acts as the starting point of reciprocal determinism and guides human behaviour.

In social learning theory, a self-system is not a psychic agent that controls behaviour. Rather it refers to cognitive structures that provide reference mechanisms to set of functions for perception, evaluation and regulation of behaviour” – Albert Bandura

Following are the main components of the self-system,

Self-Observation: We always look at our own behaviour and actions.

Judgement: We compare what we observe or do with certain set standards. For example, we tend to compare our performance in any field with the person who holds expertise in that field.

Self-response: We respond or rate our performance; if we perform well in any activity we tend to give self-rewards, and if we perform poorly we give ourselves punishment as the self responses. The self-responses can be apparent such as taking a trip or working on weekends or covert such as feeling content or guilty.

Self-Efficacy: If a person feels that he/she has achieved everything that he/she targeted, and he/she always received praise or appreciation from others, it results in a strong self-efficacy of the person. On the other hand, if the person feels that he always fails in achieving the set targets and is always criticized by others, it results in low self-efficacy in the person. According to Albert Bandura (1995),

the belief in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations”

Albert bandura mentioned the importance of self-efficacy in deciding the behaviour of a person in his publication entitles “Self Efficacy: Towards a Unifying Theory of Behavioural Change.”

Some people find it easy to accomplish the set targets, while some find it difficult to execute what they have planned. According to Albert Bandura, the self-efficacy of the person is the key factor that decides the person’s ability to approach their goals or other challenges.

The characteristics of the people with strong self-efficacy are,

  • These people handle challenges positively and try to overcome them.
  • In every activity they get involved in, they show high enthusiasm and keen interest.
  • They are strongly committed to their interest and goals.
  • They find it easier to overcome disappointments and failures.

The characteristics of the people with low self-esteem are,

  • They always hesitate to take risks and challenges.
  • They always doubt their capabilities and avoid difficult tasks.
  • They are more focused on the negative outcomes.
  • They tend to lose their confidence even in case of minute setbacks.

The growth of self-efficacy in a person begins from childhood and continues to happen throughout life with different experiences such as success and failures. Let us discuss the four main sources of self-efficacy as described by Bandura.

Mastery Experiences:

Mastery experiences is one of the most effective ways for strengthening self-efficacy. When you successfully accomplish any task it provides a strong sense of self-efficacy. Likewise, when you fail in accomplishing any task it can result in low self-efficacy. (Bandura, 1994)

excited | GIF | PrimoGIF

Social Modeling:

Observing other people who have successfully completed their tasks can also help in strengthening the observer’s self-esteem. Bandura stated that when we see other people or the people with whom we can relate, accomplishing their targets it gives us a sense of confidence that if they can achieve the particular targets then we can also achieve that, hence resulting in high self-esteem.

Social Persuasion:

According to Bandura, social persuasion is one of the simplest methods that can increase the self-esteem of a person. If someone says to you that you have the capabilities to achieve your set targets and get successful, it raises your confidence to do so. You must have had experienced that the moment you have been doubting yourself, but when your parents or mentor encouraged you that you are capable to do that task, you eventually got successful in achieving that. Hence persuasions from others can help people to strengthen their self-esteem and overcome their self-doubts.

You Can Do It GIFs | Tenor

Psychological response:

Individuals’ reactions and emotional responses in any situation also impact self-efficacy. One’s mood, stress level, mental health, and physical reaction can deeply impact his/her abilities in performing well in a particular situation. For example, a person who has stage phobia may get extremely nervous before giving a speech in front of the public and this may develop a weak self-efficacy in the person, and he/she will always restrict himself from this type of situation in future.

Stage Fright GIFs | Tenor

3. Observational Learning

Observational learning is the main concept of the social learning theory. Bandura argued that learning can occur even in the absence of reinforcement and punishment, which is considered as the basic principles of writing, and people can learn by simply observing others.

Bobo Doll Experiment

To explain that people learn from observing other people, Albert Bandura conducted an experiment named, “Bobo Doll Behaviour: A study of Aggression.” In this study, a video was shown to a group of kindergarten children; in this video one of the bandura’s students was showing aggressive behaviour and beating a Bobo doll. The woman (Bandura’s student) was punching, kicking and hitting the Bobo doll with the hammer, and also shouting “sockerro” and other aggressive phrases. The children enjoyed watching this video. These children were then allowed to play in a room. In this room, a Bobo doll and the small hammers were placed already. The observers found that the children were kicking, punching, and sitting on the Bobo doll and were also shouting “sockerro.” We can say that they were showing similar behaviour towards the Bobo doll as the woman was showing in the video. Bandura also did a number of changes in this study, for example, sometimes model (woman) was awarded for her behaviour while in some cases model was given the punishment, even the children who imitated the behaviour were also rewarded or punished. The model was also changed in different cases, for example, the more attractive or less attractive model. Albert found that when he did variation in his study, children’s behaved differently, some children initiated the exact as shown in the video, while some others showed different behaviour. This finding allowed Bandura to conclude that people do not process every learned behaviour, there are some steps that are involved in the learning (modeling) process. These steps include attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. Let us discuss all these factors.

Bandura's Bobo Doll Experiment on Make a GIF

Modeling Processes


If we want to learn something, we need to be fully attentive. Any kind of distraction can negatively impact observational learning. We are more likely to pay attention if the model is interesting, attractive, colourful, and unique. Also, one pays more attention to the learning if there exist any commonalities between him/her and the model.


We may have learned any behaviour, but our ability to store the learned information and able to recall it also is a key part of the learning process. The retention power of the person can be affected by several factors, but one’s ability to recall the learned information and use it in the desired situations are necessary for observational learning. Hence, one needs to retain the information that he/she had paid attention to earlier. This can be understood through the imagery and the language process. We store the behaviour of the model in mental images form, and we reproduce the stored information through our behaviour.


After you paid attention to the information and even retain the information, reproducing the learned behaviour is the next important step. In the reproduction process, one needs to reproduce the observed behaviour, hence, one must have the ability to reproduce the observed behaviour. For example, it would be difficult for an eighty-year-old person to perform the observed stunts of a gymnast. Practise is the next important step after reproduction, you must have heard that ‘practice makes you better’ this phrase fits here. Practising the learned behaviour leads to the further improvement and development of your skills.


Motivation is considered the most important step of observational learning. Even if a person has completed all the above mentioned three steps, observational learning can not occur if the person is not motivated enough. A person needs to be motivated to imitate the observed behaviour. Punishment and reinforcement play a crucial role in motivation, i.e., the person tends to imitate the observed behaviour if the model is being rewarded for that behaviour, and the person resists imitating the behaviour of the model is being punished for that behaviour. For example, when you see that the students who reach on time in the academy received the extra credit, then you are also most likely to visit timely in the academy.

Modeling Processes of Social Cognitive Theory

Pros of Observational learning

  • The main advantage of social learning or observational learning is that it happens automatically. Whether consciously or unconsciously one use social learning every day. For example, at college or university, we observed our fellow classmates and the way they study, at the workplace we observe our colleagues that how they do their work. When your classmates or colleagues received any appreciation or punishment for any behaviour or task, it automatically gives you the idea that what are the things that you should do and what to avoid.
  • Social learning is a great way to enhance one’s skill set. One can improve his/her productivity and skills by just listening to the thoughts, ideas, and observing the work ethics of the best performers.
  • Many scientific studies prove that we retain only 10 per cent of formal learning and 90 per cent of the learning is from social learning and informal sources. According to researchers, when we learn directly by observing a person, we retain the learned information for a longer period of time as we remember the other factors such as images, memories, voice or behaviour too.

Cons of  Observational Learning

  • In observational learning, one adapts the behaviour of the others depending upon the reinforcement or the punishment. Basically, one is learning to behave like the others. This may lead to inner conflict as there may be chances that the newly learned behaviour does not match with your beliefs and values.
  • Some of the theories suggest that observational learning may or may not impact the personality of an individual. To adapt the observed behaviour one may take a long time and repeated imitation of the observed behaviour.
  • In observational learning one only focuses on the behaviour of the model and tends to ignore personal opinions and views before learning that behaviour.
  • Some people find it difficult to understand their strengths and weaknesses. If people fail to imitate the observed behaviour it could lead to frustration and low self-esteem. One should not mix observational learning with personal comparison. People usually compare themselves with the one who performs better than them in any given task, and failure in imitating the observed behaviour can result in psychological consequences.
  • People can learn aggressive behaviour due to observational learning. Various researches have proven the relation between violence in the young generation due to the violent tv or web series. If an actor is being praised for his/her violent behaviour in the movie or the series, some people tend to adopt that behaviour in reality.

Limitations of Social Cognitive Theory

Following are the main limitations of the social cognitive theory,

  • According to the social cognitive theory, changes in the environment result in changes in the personality of the person, but this is not applicable every time.
  • The social cognitive theory highlights the reciprocal determinism triadic model, i.e., the interactions between the behaviour, cognition abilities, and environment impacts the personality of the person. However, this theory does not clearly describe which factors impact the personality of the individual more than the other two factors.
  • This theory only emphasises observational learning and ignore the genetic or biological influence on the personality of an individual. Other factors like the impact of the emotional or the psychological factors on the individual’s personality are not discussed in the social cognitive theory. Albert Bandura proposed that the behaviour of the person is largely influenced by learning but some evolutionary scientists argue that the behaviour of the person is influenced by emotional responses, which is eventually based on the various biological factors and evolution rather than simply through observation.

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