Bandura’s Social Learning Theory…

Alfred Bandura was born on December 4, 1925 in a small town in northern Canada and is the youngest of six children.  His parents immigrated from Poland and the Ukraine.   He graduated from the University of Kentucky with a Phd. in Psychology and is well-known for his research and writing on “Social Learning Theory.”   While, classical and Operant Conditioning focus on reinforcement through the manipulation of antecedents and consequences respectively, Bandura provides a more comprehensive understanding of learning.   For example he uses the “vicarious and self-reinforcement” (Bandura, 1971), to describe how we learn from others.  He uses the term reciprocal determinism to describe how individual’s influence their environment and affected by it in turn….

“Personal and Environmental factors do not function as independent determinants, rather they determine each other. Nor can ‘person’s’ be considered causes independent of their behavior. It is largely through their actions that people produce the environmental conditions that affect their behavior in a reciprocal fashion. The experiences generated by behavior also partly determine what individuals think expect, and can do, which in turn affect their subsequent behavior (Bandura, 1977, p. 345).”

Bandura vs. Skinner & Pavlov

Since this is blog is being completed as a “Study Exercise” for the NCE exam, I would now like to list key differences between Bandura and the behaviorsts discussed here.  Rosenthal, (2005), discusses Bandura with the other behaviorists theorists just briefly.  However, since he diverges from the other classical behviorists in several key aspects, I feel he deserves his own post:

Triadic Reciprocal Interaction

“The social-cognitive approach depends on the the theory that behavior is based on three separate but interacting regulatory systems:  (1) external stimulus events, (2) external reinforcement, and (3) cognitive mediational processes, (Corsini & Wedding, 2011, p. 236).”

Bandura’s approach examines the interaction between between environmental factors, behaviors, and personal factors like motivation and perception (Sharf, 2012).  This is a unique point of divergence from other behaviorists.  For example, Skinner proposes the control of environmental factors in order to adjust maladaptive behaviors (Wolpe & Fraud, 1997).  Pavlov, focuses on reflexive and involuntary processes by adjusting an individual’s behavioral responses to antecedent stimuli.  Essentially, Skinner & Pavlov conceive a one-way relationship between humans and their environment.  We are the dependent variable, and the environment is the dependent variable.  Bandura rejects this idea.

How does Learning Happen?

For Pavlov, learning is a passive process and involves adjusting antecedent stimuli in order to either habituate or extinguish a maladaptive involuntary behavior.  In contrast, Skinner focuses on adjusting the consequences of our behavior in order to address maladaptive responses.  While Pavlov’s view of learning is conceived of as a much more passive process than Skinner, they both only focus on external factors.  In other words, internal factors play no relevancy in learning for both Skinner and Pavlov.  This makes Bandura’s perspective quite unique in comparison.  He believes learning is a social process and involves both reinforcement processes as well as observational and vicarious learning (Sharf, 2012).  Bandura also disagree’s with Skinner’s assertion that feelings and thoughts don’t matter.  Intrapsychic factors act as a mediating factor between an individual and his environment.

Reciprocal Determinism

Skinner, (1971), a proponent of radical determinism, states: “a person does not act upon the world, the world acts upon him” (p. 211).  In his book “What is B.F. Skinner Really Saying?” Nye, (1979) attempts to contextualize Skinner’s statement about radical determinism.  In particular, Nye (1979), states Skinner believes we rely too much on inner abstractions like thoughts, feelings and motivations.  Not only does he feel these are somewhat “unknowable” concepts, they have little relevance to life behaviors or outcomes (Nye, 1979).  Instead, Skinner asserts “ultimately the environment has the control” (Nye, 1997, p. 81).  Therefore we should focus on how we process and respond to information we receive from the external world since this is much more pragmatic.  Bandura, (1978), rejects this idea by noting that in Skinners theory, “the environment thus becomes an autonomous force that automatically shapes, orchestrates, and controls behavior” (p. 344).   Rather than conceiving behavior as occurring independent of an individual’s input, he sees the social learning process as follows:

“In the social learning view of interaction, which is analyzed as a process of reciprocal determinism, behavior, internal personal factors, and environmental factors all operate as interlocking determinants of one another” (Bandura, 1978, p. 346).”

What’s really exciting about Bandura’s inclusion of the individual into the causal equation, is it allows us to examine an array of factors, invisible in Skinner & Pavlov’s approaches.  Bandura, (1978) notes: “Exponents of radical behaviorism have always any construct of self for fear it would usher in psychic agents and divert attention from physical to experiential reality” (p. 348).  He then continues that the self regulatory functions of one’s behavior involve: self-observation, judgment, and response (Bandura, 1978, p. 349).

Self & Vicarious Reinforcement

For Skinner reinforcement is a function of the consequences of one’s behaviors.  In other words, a behavior is reinforced, and more likely to be repeated when the consequences are favorable.  In contrast, Pavlov conceives reinforcement as the strengthening of association between conditioned and unconditioned stimulus.  For example, as Pavlov’s dog begins associating a bell with food, he then responds to the bell by salivating.  What’s important to note about Skinner and Pavlov are that reinforcement is conceived in mechanistic terms. External forces are manipulated to initiate change.  In contrast, Bandura views reinforcement as an interactional process:

“Most human behavior is not controlled by immediate external reinforcement.  Rather, people regulate their own actions to some extent by self-generated anticipatory consequences….Behavior can be self-regulated, not only by anticipated…consequences, but also self-evaluative responses to one’s own behavior (Bandura, 1971, p. 229)”


Traditional behaviorists don’t value highly internal aspects of the self, as relevant to the therapy process.   For example, Skinner asserts that self-knowledge, can’t be directly observed and is therefore difficult to access (Nye, 1979).  Additionally, while behaviorists like Skinner and Pavlov acknowledge intrapsychic processes, they assert they play no causal role in our behaviors.  Bandura again diverges from this line of thinking.  Human beings are not victims to the environment, and do play a role in determining their own behaviors and actions.  For example, he provides the following definition of self-efficacy, a critical intrapsychic component in the social learning process:

“Bandura…describes self-efficacy as ‘people’s judgments of their capabilities organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances…How individuals view their abilities and capabilities affects academic, career and otherr choices” (Sharf, 2912, p. 196).

Social Learning Theory Overview…

In his book “Social Learning”, Bandura (1977), criticizes the viewpoints of both psychodynamic theories and radical behaviorism as two extreme poles along an explanatory continuum of behavior.  Regarding the psychodynamic perspective, Bandura, (1977) complains that inner processes must be inferred from one’s behavior and that this process is not exactly empirical.  Regarding the issue of radical behaviorism, Bandura, (1977) notes that “in an…effort to eschew spurious inner causes, it neglected determinants of man’s behavior.” (p. 2).  Bandura describes his social learning theory as a perspective that fills in the gaps missing within these theories:

“In the social learning view, man is neither driven by inner forces nor buffeted helplessly by environmental influences.  Rather psychological functioning is best understood in terms of a continuous reciprocal interaction between behavior and its controlling conditions” (Bandura, 1997, p. 3).

Essentially, Bandura (1971), provides a behavioral perspective with three unique components that include: (1) the importance of observational learning; (2) man’s unique cognitive capacity and; (3) our capability to engage in self-regulatory behavior (p. 3).  These three unique additions to Bandura’s behavioral perspective are discussed below.

Observational learning

Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory describes how “new patterns of behavior can be acquired through direct experience or by observing…others” (p 3.)    So how are individuals motivated to observe and learn from others?  Bandura (1977), states that past experiences help us anticipate the consequences of various actions.  Those actions others display which are rewarded become the focus of our efforts to learn via observation (Bower & Hillgard, 1981). Additionally, Bandura’s observational learning process diverges from the antecedent/respondent/consequence model discussed in Skinner’s theory.  Behaviors do not follow an antecedent and are not byproducts of the consequences that follow.  Instead, observational learning consists of four interrelated processes, discussed below:

ATTENTION – Firstly, for an individual to learn a behavior, it has to capture their attention.  A variety of factors determine the attentive value of a behavior including its functional value in terms of one’s past experiences and future goals (Bower & Hilgard, 1981).  
RETENTION – Secondly, an individual’s ability to retain information is critical in determining the extent to which it affects future behavior.  As Bandura, (1971), notes: “A person cannot be much influenced by observation of a model’s behavior if he has no memory of it” (p. 7).   
REPRODUCTION – The third critical factor in observational learning is an indivividual’s ability to reproduce a specific behavior.  This requires not only a cognitive understanding of the modeled behavior but the the skill and ability to replicate it. 
MOTIVATION – In observational learning is reinforced to the extent that an individual believes they might yield rewards or punishments.  In this sense, Bandura (1971), conceives reinforcement as influencing not only the overt expression of behavior but one attentive focus.

Self-Regulatory Processes

“A comprehensive theory of behavior must explain not only how response patterns are required but how their expression is regulated and maintained” (Bandura, 1971, p. 11). In his theory, Bandura describes three self-regulatory processes (Bandura, 1971):

Stimulus Control

Within both operant and classical conditioning, behavior is described as a byproduct of the external environment.  Bandura (1971) adds to these perspectives by noting that individuals are able to anticipate the probable consequences of a behaviors based on past experiences.  Our ability to engage in foresight and anticipation greatly influences the effects of a stimulus on our behavior.

Reinforcement Control

In Skinner’s operant conditioning, behavior is said to be a function of its consequences.  Bandura’s social learning theory appears to provide an alternative view of consequences as not just externalized or environmental factors.  Instead he notes that individuals “aslo regulate their behavio to some extent on the basis of observed consequences, as well as those they create for themselves” (Bandura, 1971, p. 20).

For example, Bandura describes vicarious counterparts to Skinner’s concepts of reinforcement and punishment..  For example vicarious reinforcement is an increase in behaviors after witnessing the consequences of others’ behaviors (Bandura, 1971).  Vicarious punishment is the decrease in a behavior after witnessing the negative consequences of someone else’s behaviors (Bandural, 1971).

Regulatory Processes

“Self-evaluative and self-reinforcing functions assume a prominent role in social learning theory” (Bandura, 1971, p. 30).


Self-reinforcement is a byproduct of goal-setting and motivation that results when we define our personal standards of behavior.   Goals become a standard against which observational learning takes place.  It also provides a personal reference point with which to assess one’s performance.


Self-evaluation in social learning theory is primarily a function of oure efficacy expectations defined as a personal conviction that we will successfully meet our goals.  A person’s evaluation of efficacy is defined by four factors: “(1) past accomplishments…(2) observations of other successes or failures…(3) verbal persuasion by self or others, and (4) changes in one’s emotional arousal” (Bower & Hilgard, 1981, p. 470).


Bandura, A. (1971). Vicarious and self-reinforcement processes.  Retrieved from:
Bandural, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Bandura, A. (1978). The self system in reciprocal determinism. Retrieved from:
Corsini, R. J. & Wedding, W. (2011). Current Psychotherapies. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole
Ingram, B.L. (2012). Clinical Case Formulations: Matching the Integrative Treatment Plan to the Client. (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Nye, R.D. (1979). What is B.F. Skinner Really Saying?. Englewood, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.
Sharf R.S. (2006). Applying career development theory to counseling. 6th Ed. Belmont CA: Thomson.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.

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