Getting to grips with theory: Social Learning Theory

I can’t help but think of this poem when I think about Social Learning Theory because I think it says what it is perfectly…. From the immense poet Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse (That’s the name of the poem – I haven’t just turned into a pirate!!)

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had 
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Social Learning Theory is a Psychological theory despite the insistence of it having ‘social’ in the title just to confuse everyone! I’m sure you intuitively get how it works from the poem! You may well have picked up traits and ideas, and all manner of things from your parents, your family, your peers… the list goes on. You learn how to go on and what to do from others.

Usually when we talk about this theory, we think of negative things that we pick up from others possibly because the behaviour learnt in Bandura’s famous (and in my view highly dubious in terms of the ethics!) experiment was negative (more later). So, remember we can learn positive things as well! Role modelling… that’s what it is.

The theory is rooted in behaviorism. The fundamental idea of behaviourism is that behaviours that are reinforced will tend to continue, while behaviours that are punished will eventually end – referred to as conditioned responses. We develop learned responses to external stimuli – conditioning.

Social Learning Theory also draws on cognitive psychology because what is also important is what happens after stimulation but before reaction – the thinking bit – the flow of information in your mind before you decide what you are going to do. Our view of the world is self-constructed inside our minds so interpretation of what we observe is also at play. Our brains have a plasticity so although we do learn behaviours, we can modify them – so this is not a fatalistic position. You are not stuck with behaviour you learn but you might decide to stick with it even if it’s not good for you or you might stick with it because you don’t know any other way.

Albert Bandura was an American/Canadian Psychologist working in the early part of the 20th Century on observational learning theory. He observed that conditioning occurs not just from internalising behaviour we are exposed to but from our conscious observation of others.

He suggested that individuals that are observed are called models. These models provide examples of behaviour to observe and imitate so we figure out how to behave from what we see. If someone imitates a model’s behaviour and the consequences are rewarding, then they are likely to continue performing that behaviour. This is reinforcement and can be external or internal and can be positive or negative. For example, if a child wants approval from her parents and such approval is given and reinforces behaviour then such approval is an external reinforcement – it comes from outside herself. But if she is feeling happy about being approved of, and that reinforces her behaviour then that is an internal reinforcement.

If you want to know how Bandura discovered this then this video below will do the job! Save me telling you 😉

Context also plays a role. I suspect you can think of different ways you would act in different places and when with different people. You may well be different when eating out with your parents than you are when you eat out with the boys for a curry. We learn how to behave in different settings – if you want the fancy words around this it’s – cross-situational variability of behaviour. Children are great at it! Those of you who have children know they behave very differently at Grandma’s than they do at home because they know they get away with more and they behave differently at school because they know they get away with nothing – conniving little monkeys!

Bandura says there are four mediational processes at play in Social Learning Theory. These are mental processes that mediate between the stimulus and response. Individuals do not automatically observe the behaviour of a model and imitate it. There is some thought prior to imitation and this consideration is the mediational process. This occurs between observing the behaviour (stimulus) and imitating it or not (response)… so like I said earlier – the thinking bit.

The first is Attention. This is the extent to which we are exposed to, or notice, the behaviour. More exposure or more noticing could lead to more learning. Then Retention. This is how well the behaviour is remembered. Much learning in this way is not immediate. Even if the behaviour is reproduced shortly after seeing it, there needs to be a memory to refer to. We then get to Reproduction. This is the ability to perform the behaviour that the model has just demonstrated. And finally, Motivation – the will to perform the behaviour. Once the behaviour is initiated the rewards and punishment that follow will be considered by the observer. If the perceived rewards outweigh the perceived costs, then the behaviour will be reinforced and will be more likely to be imitated by the observer.

Social Learning Theory may help us understand that people learn behaviour from their immediate environment, not just their past, although it comes from there too. But all is not lost because the brain has a plasticity so behaviour can be modified. If people can learn ineffective ways of being, then they can acquire, through ‘learning’, other ways and so maintain and change behaviour. I feel that social work is one of few professions that always sees the potential of people to change no matter how difficult their circumstances or ingrained and deeply rooted their behaviour is – we need to hang onto that don’t you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please reload

Please Wait