Introduction to social learning theory in social work

Social work theories may be taken from various disciplines such as criminology, law, education, politics, sociology, and psychology. Individually, each discipline attempts to explain human behavior in a context unique to that field of study. However, to ensure that you, as a social worker, are able to explain a particular behavior, it is important you find the appropriate theory, or a combination thereof. One widely recognized theory that could be beneficial for some of your clients is social learning theory.

While social learning theory comes from psychology, its tenets are very much applicable to the study of social work. This introduction to social learning theory addresses its foundation, elements, strengths, and weaknesses, along with its application in social work. Included is a list of books and online resources to learn more.

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What is social learning theory?

Social learning theory suggests that social behavior is learned by observing and imitating the behavior of others. Psychologist Albert Bandura developed social learning theory as an alternative to the earlier work of fellow psychologist B.F. Skinner, known for his influence on behaviorism. While behavioral psychology focuses on how the environment and reinforcement affect behavior, Bandura put forth that individuals can learn behavior through observation.

Social learning theory has four mediational processes that help determine whether a new behavior is acquired:

  1. Attention: The degree to which we notice the behavior. A behavior must grab our attention before it can be imitated. Considering the number of behaviors we observe and do not imitate daily indicates attention is crucial.
  2. Retention: How well we remember the behavior. We cannot perform the behavior if we do not remember the behavior. So, while a behavior may be noticed, unless a memory is formed, the observer will not perform the behavior. And, because social learning is not immediate, retention is vital to behavior modeling.
  3. Reproduction: The ability to perform the behavior we observe. It influences our decision about whether to try performing the behavior. Even when we wish to imitate an observed behavior, we are limited by our physical abilities.
  4. Motivation: The will to emulate the behavior. This mediational process is referred to as vicarious reinforcement. It involves learning through observing the consequences of actions for other people, rather than through direct experience.

In addition to the behavior, rewards and punishment that follow will be studied by the observer. If the observer perceives the rewards to be greater than the costs (punishment), they will most likely imitate the behavior. However, if the observer does not value the vicarious reinforcement, they will not model the behavior.

History of social learning theory

In 1961 and 1963, Albert Bandura conducted a series of experiments to determine whether social behaviors (aggression) could be acquired by observation and imitation. The research that entailed children observing a model punch an inflatable doll looked to support the idea that children emulate their behavior by watching others. These experiments were collectively known as the Bobo doll experiments.

Supported by his findings in the Bobo doll experiments, Bandura developed the social learning theory in 1977. The theory later evolved into the social cognitive theory in 1986 which postulates that learning takes place in a social framework with an ever-changing and shared interaction between the person, environment, and behavior.

Assumptions of social learning theory

Social learning theory is grounded by several key assumptions:

  • People learn through observation. Learners can acquire new behavior and knowledge by merely observing a model.
  • Reinforcement and punishment have indirect effects on behavior and learning. People form expectations about the potential consequences of future responses based on how current responses are reinforced or punished.
  • Mediational processes influence our behavior. Cognitive factors contribute to whether a behavior is acquired or not.
  • Learning does not necessarily lead to change. Just because a person learns something does not mean they will have a change in behavior.

Social learning theory examples

Examples of social learning theory in everyday life are prevalent, with one of the most common being children who imitate family members, friends, famous figures, and even television characters. If a child perceives there is a meaningful reward for such behavior, they will perform it at some point.

Social media presents plenty of social learning examples as individuals emulate others by reenacting movie scenes, copying dance moves from music videos, and engaging in various social media challenges. This frenzied behavior is typically spurred by the desire to be socially accepted or liked.

New employees in the workplace may imitate the behavior of their peers in an effort to conform to the work culture. Or, they may model coworkers’ behavior to help earn a good standing with a superior.

Students may emulate fellow students, celebrities, and mentors as a means to fit in or garner attention. While positive behaviors are imitated, problematic behaviors are modeled as well.

Applications of social learning theory

Social learning theory posits that people emulate the behavior they observe in their environment, especially if that behavior is reinforced in others. For example, if a child observes their parents going to work every day, volunteering at a local community center, and helping their significant other with tasks around the home, the child is likely to mimic those behaviors. If rewarded, these behaviors become reinforced and most likely repeated by the individual. This premise applies to troublesome behaviors as well. A person who observes someone treating others poorly and being rewarded for it may follow suit. 

Social workers can use social learning theory to identify the behavioral models a client may be emulating and use that information to help correct negative behavior, such as underage drinking, drug use, or unprotected sex.

How does social learning theory apply to social work?

Two areas of application of social learning theory in social work include research and intervention. Researchers can use the theory to understand how aggressiveness and violence can be transferred through observational learning. The theory can further be used to investigate how positive role models can foster desirable behaviors and promote social change.

As an intervention tool, a social worker can implement social learning theory to influence positive new behaviors by altering the reinforcement, whether positive or negative, associated with the source of the issue. It is important to note that to effectively apply social learning theory principles as an intervention, it is essential a social worker includes the use of other methods of work such as symbolic coding, stress management, and vicarious reinforcement.

As a student in a social work program, you will discover additional applications of social learning theory and learn how to combine them with other social work theories, practices, and techniques.

Strengths and criticisms of social learning theory

Social learning theory explains complex behavior by acknowledging cognitive factors and the role they play in influencing a person’s decision to imitate behavior. 

One of the primary strengths of social learning theory is its flexibility in explaining the differences in a person’s behavior or learning process, i.e. when there is a change in a person’s environment, the person’s behavior may change. Another strength is that it allows for different ways of learning. A person can learn through observation or direct experiences.

However, the theory does not account for how we develop a wide range of behavior based on thoughts and feelings. We have a significant amount of control over our behavior and, as such, we don’t necessarily reproduce poor behavior, like violence, merely because we experience it. Similarly, the theory fails to recognize the importance of accountability. By placing greater weight on the environment, the theory largely assumes one’s behavior and actions are determined by society, not by how a person handles or processes information.

Social learning theory also disregards the influence of biological factors, such as hormones and genetics, on behavior. This limits a person’s behavior to either nature or nurture, rather than recognizing that behavior is the interaction of both one’s biology and environment. In the same vein, social learning theory overlooks ordinary developmental milestones. Although children do not mature at identical rates, certain milestones may still occur irrespective of the environmental setting.

Additionally, the theory does not account for all behavior, specifically in cases where there is no apparent role model for the observer to emulate.

By modifying and renaming social learning theory to social cognitive learning, Bandura offered a more fitting framework for how we learn from our social experiences.

Summary and resources for further learning

While social learning theory demonstrates that behavior, whether positive or negative, can be taught or adapted through observation, it is essential as a social worker that you employ additional relevant practices and social work theories that account for other factors that may play a role in a client’s behavior.

Here are some relevant books and online resources you may find helpful throughout your social work education and career:

Social learning theory books

  • “Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control” by Albert Bandura. The renowned psychologist discusses his theory that believing one can achieve what one sets out to do results in a healthier, more effective, and generally more successful life.
  • “Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies” edited by Albert Bandura. This book provides an analysis of the various ways in which beliefs of personal efficacy work within a system of sociocultural influences to shape one’s life paths. Concepts covered include infancy and personal agency, competency through the lifespan, the role of family, and cross-cultural factors.
  • “Social Learning Theory” by Albert Bandura. This book explores advances in social learning theory with a focus on the crucial roles played by cognitive, vicarious, and self-regulatory processes.
  • “Theories for Direct Social Work Practice” by Joseph Walsh. The author explores eleven major clinical practice theories commonly used in assessment, planning, and intervention efforts with individual clients, families, and groups.
  • “Case Studies in Social Work Practice” edited by Craig W. LeCroy. The case studies in this book allow students to discover the when, why, and how of social work principles. Concise and thorough topic overviews are brought to life by case studies that apply general theories to social work.
  • “Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance” by Ronald Akers. The author offers an in-depth, authoritative discussion of the background, concepts, development, modifications, and empirical tests of social learning theory. He concludes with a strong dialogue of the implications of social learning theory for criminology and public policy.

Social learning theory online resources

  • Bobo Doll Experiment by Saul McLeod. This article examines two of the Bobo Doll experiments performed by Albert Bandura in the 1960s. It covers the methodology, results, and evaluation including limitations.
  • This site provides sample chapters of books that relate to social learning theory. Selections cover topics that include peer influences on addiction, social anxiety in children and adolescents, child abuse and aggression, violence, and delinquency.
  • “5 Social Work Theories That Inform Practice” by Social Work Helper. The paper breaks down five social work theories, including social learning theory in a clear, concise manner.

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Last updated November 2023