Social Cognitive Theory: How We Learn From the Behavior of Others

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Social cognitive theory is a learning theory developed by the renowned Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura. The theory provides a framework for understanding how people actively shape and are shaped by their environment. In particular, the theory details the processes of observational learning and modeling, and the influence of self-efficacy on the production of behavior.

Origins: The Bobo Doll Experiments

In the 1960s, Bandura, along with his colleagues, initiated a series of well-known studies on observational learning called the Bobo Doll experiments. In the first of these experiments, pre-school children were exposed to an aggressive or nonaggressive adult model to see if they would imitate the model’s behavior. The gender of the model was also varied, with some children observing same-sex models and some observing opposite-sex models.

In the aggressive condition, the model was verbally and physically aggressive towards an inflated Bobo doll in the presence of the child. After exposure to the model, the child was taken to another room to play with a selection of highly attractive toys. To frustrate participants, the child’s play was stopped after about two minutes. At that point, the child was taken to a third room filled with different toys, including a Bobo doll, where they were allowed to play for the next 20 minutes.

The researchers found that the children in the aggressive condition were much more likely to display verbal and physical aggression, including aggression towards the Bobo doll and other forms of aggression. In addition, boys were more likely to be aggressive than girls, especially if they had been exposed to an aggressive male model.

A subsequent experiment utilized a similar protocol, but in this case, the aggressive models weren’t just seen in real-life. There was also a second group that observed a film of the aggressive model as well as a third group that observed a film of an aggressive cartoon character. Again, the gender of the model was varied, and the children were subjected to mild frustration before they were brought to the experimental room to play. As in the previous experiment, the children in the three aggressive conditions exhibited more aggressive behavior than those in the control group and boys in the aggressive condition exhibiting more aggression than girls.

These studies served as the basis for ideas about observational learning and modeling both in real-life and through the media. In particular, it spurred a debate over the ways media models can negatively influence children that continues today. 

In 1977, Bandura introduced Social Learning Theory, which further refined his ideas on observational learning and modeling. Then in 1986, Bandura renamed his theory Social Cognitive Theory in order to put greater emphasis on the cognitive components of observational learning and the way behavior, cognition, and the environment interact to shape people.

Observational Learning

A major component of social cognitive theory is observational learning. Bandura’s ideas about learning stood in contrast to those of behaviorists like B.F. Skinner. According to Skinner, learning could only be achieved by taking individual action. However, Bandura claimed that observational learning, through which people observe and imitate models they encounter in their environment, enables people to acquire information much more quickly.

Observational learning occurs through a sequence of four processes:

  1. Attentional processes account for the information that is selected for observation in the environment. People might select to observe real-life models or models they encounter via media.
  2. Retention processes involve remembering the observed information so it can be successfully recalled and reconstructed later.
  3. Production processes reconstruct the memories of the observations so what was learned can be applied in appropriate situations. In many cases, this doesn’t mean the observer will replicate the observed action exactly, but that they will modify the behavior to produce a variation that fits the context.
  4. Motivational processes determine whether or not an observed behavior is performed based on whether that behavior was observed to result in desired or adverse outcomes for the model. If an observed behavior was rewarded, the observer will be more motivated to reproduce it later. However, if a behavior was punished in some way, the observer would be less motivated to reproduce it. Thus, social cognitive theory cautions that people don’t perform every behavior they learn through modeling.


    In addition to the information models can convey during observational learning, models can also increase or decrease the observer’s belief in their self-efficacy to enact observed behaviors and bring about desired outcomes from those behaviors. When people see others like them succeed, they also believe they can be capable of succeeding. Thus, models are a source of motivation and inspiration.

    Perceptions of self-efficacy influence people’s choices and beliefs in themselves, including the goals they choose to pursue and the effort they put into them, how long they’re willing to persevere in the face of obstacles and setbacks, and the outcomes they expect. Thus, self-efficacy influences one’s motivations to perform various actions and one's belief in their ability to do so.

    Such beliefs can impact personal growth and change. For example, research has shown that enhancing self-efficacy beliefs is more likely to result in the improvement of health habits than the use of fear-based communication. Belief in one’s self-efficacy can be the difference between whether or not an individual even considers making positive changes in their life.

    Modeling Media

    The prosocial potential of media models has been demonstrated through serial dramas that were produced for developing communities on issues such as literacy, family planning, and the status of women. These dramas have been successful in bringing about positive social change, while demonstrating the relevance and applicability of social cognitive theory to media.

    For example, a television show in India was produced to raise women’s status and promote smaller families by embedding these ideas in the show. The show championed gender equality by including characters that positively modeled women’s equality. In addition, there were other characters that modeled subservient women’s roles and some that transitioned between subservience and equality. The show was popular, and despite its melodramatic narrative, viewers understood the messages it modeled. These viewers learned that women should have equal rights, should have the freedom to choose how they live their lives, and be able to limit the size of their families. In this example and others, the tenets of social cognitive theory have been utilized to make a positive impact through fictional media models.

    Social Cognitive Theory Key Takeaways

    • Social cognitive theory was developed by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura.
    • The theory views people as active agents who both influence and are influenced by their environment.
    • A major component of the theory is observational learning: the process of learning desirable and undesirable behaviors by observing others, then reproducing learned behaviors in order to maximize rewards.
    • Individuals' beliefs in their own self-efficacy influences whether or not they will reproduce an observed behavior.


    • Bandura, Albert. “Social cognitive theory for personal and social change by enabling media.” Entertainment-education and social change: History, research, and practice, edited by Arvind Singhal, Michael J. Cody, Everett M. Rogers, and Miguel Sabido, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004, pp. 75-96.
    • Bandura, Albert. “Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. Media Psychology, vol. 3, no. 3, 2001, pp. 265-299,
    • Bandura, Albert. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Prentice Hall, 1986.
    • Bandura, Albert, Dorothea Ross, and Sheila A. Ross. “Transmission of Aggression Through Imitation of Aggressive Models.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 63, no. 3, 1961, pp. 575-582,
    • Bandura, Albert, Dorothea Ross, and Sheila A. Ross. “Imitation of Film-Mediated Aggressive Models.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 66, no. 1, 1961, pp. 3-11,
    • Crain, William. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. 5th ed., Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.