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What is social learning theory?

Social learning definition

Social learning is a process by which people acquire knowledge and skills through social interactions. As opposed to traditional models of learning, it encourages learners to communicate with one another and share experiences in order to retain information.

The theory posits that people don’t just learn from formal instruction, but also through informal interactions with their peers.


Social learning example


A junior designer, “John”, has just started a new job at brand and design firm “Inspired Designs.” He’s nervous as he gets used to his new role, but is eager to learn. Meanwhile, “Rina” is an experienced graphic designer at the same company who notices John’s enthusiasm. Rina recognises an opportunity for social learning, and decides to take John under her wing as a mentee.

Instead of going through months of formal training and instruction, John simply accompanies Rina through her daily tasks, working closely with her during design projects so that he can see how an experienced designer hones their craft. During this time, he gains knowledge and insights on all aspects of the process.

Eventually, Rina encourages John to take the lead on certain design tasks while providing him with constructive feedback and support. As a result of his mentorship with Rina, John improves his design abilities and develops a more nuanced understanding of client preferences.

This collaboration and use of social learning not only benefits John on an individual level, but leads to an overall more skilled and cohesive design team at Inspired Designs.

Social learning FAQ's


What was Albert Bandura's theory?

Albert Bandura was a Canadian-American psychologist, responsible for social learning theory.

Albert Bandura's social learning theory, later expanded into social cognitive theory, emphasises the role of observational learning, imitation, and modelling in the process of human development and behaviour.

Bandura's theory suggests that individuals learn not only through direct experiences and reinforcement, but also by observing and imitating the actions of others.

What are the 5 steps of social learning?

As mentioned above, social learning was conceived by psychologist Albert Bandura, who split his theory up into a number of distinct stages. There are widely thought to be between four and five steps included in the process of social learning, which are as follows:

  1. Observation: The learner observes certain behaviours, processes or knowledge.
  2. Attention: The learner consciously pays attention to the task, which becomes the first step in retaining the knowledge.
  3. Retention: After paying attention, the learner needs to retain or remember the observed behaviour. This retention involves creating a mental representation of the behaviour, often through processes like mental rehearsal or cognitive organisation.
  4. Reproduction: In order for the process to sink in, the learner then needs to reproduce or repeat what they’ve observed. Ideally, they would be reproducing the behaviours in a similar context.
  5. Motivation: Motivation is the final - and arguably most important - step to social learning theory. Even if the learner has completed the first four steps, if they lack the motivation to carry on the behaviour then the application of social learning theory will not have been successful. Motivation can be both positive and negative, and take both external and internal forms. (e.g. External rewards, ambition, a desire for self-improvement, fear of failure or punishment.)

What are the two limitations of social learning theory?

Although social learning has many practical applications, its critics regularly posit two limitations.

  1. Biological factors: Some people believe that social learning theory ignores the role of biological factors in shaping behaviour. While the theory places a strong emphasis on environmental influences, it doesn’t necessarily account for the role of innate biological factors. Genetics, neurological influences, and instincts can all play a role in determining behaviour - and its detractors suggest that social learning theory does not address these factors.
  2. Simplification: Another common criticism of the theory is that it oversimplifies the learning process by focusing purely on observational learning and imitation. The criticism suggests that while observation is a crucial aspect of human behaviour, it may not fully capture the complexities of learning.

What are the strengths of social learning theory?

Despite its detractors, social learning theory does have several strengths.

  1. Emphasis on observational learning: Social learning theory’s recognition of the power of observational learning has practical applications in education, therapy and behaviour modification.
  2. Real world application: The theory is applicable to real-world settings. It explains how individuals learn from their social environment, which makes it relevant to understanding a wide range of behaviours in different contexts.
  3. Role of cognitive processes: Social learning theory highlights the role of cognitive processes, such as attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation, in the learning process. This focus on mental processes provides a more nuanced understanding of how individuals engage with and internalise observed behaviours.
  4. Vicarious reinforcement: The concept of vicarious reinforcement, where individuals are motivated by observing the consequences experienced by others, adds complexity to the understanding of how behaviours are learned. It accounts for the fact that individuals may not need to experience the consequences themselves to be influenced by them.
  5. Self-efficacy: The introduction of the concept of self-efficacy is a notable strength. Self-efficacy refers to an individual's belief in their own ability to perform a specific task. This concept has practical applications in fields such as education, where enhancing self-efficacy can positively impact learning outcomes and motivation.

For further reading about social learning theory, check out our blog “Four companies that use social learning perfectly.

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