Chapter 12: Bandura –  Social Learning Theory

Part 1: Albert Bandura

The social learning theorists observed that the complexity of human behavior cannot easily be explained by traditional behavioral theories.  Bandura recognized that people learn a great deal from watching other people and seeing the rewards and/or punishments that other people receive.  Social learning theorists do not deny the influence of reinforcement and punishment, but rather, they suggest that it can be experienced through observation and does not require direct, personal experience as Skinner would argue.  In addition, observational learning requires cognition, something that radical behaviorists consider outside the realm of psychological research, since cognition cannot be observed. Bandura took a broad theoretical perspective on social learning, whereas Rotter and Mischel focused more closely on specific cognitive aspects of social learning and behavior.

A valid criticism of extreme behaviorism is that, in a vigorous effort to avoid spurious inner causes, it has neglected determinants of behavior arising from cognitive functioning…Because some of the inner causes invoked by theorists over the years have been ill-founded does not justify excluding all internal determinants from scientific inquiry…such studies reveal that people learn and retain behavior much better by using cognitive aids that they generate than by reinforced repetitive performance…A theory that denies that thoughts can regulate actions does not lend itself readily to the explanation of complex human behavior. (pg. 10; Bandura, 1977).

Brief Biography of Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura was born in 1925 in the small town of Mundare in northern Alberta, Canada.  His parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe (his father from Poland, his mother from the Ukraine), and eventually saved enough money to buy a farm.  Farming in northern Canada was not easy. One of Bandura’s sisters died during a flu pandemic, one of his brothers died in a hunting accident, and part of the family farm was lost during the Great Depression.  Nonetheless, the Bandura family persevered, and maintained a lively and happy home.

Although Bandura’s parents lacked any formal education, they stressed its value.  Despite having only one small school in town, which lacked both teachers and academic resources, the town’s children developed a love of learning and most of them attended universities around the world.  Following the encouragement of his parents, Bandura also sought a wide variety of other experiences while he was young. He worked in a furniture manufacturing plant and performed maintenance on the Trans-Alaska highway.  The latter experience, in particular, introduced Bandura to a variety of unusual individuals, and offered a unique perspective on psychopathology in everyday life.

When Bandura went to the University of British Columbia, he intended to major in biology.  However, he had joined a carpool with engineering and pre-med students who attended classes early in the morning.  Bandura looked for a class to fit this schedule and happened to notice that an introductory psychology course was offered at that time.  Bandura enjoyed the class so much that he changed his major to psychology, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1949. Bandura then attended graduate school at the University of Iowa, in a psychology department strongly influenced by Kenneth Spence, a former student of Clark Hull.  Thus, the psychology program at the University of Iowa was strongly behavioral in its orientation, and they were well versed in the behavioral research conducted in the psychology department at Yale University.

This is a color image of Albert Bandura. The image shows him standing outside as he poses for the camera. He is wearing a blue collared shirt, a tie and a suit coat.
Image Source: (2005, October 28). Albert Bandura Psychologist. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Previously, John Dollard and Neal Miller had established the field of social learning at Yale in the 1930s, but they had done so within the conceptual guidelines of Hullian learning theory.  Bandura was not particularly interested in Hull’s approach to learning, but he was impressed by Dollard and Miller’s concepts of modeling and imitation. Bandura received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1952, and then began a postdoctoral position at the Wichita Guidance Center.  Bandura was attracted to this position, in part, because the psychologist in charge was not heavily immersed in the Freudian psychodynamic approach that was still so prevalent in clinical psychology.

Following his postdoctoral training, Bandura became a member of the faculty at Stanford University where he spent the rest of his career.  The chairman of Bandura’s department had been studying frustration and aggression, and this influenced Bandura to begin his own studies on social learning and aggression.  This research revealed the critical role that modeling plays in social learning, and soon resulted in the publication of Adolescent Aggression (co-authored by Richard Walters, Bandura’s first graduate student; Bandura & Walters, 1959).  This line of research also led to the famous “Bobo” doll studies, which helped to demonstrate that even young children can learn aggressive behavior by observing models.  Bandura then became interested in self-regulatory behavior in children, and one of the colleagues he collaborated with was Walter Mischel, whose work we will address later in this book.  During his long and productive career, Bandura became more and more interested in the role played by cognition in social learning, eventually renaming his theory to reflect his social cognitive perspective on human learning.  He also examined the role of the individual in influencing the nature of the environment in which they experience life, and how their own expectations of self-efficacy affect their willingness to participate in aspects of that life.

Bandura has received numerous honors during his career.  He has served as president of the American Psychological Association and received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the APA.  He received the William James Award from the American Psychological Society (known today as the Association for Psychological Science), a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Distinguished Contribution Award from the International Society for Research in Aggression, and a Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Behavioral Medicine.  Bandura has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and he has received numerous honorary degrees from universities around the world.  The list goes on, not the least of which is his Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology Award, received from APA in 2004.

Placing Bandura in Context:  Social Learning Theory

Although social learning theory has its foundation in the work of Dollard and Miller, they addressed social learning in the context of Hullian learning theory (complete with mathematical formulae).  Bandura shifted the focus of social learning away from traditional behavioral perspectives and established social learning as a theory on its own. Bandura also freely acknowledged cognition in the learning process, something that earlier behaviorists had actively avoided.  By acknowledging both the external processes of reinforcement and punishment and the internal cognitive processes that make humans so complex, Bandura provided a comprehensive theory of personality that has been very influential.

Although Bandura criticized both operant conditioning and Pavlovian conditioning as being too radical, he relied on a procedure that came from Pavlovian conditioning research for one of his most influential concepts:  the use of modeling. The modeling procedure was developed by Mary Cover Jones, a student of John B. Watson, in her attempts to counter-condition learned phobias. Subsequent to the infamous “Little Albert” studies conducted by Watson, Jones used models to interact in a pleasant manner with a rabbit that test subjects had been conditioned to fear.  After a few sessions, the test subjects were no longer afraid of the rabbit (see Stagner, 1988). This may have been the first use of behavior therapy, and Bandura’s use of the procedure helped to bring together different behavioral disciplines.

Perhaps one of Bandura’s most significant contributions, however, has been the application of his theory to many forms of media.  Congressional committees have debated the influence of modeling aggression through violent television programs, movies, and video games.  We now have ratings on each of those forms of media, and yet the debate continues because of the levels of aggression seen in our schools, in particular, and society in general.  Bandura’s Bobo doll studies are certainly among the best known studies in psychology, and they are also among the most influential in terms of practical daily applications. The long list of awards that Bandura has received is a testament to both his influence on psychology and the respect that influence has earned for him.


Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.