Social Learning Theories

Social Learning Theories

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Behavioural psychologists argue that human behaviour and actions are developed through learning experiences (Siegel 2012). In line with this view, behaviourists contend that criminal and violent behaviour as manifested by individuals is a result of life situations learned by individuals. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory is one of the most relevant behavioural theories in explaining criminal and violent behaviour among individuals. According to Siegel (2012), the theory postulates that ‘people are not actually born with the ability to act violently but they learn to be aggressive through their life experiences (p. 161).  Although social learning theorists support the view that an individual’s physical or mental traits can predispose an individual towards violence, the theorists argue that the environment plays a fundamental role in influencing an individual to engage in violent tendencies (Siegel 2012).  Siegel (2016) accentuates that ‘social learning theorists view violence as something learned through a process called behavior modelling’ (p. 139). Hewstone, Stroebe and Jonas (2015) define behaviour modelling as the process through which individuals learn, particularly aggressive behavior,  by observing other peoples’ actions.  In light of this view, this paper evaluates how social learning theory and behavioural modeling are linked to violence. The discussion further focuses on the weaknesses and strengths of the social learning theory.

Social learning: The ABC model

One of the basic premises of social learning theory is that people learn violent or aggressive behaviour by observing.  Thus, the development of behaviour is influenced by different factors amongst them the environment. In line with this perspective, social learning can be explained on the basis of the ABC model of behaviourism. The ABC model stipulates that people process environmental stimuli that affect their behaviour. The ABC model is based on the concept of operant conditioning.  According to Bowden and Greenberg (2010) assert that operant conditioning stipulates that behaviours are developed on the basis of environmental consequences. Robbins, Judge, and Millett (2015) emphasize that ‘the antecedents of a new behavior are reinforced by the consequences of previous behavior’ (p. 32). Skinner (1963) also supports the concept of behaviourism which postulates that a person’s behaviour follows a particular stimuli in a somewhat unthinking manner.

The link between social learning theory and behavioral modelling to violence

            The social learning theory is founded on the principle of constructivism such as behavioral modeling.   According to Albert Bandura, ‘human learning is a continuous reciprocal interaction of cognitive, behavioral, and environmental factors’ (Leonard, 2002, p. 177).  Bandura accentuates that people observe and imitate behavior of others around them.  On the basis of this assertion, the theory postulates that violent or aggressive behavior amongst individuals is modeled from three main sources that include environmental experiences, family interactions, and mass media (Siegel, 2012).  With reference to the mass media, social learning theory supports the view that television shows and films often depict violence as acceptable behaviour. Television shows and films depict ‘heroes’ who do not face any legal consequences for engaging in violent actions (Siegel 2015).

According to Leonard (2002), the social learning theory affirms that learning can occur directly whereby people instantaneously match observed behavior. Social learning theory accentuates that learning occurs through different phases that include paying attention, retaining and remembering the issues observed, reproducing the issues learned into actual behavior, and developing a motivation model of the behavior (Nicolson 2014).  The social learning theory further stipulates that aggressive or violent behavior amongst people is also determined by family interaction (Siegel 2015).

            People imitate such behaviours as violence via a process referred to as modeling. Swanson defines modeling as a type of learning that occurs by “watching, interpreting, and evaluating peers carrying out a task” (2015). There are four phases involved in effective modeling namely, attention/observation, retention/emulation, motor reproduction/self-control, and self-regulation/motivation (Swanson, 2015). To begin with, the learner pays attention to and observes the behaviour being conducted, along with the associated aspects within the learning environment. Then, the individual internalises or retains the skills observed by storing these in their memory, as a point of reference or remembrance later on. Also, the learners ought to possess the motor skills necessary for mimicking the learned behaviour. Finally, the leaner manifest their essential talents and are presented with the opportunity to partake in the learned behaviour (Swanson, 2015). Consequently, the learner is in a position to transform their mental representation into physical activity. Swanson 92015) has identified observing violent behaviour and the subsequent imitation of the same by the learner as by far the most predominant stages of the modeling process. The association between modeling and violent behaviour hinges on the fact that the former propels learned imitation of observed behaviour through reference to the immediate environment.

By developing the observational theory, Albert Bandura endevoured to find an explanation for people’s inclinations to pick up violent behaviours. The theory hinges on the premise that the brain adopts violent behaviour largely through instinctive means. Bandura undertook the famous “Bobo Doll Experiment” with the aim of evaluating whether this causal relationship was valid. Bandura’s study entailed two groups of kids and Bandura let them watch an adult play with the “Bobo Doll”, albeit under two varying conditions. The first group observed the adult partaking in aggressive play behaviour with the “Bobo Doll”, where they kicked and hit the doll on a number of occasions. On the other hand, the second group of kids observed the adult playing with the doll in a nice and calm manner. Once the observational experiment was over, Bandura let the children from both groups play with the doll. According to the results, it emerged that the first groups of children who had watched the adult engage the doll in the aggressive play had a higher probability of being violent while playing with the doll. On the other hand, the second group of children who had watched the adult play with the doll in a calm and peaceful environment were also seen to mimic this friendly and peaceful behaviour while playing with the doll (Bandura, 2004). Bandura noticed that the effect of the experiment tended to be stronger when the child was of the same sex as the adult playing with the doll, an indication that children are more inclined to imitate the behaviour of the people they relate to or can identify with (Swanson, 2015).

Based on these findings, we can therefore conclude that as a people, we learn by imitating the behaviour observed in others. The “Bobo Doll” experiment has also played a crucial role in terms of setting the foundation for future research work in the field of social learning theory. For example, over the years since the “Bobo Doll” experiment, researchers have started to appreciate just how powerful automatic instincts influence our behaviour than was originally thought (Swanson, 2015).

The findings of the “Bobo Doll” experiment have also influenced research into the effects of exposure to violent television news, shows, or video games, and the likelihood of increased hostility. Exposing people to heightened violence through video games or media programs may not directly influence their violent behaviour, but continuous exposure has been shown to enable them to start adapting to these brutal behaviours (Anderson and Bushman, 2001). On the other hand, people exposed to this gruesome television news or video games may begin to become numb after watching them for a long time, so they are no longer appalled by them. This could be backed by the claim that individuals fighting in war-torn areas generally become less appalled by the violence and blood through constant exposure (Bandura, 2002). What this appears to suggest is that persistent exposure to violence either via the media or personal real-life accounts is linked to heightened aggression.

Strengths and weaknesses

One of the major weaknesses of the social learning theory is that it generalizes the learning of behavior. In spite of the fact that the social learning theory recognizes that family interaction is a major determinant of a person developing aggressive and violent behavior, not all people raised in aggressive families become aggressive. Similarly, the theory argues that intergenerational continuity of violence or aggression is large as a result of family interaction. However, the continuity of violence can also be a result of the genes shared by the family members (Hines & Malley-Morrison 2005).

Strengths of the theory

The theory of social learning takes into account the cognitive processes and acknowledges their role in deciding the behaviour to be imitated. In such cases, the theory of social learning gives comprehensive explanations of human learning and recognizes the role of meditation processes. Also, social learning offers a way to integrate social and cognitive theories in a healthy and optimistic manner (Leonard, 2002). It also explains a significant number of behaviours in an easy-to-understand manner. In addition, the theory is capable of explaining the difference in a child’s behaviour or learning. Societal and environmental factors of the social learning theory show that children learn more in a social environment. This reinforces the idea that when there is a change in the child’s development the child’s behaviour may change. For example, a child may be straining to adhere to instructions in a relaxed home environment but finds it easy to follow instructions in a strict school environment.

Despite the theory focusing on gaining knowledge through environmental influences, one of its strengths is that there are multiple modes of learning. Bandura himself noted that individuals could learn through direct experiences or observation (Siegel, 2012). For example, a child can learn the social norms of formal communication such as give and take within a conversation by actually talking with others or by watching older children and adults talk to each other. The theory can also be used in explaining the cultural differences in aggressive behaviour. This is because there is the absence of direct reinforcement of aggressive behaviors as well as the lack of dynamic models (Renzetti, Curran, and Maier, 2012).

Weaknesses of the theory

            One major weakness of the social learning theory arises from the commitment of the theory to the environment as the first model of the behaviour. It is also describing behaviour exclusively either through environmental or developmental factors which is an attempt to underestimate the complex nature of human behaviour. This generally occurs if there is an absence of an ostensible role model in the life of a person with the given behaviour. Biologists argue that the social learning theory totally ignores an individual’s natural condition (Siegel, 2015). Also, biologists suggest that the social learning theory ranks individual differences due to hereditary, brain, and learning differences. For example, if a person witnessed an intense action, he or she may respond in many different ways. Biologists also believe that the responses would be standard and automatic from the nervous system. Also, social learning theory rejects the classical and operant conditioning processes (Lansford, 2016).

“The biological preparedness of the individual to learn as well as the role of the brain in processing information from the social environment is critical in learning theory.” Social learning theory cannot adequately account for how people develop a broad range of behaviors despite explaining quite complex ways. Nevertheless, we have a lot of mental control over our conduct, and we cannot exhibit violent behaviors just because we experienced violence in our childhood (Miller, 2011).

Social learning theory does not center upon a clear progression of learning and growth that is sequential or age-dependent and as such, disregarding a child’s development across all domains is a major weakness of the theory. Moreover, the theory does not explain why motivation is necessary to produce the same behavior in the absence of the model. Exposing children to aggressive and violent behavior makes it difficult to prove the social learning theory experimentally. This is because ethical issues disapprove of the idea of exposing children to aggressive behaviours rather than protecting them from psychological and physical pain (Obiakor, 2013).


Conclusively, violence constitutes a fearful and dark subject of discussion, with patterns of acquired hostility and aggression fueling the spread of terrorist activities. Obviously, the most effective means of slowing down or limiting the spread of violence is by limiting our exposure to violence, be it through observation or watching violent television shows or video games. Based on Albert Bandura’s observational theory, imitating observed behaviour is the main means through which we get to learn violent behaviour. We go through the four key steps of effective modeling as spelled out by Albert Bandura’s observational theory, as we endeavor to learn such things as violent behaviours through imitation, as well as behavioural observation and mimicking of the same.


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