1.4 Bandura's Social Cognitive Learning Theory

“Most of the images of reality on which we base our actions are really based on vicarious experience.”

— Albert Bandura1

In the early 1960s, Albert Bandura’s (1925 - present) classic Bobo doll experiments demonstrated how children mimic or “model” actions and behaviors that they have seen adults perform. Bandura’s social cognitive learning theory (an expansion of his earlier social learning theory) describes how learning can occur through observation, not just direct experience.

Key Concepts from Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory

Excerpt from LIS 516: Youth Development and Behavior in a Digital Age by Dr. Katie Davis and the University of Washington


Dr. Katie Davis, University of Washington

Social Learning
Social learning is learning that occurs not from direct experience, but from observing what other people do and the consequences of their actions. At the robotics club meeting, Dominika noticed that Mateo overcame his struggles after studying Jane’s project. Dominika decides to pay more attention to what the other club members are making and try to pick up some useful insights.
Modeling means performing behaviors that those observing you will learn from. Jacqui, the robotics club leader, wants the club members to learn to solve a new type of programming problem. Instead of giving step-by-step directions for everyone to follow together, she models the technique by “thinking aloud” while using the technique in an example. Mateo, Dominika, Jane, and the others learn how to “think like a programmer” by learning from Jacqui’s modeled behavior.

Young people are not just copying what they see: the act of observation leads them to make deep inferences about the world, learning the consequences of actions and creating mental models of how things work to make predictions (remember Piaget’s schemas?). Social cognitive learning theory also has similarities to sociocultural learning theory. Both emphasize learning through observation and imitation of more skilled individuals. 


Any adult or peer can model behavior, but the learning that occurs is often stronger when the model is someone who frequently interacts with a young person, or someone who the young person perceives as being similar to themselves (for instance, someone from the same cultural background, of the same gender or ethnicity, or having similar interests and passions).2 These factors suggest that mentors can play a significant role in learning. (See the Mentoring module for more.)


What are some ways you model learning for youth? Can you think of situations where you can try to incorporate modeling more? 


Social cognitive learning theory posits that youth learn through:

  1. Observing other people’s behaviors and the consequences 
  2. Negative and positive reinforcement
  3. Peer interaction
  4. Reward and punishment 

1: Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

2: Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1977). Social learning theory.