Social Learning Theory Social Work

Social Learning Theory Social Work

Different disciplines come up with explanations for human behaviors in many fields of study to better understand or help clients. These explanations, or theories, are crucial for social workers to guide their practice and best assist their clients. Views can vary between disciplines such as law, politics, education, psychology, and criminology. 


No matter where the theory comes from, it is vital that it makes sense to you as a social worker and to the client for it to be effective. One particular approach from psychology that applies to social workers is the social learning theory. 


This is an introduction to social learning theory, which examines its principles, strengths, weaknesses, and application to social work.

What is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory is the idea that people learn social behaviors by observing and copying the behaviors of those around them. 


Albert Bandura, a Canadian-American psychologist, proposed this theory as an alternative to B.F. Skinner’s theory of behaviorism. Though he agreed with the behaviorist learning theory of classical and operant conditioning, Bandura added that individuals can pick up behaviors through observation and modeling. 


There are four mediational processes in the social learning theory that determines whether or not a new behavior is adopted: 

  1. Attention: The individual notices the behavior, sees its consequences, and creates a mental representation of that action. Behavior needs to grab attention to be emulated. We encounter several behaviors daily, but not all of them are noticeable to us. Therefore, attention is necessary for an action to be copied. 
  2. Retention: The individual remembers the behavior. Though behaviors may be noticed, not all are retained. The individual must form a memory of that observed behavior to imitate it. It is important to note here that social learning is not immediate, so retention is crucial for the individual to perform the action later.
  3. Reproduction: This is the ability to reproduce that which we have just observed. Our physical ability to copy a behavior may be limited, which may hinder us from imitating that action. 
  4. Motivation: To copy a behavior, we need to have the will to do it. The observer weighs the rewards and punishments that follow a particular behavior and decide whether they want that for themselves. This observation of consequences acts as a vicarious reinforcement. If the perceived rewards seem to be greater than the perceived costs, the observer will most likely mimic that behavior.

History of Social Learning Theory

Bandura conducted several experiments in 1961 and 1963 to discover if aggression could arise from observation and imitation. His famous research study, known as the Bobo doll experiments, had children watch an adult punch an inflatable doll to see if they would copy the modeled behavior. 


His findings supported the idea that individuals encode behaviors that they observe, and in 1977, Bandura developed the social learning theory. It was later modified and renamed social cognitive theory in 1986 to encompass more of the ways people learn from social experiences. 


Social cognitive theory recognizes the interaction between an individual, the environment, and the behavior in a social framework. 

Assumptions of Social Learning Theory

Several necessary assumptions make up the foundation of social learning theory: 

  1. Humans learn from observing. Individuals obtain new knowledge and behavior by viewing a model. 
  2. Consequences indirectly affect learning and behavior. How specific actions are rewarded and punished cause people to create expectations of the future implications of the same behaviors.
  3.  Mediational processes impact behavior. These are the cognitive influences that determine whether or not a behavior is adopted. 
  4. Learning does not result in change. A learned behavior does not mean a person will necessarily change their behavior. 

Social Learning Theory Examples 

One of the most prominent examples of social learning theory in daily life is the behaviors of children. They copy caregivers, family members, friends, classmates, celebrities, and even cartoon characters. Children will often perform actions if they perceive it will lead to a meaningful reward. 


Social media is another avenue where people showcase their imitations, whether copying dance moves from a popular video, acting out a movie scene, or completing a social media challenge. It is often motivated by the desire to obtain more likes or social acceptance. 


In the workplace, new employees may copy their colleagues’ behaviors to adapt to the work environment or to earn a superior’s respect. 


Students may follow after their classmates, celebrities, or mentors to gain attention. This can lead to the adoption of either positive or negative behaviors. 

Strengths and Weaknesses of Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory recognizes the role of the mediational processes, and it thoroughly explains the often complex ways humans learn. 


Unlike simple reinforcement models, one of the strengths of social learning theory is that it explains more complex social behaviors, like moral behavior and gender roles. It is also more flexible in clarifying why behaviors or learning changes according to one’s environment.


However, it does not fully consider the cognitive control individuals have over their behaviors. While one’s environment may play a significant role in shaping behaviors, it diminishes how individuals process their observations and experiences. It assumes that society, rather than the individual, decides behaviors and actions. 


It is not a comprehensive explanation for all behavior, particularly when there is no model for a person to imitate. 

How Does Social Learning Theory Apply to Social Work? 

According to social learning theory, people copy the behaviors they notice in their environment, especially if it is reinforced. The individual then repeats those behaviors if they are rewarded. 


Rewarded behaviors may either be helpful to others or troublesome. For example, if a child sees someone mistreating others and receiving positive reinforcement as a result, they may adopt the same behavior. Likewise, if they observe their caregiver going to work every day or helping their community, they may do the same. 


Social workers can identify the models a client may be imitating by using the social learning theory. They can then utilize that information to address negative behaviors, such as drug use or underage drinking. 

Applications of Social Learning Theory

There are two application areas of social learning theory social work: research and intervention. Research can be done using this theory to better understand how aggressive and violent tendencies can be learned through observation. It can then lead to examine how positive models can help create helpful behaviors and encourage social change. 


Social workers can use social learning theory as a tool for intervention by altering the associated reinforcement of behavioral issues. This can encourage positive new behaviors to replace negative ones. However, social workers should include other methods in their practice, such as stress management, vicarious reinforcement, and symbolic coding. 

Criticisms of Social Learning Theory

While social learning theories can explain complex behaviors, it does not consider how thoughts and feelings play a part in shaping behavior. For example, poor behaviors, such as violence, may not be imitated simply because we experienced it and recognize its adverse effects. 


It also does not regard biological factors like genetics and hormones. An individual’s environment (nurture) and biology (nature) interact to create behavior, and social learning theory only focuses on one or the other. 


Both positive and negative behaviors can be adopted through observation, as proposed by social learning theory. However, as a social worker, you should use pertinent practices and approaches that address other factors that may influence a client’s behavior. 

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