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Social Learning Theory by Albert Bandura


Every man has a unique personality in his behavior and the social learning theory gives emphasis on learning the development of personality and the behavior of the individual. An individual formulates his personality in accordance with the attitude he has developed in the context of his life. This paper analyses the case study of Bert who has committed a crime. The relation between the crime and the causal factors that are related to the social learning theory is the main focus of this paper.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is one of the most important theories in psychology which gained importance because of its practical applicability in the learning and development process of an individual. Albert Bandura puts forward the social learning theory that “The social learning theory proposed by Albert Bandura has become perhaps the most influential theory of learning and development” (Cherry, 2010, para.1). This theory has a relation to the social development theory of Vygotsky and is situated on the Learning theory of Lave. Since early times, human beings are in search of a reason for their behavior. It is a fact that even identical twins have differences in their character and behavior. It is the main objective of psychologists to analyze and interpret the cause of the formation of human behavior. “Bandura’s Social Learning Theory posits that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modeling. The theory has often been called a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory, and motivation” (Bandura, 2008, para.1). The important step in the field of psychology deals with the self-formation theory. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory has given momentum in the study of human behavior. This theory acted as a platform for other theories to work on. The social learning theory is well known for its practical use. “Social learning theory has been applied extensively to the understanding of aggression and psychological disorders, particularly in the context of behavior modification” (Social learning theory (A. Bandura), n.d, para.3). The social learning theory uprooted many other traditional theories. One of the important concepts that this theory tries to put forward is the role of observation in the learning process. Bandura points about that observation and learning through imitation have an essential role in the formation of the behavior of an individual. For example, in the case of Bert, a 28-year-old male, he is unable to come out of his stealing behavior. He learned this by observing his father during his childhood. As a result of this, the urge to steal is embedded in his behavior.

As we have already pointed out, Bandura with the Behaviorist approach adopted it with a little difference and stated that the environment also influences the behavior of the individual. Human beings usually live in societies. In sociological theorizing, it is considered that the interaction between the members of the society has an active role in the formation of the self of an individual. Individuals merely imitate what is being observed. In the primary phase, we can state that the formation of the self and behavior is influenced by these interactions. But the social learning theory of Bandura states that the cognition and the psychological process of the mind of an individual have an important role to play in the learning process. The cognitive process in the self is motivated through the imitative learning of an individual.

Reciprocal determinism

The concept of reciprocal determinism has moved the social learning theory of Bandura from the behaviorist approach to the cognitive approach. The cognitive process of the individual paved the way for this social learning theory to increase the popularity of the cognitive school of thought rather than the behaviorist school. There are three noticeable factors in determining the formation of the behavior of an individual. The three factors are the living environment, the behavior of the individual and the way the individual is processing the information that he receives from his day-to-day life. Here, the mind has an effective role to play. Bandura calls this process reciprocal determinism.

The three factors in the case of Mr. Bert are the criminal environment that he was nurtured, the cognitive process that had been carried out in him throughout the self-formation and his behavior. The atmosphere in which Mr. Bert nurtured was noticeable in its criminal outlook. His father was often absent from the family. During his childhood, Mr. Bert considered his father as a role model. The criminal feedback of his elder brothers also supported his modeling behavior. Since his mother had to take care of all the four members of the family, she could not take much responsibility for the character formation of her children. Infancy and childhood are two important phases of character formation in an individual. In this phase, the individual should get the training to differentiate the “dos and do nots” in society. The important characteristic feature of Mr. Bert’s behavior is the stealing behavior. After long years of imprisonment, he wishes to change his behavior but was unable to. It means that the behavior is learned through a period of time and has become a part of his character. According to the theory, we can say that the specific behavior of Mr. Bert is formed due to the interaction of these three domains.

Behaviorism places the complete responsibility of the individual’s behavior on the environment. That means, according to the behaviorist approach, the stealing behavior of Mr. Bert is a result of the environment that he was nurtured in. But social learning theory of Bandura suggests that the special behavior of Mr. Bert is not only the product of the environment that he lived in but it is formed through the interactions of three domains. All human beings have a tendency to imitate others.

During childhood, Mr. Bert has entertained the imagery of making money by stealing. He could not recognize stealing as abnormal or against the norms of society. The family atmosphere motivated him to entertain these images. During his infancy and childhood, he always considered criminal offenses as the subject to think over in his mind. The psychological process misleads his behavior.

Observational learning

Observational learning is the process of learning through imitation and modeling. Mr. Bert’s behavior can be explained clearly with the concept of observational learning. Observational learning is not merely a classical conditioning of learning which was put forward by Skinner, who explained the learning process as a mere biological process that can be carried out in animals also. Observational learning occurs through a series of processes. “Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action” (Bandura, 2008, para.2).


This is an important process in observational learning. Here, the learner needs to give effective attention to the way of behavior of others or what he needs to learn. Human beings are attentive to the things that they have an interest in. In Mr. Bert’s case, he was not given much interest to concentrate on his studies. Since his father was a prisoner, other members of the society have much less interaction with the family of Mr. Bert. Therefore, all his attention was set to the models of behavior available in his family only.


This is the second step in the learning process in which the attended images and events are sustained in the mind. “We store what we have seen the model doing in the form of mental images or verbal descriptions” (Dr. Boeree, 2006, para.13). Mr. Bert’s mind has formed in a way to nurture the images related to stealing. He always finds interest in planning to steal things.


In this process, Mr. Bert made a practical application of his thinking. The stealing behavior has grown because he practiced it. In the first attempt, he did not get caught by anybody. He started stealing simple things like slippers and toys from shops. During his primary stages, he had succeeded in all his attempts.


In this phase, the individual behavior is strengthened through the motivation he receives. He was motivated in three aspects. He was motivated by his past experience and traditional behaviorism. Bandura calls this “past reinforcement” (Dr. Boeree, 2006, para.16). Another motivation he received is the benefit that he received through the past stealing. Bandura calls this the “promised reinforcement” (Dr. Boeree, 2006, para.17). In the final stage of motivation, Mr. Bert imagined the whole motivations and possibilities of his past experiences. Bandura calls this the “vicarious reinforcement” (Dr. Boeree, 2006, para.17). (Dr. Boeree, 2006, para.18). In Mr. Bert’s case, negative reinforcers are not affected.

Self Regulation

Mr. Bert has regulated his learning by observing his circumstances. He analyzed his behavior and looked at his parent and his family members to justify his behavior. His family members have given feedback as supporting his stealing behavior.

Causes of Bert’s behavior

People who have psychopathic personalities can be distinguished by way of affective, interpersonal and behavioral abnormalities and they are guided by their emotions. In the life of Bert also, some of the abnormalities of psychopathic personality can be observed but we cannot categorize him as a psychopath. Deviant behavior could be observed in his way of behavior. There are a number of causes for a person to become deviant and psychopathic like psychological causes, familial causes, social causes, biological causes and environmental causes.

I would like to trace Bert’s familial causes of his behavior first. Prima facie we can see that everyone in his family struggles with law. Bert has experienced criminal behavior from his family itself. Both of his elder brothers have psychopathic personalities and so it was not a new case in his family. His father also has a criminal background and undoubtedly we can say that this type of familial background influenced Bert to form such a behavior. When the entire family is struggling with the law, there would not have been peace in the family which is necessary for building up a good personality.

Many of the researchers suggest that biological reasons lay behind the formation of the psychopathic personality. It is true to some extent since our behavior is determined by the gene which is transmitted from our parents. Therefore, the behavior of Bert’s father could be handed over to him by way of the transference of genes. There is nothing wrong to assume in this line because everyone in his family has criminal nature. Even though his sister had never shown such behavior she married a man who has a criminal background. Recently, a couple of studies has been conducted to identity the neuro-scientific basis of psychopathic personality and the role of the amygdala is stressed in those studies. “The roles of the amygdala in stimulus-reinforcement learning and responding to emotional expressions and vmPFC in the representation of reinforcement expectancies are compromised” (Blair, 2008, para.1). There are psychological causes that affect the abnormal development of Bert’s personality. When a child grows he depends on his mother for comfort and food and he seeks the same thing from others also. If he is satisfied with the comfort provided by others, he will develop the value of hope in his life. When we consider the life of Bert, since his father was absent from home for a long time, his mother had to earn money to bring her children up. She could not give basic emotional support to her children because she had to take care of the other basic necessities for her children. The dearth of emotional support in his life led Bert to form such a personality having no hope in life.

Socialization is a theory in sociology stating which purports that the child learns how to behave in society by way of being immersed in the social activities. Here, in the case of Bert, we can see that he is not successfully socialized according to the expectation of society because the family is the basic step in the socialization process. Since his entire family is confronting problems with the law, there was no opportunity for him to socialize in accordance with the social norms. Bert developed an attitude in line with commuting crimes because this is the only thing that he has seen from his childhood onwards.

Indecisiveness is the nature of his behavior because he told his wife that he would not commit any crime hereafter. But because of the persuasion from his friends, he decided to go with them to steal in a motor factory. From this fact, it is clear that he wants to abstain from committing a crime but he does when he is persuaded by someone. He cannot control his thoughts and actions and it is because of defects in the process of the development of his personality. Learning to control one’s behavior and thoughts must start from the family and it is possible only in good family background. “Child who grows up in a disturbed home may enter the adult world emotionally injured. Without having developed strong bonds, he is self-absorbed and indifferent to others. The lack of consistent discipline results in little regard for rules and delayed gratification” (Black, 2010, para.9). When we evaluate the behavior of Bert, it traces to his teens when he was sent to a boy’s home because of his criminal attitude. One thing which has to be noticed here is that his criminal attitude did not develop in a day. It has a background of years and years of committing crimes. He is not at all bothered whether he would be caught by the police or not. From this instance, we can assume that he is not a planned criminal. When the situation comes or when his friends persuade, he becomes ready to go with them to commit a crime.


In the analysis of Bert’s behavior we can understand three factors that are present in his behavior; the criminal environment that he was nurtured in, the cognitive process in the self-formation and his behavior. Social learning theory has a lot to explain his behavior and this is presented in the first part of this paper. The second part of this paper deals with the causes of Bert’s behavior and it is written from the viewpoint of psychological, social, environmental, biological and neuron-scientific factors.

Reference List

  1. Bandura, A. (2008). Social learning theory (Bandura). Learning-Theories.com. Web.
  2. Black, D. (2010). What causes antisocial personality disorder? Psych Central.
  3. Blair, R. J. R. (2008). The cognitive neuroscience of psychopathy and implications for judgments of responsibility. Springer Link.
  4. Cherry, K. (2010). Social learning theory. About.com: Psychology. Web.
  5. Dr. Boeree, C. G. (2006). Albert Bandura. Personality Theories. Web.
  6. Social learning theory (A. Bandura). n.d.