Essay: Recent ideas about the social learning theory

Today the social learning theory is applied in the media in the context of studying the effects of violent media models on behavior. Although that is still the most studied application, the theory has many other applications as well, such as the modeling of sexual, prosocial, or purchasing behavior. (Harris & Sanborn, 2014)

Bandura’s basic learning concepts about the social learning theory still exist today: first is the idea that people can learn through observation. Next is the notion that internal mental states are an essential part of this process. Finally, this theory recognizes that just because something has been learned, it does not mean that it will result in a change in behavior. (Cf. Cherry, 2012)
Bandura’s social learning theory has also had important implication in the field of education. Today, both teachers and parents recognize the importance of modeling appropriate behaviors. Other classroom strategies such as encouraging children and building self-efficacy are also rooted in social learning theory. (Cf. Cherry, 2012)

Is the social learning theory still in use?

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, 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.” ‘ Albert Bandura

This quote of Albert Bandura is a proof that the social learning theory is still used today. A great part of how we behave is learned by observation, mostly from our parents. Little children imitate their closest relatives and want to become just like them. Even when we are grown up we learn behaviors by observing others preforming those behaviors and subsequently imitate them ourselves.

Nowadays we do not only learn from other people but also from the media we consume. According to Bandura there are four subfunctions of observational learning from the media which cause imitation to occur in people. (cf. Harris & Sanborn, 2014)

a. For modeling to occur a person must be exposed to the media and pay attention to it.
b. He or she must be capable of symbolically encoding and remembering the observed events.
c. The person must be able to translate the symbolic conceptions into appropriate action.
d. Motivations must somehow develop through internal or external reinforcement in order to energize the performance of the behavior.

As the media keeps developing, the social learning theory will have to develop with it. We will always be able to connect the basic principles of this theory to the media.

Main critique on the social learning theory

The scientific methods and the research studies of the social learning theory are reliable and allow inferences about cause and effect to be drawn. However, this approach is being criticized because it relies heavily on research conducted in artificial settings. For example, the behavior of the children in Bandura’s studies was significantly influenced by demand characteristics. It may have been possible that the children were, in effect, deliberately producing the behavior they thought the experimenters wanted to see. (cf. Sammons, 2013)

Another point of critique is that the social learning theory approach takes the cognitive factors into account that mediate between stimuli and responses. Therefore it addresses one of the most important criticisms of behaviorism: its neglect of thinking processes. (cf. Sammons, 2013)

Some criticisms about the social learning theory came from the commitment to the environment as the chief influence on behavior. There are several gender differences that appear to be universal and wherefore social learning theory cannot account for. For example preferences for particular characteristics in a potential heterosexual partner and differences in the gender thinking of boys and girls. It may be that differences like these reflect genetic influences on behavior that social learning theory takes no account of. (cf. Sammons, 2013)

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