In order to understand Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, it may be best to recognize why he developed it in the first place. Bandura (1971) felt that neither theories of psychodynamics nor behaviorism could explain how behavior or learning took place. He argued that both lacked the empirical evidence to support claims of how motivation occurs, nor could they predict what would occur, or identify causal factors of why they did so as well. Bandura (1971) was especially critical of behaviorism, which he argued “eschew[ed] spurious inner causes, it neglected determinants of man’s behavior arising from his cognitive functioning” (p. 2). In developing his social learning theory, Bandura (1971) set out to prove that motivation and behavior were not completely subject to environment, rather it was reciprocal. The crux of social learning theory is observation, or processes that include observing and imitation. By observing something we eventually can imitate what we have seen, “We learn all kinds of specific behaviors by observing and imitating models, a process called modeling” (Myers, 2010, p. 317). Bandura proved that observational, or social learning occurs through his experiments using the now-famous Bobo doll. In this experiment young children watched adults as they either sat, threw, hit or kicked a large doll. When it came time for the children to interact with the doll, they repeated the behaviors they had witnessed (Myers, 2010).
I’ve chosen social learning theory due to a preference towards a more organic process concerning learning, and the fact that it has played an integral role in my development. As it applies to the former, observational learning has played a pivotal role in the development of learners throughout the centuries. Observational living has played a role in indigenous cultures, for example, young Pueblo Indian children were allowed to choose which adults they wished to learn from and then they apprenticed through a process of observing with some limited verbal instruction (Bransford, 2000). Another, more contemporary, example can be seen through the African American community in Louisiana, where language skills during young ages are developed by eavesdropping “the hours spent overhearing adults’ conversations should not be underestimated in their impact on a child’s language growth” (Bransford, 2000, p. 109). Both are examples of observational learning referred by Bandura (1971) who argued that almost all learning took place through vicariously: through observing behaviors and their consequences. A notion that fits nicely with the scenario in the following paragraph.

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At the age of 12, one of my friends became extremely interested in the guitar. He wanted to play but his family didn’t have the means to provide him with the lessons he would need in order to understand how to read music or even how to play the instrument. His father did manage to find him an old acoustic guitar to begin with, and regardless of its condition, or the fact that my friend didn’t even know how to tune the guitar, he started to at least strum on the strings in order to make some kind of noise and become familiar with how to play it. What I didn’t know is that my friend would spend a great deal of time on the computer watching other guitar players on YouTube. He spent so much time learning in that fashion that when I visited him at home about six months later, his learning had progressed to the point to where he was easily playing a good number of chords and even songs. He had even started to play some lead guitar, and it all sounded really nice. My other friends and I very seldom would see him since his father brought home that first guitar. But it was about a year or so later that he came to my home for a visit and brought his guitar with him. When he began to play I could tell that his hours of dedication were really paying off, because he seemed extremely comfortable playing and the way that he played was more fluid and confident. He hardly ever made mistakes, but he also recognized that he had a long way to go.

I asked him if he had started taking lessons and he told me that he hadn’t. He had found various websites and videos for free guitar instruction but that he preferred to learn by listening to songs and watching his favorite guitar players during live performances which were filmed and uploaded online. Over the years my friend has progressed to become a really great guitar player. He prefers playing the acoustic guitar and has played in duos and bands over the years but says what he likes even more is just exploring the guitar on his own and seeing what develops as a result. This would seem to be a great social learning example because he learned how to play the guitar by observing others and then copying what he had seen until making it his own. But another element that seems to apply to my friend’s example has to do with motivation. To Bandura (1971), human behavior was not controlled through external reinforcement, but results from actions having outcomes of they either value, or have limited or undesired results. It would seem that my friend was motivated by the desired results but also learned by ferreting through times where he may have learned what not to do, or what he didn’t want to do when playing his guitar.

I can relate to my friend’s experience because it is the way in which I learned how to play video games. I not only learned how to play them on my own and with others, but also by watching others play on YouTube. In truth, I think this is the only way in which people learn how to play video games. However, my progression was fairly rapid because what I valued actually had little to do with winning the game, but had more to do with developing and improving my skills and becoming adroit at controlling each of my characters as they face each challenge. While hand-eye coordination has to do with cognitive abilities, it takes long hours to develop game-playing skills by immersing into each environment and becoming familiar with the way each game is played. Social learning theory is perhaps ideal in such situations.

  • Bandura, A. (1971). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press.
  • Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Myers, D. G. (2010). Psychology (9th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.