Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory: Observational Learning and the Self-regulative Ability of Individuals


Lifespan Development and Learning

From a very early point in the history of philosophy, philosophers have been asking questions about human nature and about how we develop. These questions have led to a range of theories about human development and have extended from the philosophical sphere into the realms of psychology and educational research. Along with this expansion into other areas of studies, the questions being asked are also changing. Earlier educational and psychological theories, for example, focused largely on behaviorism as the source of human development while recent theories have increasingly been integrating the role of cognition in the development process. Despite being only theories with flaws and without definite answers, these theories are very valuable to educators.

There are three main categories of thought distinguishing these educational theories: developmental, environmental, and crossover. While there is variation in the ideas of theorists within each group, there are a few generalizations that can be made about each. The following paragraphs will give some very basic background into each theory to help illustrate the differences between them.

Development theories include Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, Lawrence Kholberg’s stages of moral development, and Eric Erikson’s stages of psychological development. These theories are primarily based on cognitive processes and rarely, if ever, include introspective processes. The individual’s perception of the world changes during each sequential development stage and individuals cannot skip development stages.

B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, Edward Thorndike’s law of effect, and Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning are all examples of environmental theories. For many environmental theorists, the idea of free will is an illusion. Behavior is fully conditioned and determined by outside forces including genetic factors or environmental inputs.

Some examples of crossover theories include William Glasser’s choice theory, Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory. Crossover theorists may ask questions like “What is the role of consciousness in behavior and development?” or “How does one’s self-identity affect their decision making process?” In addition to acknowledging the impact of external forces, crossover theorists also often include cognitive processes when analyzing behavioral choices.

Unlike other species, humans are not born with instinctive survival skills, yet we are the most developed species on Earth, having constantly adapted the environment to suit our needs. As humans, we are constantly learning from each other and always building on what we know. For example, parents raising children today have much more information about how to prepare for the moments before childbirth. Doctors are better prepared to conduct the delivery of a child and ensure that both the mother and child survive the process. With such a view, can we really say that all of our learning is structured, intentional and pre-determined as would be the perspective of environmentalism? Similarly, can we fully remove the effect of the environment-imagine someone unable to afford a decent hospital in a developing country-on our development and focus on cognitive processes?

Albert Bandura felt that neither approach was entirely satisfactory. From the point of view of behaviorism, all that we know is a series of conditioned responses. This view, while it did help explain some behaviors, was very narrow and mechanical and would not explain why we have such advanced cognitive abilities and how we have progressed so far. To deal with these shortcomings, Bandura expanded the work of development theories to include ideas from cognitive theories. He promoted the concept of what he ultimately termed “social cognitive theoryAlthough Bandura’s work is often referred to as social learning, he chose to change his theory’s label from learning to cognitive because he wanted to place an emphasis on the role of cognition on things like our perception of reality and out ability to self-regulate (Pajares, 2002).,” a key component of which is an individual’s perception of their self-efficacy. He also wrote of how we learn to make the best of chance encounters-an subject in psychology he felt was particularly lacking. This paper will look at Bandura’s social cognitive theory in more detail and explain what he means by self-efficacy.

Before jumping into Bandura’s theories of human development, here is a brief biographical sketch. Bandura was the youngest of six children and grew up in a small town in Canada. His elementary school and high school years were spent at the only school in this small town where, because of scarce resources, students often worked based on their own initiative. He happened onto psychology by chance when he was attending the University of British Columbia and needed an early class to complete his schedule. He continued his study of psychology at the University of Iowa where he went on to receive his master’s degree and his PhD (Pjares, 2004).

Bandura’s earlier work focused on aggressive behavior developed through social learning. His initial theories were based on his observations of adolescents coming from families where the parents also displayed aggressive behavior. However, his most significant work in this area involved his study of preschool children (Ormrod & Rice, 2003). His experiment involved the placement of a blow-up doll in a room of toys and exposing three separate groups of preschool children to different behaviors in the playroom. One group saw an adult being aggressive towards the doll, hitting it with wooden mallets and other objects and using aggressive language towards it. A second group saw an adult come in and play constructively with other toys in the room and display no violent behavior. A third group had no adult modeled behavior in the playroom. Later placed in the room with the blow-up doll, the children who saw the aggressive behavior were the most aggressive of the three groups and the children who saw the adult engaged in constructive, non-aggressive behavior were the least aggressive of the groups.

What this illustrated for Bandura was the importance of modeling in social cognitive theory. In one of his earlier articles, Bandura (1963) acknowledges that some behaviors are indeed the result of direct training or conditioning of some form. He feels that certain things, personality patterns for example, come from modeled behavior, usually the behavior of the parents. He gives the example of a parent hitting a child as punishment for things like bullying or fighting with peers. The purpose of the punishment is to decrease the aggressive behavior, but in fact, the act is teaching the child other forms of aggression to imitate.

This form of modeling is not restricted to parents, however. Bandura repeated the blow-up doll experiment (1963) to have children watching videos, some with human models and some with cartoon characters, with videos portraying similar behavior to the earlier mentioned example. Bandura had other groups this time; some videos were extended to let children see the aggressor being punished as a consequence of bad behavior. Bandura observed the same pattern of behavior was displayed by viewers who did not see the extended videos, but observed a decrease in the undesirable behavior by children who saw the consequences of the action. This reinforced the idea that we can learn how to act based on our observations alone and that the subjects we observe do not have to be live models but can be abstractions of reality. In fact, in a more recent study, Bandura (2001) wrote:

Televised representations of social realities reflect ideological bents in their portrayal of human nature, social relations, and the norms and structure of society (Adoni & Mane, 1984; Gerbner, 1972). Heavy exposure to this symbolic world may eventually make the televised images appear to be the authentic state of human affairs. (p. 12)

Modeling is also present in how we develop language abilities (Bandura, 1989). While we may use abstract terms when talking with adults, we do not model that action with children. Parents who use language that matches the cognitive abilities of their children at different stages will help children develop language skills more quickly. Parents can also actively promote language development by modeling more progressive linguistic concepts as their children’s language skills develop. In addition to introducing new elements of language into children’s experience, parents can also promote language development by restating their children’s comments using a different syntax than the syntax used by their children. This models different ways of expressing the same things and helps children develop linguistic and cognitive skills more quickly.

There is good reason that Bandura puts a lot of weight on the social cognitive theory that he proposes. Using the principles of the theory shows us that not only can modeling teach us behaviors, it can also teach us judgment, morality, and help develop cognitive abilities (Bandura, 1989). The development of cognitive abilities is of particular interest because it shows us that modeling can be seen in two fundamentally different-yet both relevant and applicable-ways. From one perspective, responses to modeling are somewhat concrete; individuals mimic the modeled behavior very closely as in the case of aggressive behavior. From an alternate perspective, responses to modeling are quite abstract; individuals can transpose information they have gained from one modeled scenario and apply it in different areas. These ideas are important because they mean that we do not necessarily have to experience something to know how to behave or respond. An example, again using linguistics, would be our ability to construct similar sentences about entirely different things based on an abstract idea of appropriate syntax. This also means that we are able to develop a sense of empathy in our emotions.

Notice from the above explanations that there is still a considerable amount of determinism that factors into social cognitive theory. For example, not everyone will have parents who can appropriately model sequentially advanced linguistic structures, so the development opportunities for those children may be more limited. Because social cognitive theory accepts a certain element of determinism in development, it is helpful to consider the position of the individual amongst other deterministic inputs (Pjares, 2002). Bandura proposes a form of what he terms reciprocal determinism which is a tri-modal interplay between the individual, behavior, and the environment. Essentially, what Bandura is trying to illustrate with this model is that we are not simply reactive organisms but that we have the ability to actively alter our environment and our behavior (1998). Consider the following interdependencies and their modes of reciprocity. In considering the dynamics between the individual and behavior, behavior depends on elements such as the individual’s expectations or goals. Similarly, behavior can be conditioned, thus controlling the individual. Individual achievement can be hindered by environmental inputs such as socioeconomic factors; these effectively limit the individual’s access to certain developmental opportunities. However, just as the environment affects individuals, so too can individuals affect their environment; a strict boss, for example can alter the environment of a room with their only action being their entry into the room. Our behavior also determines our environment. In our daily lives, our environment may be quite limited, consisting only of our work or home settings. Similarly, since our environment is not a static one, it can have an effect on our behavior.

Basically, all of these interrelations and the inclusion of the individual in the process of their own development help lay the groundwork for one of the main recurring theories underlying Bandura’s work. In his paper Social Cognitive Theory of Self-Regulation, Bandura (1991) writes:

People possess self-reflective and self-reactive capabilities that enable them exercise some control over their thoughts, feelings, motivations and actions. In the exercise of self-directedness, people adopt certain standards of behavior that serve as guides and motivators and regulate their actions anticipatorily through self-reactive influence. Human functioning is, therefore, regulated by an interplay of self-generated and external sources of influence. (p. 249)

As we can see, in comparison to many other theories of human development, this places a lot of responsibility on the individual in terms of how much they are affected by determinism.

Central to social cognitive theory and critical for the ability for individuals to engage in the sort of self-regulation that Bandura refers to above is the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the idea that people decide how to behave based more on their belief in their own capabilities of accomplishment rather than in their knowledge or skills (Pajares, 2002). Self-efficacy is not a simple “believe in yourself and you will succeed” concept because certain knowledge, skills, and experiences are also prerequisites to success. Still, self-efficacy is important for several reasons. It helps determine our life choices, it motivates us, and it helps us deal with failures and setbacks in life (Bandura, 1994). That said, people’s self-efficacy and their actual skills or abilities do not always match or combine in productive ways. Sometimes, someone who is extremely skillful or knowledgeable may actually have low self-efficacy, thus hindering their abilities to accomplish grander things. Having varied levels of self-efficacy among individuals can help explain why two individuals with very similar skills and knowledge can end up exhibiting extremely different behaviors.

The good thing about self-efficacy is that it can be developed over time. Bandura (1994) identifies four main sources of self-efficacy. First, experiences in which the individual can experience success helps build self-efficacy. However, success should not come too easily, since if success always comes easily, it is likely that when the individual encounters failure, they will have a harder time recovering from it. Second, self-efficacy can be built by the observation of models similar to the individual who are achieving success. The strength of the self-efficacy is more strongly influenced if the individual associates very closely with the model. Third, encouragement or persuasion by others is another source of self-efficacy. While not usually totally effective on its own, persuasion accompanied by the identification of elements which may enhance the likelihood of success are more likely to improve self-efficacy. Finally, self-efficacy is also built based on an individual’s judgment of the state of their bodies-for example personal strength or tiredness-and their emotional state.

For educators, Bandura’s theories hold several implications. Ideas of conditioning can still be used in the classroom to help classroom management; however, since teachers cannot control the environment the students encounter outside school, teachers should also look into ways in which they can help students build self-efficacy. This requires a setting in which individuals can succeed, but also an environment in which individuals are adequately challenged. Teachers should use a multi-dimensional approach to disseminating knowledge to their students thus helping students develop different cognitive capabilities. Teachers should also be models for their students and be ready to explain differences in their modeled behavior from behavior that may be modeled in popular media.

Creating an educational environment as mentioned above will give individuals the tools necessary to take an active role in their education. Additionally, having helped develop high self-efficacy, teachers will have enabled students with the skills to cope with the difficulties that one encounters in life. Bandura (1999) mentions a proverb when writing of how self-efficacy can help people deal with these difficulties: “You cannot prevent the birds of worry and care from flying over your head. But you can stop them from building a nest in your hair.”

Additionally, high self-efficacy can help make people make the most of chance encounters. As we can see from the discussion above, our knowledge of cognitive abilities and an individual’s environment is not enough to predict how our lives will end up. Bandura (1982) feels that our ability to accurately predict outcomes is even further complicated by how different people deal with chance encounters. While his analysis of chance encounters is too extensive for the scope of this paper, it still does shed some light on another reason self-efficacy is important: our lives are full of chance encounters which may be quite fortuitous, and if we have low self-efficacy, we are less likely to take the chances these offer us and are more likely to be stuck in a somewhat stagnant lifestyle.

There are some things, for example our genetic makeup, that we have no real control over. However, we are not slaves to our environment. Given the necessary foundation for growth and achievement, we can escape the traditionally held confines of elements like poverty, gender constructs, or access to education and take personal control and responsibility of our life outcomes.


  • Bandura, A. (1963). The role of imitation in personality development. The Journal of Nursery Education, 19(3).
  • Bandura, A. (1984). The psychology of chance encounters and life paths. American Psychologist, 37(7).
  • Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of child development. Vol. 6. Six theories of child development (1-60). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  • Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 50 (248-287).
  • Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).
  • Bandura, A. (1999). A social cognitive theory of personality. In L. Pervin & O. John (Ed.), Handbook of personality (2nd ed., 154-196). New York: Guilford Publications. (Reprinted in D. Cervone & Y. Shoda [Eds.], The coherence of personality. New York: Guilford Press.)
  • Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory of mass communications. In J. Bryant, & D. Zillman (Eds.). Media effects: Advances in theory and research (2nd ed. 121-153). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Ormrod, J. E. & Rice, F. P. (2003). Lifespan development and learning. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.
  • Pajares (2002). Overview of social cognitive theory and of self-efficacy. Retreived March 20, 2006, from
  • Pajares, F. (2004). Albert Bandura: Biographical sketch. Retrieved March 20, 2006, from

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