Social Learning Theory

At the core of many learning problems is the tradeoff between maximizing one’s immediate reward and learning about the available alternatives, allowing for better decisions in the future. An individual can learn about the different alternatives only through his private experience. An optimal experimentation strategy sometimes leads an individual to stop choosing the superior action after a finite number of periods. Many situations of interest, however, have people learning from others and their own experience. The resulting information gives rise to two opposing forces. One is more opportunities to learn and the other may reduce each individual’s willingness to experiment. Nevertheless the possibility is open that collective experimentation is enough to prevent ex-post inefficient outcomes.

“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, Social Learning Theory, 1977.
The social learning theory proposed by Albert Bandura has become perhaps the most influential theory of learning and development. While rooted in many of the basic concepts of traditional learning theory, Bandura believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning. His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people. Known as observational learning (or modeling), this type of learning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors.

How do we as human beings really learn anything? The reinforcement/punishment stimuli, of course, condition our behavior, through the process of learning. But human beings don’t just respond to stimuli, they interpret them as well. To illustrate this principle, consider the example of a child who receives a smile and a kiss when it puts away its toys. It’s likely to repeat this action because of the reward. However if the child were to hurl its food at the wall and subsequently receive a scolding, the child learns that such an action only earns disapproval, and modifies its behavior accordingly, because it desires its mother’s approval. But this is just one facet of the complex learning process.

There is no one definition of social learning, but the many descriptions of it emphasize the importance of dialogues (negotiation) between groups – to better understand different points of view, and develop processes for collective action and reflection over time. Social learning and empowerment are based on each other. Empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Achieving such outcomes is not a one-off process that can be externally planned and executed like a fielday or workshop, but it is a social process that are woven from activity strands including network building, dialogue, knowledge management, and evaluation. Information on the different strands that support social learning can be accessed through the ‘social learning’ index on left. Evaluation, because of the role it plays in strengthening all other strands and activities is expanded into its own topic area in the navigation index. The social capacity, networks and trust which facilitate this co-operation for mutual benefit are referred to as ‘social capital’.

Among the current learning theories, four primary categories of study have surfaced: Behaviorist, Cognitivist, Humanist, and Socialist. Particularly, Social Learning Theory incorporates many of the necessary elements needed to produce a practical system of change. But as every theory is composed of portions of previous study and is ever evolving, Social Learning Theory was initially influenced by the other three categories of learning theory. The behaviorist theories in particular, emphasizing what is learned from observable behaviors, seem to create a basis for the more complex theories found in Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, which incorporates the best portions of these theories into a superior plan for behavioral adjustment.
Factors that influence a Childs Behavior
A debate that continues to spawn controversy in many scientific disciplines is on the topic of heredity and the influence genetics has on the overall character of a human being. More commonly referred to as the ‘Nature versus Nurture’ debate, scientists as well as the average citizen are intrigued as to what determinants shape personal character as well as individual behavior. There are several factors that impact an individual’s destiny and through various studies, explanations, and theoretical models it becomes very apparent that one isolatable factor is nearly impossible to distinguish.

Biological Factors
Some theorists argue that the foundations of aggression are biological. Biological factors that influence aggressive behavior include hormones, physiological illness, and temperament. Hormones play some indirect role in human aggression. Interaction with external stimuli may affect the threshold of aggressive behavior. Some researchers have concluded that high testosterone levels could be a result of aggressive behavior. In women, premenstrual tension syndrome is associated with a number of aggressive behaviors, such as violent crime.

People with a serious physiological illness, such as cancer, may be affected by negative mood states. These mood states may indirectly affect the aggressive behavior of individuals. Temperament may be indirectly related to aggressive behavior. People who are impulsive are more likely to be aggressive than people who have a deliberate temperament.
All behavior, including delinquency, is influenced by biological factors. These factors include not only physical strength but also brain functioning, such as neurotransmitters that pass signals to the brain. Serotonin receptors, for instance, are neurotransmitters that have been associated with impulsive behavior (Goldman, Lappalainen, and Ozaki, 1996). Other biological factors have also been associated with delinquency. Compared to non delinquents, delinquents tend to have a lower heart rate and a lower skin response (Raine, 1993), which are measures of autonomic nervous activity. Another line of research has concentrated on hormones, including testosterone. However, a high level of testosterone during the elementary school years is not known to predict later delinquency. Currently, research on genes has come as far as the identification of proteins associated with neurotransmitters, but it is unlikely to shed light on complex processes such as delinquency (Rowe, 2002).

Parental Factors
Inadequate parenting practices are among the most powerful predictors of early antisocial behavior (e.g., Hawkins et al., 1998). Compared with families in which the children do not have conduct problems, families of young children with conduct problems have been found to be eight times more likely to engage in conflicts involving discipline, to engage in half as many positive interactions, and, often unintentionally, to reinforce negative child behavior (Gardner, 1987; Patterson and Stouthamer- Loeber, 1984). Three specific parental practices are particularly associated with early conduct problems: (1) a high level of parent-child conflict, (2) poor monitoring, and (3) a low level of positive involvement (Wasserman et al., 1996).
Social Factors
One of the most important environmental factors during childhood development is that of socialization or the way a child is ‘taught’ how to act. This refers to the period of childhood development when children learn the rules and values of their society. This model hypothesizes that initially children learn to merely obey the rules of their society. Certain actions are repeated because of directly correlated consequences. A child does not intuitively know that stealing is wrong; they have to be taught through negative consequences that this behavior is not acceptable. They then internalize these rules and eventually believe them to be fundamentally correct. In other words, socialization refers to the developmental period where the ideals of morality and socially acceptable behavior are instilled in a child. If a child is consistently taught how to act through both positive and negative reinforcement, the child will begin to exhibit certain characteristics because they believe them to be inherently correct. If a child is not taught how to properly act or inconsistently reinforced, clear-cut moral obligations may not be instilled leading to effected social judgment and a disposition towards criminal behavior.

Aggression in humans remains a substantial social problem. A number of theories have been constructed to explain such aggression, and much research has focused on factors that affect such aggressive behavior. Schools play an important role in the socialization of children and the development of antisocial behavior. When schools are poorly organized and operated, children are less likely to value their education and do well on academic tasks and more likely to experience peer influences that promote delinquency and opportunities for antisocial behavior.

Children generally establish strong, stable, mutual affiliations with peers similar to themselves in aggression, but aggressive children have more difficulty establishing such affiliations. The interaction of peer pairs containing at least one aggressive child was characterized by more frequent, lengthy, and intense conflict regardless of the affiliate relationship characterizing the pair. Researchers found that the amount of time children spent interacting with aggressive peers predicted changes in observed and teacher-rated aggression three months later.

Sometimes even the best intentions go astray. The fact that antisocial juveniles are often grouped together in intervention programs may, in fact, promote friendships and alliances among these juveniles and intensify delinquent behavior rather than reduce it (e.g., McCord, 1997; Dishion, McCord, and Poulin, 1999). For example, group discussions among antisocial peers may inadvertently reinforce antisocial attitudes and promote antisocial friendships that may continue outside group sessions.

Peer estimation of aggression was found to be internally more consistent than self-estimation. This was true of both sexes for both the aggressive and victim version of the test. Participants seem to be more reliable when they estimate the degree to which they are the victims of others’ aggression than when they estimate the degree to which they themselves are aggressive. This is particularly true for girls.

Emotional Factors
Although early aggressive behavior is the most apparent and best predictor of later delinquency, other individual factors may contribute to later antisocial behaviors. By the end of the third year of life, children can express the entire range of human emotions, including anger, pride, shame, and guilt. Parents, teachers, and even peers affect children’s socialization of emotional expression and help them learn to manage negative emotions constructively. Thus, how children express emotions, especially anger, early in life may contribute to or reduce their risk for delinquency.
Environmental Factors
Environmental experiences are a second influence of the social learning of violence in children. Albert Bandura reported that individuals that live in high crime rates areas are more likely to act violently than those who dwell in low-crime areas (Bandura, 1976: p.207). This assumption is similar to Shaw and McKay’s theory of social disorganization. They believed that a neighborhood surrounded by culture conflict, decay and insufficient social organizations was a major cause of criminality (Bartollas, 1990: pp.145).

Numerous risk factors for young children’s offending lie within the community domain. For example, findings from studies of childhood exposure to family poverty have been very consistent. Children raised in poor, disadvantaged families are at greater risk for offending than children rose in relatively affluent families (e.g., Farrington, 1989, 1991, 1998). Disadvantages at the neighborhood level are also of primary importance in the development of antisocial behaviors (Catalano and Hawkins, 1996). Disorganized neighborhoods with few controls may have weak social control networks that allow criminal activity to go unmonitored and even unnoticed (e.g., Elliott et al., 1996; Sampson and Lauritsen, 1994). In terms of violent crimes, one study concluded that social disorganization and concentrated poverty within the community lead to residents’ decreased willingness to intervene when children are engaging in antisocial/ unlawful acts, further contributing to a greater likelihood of violence within neighborhoods (Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls, 1997).

Observational Learning
Observational learning (also known as: vicarious learning or social learning or modeling or monkey see, monkey do) is learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining and, in the case of imitation learning, replicating novel behavior executed by others. It is most associated with the work of psychologist Albert Bandura, who implemented some of the seminal studies in the area and initiated social learning theory. It involves the process of learning to copy or model the action of another through observing another doing it. Further research has been used to show a connection between observational learning and both classical and operant conditioning.

Observers cannot learn unless they pay attention to what’s happening around them. This process is influenced by characteristics of the model, such as how much one likes or identifies with the model, and by characteristics of the observer, such as the observer’s expectations or level of emotional arousal. Some of the things that influence attention involve characteristics of the model. If the model is colorful and dramatic, for example, we pay more attention. If the model is attractive, or prestigious, or appears to be particularly competent, you will pay more attention. And if the model seems more like yourself, you pay more attention. These kinds of variables directed Bandura towards an examination of television and its effects on kids!

In promoting observational learning, adults alter the behavior they model to compensate for the attention limitations of children. With infants, parents gain their attention and give salience to the behavior they want to encourage by selectively imitating them. Parents tend to perform the reciprocated imitations in an exaggerated animated fashion that is well designed to sustain the child’s attentiveness at a high level during the mutual modeling sequences (Papousek & Papousek, 1977). The animated social interplay provides a vehicle for channeling and expanding infants’ attention in activities that go beyond those they have already mastered.

The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning. Learners retain observed learning in an abstract representational form (they don’t remember it exactly like it was). Memory is the reconstruction, not an exact image of the past. After images have been remembered, they can be brought up to be used in real time. When this happens, other, similar memories or memories that are linked to the remembered information will come up as well. These images are pictures, sounds, emotional memories, words and stories that are attached to the retrieved memory.

As children begin to acquire language they can symbolize the essential aspects of events in words for memory representation. It is not until children acquire some cognitive and linguistic skills that they can extract rules from modeled performances and make effective use of the more complex linguistic transformations (Rosenthal & Zimmerman, 1978). Children can improve their memory by instruction to anticipate, verbally code, and rehearse what they observe (Brown & Barclay, 1976). The vicarious memorial sub skills can also be acquired through modeling. By observing the memory feats of others, children learn what information is worth coding, how events should be categorized and more general strategies for processing information (Lamal, 1971; Rosenthal & Zimmerman, 1978).

Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement.

Converting conceptions to appropriate actions requires development of transformational skills in intermodal guidance of behavior. Information in the symbolic mode must be translated into corresponding action modes. This involves learning how to organize action sequences, to monitor and compare behavioral enactments against the symbolic model, and to correct evident mismatches (Carroll & Bandura, 1985; 1987). When children must depend on what others tell them, because they cannot observe fully all of their own actions, detecting and correcting A mismatch requires linguistic competencies. Deficiencies in any of these production sub skills can create a developmental lag between comprehending and performing.

Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled. Reinforcement and punishment play an important role in motivation. While experiencing these motivators can be highly effective, so can observing other experience some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for being to class on time, you might start to show up a few minutes early each day.

Motivational factors that influence the use to which modeled knowledge is put undergo significant developmental changes. During infancy, imitation functions mainly to secure interpersonal responsiveness. Through mutual modeling with adults, infants enjoy playful intimacy and gain experience in social reciprocation. Before long parents cease mimicking their infant’s actions, but they remain responsive to instances of infants adopting modeled patterns that expand their competencies. What continues to serve a social function for young infant’s changes into an instructional vehicle for parents. This transition requires infants to cognize, on the basis of observed regularities, the social effects their different imitations are likely to produce. To help infants to learn the functional value of modeling the parents make the outcomes salient, recurrent, consistent, and closely tied to the infant’s actions (Papousek & Papousek, 1977). With increasing cognitive development, children become more skilled at judging probable outcomes of their actions. Such outcome expectations serve as incentives for observational learning.
In conclusion, it can be noted that the social learning approach is a lot more complex than the behaviorist view, which has very simple learning theories. The author is of the opinion that knowledge and skills are acquired through a variety of ways and humans themselves are a lot more complex than earlier psychologists such as Pavlov seem to suggest. At the end of the day, does human behavior amount to a theory of forced choice? Animals may have one or two possible solutions i.e. to go left or right, but humans have many crossroads.


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