History of Psychology – Social Learning Theory

Social psychology is in a way a psychology of compromise, as it strikes the middle ground between psychodynamic psychology (the “first force”) and behavioural psychology (the “second force”). This is strongly seen in its most well-known contribution, Social Learning Theory, as SLT is a balance between psychodynamic explanations of learning, which are seen as too deep, and behaviourist explanations, which are seen as too superficial.

The SLT was formed by Albert Bandura, who is often regarded as the most famous living psychologist. Bandura conducted the famous “Bobo Doll” studies, where 3-4 year olds watched an adult being neutral or aggressive to a bobo doll (an inflatable doll that bounces upright when pushed over), and then being either praised, punished, or receiving no reaction for being aggressive. The children were each let loose in a room filled with toys including a bobo doll. Bandura found that children who watched the adult being aggressive were more likely to also be aggressive towards the doll, especially if the adult was rewarded for their behaviour.

The social learning theory applies Bandura’s findings to all behaviour, believing that every behaviour is learnt from observing someone else performing it, and the reaction they receive for it. The observed person is known as a model, and the likelihood of a person being seen as a model depends on things like their age, and their closeness and similarity to the person watching. This explains why the main behavioural influences for most people are their friends and, in the same way as in psychodynamic psychology, their parents. The reaction the model receives is termed positive or negative reinforcement, language reminiscent of behavioural learning theory. SLT is also similar to behavioural psychology because it only focuses on the environment and ignores things like biological reasons for different aggression levels, even though they were present in the study (some of the children in the study were already known to be more aggressive than the rest, and boys were found to perform many more physically and more verbally aggressive acts than girls, for example).

Although SLT explained behaviour by only one factor (environmental observation), Bandura’s next theory went way further, being the first to explain people’s decisions using the “ABC’s” of psychology, (affect, behaviour, and cognition). “Triadic reciprocal causation” was his name for the belief that the environment, behaviour, and personal factors such as the ABC’s all influenced, and were influenced by, each other. This became massively useful in areas from education (where it was known as social cognitive theory) and morality development, so was an important tool in Criminology as well as Psychology.

Bandura’s theories, including his later work on self-efficacy and self-regulation, are seen as useful by psychologists because they accept the influence past events have on us, but unlike psychodynamic psychology, the events are used to plan future decisions rather than to be stuck in past ones. This fits nicely in with cognitive psychology, which was just starting to become popular with psychologists.

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