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Social Learning Theory of Albert Bandura

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Social Learning Theory of Albert Bandura


If you've taken an introductory course in economics, you're already familiar with the policy planner's dilemma of deciding whether to allocate limited resources for guns or for butter. The problem is usually posed to illustrate the impersonal market forces of supply and demand, profit and loss. Yet planners are people, and most individuals come to the war-or-peace decision points of life having already developed preferred responses. Northwestern psychologist Donald Campbell calls these tendencies "acquired behavioral dispositions," and he suggests six ways that we learn to choose one option over another.

1. Trial-and-error experience is a hands-on exploration that might lead to tasting the butter and squeezing the trigger, or perhaps the other way around.

2. Perception of the object is a firsthand chance to look, admire, but don't touch a pistol and a pound of butter at close range.

3. Observation of another's response to the object is hearing a contented sigh when someone points the gun or spreads the butter on toast. It is also seeing critical frowns on faces of people who bypass the items in a store.

4. Modeling is watching someone fire the gun or melt the butter to put it on popcorn.

5. Exhortation is the National Rifle Association's plea to protect the right to bear arms or Willard Scott's commercial message urging us to use real butter.

6. Instruction about the object is a verbal description of the gun's effective range or of the number of calories in a pat of butter.

Campbell claims that direct trial-and-error experience creates a deep and long-lasting acquired behavioral disposition, while perception has somewhat less effect, observation of response even less, and modeling less still. Exhortation is one of the most used but least effective means to influence attitudes or actions.

Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura agrees that conversation is not an effective way of altering human behavior, but he thinks that classical learning theory's preoccupation with trial-and-error learning is shortsighted. "Coping with the demands of everyday life would be exceedingly trying if one could arrive at solutions to problems only by actually performing possible options and suffering the consequences."1 His social learning theory concentrates on the power of example.


Bandura's major premise is that we can learn by observing others. He considers vicarious experience to be the typical way that human beings change. He uses the term modeling to describe Campbell's two midrange processes of response acquisition (observation of another's response and modeling), and he claims that modeling can have as much impact as direct experience.

Social learning theory is a general theory of human behavior, but Bandura and people concerned with mass communication have used it specifically to explain media effects. Bandura warned that "children and adults acquire attitudes, emotional responses, and new styles of conduct through filmed and televised modeling."2 George Gerbner (see

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