4 core concepts of the social learning theory (plus meaning)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 3 May 2022

Social learning theory is a concept that studies the behaviours of people within a social environment. This theory suggests that people learn their social behaviours by observing others in specific social situations and then replicating this behaviour themselves in the future. Learning about this theory type and the role it can fill within the workplace might help you make your business a more satisfactory and effective place to work. In this article, we look at what social learning theory is, what concepts make up its core fundamentals and how these might apply to situations in real life.

What is social learning theory?

If you want to know the answer to the question 'What is social learning theory?', then learning about the theory's core concepts and what it might mean for you might help you understand. It's a theory that psychologists and other professionals believe influences how people learn specific and general social behaviours. The theory focuses on the fact that people learn how to act within a social environment by observing how other people act and then replicating this behaviour themselves. People can learn these behaviours from anyone, from people you actually know to celebrities and media personalities.

For example, you are learning how to ski and it's your first time at a ski resort. In learning how to ski, you observe how people act and behave within the environment. As you become more and more accustomed to this environment, you replicate their behaviours in an attempt to 'fit in'. You might do this entirely unconsciously, but you're still replicating the behaviours of others without even noticing. The social learning theory includes several processes that affect how people learn behaviours, such as:


Motivation in regards to social learning theory relates to how motivation is involved in showing certain behaviours. Also known as vicarious reinforcement, this can occur when you or other people learn about the 'proper' way to behave, through witnessing the consequences of acting in a way that other people have deemed inappropriate. You might feel motivated to act in a certain way once you have seen that other people are being rewarded for that type of behaviour. Motivation also helps people to act this way because they do not want to deal with any negative consequences of their actions.

For example, you can motivate a child to behave properly by showing them a positive reaction to do so. If your child demonstrates the proper manners to a guest and does their chores around the house, then you might motivate them to do them again in the future by treating your child to a day out or a trip to the cinema for doing all of that hard work. Conversely, showing your child the negative consequences of not behaving in the right way might motivate them to learn how to act properly in the right situations.


Retention refers to how well you or another person remembers the behaviour that they have observed. When you observe a person acting in a social environment intending to replicate their behaviour, you form a memory of how to act in that situation. This allows you to replicate the activity in the future when involved in a similar social situation. How well you remember the interaction can influence how well you can replicate that behaviour in the future. Just like studying for a test, the more you study and the more you remember, the better you do in the final exam.

Increasing the time you spend observing people in the social environment you want to replicate gives you a better ability to replicate their behaviour by yourself. The more time you spend in an environment, the more accustomed you become to it. The more you practise the right way to behave, the easier it becomes for you to do so. Eventually, this behaviour can become automatic, much like muscle memory. Learning and retaining lots of information about how you can act helps you to do it much more easily than without, and having a memory of how to react helps this.

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Reproduction refers to your ability to actively reproduce the behaviours that you have been observing. There are a lot of different factors that can influence your ability to successfully replicate a behaviour, such as how motivated you're, your willingness to succeed, your physical abilities or feelings of anxiousness, overconfidence and many other factors. Successful reproduction of behaviour often depends on you being entirely comfortable within the social situation you're in, which relies upon your previous observations being correct and the time you have already spent within that environment, which can help you o feel comfortable.

You can learn to successfully reproduce a behaviour in many different ways. In the context of the social learning theory, you're not exactly 'learning' how to do this, but rather copying and imitating the behaviours which allow you to achieve a positive response towards your actions. While this is a type of learning, it involves imitation, rather than creating a completely new style of interaction within a social environment.

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Core concepts of social learning theory

There are some key concepts that make up the core fundamentals of social learning theory. Learning about these essential concepts can help you better understand the theory and how it affects different people. Here are some of the different core concepts that social learning theory accepts:

1. People can learn through observation

This theory assumes that people can effectively learn behaviours and other actions through observing the actions of others within a social environment. This doesn't always require you or other people to watch people directly, but also assumes that you can learn from media celebrities on television, influencers on the Internet and through reading about and watching content through any digital or traditional media channel. It also allows for a lot of variability in how people learn through observing, which you can break down further into three separate areas, which are:

  • Live model: a live model refers to the individual acting or demonstration of behaviour that you can observe and copy. This can include direct social interactions or simply observing someone in person.

  • Verbal instruction model: a verbal instruction model refers to both descriptions and examples that you can receive of a specific behaviour. This can include in-person training and explanations.

  • Symbolic model: a symbolic model includes fictional characters that you might see in a movie, television series or book. You can still learn specific behaviours from these characters, even if they aren't real.

2. Mental state impacts learning

Another concept of this theory is that it accepts that internal feelings, like emotions and external factors, such as pressure, can affect the learning process. This means that this theory acknowledges that external feedback can both positively and negatively affect how you learn these behaviours. Internal reinforcement refers to your emotions, such as feelings of pride and accomplishment when you succeed. These feelings can help to further motivate you either to complete your goals or avoid them completely, depending on what emotions you feel at the time.

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3. It's hard to change old behaviours

Learning doesn't guarantee any recognisable change. If you have been acting in a certain way for a long period, then it might be hard for you to change your behaviour in any discernable way. No matter how much you learn or attempt to implement these changes, you may unconsciously return to your old behaviours and not even notice when you're doing so. For example, if you have played a sport in a specific way the entire time and you're trying to change that, you might find it impossible to change how you play.

4. Positive and negative reinforcement affect learning

Positive or negative reinforcement can directly affect how quickly and efficiently you learn a specific behaviour. Both types of enforcement are great motivators for people to get something correct, although they can also sometimes hold a person back from achieving what they hoped. People create expectations for their actions based on previous reactions to the result. As an example of this, a child might clean their room because they expect to receive a treat for doing so. This can apply just as easily to adults, whether in the workplace or in any social environment.