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Social Learning Theory – Learn by example and see the change!


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According to social learning theory, people learn by watching other people. Whether it’s a teacher, parent, sibling, or YouTube influencer, we observe their behavior and mimic it. People look to others for cues on what to do in any given situation, making this one of the most influential theories when it comes to being human!

So, next time you hear “We learn by example and by direct experience” you’ll perfectly understand why this is true!

Social learning theory is an idea proposed by Albert Bandura (1977), that emphasises the importance of observing, modelling and imitating behaviours. The theory considers how environmental and cognitive factors interact to influence human learning and behaviour.

According to this theory, our environment plays a major role in learning where we tend to behave like others around us, especially if we find these models similar to ourselves or if we wish to emulate them.

In order to fully understand the theory, we need to understand three important aspects of it. It states that:

1 – We learn by observing others;

2 – Our mental state is important in the learning process;

3 – learning doesn’t mean there will be a change in behaviour;

Throughout our everyday lives, we see it everywhere; from children imitating their families to famous people on TV. Also, social media offers plenty of examples of how we buy things we see celebrities wearing, or how we participate in challenges (like the Ice Bucket Challenge) after watching others do it.

If someone perceives there’s a meaningful reward for such behaviour, they’ll perform it at some point – and this can be anything from copying the dance moves of new music video stars to reciting movie dialogue word-for-word without even having watched the film themselves.

Similarly, Bandura developed a study called the “Bobo Doll experiment”:

Here, Bandura discovered that a child’s behaviour is influenced by what they see. Specifically, if children see an adult being violent towards a toy (in this case called Bobo doll) they will act out violently themselves with it later on during their private playtime. The opposite reaction is also true. If they observe someone being kind towards the toy in this case, kids will mirror the same good feelings for the doll, exactly as they see the adult doing. 

The experiment then states that children learn aggression, violence, and other social behaviours through observation learning, or by watching the behaviours of other models. On the other end, kindness and compassion can be imitated as well.

When we observe behaviours and then, following a few mental steps, we imitate them, we are learning. Observation, however, does not guarantee that the behaviour will be learned.

The four essential steps in order for a person to learn are attention, retention, reproduction and motivation and now let’s dig into these now so you can see how they work!

1- Attention:

Learning is only possible when the learner pays attention. Otherwise, external factors become distractions and affect the quality of learning that can take place. You must be focused on what you’re doing at that moment in order to retain information or to acquire knowledge. 

2- Retention:

A good memory of how the behaviour is carried out is essential for learning it well. So here’s something you should know about imitation and retention: The better your attention span is for observing what someone does (or how they do something in particular), the better your chances of copying that skill later on.

3- Reproduction:

Observe the task or behaviour and try to repeat it yourself as best you can to understand how it is done properly, but there are still a lot of factors that can affect your performance. 

For example, imagine a 3-year-old girl watching a ballerina dance. Little girls can observe, mimic some movements, and learn about dancing, but may not be able to do it themselves because of their physical state.

4- Motivation:

Any learning-initiating action relies on the principle of motivation, and replication of the behaviour/task would not be possible without the desire to do it.

Reinforcement and punishment play an important role here. People won’t be motivated to imitate a behaviour if they don’t see a positive outcome from the behaviour they are watching.

Both the education and work communities have embraced social learning in the past few years. One way that it is being implemented is through trainers engaging with employees through blogs or coworkers sharing thoughts, ideas, and best practices on internal networks.

By understanding the importance of “setting an example” for our peers, we can change all our environments.

A new employee may imitate good behaviour in the workplace or model the behaviour of coworkers to earn good standing with their superior.

Engagement in social learning helps people become more informed, gain a broader perspective, and make better decisions. You can learn anytime, anywhere and from unexpected sources!

Contact me if you need help with your business – very few people know the importance of implementing a human behaviour approach to client acquisition when running a business, and I’m more than glad to walk you through this path!