Social Learning Theory
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Social Learning Theory
One significant mode of learning is through the imitation of observed behavior. People are naturally observant and tend to pattern their behavior on the attitudes and actions they observe, which appeals to them. As such, people have the tendency to learn from social interactions with other people especially the people holding moral ascendancy or social influence. Children have the tendency to learn behavior from their parents or other adults around them while friends tend to exhibit similar behaviors through mutual influences. This phenomenon finds explanation through the social learning theory that emphasizes on observational learning occurring via social interactions. Even in the traditional learning environment, observational learning still occurs since students do not only learn through the instructions of the teacher but also through the observed behavior of the teacher and other adults of authority in the school system. The social learning theory largely explains various learning issues in different circumstances so that the theory remains significant even in theorizing and practice in various contemporary areas of study. The paper provides a thorough discussion of social learning theory as behavioral learning.
Development of Social Learning Theory
The idea of social learning first emerged in the mid to late 19th century through the paper written by Gabriel Tarde explaining social learning as arising from imitation occurring in four stages, which are 1) close contact with people, 2) imitation of the actions of behaviors, 3) rationalization and understanding of concepts, and 4) occurrence of the role model behavior. The processes of imitation encompass learning via social contact and individual cognitive thought. In 1954, Julian Rotter formally developed social learning theory by going beyond behaviorism and psychoanalysis. In his work, Rotter explained that behavior has an influence on people’s motivation to engage in a similar behavior. Ordinarily, people avoid doing things with adverse consequences and do actions that espouse positive results. This means that behavior is motivated by the expectation of positive outcomes with the experience of positive outcomes influencing the repetition of the behavior. As such, Rotter also focused on environmental factors as well as stimuli in influencing behavior and not just on cognitive or psychological factors alone. (Ormrod, 1999) Then in 1977, further work developed the social learning theory by expanding Rotter’s work. Bandura incorporated aspects of both cognitive and behavioral learning. Behavioral learning operates on the assumption that the social environment within which people build social links influence individuals to act in a particular manner. Cognitive learning works based on the assumption that a combination of environmental and psychological factors influences people’s behavior. By combining social environment and psychological processes as influences in the learning of people, this created the behavioral learning model, which provided that people pay attention to other people’s behavior, remember behavior with impact on them, and reproduce the behavior that they remember because of motivations for wanting to imitate this. Bandura’s social learning theory became the model in explaining various contemporary issues in behavioral learning. (Bandura, 1977)
Social Learning Theory as a Practical Theory
Social learning theory as a model applicable in practice has a three core principles. First is observational learning with people learning from observing the behavior of other people (Ormrod, 1999). Bandura proved this principle by conducting studies using Bobo dolls. With children watching, adults were made to hit and kick the Bobo doll. Afterwards, the children played in a room with a Bobo doll and the children imitated the same behavior on the Bobo doll as they observed adults do (Bandura, 1977). Many social theorists also considered the effect of television on the social learning of children with studies showing that children tend to repeat the behavior they see on television so that without parental guidance, behavioral learning through television viewing could lead to adverse effects on children’s behavior (Lunt & Livingstone, 1996).
Concurrently, Bandura (1977) suggested three ways of learning via observation. One is through a live model involving actual people behaving in a certain way, which is subject to imitation by another person. Another is through verbal instructions given via oral communication of descriptions as well as explanations of particular behaviors. Last is via symbolism covering fictional or real characters exhibiting behavior such as books, magazines, movies, television shows, radio programs, and online media. Observational learning operates on the assumption that people are normally observant and attentive to the different behavioral stimuli in their social environment.
Second is the importance of mental state in observational learning. This reflects the integration of external and environmental processes in observational learning. Internal processes pertain to intrinsic reinforcement that comes in the form of rewards such as satisfaction, fulfillment, and price. Since this is intrinsic, it targets the internal thoughts and cognitive functions occurring within an individual in processing external stimuli such as the behavior observed, understanding or making sense of the behaviors observed, selecting and retaining appealing behavior depending on individual motivations, and eventually expressing this in terms of attitudes and behavior. (Bandura, 1977) In practice, this has found support in criminology with the commission of crime understood as influenced by the social environment of individuals together with the operation of individual motivations. Increases in crime rates, especially property crimes, commonly occur in impoverished communities. Juvenile crime also increases in these areas because of behavioral learning. Children and young people observing frequent crimes in the community are likely to commit similar crimes especially when reinforced by their economic need. (Warr, 2002)
Third is that learning would not absolutely or necessarily result to behavioral change. This is a development in behavioral and cognitive models since this does not assume behavioral change from observational learning. This means that even if people observe other people, this does not necessarily mean that they would pattern their actions on their observations. In addition, people can learn new ideas and gain information without expressing this new behavior. This implies the differences in the manner that people process observations and derive learning depending on their contextual circumstances. While some people change their behavior such as committing crime because of reinforcements such as severe economic need, other people only learn new things from observation without committing crime. This finds support in the modeling process commencing with attention, followed by retention, then by reproduction, and lastly by motivation. However, the process is not absolute for all individuals with some people not imitating the behavior because of lack of motivation. (Bandura, 1977; Ormrod, 1999)
These have implications on intervention strategies. Since behavioral learning occurs through outcome expectancies from observed behavior reinforced by individual motivations, intervention strategies targeted the expectations and motivations of individuals (Ormrod, 1999). In the case of alcohol or drug use, young people consumer alcohol and use drugs based on social influences operating on expectations of social acceptance and motivations of building social networks. As such, interventions would include exposure of young people to the expectancies of alcohol consumption and drug use such as health and social risks and improving their social environment through positive influences by the family and community.
Comparison of Assumptions of Social Learning Theory and its Underlying Philosophical Paradigm
Social learning theory assumes that positive reinforcements determine the imitation of behavior by individuals, which operates on a general level . Although, behavioral learning also takes into consideration individual cognition in line with the processes of behavioral learning, the theory received criticism for the influence of other individual factors in explaining behavior or change in behavior. Biological, psychological, and socio-demographic factors could influence behavior more than observing it from other people. (Ormrod, 1999) This finds exemplification in people committing crimes because of opportunity and not really because of social influences. In addition, social learning theory assumes that behavioral learning commences with contact (Bandura, 1977). However, the theory is not able to explain the manner that individuals encounter other people or the forms of social interactions that lead to contact. This means the need to differentiate modes of contact and the different implications on behavioral learning. Moreover, social learning theory assumes behavioral learning via social influences (Bandura, 1977). However, this does not account for individuals committing certain behaviors on their own even without social influences or weak social contact. An example is a child who has not seen anybody steal but decides to get money without permission from the purse of his mother. This highlights the macro focus of social learning theory opposite to individualistic approach of psychological and early behavioral theories leading to an area of weakness. Lastly, another assumption of the social learning theory is that people have the tendency to prefer and react to positive interventions (Bandura, 1977). This raised the issue against the social learning theory is the problem of definition since sufficient reinforcement or motivation for one individual may not be the same for other people. In mentoring programs, children who are misbehaving are partnered or seated alongside children with good behavior. The intended effect is for the positive reinforcement from the well-behaved child to influence the behavior of the misbehaving child. However, the result could be the well-behaved child misbehaving and the misbehaving child continuing this negative behavior. This means that although the behavioral learning can explain general behavioral learning via social interactions through positive reinforcements and motivations, this cannot explain specific individual behavioral learning.
Theory Validation and Methods Used
Although the social learning theory faces criticism, it remains an important model especially in explaining violent behavior and supporting conflict criminology.
Social learning theory found use in explaining and understanding aggression through its tenet of learned behavior. In the case of aggression, hundreds of studies have provided evidence that aggression is a learned behavior. Gelles (1987) found that children witnessing violent behavior of one parent against the other parent of the children or by both parents tend to engage in aggressive behavior in their youth or adulthood. Poppen and Segal (1988) provided that macho attitude that could translate to sexually aggressive behavior can be explained by the social learning theory. Straus and Donnelly (1994) explained that children experiencing corporal punishment tend to exhibit the same behavior against family members or other people when the situations that caused them to receive corporal punishment occur. Sellers, Cochran and Winfree (2003) studied dating behavior and found that a significant percentage of violent courtship behavior is learned from peers and other social influences. Wiesner, Capaldi and Patterson (2004) found that coercive behavior is learned from family members since coercive parents tend to have children also exhibiting this behavior.
Social learning theory also found extended application in conflict criminology and labeling theories. Since social environment is the venue for behavioral learning, conflict criminology provides that a social environment of conflict determine the manner that people are labeled. Social influence affects behavioral learning via perceptions of difference-based conflicts and labels. This means that people without power are likely to engage in criminal behavior and labeled as criminals because of a social environment that highlights conflict in interest leading to depravity in some sectors of society. Warr (2002) explained that association with delinquent peers constitutes an enduring correlate that affects behavior. Gordon et al. (2004) further explained that the correlation is also found in less serious crimes or petty offences as much as violent crimes.
Generalization on the Merits of Social Learning Theory as a Practical Theory in the Field of Criminal Justice
In the field of criminal justice, Akers (1973) applied social learning theory as a means of explaining deviance by combining two variables including the factors encouraging delinquency such as peer pressure together with factors discouraging delinquent behavior such as the response of parents or people with authority to provide feedback on the deviant behavior. In addition, social learning theory also served as a model for understanding aggression, which constitutes an explanation for criminal behavior. Pfohl (1994) further explained that it was the concept of reinforcement that made it possible to determine the extent of impact of observed behavior on the consequent behavior of the observer. In addition, Lunt and Livingston (1996) explained that social learning theory and the specific concept of differentiated association served as a justification for the imposition of penalties, the rise in the number of inmates, and the return of inmates to the prison system since upon release individuals that served their sentence still face a similar social environment.
Apart from explaining delinquency, rise in prison population, and recidivism, the social learning theory also influenced the development of a number of intervention strategies. One intervention is counseling that involves monitoring together with family or group therapy in order to prevent or address deviant behavior learned from observations by using social influences. This works by matching negative social influence with positive social influence. Nurturing programs by drawing parents to become conscious positive influences to their children to build self-esteem of children and develop law-abiding values. Resistance training together with peer-led interventions such as the big brother and big sister programs or mentoring to prevent deviance and support behavioral change among deviants. Community service together with re-socialization programs such as reconciliation with the victims also comprise intervention derived from the social learning theory. (Ormrod, 1999)
Implications on Theory Generation and Validation
Similar to other theories, social learning theory has its strengths and weaknesses that support theoretical validation and the generation of further theories. The strengths of the social learning theory include the emphasis on prevention and early intervention, applicability because of the critical timing of its development, and verification to support the theory based on empirical studies. The weaknesses of social learning theory include its inability to consider individual differences, non-accommodation of biological factors, and non-consideration of opportunity as the reason for criminal behavior. (Ormrod, 1999) As a model, social learning theory has been able to find validation even if it also faced criticisms especially in the different empirical studies explaining that behavior is learned via social influences. In addition, it developed as an alternative to cognitive or psychoanalytical theories that were unable to provide more practical explanations of issues arising in a number of fields such as education, health, and criminal justice. Since social learning theory has been able to explain behavioral learning in different fields, it also supported the development of interventions such as mentoring and re-socialization applicable to these different fields but importantly in criminal justice, a field that has been seeking to come up with interventions effective in addressing the social influence resulting to the rising frequency of crime and recidivism. Social learning theory remains an important model explaining behavior and it would also likely to expand to other fields and emerging behaviors such as terrorism.
Social learning theory developed as a response to the failure of cognitive and psychoanalytical theories to explain behavior. As such, its thrust was on to provide a model explaining various behavioral phenomena together with a basis for effective interventions especially for deviant behavior. This is the reason why it was adopted as a sound theory in various fields. Although, it received criticisms because of its macro focus, it received empirical support that heightened the validation of the theory. In the future, the social learning theory would persist as an important and useful theory in understanding behaviors and learned behavior. As the theory finds wider application in different fields and emerging behavioral issues, its utility and scope would also increase.
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Weisner, M., Capaldi, D. M. & Paterson, G. ( 2003). Development of ant-social behavior and crime across the life-span from a social interactionist perspective: The coercion model. In R. L. Akers & G. F. Jensen (Eds.), Social Learning and the Explanation of Crime: New Directions for a New Century (pp. 317-337). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
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