Theoretical Approaches in Social Work: Social Learning Theory

If you’re interested in becoming a social worker or a related field, you already know that human behavior can be extremely complex. To make sense of it, it’s important that you familiarize yourself with the foundational theories of the field. This page outlines one major theoretical concept: the social learning theory, why it’s important to social work, and resources for pursuing further studies in the field.

Though it has a range of applications across disciplines, the social learning theory in social work holds its own distinct meaning, referring to the way that individuals learn and model their behavior based on what they observe in their environment, in those similar to themselves, and in those they see these behaviors being reinforced in.

What Is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory is the study of learned behaviors through the observation, modeling, and imitating of new behaviors that are reinforced by other people, or “models.” As a result, new behaviors either continue or cease depending on how they are reinforced or rewarded in the social environment. This theory was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, who conducted his now-famous Bobo doll experiment (PDF, 589 KB) in 1961. The experiment tested Bandura’s theory about observational learning and modeling and what would soon become solidified as the social learning theory. 

Through exposing groups of children aged three to six to aggressive behavior, Bandura sought to prove that human behavior is learned observationally through modeling, or by observing others—and that these observations can guide actions and result in imitated behaviors in subjects later on. He was able to successfully demonstrate his theory. The children studied did indeed show increased aggression after observing aggressive behavior in adults.

Within social learning theory lie three central concepts: 

  1. Individuals have the ability to learn through observation 
  2. Mental states are a fundamental part of this learning process 
  3. When something is learned, a change in behavior does not always follow 

Social workers who understand this theory and its many variable factors may apply it to a range of situations in their practice that involve behavioral issues or conflict and the processes of relearning or unlearning.

Theoretical Assumptions

The two major assumptions of the social learning theory include the theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning (or Pavlovian conditioning) is the theory that people learn by association, through the simple pattern of stimulus and response. Operant conditioning adds another layer of complexity to this, resulting in the theory that people learn through the association of certain behaviors with punishments or rewards. These two theories, along with Bandura’s idea that behavior is learned from the environment, form the theoretical frameworks for the social learning theory. 

The social learning theory also rests on four foundational principles, referred to as Bandura’s four principles of social learning. These principles can all affect the social learning process and its outcomes. Even when they are all in place, there are still additional internal and external factors, or “mediational processes,” that may change the course of events and interfere with the learning process. The principles consist of the following:

  • Attention. The environment surrounding the observed event and the attention level of the subject.  
  • Retention. The capacity of the subject to remember or retain the observed event and behavior. 
  • Reproduction. The ability (cognitive and/or physical) of the observer to imitate the behavior.
  • Motivation. The extent to which the observer wants to practice the new behavior. 

These assumptions, principles, and variable factors are the basis of the social learning theory, and its wide range of applications, circumstances, and measured outcomes. It’s helpful to keep them in mind when applying the theory to your social work studies or practice.

Issues Addressed by Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory and its assumptions, methodologies, and findings can be applied across many fields and social contexts. Some of the common issues it may be applicable to include the following:

Aggression and violence. As demonstrated in the original Bobo doll experiment, aggression is a major application of the social learning theory. Children tend to learn to exhibit aggressive behavior because they observe others—particularly adults—exhibiting it and see how it is modeled and reinforced over time. The theory is often considered when addressing the behavior of children growing up in violent environments.

Crime and criminal behavior. Criminal behavior is also theorized to be a learned behavior. Factors like societal attitudes, potential rewards and punishments, and the degree to which a subject is exposed to pro- or anti-crime ideologies can all influence the likelihood of a subject to engage in criminal behavior, according to the theory. Social workers might examine the frequency, duration, priority, and intensity of pro-criminal messages from friends and family in their application of the theory.

Personality development. The development of personal characteristics in children, and even skills in categories like academics, sports, and the arts is thought to stem from social learning experiences. They can come from observed behaviors or personality traits in children’s families, among their peers, gender groups, or greater societal culture.

Addiction and addictive behavior. Addiction is another topic commonly addressed by the social learning theory. The observance of addictive behavior—and the later acquisition, demonstration, or rejection of it—is often examined by addressing questions of familial modeling or peer influences. This is another context in which the associated rewards or punishments tend to play a major role, and a variety of internal and environmental factors must be taken into account in its application.

Social anxiety in children and adolescents. Anxiety is yet another behavior addressed by the theory. Factors like parenting style and exhibited anxious behaviors in parents can lead to the presence of anxiety in their children, whether it is a situational response or the ongoing development of childhood anxiety. 

Suicidal behavior. Social learning theory can apply to the topic of suicide as well. Exposure to suicidal behavior is a factor that may increase risk of adolescent suicidal behavior. It is theorized that this exposure can be direct or indirect, in-person or online, or even through forms of media. 

Social Learning Theory vs. Other Learning Theories

Social learning theory is only one of the learning theories that has come from modern philosophy and psychology. Above, we outlined the classical conditioning and operant conditioning theories as foundational elements of the social learning theory, but they are just as much standalone learning theories as they are assumptions of the social learning theory. 

There is, however, one major difference between the three. Generally speaking, the environment plays a larger role in the social learning theory than it does in classical or operant conditioning. 

Classical conditioning is more concerned with stimulus and response, and can be demonstrated completely isolated from environmental conditions. Similarly, operant conditioning—which argues that the best way to explain behavior is to look at the consequences of an action—examines the byproducts of an environment rather than the environment itself. The social learning theory emphasizes that shared spaces of any kind don’t just play a role in observed and exhibited behaviors but can actually dictate and cause them.

How Social Learning Theory Applies to Social Work

The greater social implications of the social learning theory are probably clear by now, but what about the application of social learning theory in social work itself? From its influence on the general field to specific practice areas, methods, and techniques, social learning theory plays a big part in social work as a discipline and everyday profession. Social workers proficient in social learning theory may be able to draw from the rich research it has yielded, utilizing relevant practice models in client work. 

The most common application of the social learning theory in social work practice is with cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a leading treatment for a variety of mental health conditions. It emphasizes the link between an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—supporting clients as they work toward identifying and unlearning patterns of irrational, harmful, or self-destructive thoughts and behaviors that lead to emotional distress. Often, this requires looking at individuals’ early or current environments, influences, and models, as well as tracing back to the root of their own observed behavioral tendencies. For information on more social work practice models and methodologies related to the social learning theory and other important theories, refer to our page on theories and practice models used in social work.

Social Learning Theory Intervention

While a solid grasp of social learning theory is essential, knowing how to effectively apply its principles as interventions is even more critical. Gradual therapy techniques, positive modeling, symbolic coding, stress management, vicarious reinforcement and systematic desensitization can be used to shape positive new behaviors by changing the positive or negative reinforcement associated with the root of the problem.

For example, consider a school social worker who has a student with aggressive behavioral issues that hinders the ability of other students to learn. The social worker could employ social learning theory, assessing role models and stimuli the student is regularly exposed to that could be reinforcing aggressive, disruptive behavior or discouraging positive, sociable behavior. After determining what may be causing the disruptive behavior, the social worker can use social learning theory to identify patterns of dysfunctional thoughts that are influencing the student’s emotions and behaviors, then engage appropriate interventions or techniques to support the student in changing their behavioral patterns.

A Case Study

In Craig W. LeCroy’s insightful text Case Studies in Social Work Practice, social learning theory is brought to life with the story of Donald Scott. Scott described himself as being “terrified of people.” A social worker spent time with him to observe and talk about his phobia. For most of his adult life, Scott felt uncomfortable around others. He would feel a tremor in his arms and legs whenever he was near people. He avoided common social situations such as parties, restaurants and banks that required him to talk directly to people or be near them.

Social learning theory was employed to determine how his phobia developed. It had started 35 years earlier when Scott was in the army. A sergeant mistakenly blamed Scott for something he didn’t do. As a result, he received a face-to-face, loud, public scolding in the center of a filled room. Scott then associated the anxiety he felt throughout the encounter with the stimuli of close proximity to people. Thirty-five years later, the same stimuli— even in non-threatening environments— elicited anxiety and fear.

The principles that explained Scott’s phobia also helped guide his treatment. Through several gradual therapy sessions, Scott was exposed to the same stimuli, but the social, mental, emotional and physical reinforcements were all positive. His social worker started by standing face-to-face with Scott in the middle of a therapy room. Scott initially experienced shakes and profuse sweating, but with encouragement, was able to face his phobia. After 20 minutes, Scott was the most calm he had felt in front of someone in decades.

Prolonged exposure and positive reinforcement was vital to counteracting the anxiety. Scott’s therapy gradually became more difficult, realistic and public. With consistent positive internal and external reinforcements, his cognitive and behavioral associations were rewired. Ultimately, his phobia vanished after three years.

Social learning theory is a useful tool for social workers to employ when assessing and assisting clients. This theory can often help identify and treat the identifiable cause of certain behaviors. Social workers can leverage social learning theory in diverse situations to arrive at an informed, helpful solution for the client in question. Expanding your knowledge of all social work theories and relevant practices can help you to strengthen your practice as a social worker.

Academic Criticism of the Social Learning Theory

Every theory has its criticisms. Below are some common critiques of the social learning theory:

  • Some critics argue that the social learning theory is wrong in assuming that changes in the environment will automatically lead to changes in a subject.
  • It is widely contested that focusing solely on social learning as a determinant of behavior is sufficient. Some critics argue that the theory disregards how biological or hormonal predispositions can influence behavior.
  • Some critics assert that basing the theory on the dynamics between an individual, their environment, and their behavior is too loose, making it impossible to determine the extent to which each factor is influencing the others, or which is strongest. 
  • Certain critics argue that the principles of the theory—namely emotion or motivation—are not emphasized enough and should be considered as greater factors of influence in the social learning theory. 
  • Some criticism offers a flipped alternative to the social learning theory: behavioral changes in an individual come first, leading to subsequent changes in the environment. Interestingly, certain advocates of the social learning theory argue that this too supports their original theory—because in both cases, the environment is still reinforcing the subject’s behavior.

When studying any theory, it is important to consider its limitations. For the most part, academic criticisms of the social learning theory are centered around questioning the extent to which an individual can determine their own behavior regardless of their environment, and in light of other factors like biology. This is a debate at the center of many socialization behavioral theories, many of which rest on an assumption that leans more strongly in one direction.

Summing It Up: Why Is Social Learning Theory Important?

So, why is understanding the social learning theory important? As is the case with any field, part of being an effective social worker means that professionals may have to retain a strong foundational knowledge of the histories, discoveries, and theories that have made their discipline what it is today. But in the field of social work, these theories go beyond the educational sphere. Rather, they have the potential to be the basis for effective therapies and treatments, helping to improve the mental health and livelihoods of clients. Applications of the social learning theory may be particularly valuable, as they can empower people to recognize and trace the roots of their issues, identify patterns they may have not otherwise seen, and ultimately, break the habits and behaviors that harm them.

Resources for Further Learning

Resources for further reading related to social work and the social learning theory include:

If you would like to explore your options of pursuing a career as a social worker, consider our list of masters in social worker programs online.

Information on this page was last updated in June 2021.