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Social Learning Theory

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Social Learning Theory

Social learning is a theory of learning process social behavior which proposes that new behaviors can be acquired by observing and imitating others.[1] It states that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement.[2] In addition to the observation of behavior, learning also occurs through the observation of rewards and punishments, a process known as vicarious reinforcement. When a particular behavior is rewarded regularly, it will most likely persist; conversely, if a particular behavior is constantly punished, it will most likely desist.[3] The theory expands on traditional behavioral theories, in which behavior is governed solely by reinforcements, by placing emphasis on the important roles of various internal processes in the learning individual.[1]

At around the same time, Clark Leonard Hull, an American psychologist, was a strong proponent of behaviorist stimulus-response theories,[5] and headed a group at Yale University's Institute of Human Relations. Under him, Neal Miller and John Dollard aimed to come up with a reinterpretation of psychoanalytic theory in terms of stimulus-response. This led to their book, Social Learning and Imitation, published in 1941, which posited that personality consisted of learned habits. They used Hull's drive theory, where a drive is a need that stimulates a behavioral response, crucially conceiving a drive for imitation, which was positively reinforced by social interaction and widespread as a result.[6] This was the first use of the term 'social learning', but Miller and Dollard did not consider their ideas to be separate from Hullian learning theory, only a possible refinement. Nor did they follow up on their original ideas with a sustained research program.

Julian B. Rotter, a professor at Ohio State University published his book, Social Learning and Clinical Psychology in 1954.[7] This was the first extended statement of a comprehensive social learning theory. Rotter moved away from the strictly behaviorist learning of the past, and considered instead the holistic interaction between the individual and the environment. Essentially he was attempting an integration of behaviorism (which generated precise predictions but was limited in its ability to explain complex human interactions) and gestalt psychology (which did a better job of capturing complexity but was much less powerful at predicting actual behavioral choices). In his theory, the social environment and individual personality created probabilities of behavior, and the reinforcement of these behaviors led to learning. He emphasized the subjective nature of the responses and effectiveness of reinforcement types.[7] While his theory used vocabulary common to that of behaviorism, the focus on internal functioning and traits differentiated his theories, and can be seen as a precursor to more cognitive approaches to learning.[6]

Rotter's theory is also known as expectancy-value theory due to its central explanatory constructs. Expectancy is defined as the individual's subjectively held probability that a given action will lead to a given outcome. It can range from zero to one, with one representing 100% confidence in the outcome. For example, a person may entertain a given level of belief that they can make a foul shot in basketball or that an additional hour of study will improve their grade on an examination. Reinforcement value is defined as the individual's subjective preference for a given outcome, assuming that all possible outcomes were equally available. In other words, the two variables are independent of each other. These two variables interact to generate behavior potential, or the likelihood that a given action will be performed. The nature of the interaction is not specified, though Rotter suggests that it is likely to be multiplicative.


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