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Social Learning Theory – You Observe, You Imitate, You Learn

Social Learning Theory – You Observe, You Imitate, You Learn

The social learning theory suggests that human beings learn by observing and imitating what they see.

One evening, a bunch of us were trying to toss a paper ball into a dustbin placed 20 feet away. The first person tried and failed. The second person’s attempt was just a few inches short. The third person got up from his seat and said, “Watch and learn” only to toss it straight to the …….wall, not the dustbin.

Though we had a hearty laugh that night, I noticed the usage of the phrase, “Watch and learn”. If you and your friends have attempted a challenging but fun activity together, you’d have heard similar light-hearted arrogance.

Though people use it in different contexts, the phrase in itself is powerful – watch and learn.

Did you know that psychologists have performed extensive research on the same subject? Social learning theory is one such research that explains how human beings learn.

social learning theory

What is social learning theory?

Social learning theory states that human behavior is learned by observation and imitation. Books, courses and training do teach you the concepts, but you learn inherent behavior by replicating what you see.

When you were a newborn baby, you did not know how to talk. You observed how your parents move their lips in strange ways to let out mysterious sounds. At first, neither those facial movements nor the voice made no sense to you. But over time, you decided to imitate what you observed.

You tried to utter the word, “mom” but could not figure out how to do so. A few months later, after making umpteen attempts of weird noises, you finally succeeded. You didn’t need an ebook named ‘How to speak’ or an online course called ‘10 ways to utter your first word’.

The same goes for many of your other basic skills like walking, eating, or dancing. Your parents and siblings provided verbal guidance but most of your learning involved imitating what you saw.

The social learning theory was formulated by Albert Bandura in the 1960s as an alternative to BF Skinner’s behavioral psychology which suggested that environmental factors and reinforcements from parents affected behavior. It also goes by the name Bandura theory.

How social learning theory works:

The image below summarizes how you learned dancing. Even if you cannot pull off a moonwalk like Michael Jackson, the flow of events applies to you too.

You watch a dancer in person, on TV, or in video and observe the various body movements he is making. Once you believe you understand the basics of the moves, you imitate them yourself. Whether you succeed or fail depends on how good your inherent skills are and how much prior dancing experience you possess.

Once you finish imitating, you will receive feedback on your dancing skills, unless you’re dancing alone like no one is watching. Your best friend might mock your terrible moves and ask you to give up dancing for the better good of the world, or a coworker might admire your gravity-defying hip hop. Even if no one is around, you’ll have a fair idea if you’re dancing well or not. For example, when I entangle my feet on the dance floor I know how bad of a dancer I am.

Related article: How to know what people think about you using the Johari Window

Based on the feedback you receive, you adjust your future behavior.

If the feedback is critical or insulting, one of the following occurs:

  • You give up
  • You try harder to prove a point
  • You ignore the feedback and proceed the way you like

If the feedback is encouraging, one of the following occurs:

  • You spend time practicing and get better
  • You gain confidence, but continue as is without putting in any deliberate effort
  • You assume the feedback is false

As per the social learning theory, watching the activity in person(or any other virtual source like TV or a phone) isn’t the only medium to learn. Your brain can imitate the job by listening to verbal instructions too. For example, you can perform cardio exercises based on the voice of the trainer. Sure, you’ll falter with the posture for a few workouts, but you’ll manage to replicate most of the others with reasonable accuracy.

Your imitation isn’t limited to real-life activities alone. It can also be symbolic where you try to imitate fictional characters. How many times have you tried to imitate the deep voice of Don Vito Corleone from the Godfather or the finesse of Maximus Decimus Meridius from the Gladiator?

Factors contributing to the social learning theory

“I observe hundreds of things each day. Will I imitate them all?”, you ask.

Good question. For social learning to apply, the following 4 attributes have to be met.

1. Attention – Does it pique your interest?

Yes, you observe very many things each day, but not everything piques your attention. Each of us has different interests. You might look closely at a salsa dancer with curiosity while I might watch a juggling bartender with awe.

To imitate a specific action, the activity must seem interesting to you. If not, your brain ignores it due to selective attention.

2. Retention – Can you recall what you observed?

Observation alone doesn’t guarantee imitation. Your brain also needs to register what you saw or heard. The memory doesn’t need to be perfect, but basic retention is necessary for replication.

For example, even if you enjoyed watching a person solve a Rubik’s cube, you cannot repeat what you saw. On the other hand, you can remember some of the moves of a ballet dancer.

3. Reproduction – Can you imitate what you saw?

Your current ability to perform the task influences if you’ll imitate what you saw.

For example, I love to watch football players score goals, and I can recall parts of their movement, but I won’t try them myself. I know that I neither have the practice nor the skills to replicate it.

But, I enjoy watching charismatic speakers deliver a powerful speech and though I cannot match them head to head, I can replicate some aspects of their delivery.

4. Motivation – Are you interested to replicate what you saw?

To imitate an action, you need a purpose. If not, you’d mimic every action you see like a monkey from a circus.

Do you want to dance because it makes you happy? Or do want to receive hi-fis during parties? Or do you intend to become a professional dancer? Whatever your reason is, without a why that motivates you, you’re unlikely to reproduce what you saw.

I cheer Usain Bolt while he runs like a bullet during the 100m event, but I don’t see a reason why I should sprint the same way myself. I would only do that if a wild boar was chasing me. But, I have a strong reason to replicate effective communication tactics because they play a key role in entrepreneurship.

Related article: 12 tips to motivate yourself

How punishment and reinforcement works:

The 4 factors mentioned above influence the attempt you make to learn a skill. In addition to those, human beings are also wired to look at the consequences.

When your action leads to a positive response, you continue your effort or put in even more. If you face negative results, you change your approach or stop altogether.

Let’s take the example of learning to sing. After the first four factors have kicked in, and you’ve learned how to sing, you self-assessed how good or bad your skills were. One day, you decide to put your skills to the test by going out into the real world to gather feedback.

You sign up at a local competition and on the day of the event, you sing to the best of your ability. Now, the outcome has a strong influence on your future singing aspirations.

Positive response: If you earned one of the top spots, you’re thrilled to practice harder in the days to come. If you won the event, you’d think about the next competition to participate in.

Negative response: If the audience laughed at your singing, you’d think twice before stepping foot on stage again. Even if the response wasn’t that critical, but you failed to win a prize and noticed how melodious the other singers were, you could feel demotivated to pursue singing any further.

How you react to a positive or negative response depends on your personality too. One person might look at failure as a challenge and try even harder next time while another person might give up at the slightest hint of failure. One person might consider a positive response as a motivation to continue practice while another person might look at it with arrogance and believe that he’s superior to the rest.

Your response to an outcome is both situational and subjective. But, if one has to generalize, positive reinforcement causes encouragement and negative outcomes cause disappointment.

Examples of social learning:

If you observe how people around you learn, you’ll spot many different examples in day-to-day life. Most of what you learn involves a social influence.

1. Children learning to walk/talk

Most of the real-life skills that a kid learns are due to observation and imitation.

2. Learning acting, comedy, singing, dancing, or other such skills.

Yes, art requires theoretical and conceptual knowledge too, but the basic step begins with social learning. The first acting any famous actors did was imitating their idol within the four walls. The same goes for many other artistic skills too.

3. Work culture of corporates

How you behave in an organization depends not only on your personality but also on how other employees around you behave. If most team members do a mediocre job, even a high performer drops his work standards. Likewise, if the entire organization strives for excellence, average performers deliver more than what they otherwise would.

That’s why along with the results the company aims for, the values it bases its foundation upon are equally important. But, values cannot only be rosy words printed in shiny colors on the office walls or displayed in bold text on the website. Leaders have to ensure that the values they decide upon form an integral part of the work culture.

As human beings, we unconsciously observe and learn what others around us do, whether that is positive or negative behavior. Unless you’re mindful, you wouldn’t even be aware of how the behavior of those around you influences your thoughts and actions.

4. Social media display

Today, you’ll find people who dine at a restaurant neither for the flavor of the cuisine nor the ambiance of the setting but to click pictures to post on social media.

The same logic holds good for places visited or luxury goods purchased. People imitate what they see others doing and post a snapshot from their lives that screams, “Look, I’m doing great myself.”

Related article: Pros and cons of social media

5. Community behavior of websites

Just like the work culture of corporates, your behavior on different websites is influenced by how other users of the website act.

I’ll compare Yahoo Answers and Quora to highlight the difference. Back in the day, Yahoo answers was the most popular QnA forum on the internet. It boasted of a large user base, but the questions on that platform didn’t always have useful answers. The lack of moderation also led to many spam responses. When I was writing answers on Yahoo Answers, I put little effort to make my writing look good.

In comparison, the user community of Quora or StackOverflow followed a different style altogether. Users rate each other’s answers and the best ones rise to the top. Besides, the users moderate the platform themselves to keep it spick and span. When I wrote an answer on Quora or StackOverflow, I went the extra mile to ensure it was of high quality. No one asked me to. I observed what others were doing and imitated the same behavior myself.

6. Replicating good behavior

If you hang out with a group of people who have a routine of good habits, you’ll feel an aura around them which compels you to follow their actions. For example:

  • If a parent is a voracious reader, the child develops the same habit
  • If one of your friends’ group are fitness enthusiasts, mingling with them prompts you to work out too
  • If you hang out with people who look at life with positivity and no blame attitude, you’ll cultivate the same mindset

7. Replicating bad behavior

Social learning influences you to pursue any behavior, good or bad. It can help you cultivate good habits, but it can take you down the other path more easily.

For example:

  • If you hang out with smokers, alcoholics, or drug addicts, you feel the urge to try them yourself. After enough repetition, you’ll become a victim of the addiction. Research has shown how peer pressure can increase the chances of drug addiction in young people
  • If your friend’s circle complains all the time about how bad their boss, how poor the Government is, and how terrible the city is, you’ll develop a similar blame-game mindset
  • If all your coworkers work long hours throwing work-life balance out the window, you’ll follow the same to ensure you don’t get left behind.

Criticism of the social learning theory:

Though social learning theory explains how we learn a wide range of activities, it has its share of criticism too.

Here are the major concerns raised by psychologists about the validity of the concept:

  • Not all behavior originates from observation and replication. Many of our actions are influenced by our thoughts and feelings in a particular situation.
  • Social learning theory cannot explain how every behavior is learned. For example, a serial killer learns to commit crimes from a different context altogether.
  • Many of our learnings occur by trial and error, followed by improvements for the future. For example, to become an archer, a person with no prior experience or a coach, can practice shooting hundreds of arrows, assess his aim and make corrections
  • The social learning theory fails to consider the influences of genes, hormones, or any other biological factors which stimulate or impede one’s learning abilities in specific tasks

Though the social learning theory does explain how we learn many of our skills, the criticisms highlight the loopholes in the theory too. But, you cannot dismiss the theory entirely. It’d be safe to say that social learning applies to some of our skills, but not all of them.

How to use social learning theory the right way:

You cannot force yourself to use the social learning theory to develop your skills, but you can use the knowledge to pick and choose what you want to learn. Now that you’re aware that observation can lead to imitation and replication, be more mindful of your surroundings. Place yourself in positive environments which foster useful skills and stay away from the negative company which encourages bad habits.

If you find yourself replicating a bad habit because you watched another person do it, apply the brakes and stop yourself. Kill your instinct to imitate before the pleasure involved turns into a motivation to repeat the activity again and again.

For example, you might want to try drugs for the first time at a cocktail party with your friends to experience how it feels like. But, if you repeat it the next week, and again the week after, the addiction will kick in sooner than you expect without your knowledge. You’re better off avoiding your first urge to replicate bad habits then and there.

Likewise, if career growth is one of your goals, hang out or interact with people who have achieved a large amount of professional success. That would serve you better than hanging out with coworkers who complain about how terrible your boss is or how meager the salary hikes are.


Social learning theory explains how we run learn many of our basic skills, especially in a social setting. However, you cannot use the theory to explain every single one of your actions and behaviors. Various factors other than observation and imitation come into play.

Consider the awareness of social learning theory one of your decision-making weapons. You wouldn’t pull a knife out when your opponent has a machine gun, would you? Similarly, apply the social learning theory in the right place at the right time and you’ll make better decisions for a better future.


Horsburgh, J., Ippolito, K. A skill to be worked at: using social learning theory to explore the process of learning from role models in clinical settings. BMC Med Educ 18, 156 (2018).

Tadayon Nabavi, Razieh. (2012). Bandura’s Social Learning Theory & Social Cognitive Learning Theory.

M.A., Sherry & Berge, Zane. (2012). Social Learning Theory. 10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_1257.

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