Early Childhood Education

Social Cognitive Theory


Social cognitive theory is “a framework for analyzing human motivation, thought, and action” (Bandura 1986, p. xi). First proposed in 1963 by Albert Bandura and Richard Walters, this theory outlines a process by which people learn through direct experience and observing others. Since introducing this theory, Bandura has changed its name several times to emphasize its evolution. Because Bandura and his colleagues broadened its perspective to include concepts beyond observational learning, it was renamed social learning theory in the 1970s. In 1986, Bandura again revised and renamed it social cognitive theory. However, many people and textbooks continue to use the older names.

Concepts central to contemporary understandings of this theory include reciprocal determinism, modeling, self-efficacy, and self-regulation. As is the case with the theory itself, reciprocal determinism is referred to by different names, including triadic reciprocality, reciprocal causation, and reciprocal determinism. According to social cognitive theorists, human functioning can be explained by the interactions of three factors: behavior, person, and environment. The behavioral factors are the observable behaviors of the individual. Personal factors include an individual’s thoughts, beliefs, personality traits, emotions, and biology (e.g., sex, race/ethnicity, disability). Environmental factors include both the social (e.g., peers, parents, teachers) and physical (e.g., schoolroom, house/apartment, playground) environments. The following example of a three-year-old girl illustrates how these three factors combine and interact to influence the development of children. A three-year-old girl who attends a preschool (physical environment) will play (behavior) with many peers (social environment). This interaction may increase her skills (person) in dealing with social conflict, which are manifested in the behavior of talking to, rather than hitting, another child who takes the toy she was playing with. This change in behavior, in turn, can influence her peers’ attitudes and behaviors (her social environment) toward her and her attitude (person) toward her peers. As this scenario shows, all these elements directly and indirectly cause changes in the other elements and illustrate the principle of triadic reciprocal determinism.

Modeling is also a major concept of social cognitive theory. “If human behavior depended solely on personally experienced consequences, most people would not survive the hazards of early development” (Bandura 1986, p. 283). People learn the vast majority of their behaviors through a combination of experience and modeling. Modeling occurs when a person observes someone else’s actions and the consequences of those actions, which in turn influence his or her behaviors, cognitions, or emotions. Bandura identified three important functions of modeling: response facilitation, inhibition/disinhibition, and observational learning. Response facilitation occurs when an observer exhibits a previously learned behavior in response to a modeled action. Observing a model can also inhibit or disinhibit someone from behaving in a similar way. People might become inhibited after observing the negative consequences of a modeled event in that they do not perform the modeled activity themselves. People might become disinhibited after observing a modeled prohibited activity that is not punished if they in turn perform the modeled activity themselves. Response facilitation and inhibitition/disinhibition are similar in that they relate to previously learned behaviors. The difference is that response facilitation involves socially acceptable behaviors while inhibition and disinhibition involve what usually are considered negative actions.

The final function is observational learning, which is how people learn new behaviors. In Bandura’s famous experiment, children watched a film of a woman playing with a bobo doll (a blow-up clown that pops back up when hit). Typically, children punched the bobo doll; however, this woman hit it with a toy hammer, kicked and threw it. After observing this filmed behavior, when the children were given the opportunity to play with the bobo doll, they displayed similar behaviors, thus supporting the hypothesis that observational learning had occurred. However, children who also saw the filmed woman scolded for the inappropriate play with the bobo doll did not spontaneously display these same behaviors when given the opportunity. But, when asked to show what the woman on the film did, they could perform these behaviors. Therefore, although they still had learned through observation, these behaviors were inhibited through punishment of the model.

Whether newly learned behaviors are exhibited or previously learned behaviors are facilitated, inhibited, or disinhibited depends on the consequences of those behaviors. Consequences can be enactive or vicarious and can be either reinforcing or punishing. Enactive consequences are those that occur after a person’s own behaviors while vicarious consequences are those that happen after a model’s actions. Reinforcement is anything that increases the chances of the behavior occurring again and punishment decreases the chances of the behavior occurring again (this is a similarity to behaviorism). In Bandura’s bobo experiment, the children who watched the filmed woman get scolded experienced vicarious punishment. A common occurrence in preschool settings is that after a preschool teacher praises a child for putting away some blocks, he and his two friends hurry to pick up the trucks. The first child was enactively reinforced while his friends were vicariously reinforced. Reinforcement and punishment indirectly influence behavior through expectations of future consequences (part of the person in reciprocal determinism). If people’s behaviors are reinforced (punished), they expect the same consequence for the same, or similar, behaviors in the future. Therefore, these behaviors should reoccur (or not occur) in similar circumstances.

People do not model everyone that they observe. There are four conditions that observers must meet, plus three characteristics that potential models must have for modeling to occur successfully. Firstly, observers must pay attention to the modeling event, especially the relevant details of the behavior. Secondly, observers must retain this information correctly within their long-term memory. Thirdly, observers must have the motoric ability to produce the behavior. Finally, observers must be motivated to perform the behavior. As mentioned previously, consequences of the modeled behaviors can increase or decrease observers’ motivation to exhibit the behavior.

There are three elements—perceived similarity, competence, and status—that characterize individuals who are effective models. Typically, perceived similarity relates to age, gender, personal background, ethnicity/race, and interests. People tend to emulate models they think are competent and they ignore incompetent potential models. Even though adults might not consider a kindergartner competent, a four-year-old might. Observers also tend to emulate someone who has a higher status than they do. Many children hold teenagers in awe and believe that they have very high status. Adults may emulate people with money, prestige, or fame due to the high status that our society accords them. Regardless of the actual degree of similarity, competence, or status, if observers believe a potential model has all these elements in some combination they are more liable to pay attention to, retain in memory, and be motivated to emulate the model’s behaviors or thinking patterns.

Many aspects associated with human functioning, such as thinking patterns, attitudes, or beliefs, cannot be directly observed. However, they can be learned through cognitive modeling or rule learning. With cognitive modeling, people verbalize their thinking patterns, thereby making these unobservable thoughts, attitudes, or beliefs observable to someone else. For instance, many teachers and parents point to items and count aloud because they want young children to learn this thinking strategy. With rule learning, people observe the behavioral manifestations of covert elements (e.g., beliefs, attitudes) and infer the rule behind these occurrences. For instance, a child whose parent is easily angered and stomps around, swears, or throws things may learn to be easily angered also.

In addition to reciprocal determinism and modeling, beliefs of self-efficacy influence the nature and extent of learning through experience and observation. Self-efficacy (part of the person in reciprocal determinism) was defined by Bandura as a person’s belief about his or her capability to perform a specific action to attain a goal. Self-efficacy affects human functioning in all areas of life through four psychological processes: cognitive, motivational, affective, and selective.

When faced with obstacles, more self-efficacious people think analytically and adapt their strategies, while less self-efficacious people begin to think erratically and choose less effective strategies. More self-efficacious people think about success and the steps they will take to reach that positive outcome while less self-efficacious people think about failure and how they and others will react to that negative outcome. These differing cognitions enhance more self-efficacious people’s chances of overcoming difficulties but exacerbate the negative situation for less self-efficacious people.

People motivate themselves through forethought and their beliefs about their chances of success and failure. People with high self-efficacy tend to maintain or even increase their motivation and efforts after difficulties, viewing them as temporary setbacks rather than failures. They attribute these setbacks to insufficient effort or uncontrollable factors and their successes to sufficient effort, good strategy use, or high ability. On the other hand, people with low self-efficacy quickly give up when faced with difficulties. They attribute their failures to low intelligence or ability and their successes to uncontrollable factors, such as luck or other people.

Children develop self-efficacy beliefs through the natural consequences of and other people’s reactions to their own behaviors. Positive outcomes can enhance positive self-efficacy while negative outcomes can decrease self-efficacy. Parents, teachers, and other adults can increase young children’s positive self-efficacy beliefs through enhancing opportunities for positive outcomes, being responsive to and encouraging children’s positive behaviors, and attributing setbacks to lack of effort or wrong strategy use rather than to lack of intelligence or ability. Peers and siblings can also affect a child’s self-efficacy beliefs through modeling and social comparisons.

The fourth major concept of social cognitive theory is self-regulation, which is the process through which people control their thoughts, feelings, and actions that help them progress toward their goals. The four phases of self-regulation are goal setting, self-observation (or self-monitoring), self-judgment (or self-assessment), and self-reaction.

Some goals are more effective in enhancing self-regulation than others. Although long-term goals are very important, they are more effective when divided into shorter-term or sub-goals. Specific goals are better than vague or general goals. An effective goal also needs to be attainable but challenging to be motivating.

During the self-observation phase, people monitor their behaviors related to their specific goal. They can do this through a physical record of progress, or lack of progress, toward the goal. People who physically record or chart their progress might spontaneously change their behavior due to this record keeping.

During the self-judgment phase, people compare their self-observations to their goals and determine whether they are progressing or not in several ways. Firstly, people can compare their current behaviors directly to their goal. For example, if a second-grader’s goal is to read a chapter book this week, she can gauge how much progress she has made on Friday. Secondly, people can compare their current behaviors to their own previous behaviors. A six-year-old knows he can tie his shoes now, although last month he could not. Thirdly, people can compare themselves to other people. An eight-year-old can ride a two-wheeler while her friend still has training wheels. Finally, people can compare themselves to an absolute standard. A junior in high school compares his cumulative grade in his biology class to that which is required for an A.

After people self-observe and self-judge, they must decide what to do next. If the goal has been reached or adequate progress is being made, people might self-reinforce. This self-reinforcement can be praise, a feeling of satisfaction, or a tangible reward. One potential hazard with tangible self-reinforcements is choosing a self-defeating reinforcer. For instance, if dieters chose to reinforce themselves with a banana split, this could cause them to go off their diet and gain some weight back. If people are not progressing toward their goal, there are several possible reactions. Based on the judgment that the goal was not appropriate to begin with, they may change the goal by making it more specific or less challenging. If the goal is appropriate but they still are not progressing adequately, people could decide to put forth more effort or change the strategies involved in reaching the goal. These four phases of self-regulation are cyclical in that people continuously move back and forward from one phase to another.

In summary, social cognitive theory explains human functioning through analyzing how people’s behaviors, personal characteristics, and environment interact. Some of the major elements of these reciprocal determinants are the behaviors and thinking patterns of effective models (social environment), and a person’s self-efficacy and self-regulation (person). Through using social cognitive theory, teachers and parents can become effective models for young children and can aid them in developing positive self-efficacy and self-regulation.

Further Readings: Bandura, Albert, and Richard Walters (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston; Bandura, Albert (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall; Bandura, Albert (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachandran, ed., Encyclopedia of human behavior. Vol. 4. New York: Academic Press, pp. 71-81; Pajares, Frank M. Available online at http://www.emory.edu/EDUCATION/Bandura.html; Schunk, Dale H. (2000). Learning theories: An educational perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill; Zimmerman, Barry, J., Sebastian Bonner, and Robert Kovach (1996). Developing self-regulated learners: Beyond achievement to self-efficacy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sherri L. Horner and Srilata Bhattacharyya