Difference Between Social Cognitive Theory and Behaviorism

Learning theories in psychology include social cognitive theory and behaviorism, both of which examine how people change through time. Both theories attempt to shed light on the process of learning and the subsequent reinforcement or attenuation of a behavior.

Both behaviorism and social cognitive theory emerged as responses to established schools of thought in the area of psychology, with the former appearing in the early 20th century and the latter emerging in the 1970s. There is a great deal of conceptual overlap between the two schools of thought, and the practical application, advancement of knowledge, and betterment of society that result from these ideas are all of equal value.

But, while they have a common theme, their methods and underlying assumptions couldn't be more different. The experimental approaches taken by each of these two viewpoints are distinct and have found use in a variety of contexts today. Here, we dive deeper into the topics of social cognitive theory and behaviorism, highlighting the key distinctions between the two.

What is Social Cognitive Theory?

In his 1986 book Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, Albert Bandura proposed social cognitive theory as the culmination of his work on social learning theory, distinguishing it by giving more emphasis on cognitive factors than do other social learning theorists or behaviorists.

Despite his label as a behaviorist, Bandura does not adhere to the standard behaviorist view of how habits are formed. According to his theory, people learn new habits by observing others. Cognitive and environmental variables interact to determine the likelihood that these actions will be repeated. Moreover, Bandura introduces the concept of self-efficacy, which is the personal belief in one's own ability to plan and act according to the situation. Personal factors, behavioral outcomes, and environmental context all have mutual effects on one another; as a result, learning occurs within a mechanism known as triadic reciprocal determinism.

Bandura's renowned Bobo Doll studies proved observational learning, showing that most youngsters are likely to mimic the behavior they watch from a model with or without incentive. When they see the behavior modelled and rewarded, they are more likely to imitate it. Obviously, if the kids are rewarded for their good behavior, it will continue.

Children learn social norms via seeing and imitating their parents, teachers, and classmates. This is a central tenet of social cognition theory, which has evolved slightly since Bandura's original formulation. Bandura himself highlighted the media's influence through modelling, the process through which individuals imitate the actions of those they see in the media and find admirable. He was particularly concerned about the aggressive and violent portrayals of children in the media, an issue that is just as important now as it was then.

What is Behaviorism?

In behaviorism, both the psychological method and the learning viewpoint are based on the idea that people's actions are conditioned over time by their surroundings. Despite the fact that behaviorism can be found in psychological works as early as the late 19th century and that many theorists have contributed to this body of knowledge, it wasn't until John Watson's Psychology as the Behaviorist Views. It was published in 1913, along with the research of Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, that behaviorism truly took hold in the field of psychology. Although his methods have been contentious, Watson is widely regarded in the United States as the movement's founding father and is responsible for a great deal of important research.

Behaviorism is a school of thought in psychology that places emphasis on observable behavior rather than less tangible abstractions like thoughts and feelings. According to the behaviorists, this is primarily for the benefit of psychology's development as a natural science. Every behavior is a result of a stimulus and an ensuing reaction, according to behaviorism, which is a learning theory that holds that all behavior can be acquired through either classical or operant conditioning.

An animal or human being, via the process of classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or responder conditioning), learns to correlate two unrelated stimuli with each other. Ivan Pavlov's canine studies and John Watson's contentious "Little Albert" study provide sufficient proof of this. Humans and animals, according to the theory of operant conditioning (also known as Skinnerian conditioning), acquire new behaviors by associating them with the elicitation of a desired response from their surroundings. Reward and punishment systems may either reinforce or decrease behavior. Skinner used rats and pigeons in his studies to prove the effectiveness of operant training.

While failing to provide a satisfactory explanation for human behavior, behavioral notions are commonly used in therapeutic settings, especially in the treatment of mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, and others. It has the potential to outperform cognitive, humanistic, and even psychoanalytic methods.

Differences: Social Cognitive Theory and Behaviorism

The following table highlights the major differences between Social Cognitive Theory and Behaviorism −


Social Cognitive Theory



Social cognitive theory is a learning theory which states that humans acquire new behavior by observing others and that learning occurs through the interaction between personal or cognitive factors, the behavior and the environment.

Behaviorism is a psychological approach and a learning theory which states that behavior is a function of stimulus and response and learning occurs through classical or operant conditioning.


Social cognitive theory was proposed by Albert Bandura.

Behaviorism is collection of works although most notable behaviorists are John Watson, Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

Core concepts

Social cognitive theory emphasizes observational learning, self-efficacy and the triadic reciprocal determinism.

Behaviorism emphasizes stimulus-response behaviors and classical and operant conditioning.

Perspective on learning

Social cognitive theory states that learning occurs through the interaction between personal, behavioral and environmental factors.

Behaviorism states that learning occurs through environmental (conditioning) factors only.


Social cognitive theory is evident in media modeling, where people model the behavior of influential people they see in the media.

Children are especially susceptible to modeling not just from the media but also from their parents, teachers and peers.

Behaviorism is widely used in clinical settings in the treatment of various mental illnesses such as phobias and depression.

Landmark publications

Social cognitive theory was formally proposed by Albert Bandura through his 1986 book Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory.

Behaviorism became a psychological force in America through John Watson’s 1913 article Psychology as the behaviorist views it.

Famous experiments

Albert Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiments were instrumental in developing his social cognitive theory.

John Watson’s ‘Little Albert’ experiment and Pavlov’s experiments on dogs and Skinner’s experiments on rats and pigeons contributed much to behaviorism.


Social Cognitive Theory and Behaviorism are two prominent theories in the field of psychology that attempt to explain human behavior and learning. Although they share some similarities, they also differ in several key ways.

Behaviorism focuses solely on the environmental factors that influence behavior, while Social Cognitive Theory takes into account the cognitive processes and social cues that also play a role in shaping behavior.

Additionally, Behaviorism views learning as a process of shaping behavior through reinforcement and punishment, while Social Cognitive Theory views learning as a more complex process that involves changes in thought and attitudes.

Updated on: 26-Apr-2023

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