Difference Between Social Cognitive Theory and Social Learning Theory

Both social cognition theory and social learning theory attempt to explain how individuals pick up new social skills, with the former primarily focusing on the idea that people learn through observing others. Both ideas disregard intangibles like innate talent or background knowledge in favor of the observable actions of individuals. The term "social" is used to describe the way in which we learn and repeat activities that are not particularly social in character but are still influenced by our interactions with others.

Both of these theories derive from behaviorist traditions in their emphasis on rote behavior at the expense of conscious consideration and feeling. Nonetheless, both models agree that brain activity plays a part in education and behavior. The two are so similar that they are sometimes said to come from the same mind: that of Albert Bandura.

As a result of Bandura's seminal contributions, social learning theory is often indistinguishable from social cognitive theory. This article draws a line between the two based on Bandura's Social Foundations of Cognition and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory from 1986.

The field of social cognitive theory is more comprehensive than that of social learning theory, despite the former's relative seniority. Yet while Bandura alone deserves credit for social cognitive theory, numerous authors contributed to what is now known as social learning theory. In what follows, we will elaborate on these two hypotheses and briefly summarize their key differences.

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, behavioural 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 behaviour they watch from a model with or without incentive. When they see the behaviour modelled and rewarded, they are more likely to imitate it. Obviously, if the kids are rewarded for their good behaviour, 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 Social Learning Theory?

The central tenet of social learning theory, a kind of cognitivist behaviorism, is that new behaviors may be picked up by merely witnessing them and their results in context. Although much of this body of knowledge is attributed to Bandura, social learning theory is really the result of the combined efforts of many different people. The theory was developed from a fusion of psychoanalytic and behaviorist ideas.

Social Learning Theory was written by Neil Miller and John Dollard and first published in 1941. They argued that people's conduct is prompted by biological urges and reinforced by social contact. Meanwhile, in 1954, Julian B. Rotter released his book Social Learning and Clinical Psychology.

According to Rotter's theory, novelty in behavior emerges when individuals anticipate a beneficial consequence, and such behaviors are rewarded when they materialize. The concept of social learning has also been explored in sociology. Robert Burgess and Ronald Akers, two criminologists, combined Edwin Sutherland's Differential Association Theory with that of operant conditioning and social learning to provide a complete theory of the acquisition of criminal conduct. Despite it all, cognitive viewpoints insist that a great deal of novel behavior is learnt and reproduced even without repetition and reward.

Bandura studied how people pick up new behaviors in a social setting at this time in the development of the social learning theory. Bandura's seminal Bobo Doll Experiments led him to the results that would eventually form the backbone of contemporary social learning theory.

To begin, learning takes place by observation of a model's behavior, which entails both information extraction and decision making based on the observed behavior (modeling or observational learning). Second, models may learn from their actions by watching the results of those actions (vicarious reinforcement). A third reason why education is a cognitive-behavioral process is because observation is a cognitive talent. Finally, a student mimics the role model with whom he or she most identifies or to whom he or she has the strongest emotional bond (identification).

Differences: Social Cognitive Theory and Social Learning Theory

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


Social Cognitive Theory

Social Learning Theory


Social cognitive theory is the expanded form of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory which states that learning can occur by observing a behavior and that the manifestation of that behavior in the learner is regulated by the triadic reciprocal determinism between personal (cognitive) factors, the behavior itself, and by the environment (reinforcement).

Social learning theory is a learning theory that proposes that learning occurs in a social context by means of observation of the behavior and the consequences that follow it.


Social cognitive theory was proposed by Albert Bandura alone.

Social learning theory is a collective work, with the most contribution coming from Bandura but with earlier contributions from Neil Miller and John Dollard, Julian Rotter, and Robert Burgess and Ronald Akers, as well as an influence from cognitive perspectives on learning.

Core concepts

Core concepts in the social cognitive theory are human agency, observational learning and its four meditational processes (attention, retention, production, motivation), triadic reciprocal determinism between cognitive, behavioral and environment factors, and self-efficacy.

In social learning theory, the core concepts are observational learning, reinforcement (direct or vicarious), learning as a cognitive-behavioral process, and identification with a model.

Role of cognitive factors

In the social cognitive theory, cognitive factors play an important and equal role with environmental factors in the acquisition of new behavior and in its production.

In social learning theory, the cognitive factors are only acknowledged to play a role in the acquisition of new behavior but not much or none at all in its production.

Role of reinforcement

In the social cognitive theory, reinforcement or environmental factors has an equal role with cognitive factors in the learning and production of behavior.

In social learning theory, consequences and reinforcement play a major role in the acquisition and production of behavior.


Social cognitive theory has a broader theoretical scope as it includes a conceptualization of humans as agents capable of shaping their environment and of self-regulation.

Social learning theory on the other hand is limited to tackling the learning process in the social context.


SCT and SLT are two distinct theories that attempt to explain human behavior and how it is shaped by the environment and past experiences. While they share some common principles, they also differ significantly in their explanations of how behavior is learned and maintained.

SCT emphasizes the role of mental processes in shaping behavior, while SLT focuses on the role of observation and imitation. Additionally, SCT views motivation as a cognitive process, while SLT views it as a function of reinforcement and punishment.

Updated on: 26-Apr-2023

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