Difference Between Social Learning Theory and Operant Conditioning

Both social learning theory and operant conditioning seek to provide explanations for how people acquire new skills and modify existing ones. Social learning and operant conditioning focus on human behavior, although learning has been documented in animals and even certain plants. These two theories, both of which were developed in the middle of the twentieth century, are a component of the larger behaviorist school of psychology that studies only externally observable, conditioned behaviors and ignores the more difficult to study, internally motivated ones.

In both cases, an explanation of the learning process is sought, although the two hypotheses were put out by different people at separate eras. Understanding how learning happens and what constitutes each of these philosophies is a primary emphasis of each of these schools of thought. The ways in which they provide evidence of that learning are also distinctive. Detailed descriptions of these various learning theories and their distinctions follow.

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 behaviours 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 behaviour, which entails both information extraction and decision making based on the observed behaviour (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).

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning, often called Skinnerian conditioning and instrumental learning, is a theory of learning in which actions are linked to their outcomes. Reinforcement, punishment, and extinction are essential ideas in this theory. Both positive and negative reinforcement can be used to improve the chance that a person will repeat a behavior. Rewarding behavior with favorable stimuli is an example of positive reinforcement. To remove a negative stimulus that was there before the behavior was performed is an example of negative reinforcement.

There are two types of punishment that reduce the chance of a certain act being repeated, however both are sometimes included together in textbooks. The first involves the use of negative reinforcement after a misbehavior has occurred. The second kind involves punishing the behavior after it has been performed by removing any reinforcement. Extinction refers to the pace and duration at which a behavior is forgotten after reinforcement and punishment have been removed, and is the third component of operant training.

As the leading behavioral psychologist who pioneered the study of operant conditioning, Burrhus Frederic Skinner used ingenious experiments with rats and pigeons to illustrate the effectiveness of this method of learning. Positive and negative stimuli were presented to the test individuals in varied doses and time intervals.

Through these tests, he discovered that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative punishment for molding behavior, and he also learned how much and how often to reward a given behavior to have the most impact. These discoveries have led to numerous practical uses, including but not limited to: schools, jails, rehabilitation centers, psychiatric hospitals, the military, police, and disabled people's assistance through the use of trained animals. Yet, it fails to account for individual differences in genetics and cognition in its approach to learning. Furthermore, it has been argued that the differences between animal and human anatomy and physiology make it impossible to extrapolate results from animal research.

Differences: Social Learning Theory and Operant Conditioning

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


Social Learning Theory

Operant Conditioning


Social learning theory proposes that learning occurs through observation.

Operant conditioning proposes that learning occurs when behavior is followed by consequences.

Key concepts

Key concepts in the social learning theory are identification with a model, reinforcement and meditational processes.

Operant conditioning explains how reinforcement, punishment and extinction work.


Social learning cannot account for covert behaviors such as thinking and feeling and has heavy emphasis on environment (nurture on the nature vs. nurture discussion) as the main influence on behavior.

Operant conditioning does not take into account hereditary and cognitive factors and has the argument against it on extrapolating animal experiments onto humans.


Albert Bandura is the proponent of social learning theory.

B.F. Skinner was the foremost psychologist who worked on operant conditioning.

Famed experiments

Social learning was demonstrated in the Bobo Doll experiment.

Skinner demonstrated operant conditioning in his rat and pigeon experiments.

Other terminology

Social learning theory was later renamed by Bandura to social cognitive theory.

Operant conditioning is also known as Skinnerian conditioning and instrumental learning.


Social learning theory and operant conditioning are two important theories of learning in psychology, but they have different assumptions, processes, and implications. Social learning theory emphasizes the role of observation, imitation, and modeling in shaping behavior, while operant conditioning emphasizes the role of consequences in shaping behavior.

Both theories are valuable for understanding how behavior is learned and changed, and they can be used together to provide a comprehensive understanding of human behavior.

Updated on: 26-Apr-2023

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