Behaviorism vs social cognitive theory

In this article we will talk about 2 important currents of psychology: behaviorism and social cognitive theory. We will explain what each one consists of, what are their basic concepts and their differences and similarities.

Behaviorism vs social cognitive theory

Behaviorism suggests that the individual only learns behaviors taught through repetition and stimuli and reinforcements, while social cognitive theory looks for the way in which the person learns to design a way to make it more assimilable.

At the beginning of the 20th century, attempts by psychologists to examine the structure of the mind and the nature of consciousness were based on introspection, that is, on the verbalization of their thoughts and feelings, a methodology considered unsatisfactory by the American John Watson

Watson led in 1913 to his “statement of behaviorism”: a controversial advertisement where he stated that the goal of psychology should be to predict and control overt behavior, and not to describe and explain states of consciousness.

In this way, Watson redefined the field of research in psychology, profoundly influencing and revolutionizing his studies, totally rejecting introspectionism.

This rejecting behavioral psychologist limited the object of study of behavior to the observable, thus excluding the mind from scientific research activity, a black box within which it is impossible to see and verify what is happening.

To make the study of psychology scientific, therefore, it is necessary to limit ourselves to analyzing the stimulus-response sequence, the only observable and verifiable sequence, consequently restricting the scope of research to the study of learning:

Studying learning means investigating the changes that occur in the individual as a consequence of individual experience, that is, as a consequence of exposure to the specific characteristics of the environment in which each individual is immersed.

Basics of behaviorism

Next we define the main terms of the behaviorist theory.

1. Encouragement

This term refers to any signal, information or event that produces a reaction (response) from an organism.

2. Reaction

Any behavior of an organism that arises as a reaction to a stimulus.

3. Conditioning

Conditioning is a type of learning derived from the association between stimuli and responses.

4. Reinforcement

Reinforcement is any consequence of a behavior that increases the probability that it will happen again.

5. Punishment

Opposed to reinforcement: a consequence of a behavior that reduces the probability that it will occur again.

Development of behaviorism: the cognitive revolution

Behaviorism went into decline from the 1950s on, coinciding with the rise of cognitive psychology. Cognitivism is a theoretical model that emerged in reaction to behaviorism’s radical emphasis on overt behavior, leaving cognition aside.

The progressive inclusion of intervening variables in behaviorist models greatly favored this paradigm shift, known as the “cognitive revolution”.

In psychosocial practice, the contributions and principles of behaviorism and cognitivism would end up coming together in what we know as cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on finding the treatment programs most supported by scientific evidence.

Third generation therapies developed in recent years recover part of the principles of radical behaviorism, reducing the influence of cognitivism. Some examples are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Behavioral Activation Therapy for depression, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for borderline personality disorder.

Cognitive-Social Theory of Albert Bandura

The psychologist Albert Bandura is the most representative figure to explain the transition between behaviorism and cognitivism. Thanks to his perspective on the idea that dominated the behaviorist era, he changed his paradigm towards cognitive psychology, which is currently the most accepted.

In Albert Bandura’s cognitive-social theory, the model of reciprocal determinism stands out, which means that environmental factors, cognitive, personal, motivational, emotion, etc., all interact with each other reciprocally.


What does Social Learning Theory tell us?

Bandura’s theory of social learning is also known as observational or modeling learning. To put ourselves a little more in context, it should be remembered that we are in the 60s.

At this time, the weight of behaviorism continued to have its special relevance, where learning was conceived rather as a simple sending of information packages between an expert and a learner. One sent and the other received, the expert being the active core and the apprentice the passive core.

Albert Bandura, on his part, focused the focus of his interest and his studies beyond this behavioral reductionism. He was one of the first figures to turn his attention to the social field, as did Lev Vygotsky himself with his Sociocultural theory.

Thus, something that the renowned Canadian psychologist was very clear about is that there were children who assumed certain learning quickly without going through the classic trial-error stage. If this was the case, it was because of something very simple and obvious: through observation and its social environment.

In fact, something that Bandura demonstrated in studies such as the one published in the Journal of communication is that aggressiveness and violence itself also have a clear social and even imitative component.

The Bodo doll

The Bodo doll experiment is one of the best known in the field of psychology. Throughout 1961 and 1963 Bandura and his team sought to demonstrate the importance of observational learning in children.

Thus, and within this approach, it was also evidenced how the imitation of a model -an adult- has much more relevance in children than the simple fact of offering or removing reinforcement to establish a behavior, learning.

The experiment involved children between the ages of 3 and 6 who were attending the Stanford University nursery. The scene itself couldn’t be more shocking. In a room full of toys, an adult was hitting a large doll with a mallet under the gaze of a group of children.

In another experimental group, the adult represented a non-aggressive model and for a third group the aggressiveness was also accompanied by insults towards the Bodo doll.

The results could not be clearer: most of the little ones exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to act physically aggressive than those who were not exposed to said model.

On the other hand, something that Albert Bandura could also demonstrate with this experiment is that there are 3 basic forms of observational learning:

  • Through a live model, as is the case with a real person who performs a behavior.
  • Through verbal instruction, which involves telling details and descriptions of behavior.
  • The third refers to a symbolic way, such as the fictional characters in a book, a comic, a movie or even a real person whose behavior transcends through the media.

Processes that mediate Social Learning

Social Learning Theory is often described as a “bridge” between traditional learning theory (ie behaviorism) and the cognitive approach.

Bandura, unlike Skinner, always gave key importance to mental (cognitive) factors in learning, defining “learners” as active subjects when processing information and assessing the relationship between their behavior and possible consequences.

Therefore, we must not fall into the error of thinking that people imitate everything we see and that absolutely all children are going to carry out aggressive behaviors simply by watching violent scenes at home or on television.

There are thoughts before the imitation and there are mediators who will promote the imitation itself or a certain alternative response. These would be some of those mediators:

The environment

Our society is not similar, neither egalitarian nor homogeneous, but rather it is constructed and in turn produces the most varied environments and scenarios. There are more favorable, more favorable and there are more oppressive. Let’s take an example. Carlos is 11 years old and this year he has a new music teacher who is teaching them to play the violin.

During the first days, he was fascinated by that instrument, he wanted to have one, to learn much more… However, when he arrived home, to his unstructured and un-facilitating home, his father quickly took the idea out of his head. “That’s nonsense,” he yelled at her. Since then, Carlos has lost interest in the violin.

Vicarious attention or learning

For a behavior to be imitated it has to capture our attention, in some way arouse our interest and that of our mirror neurons. In our day to day we all observe many behaviors, however, they are not worth our interest …

Likewise, it should be noted that within social learning, Bandura gave special importance to vicarious learning, that is, the capacity that people have to obtain lessons from observing what others do.

Motivation and self-efficacy

Motivation is the engine, it is the will to perform a certain behavior that we see in others.

Now, at this point we also have to talk about vicarious learning. Because according to Bandura, it is not enough just to “observe” what others do, but also to see what rewards or what consequences others get for that particular behavior.

If the perceived rewards outweigh the perceived costs (if any) then the behavior will be imitated by the observer. On the other hand, if the vicarious reinforcement is not seen as important enough for the observer, then he will not imitate that behavior.

Likewise, and within motivation, self-efficacy is also key. As Bandura himself demonstrated in a study, when it comes to doing something, people assess whether we are able to carry out that task successfully. If we have not suffered previous aversive experiences and if we feel competent, the motivation will be greater.

To conclude, the Social Learning Theory was one of the most interesting qualitative leaps in the field of psychology. So much so, that we are not wrong when we say that Albert Bandura is still at 91 years old, one of the most appreciated, valued and decorated personalities in this field.

FAQS: Behaviorism vs social cognitive theory

What is behaviorism and social learning theory?

Behaviorism Considers that learning is stimulus-response conditioning, while the theory of social learning is based on the fact that there are types of learning where direct reinforcement is not the main teaching mechanism, but the social element can lead to the development of new learning between individuals.

Are social cognitive theory and social learning theory the same thing?

Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) started as the Social Learning Theory (SLT) in the 1960s by Albert Bandura.

What do behaviorism and cognitive psychology have in common?

Behaviorism and cognitivism share the use of instructional strategies, such as feedback.

How are the social learning theory and Behaviourism similar?

Behaviorism and social learning theory are similar in that they both hypothesize that operant and classical conditioning are pathways to behavior…

What is Skinner’s behaviorism theory?

Operant conditioning is a form of teaching, by which a subject is more likely to repeat forms of behavior that carry positive consequences and less likely to repeat those that carry negative problems.

In this article we talked about 2 important currents of psychology: behaviorism and social cognitive theory. We explained what each one consists of, what are their basic concepts and their differences and similarities.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Bandura, A., & McClelland, D. C. (1977). Social learning theory (Vol. 1). Prentice Hall: Englewood cliffs.

Nabavi, R. T. (2012). Bandura’s social learning theory & social cognitive learning theory. Theory of Developmental Psychology, 1-24.

Schneider, S. M., & Morris, E. K. (1987). A history of the term radical behaviorism: From Watson to Skinner. The Behavior Analyst, 10(1), 27-39.