Bandura's social cognitive theory emphasises the social origins of behaviour in addition to the cognitive thought processes that influence human behaviour and functioning. Bandura's social-cognitive approach represents a break from traditional theories by proposing that cognitive factors are central to human functioning and that learning can occur in the absence of direct reinforcement. That is, learning can occur simply through observation of models and in the absence of reinforcement.

Bandura: Basic concepts

Observational learning

Through a series of investigations, Bandura and Walters demonstrated that modelling is not merely a process of behavioural mimicry. Rather, through modelling people learn the value of particular behaviours with regard to goal achievement or outcomes.

Observational learning: Models and modelling

Bandura argued that some of the traditional principles of learning such as the laws of reinforcement and punishment are more relevant to performance than to acquisition.

According to Bandura, learning can occur outside the boundaries of pleasure and pain. Thus, people learn a great deal simply by watching or observing others, by reading about what people do, and by making general observations of the world. This learning may or may not be demonstrated in the form of behaviour.

Bandura proposed a four step conceptual scheme of the process involved in observational learning:

Step 1: This first step incorporates the attentional processes that are involved including certain model characteristics which may increase the likelihood of the behaviour being attended to. Step one also includes observer characteristics such as; sensory capacities, motivation and arousal levels, perceptual set, and past reinforcement.

Step 2: The second step refers to retention processes including the observer's ability to encode, to remember and to make sense of what has been observed.

Step 3: The third step refers to motor reproduction processes including the capabilities that the observer has to perform the behaviours being observed. Specific factors include; physical capabilities, and availability of responses.

Step 4: The final step refers to motivational processes including external reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement, and self-reinforcement. If a behaviour is to be imitated, an observer must be motivated to perform that behaviour

Reciprocal determinism

According to Bandura, behaviour is influenced by multiple determinants. The concept of reciprocal determinism proposes that these factors have an interactive effect on each other and that they exist in the environment as well as within the individual in the form of affect, cognition, and constitutional disposition.

External rewards and punishments, internal beliefs and expectancies all form part of a complex system. Consistent with the principles of systems, a change in one aspect requires a change in all others so that balance and equilibrium can once again be achieved.


Bandura used the term self-efficacy to refer to a person's belief that he or she can successfully carry "courses of action required to deal with prospective situations containing many ambiguous, unpredictable, and often stressful elements" (Bandura & Schunk, 1981: p.587). Therefore, self-efficacy is a person's belief that they have behavioural competence in a particular situation.

Research in the area has shown that self-efficacy judgements are related to whether or not an individual will undertake particular goal-directed activities, the amount of energy that he or she will put into their effort, and the length of time that the individual will persist in striving to achieve a particular goal.

What are the ways in which self-efficacy is acquired?

Among the sources of self-efficacy are:



The theory has been demonstrated to make powerful predictions and has generated useful applications in a large number of areas of human behaviour.

Empirical research

Bandura's theory is well grounded in research. Its terms are very tightly and clearly defined and so they lend themselves well to empirical research.

Probably the most significant contribution of social cognitive theory is its applied value.


Behaviour has been found to be more consistent than is argued by Bandura's theory which focuses a great deal on the situation. Some researchers have argued that the theory lacks attention to biological or hormonal processes.

Probably of most significance is the criticism that the theory is not unified. Concepts and processes such as observational learning and self-efficacy have been highly researched but there has been little explanation about the relationship among the concepts.