Since the moment you were born, you’ve learned by watching those around you. In fact, this may explain some of your current behaviors.

Imagine stepping into your kitchen and being told to scramble eggs for the first time. Even if you’ve never cooked them yourself, you’ve likely seen others prepare this dish. You may have also eaten it before, so you know how it looks and tastes.

As a result of all of this, you’d likely be able to crack, scramble, and serve up the popular breakfast staple — even without any direct prior experience of your own.

This is called observational learning — that is, learning by watching others. In essence, that’s what social learning theory is all about.

Have you ever heard the phrase “monkey see, monkey do”? In short, that’s what social learning theory is. Only, it’s a bit more complex since we’re talking about human behavior.

Social learning theory states that behavior patterns come from observing and imitating other people, typically significant others.

In sum, the three main principles of social learning theory state that:

  1. You learn behaviors through observation.
  2. Your mental state plays a role in this learning process, including whether or not you’re motivated to engage in those behaviors.
  3. Observing a behavior in someone else may not lead to a change in your behavior, unless there’s some kind of positive reinforcement or reward.

The idea of social learning was introduced by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1960s through the Bobo doll experiment. This is one of the most famous series of experiments in the world of psychology.

In a 1961 study, Bandura took Bobo dolls (life-size inflatable clowns) and instructed adults to act aggressively toward them in front of preschool-age children. The goal was to see what the children would do after observing these behaviors.

The adults hit the Bobo doll with a mallet, threw the doll into the air, kicked it, then punched it on the ground.

Researchers then left children alone with the Bobo dolls. The children, particularly young boys, mimicked the adults’ behavior without any prompts to do so.

In a 1965 follow-up study on behavior consequences versus rewards, Bandura found that children were less likely to imitate adults if they saw the adults get punished for such behavior.

Similarly, they were more likely to imitate the adults if they saw the adults received rewards for it.

As in the Bobo doll experiment, when you see a behavior and then reproduce it, it’s called modeling.

Social learning theory says that behavior modeling has four main components:

  • Attention. You pay complete attention to the behavior.
  • Retention: You commit the behavior to memory.
  • Reproduction. You re-create the behavior.
  • Reinforcement. You are somehow rewarded for such behavior.

Modeling begins at an early age. Most children observe their primary caregivers and attempt to imitate some of their behaviors. This process continues on throughout life in many different scenarios.

How does this happen? The theory of social learning says there are three ways:

  • Live model: watching a person carrying out a behavior in front of you
  • Symbolic model: seeing a TV or movie character demonstrating a behavior
  • Verbal instructional model: hearing about a behavior through a teacher or a friend, listening to a podcast, reading about it in a book, or having a TikTok influencer explain it to you

Research from 2019 suggests that the rise of social media and “fitspiration” models have added a new dimension to social learning and modeling behaviors.

Before Bandura released his theory, psychologists mostly used a concept called behaviorism to explain how people pick up new information and engage in new behaviors.

According to 2018 research, behaviorism states that learning comes from interacting with your environment and being conditioned through positive or negative reinforcement. It’s a continuous process, actively shaping your views of the world.

For example, if you get behind the wheel of a car after you’ve had several drinks, a fender bender might teach you that it’s not a good idea to drive while intoxicated. That would be a behavior you learned through negative reinforcement of your experience.

Social learning, on the other hand, incorporates the idea that you don’t necessarily need to be the one to experience that car accident to know that it’s not a good idea to drink before getting behind the wheel.

You can hear about the consequences through others and learn that way, too.

Many factors are involved in the development of mental health symptoms. Research has yet to establish a root cause for all of them.

In sum, mental health conditions may stem from several factors, including:

  • brain chemistry
  • biological predispositions
  • genetic links
  • personality traits
  • underlying conditions
  • environmental factors

Social learning theory refers to the environmental factors.

Indeed, research has suggested that some mental health conditions have a strong social learning component. These include:

Anxiety

From an evolutionary standpoint, you have an advantage if you can pick up on the fear of those around you because that gives you have ample time to respond to danger.

If you watch other people anticipate danger, you may learn to do so, too. If the threat is not clear, however, you may learn that always being on alert is an effective way of anticipating danger.

Research from 2019 suggests this to be the case, although more variables may be at play.

Conduct disorder

Social learning theory is best known for explaining how children who witness violence may later become violent themselves. This is a core feature of conduct disorder.

A Chilean study from 2016 showed that children exposed to violent behaviors in their homes or communities are more likely to repeat these behaviors. They also have more emotional and behavioral complications down the line, particularly if their parents don’t display emotional warmth.

That same study found that these children were more likely to present symptoms of:

Depression

Research from 2016 has also found that children exposed to abuse or neglect may develop learned helplessness, a hallmark feature of depression.

The social learning theory may explain helplessness as a coping mechanism. It means that you were shown through difficult circumstances that, no matter what you do, you can’t get out of your situation.

Later, even if circumstances have changed, those feelings may be hard to shake.

Internalized stigma

Some 2021 research suggests that social learning theory may explain why some people live with internalized stigma about having a mental health condition, which can make symptoms worse.

First, you observe prejudice, bias, or discrimination from the public. Then, you internalize these negative ideas about yourself. As a result, you may experience reduced self-esteem and feel less optimistic about your ability to manage your condition.

Substance use disorder

Research from 2021 suggests that a combination of internal factors (like genetics) and environmental factors (like peer pressure and modeling) can impact how likely someone is to use substances.

In one study published in 2020, for example, cadets in Turkey who watched their fathers or peers smoke cigarettes were more likely to smoke cigarettes themselves.

Another 2018 study in New Zealand found that students who limited their alcohol intake were stigmatized, ostracized, and subjected to peer pressure to drink more.

Social learning theory is about explaining human behavior as a result of observing and copying other people’s actions and reactions.

The theory aims to explain that most of our behaviors — and some mental health conditions — have a strong social learning component. In other words, they come from having watched someone else do the same things.

If you’ve had positive reinforcement or rewards from engaging in those behaviors, you’re also more likely to repeat them.

While many mental health conditions may also be explained by biology and genetics, some symptoms seem to connect to what a person has learned from their environment.

In this sense, the theory might explain why you may develop a phobia or substance use disorder, for example.

Through the same lens, you could also be more likely to pursue treatment and support for a specific condition if you’ve learned from your environment that this behavior has its rewards.

Social learning theory is one of many psychological theories that attempt to explain human behavior. Do you agree with its principles?