Cognitive Social Learning Theories

There are two main cognitive social learning theories, those of Bandura and Mischel. Bandura pioneered the study of observational learning (or vicarious conditioning). He believed that, rather than operating in a mechanistic way, reinforcement provides information about future reinforcement. Such information can be gleaned by watching models' behavior rather than by behaving in a particular way and experiencing the consequences oneself. Note how this definition of reinforcement differs from that of Skinner, for whom one had to experience reinforcement personally to increase a target behavior. Note also that for Bandura, thinking is not an irrelevant activity that occurs within a "black box," but rather is an important object of study in its own right.

A number of points distinguish the cognitive social approach from other approaches, including the following.

  1. Cognitive Focus--Remember Skinner and the "black box"? This approach is nothing like that. For example, memory of past reinforcements is an important variable mediating stimulus and response.

  2. Social-Interpersonal Focus--Remember Skinner and the generalization from pigeons and rats to all organisms (including humans)? This approach is nothing like that. Instead, the focus is on human behavior in particular situations, and the most important situational variable is other people.

  3. Belief in Human Freedom and Choice--Remember Skinner and the call to go "beyond freedom and dignity" to scientific understanding and control of human behavior? This approach is nothing like that. Instead, there is a belief in human choice from a number of possible behaviors. The environment does not only influence the person--the person also influences the environment. (This is called reciprocal determination.)

Seligman's theory of learned helplessness originally applied to dogs tested in a shuttle box with a divider separating two sides. Dogs who were shocked on one side eventually jumped over to the other, and, finding that they were not shocked there, learned the jumping response. However, dogs who were initially shocked uncontrollably failed to learn the jumping response, even if they did happen to jump over randomly once or twice.

The phenomenon of learned helplessness bears much in common with depression in humans. The theory was reformulated in order to take account of explanatory style, i.e., the way people explain negative events to themselves. People who have a pessimistic explanatory style explain negative events as stable, global, and internal. Such people are more predisposed to depression than people with an optimistic explanatory style, who explain negative events as unstable, specific, and external.

Activity: How does Bandura's learning theory differ from those of Pavlov and Skinner?

| Home | Syllabus | Methods | Traits | Factor Analysis | Intelligence | PEN | Impulsivity | Phenomenology | Behaviorism | Selection | Cognitive Social | Psychoanalysis | Analytic | Situation |