Social Learning Therapy

What is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory, first developed by Albert Bandura, theorizes that you learn within your social environment. In other words, you learn about yourself, others and the world around you from observing, modeling and imitating the attitudes, reactions and behaviors of others. Social learning theorists believe that both environmental and cognitive factors influence how you think and behave. This theory is also referred to as cognitive learning theory.

What Issues Are Treated With Social Learning Therapy?

Therapists that practice from a social learning perspective are called social learning therapists. These therapists treat a variety of psychological and non-psychological issues such as: anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress syndrome, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, substance abuse, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder obsessive-compulsive disorder, social skill development such as public speaking and/or confidence-building, behavioral skills.

How Does Social Learning Therapy Approach Psychological Issues?

According to the social learning theory, you learn new behaviors by watching other people. Social learning therapists believe that these changes are more effective when they occur in a supervised, safe and secure environment.

The three elements that are crucial for success using the social learning theory are:

  • Model – This is a person who actually performs the desired behaviors.
  • Verbal Instruction – This occurs when a person describes the desired behaviors (in detail) and then instructs you to demonstrate those behaviors.
  • Symbolic – This involves taking an in-depth look at how the media, movies, television, internet, books, plays and poems and music influence how you think, feel and behave.

Social learning therapists believe that your actions, environment and personal characteristics equally influence each other. To better fully grasp social learning therapy it is important that you understand the modeling process.

The modeling process consists of the following steps:

1. Attention – In order for you to learn a new behavior you must pay close attention to what the model is doing. For example, if you are trying to model better communication skills, you must focus on how the model or “teacher” communicates with people.

2. Retention – It is also important that you remember what the model did so that you can repeat the desired behaviors in the future. For example, if you see someone handle a hostile situation in a positive manner, then it is important that you remember exactly what you saw so that you can apply what you say to your own situations.

3. Reproduction – During the modeling process, you must apply what you have learned to your everyday life. This part of the process takes time and will improve with time and practice. For example, if you learn a positive way to cope with a stressful situation, it is important that you continuously work on using the positive coping technique whenever that situation arises.

4. Motivation – In order for you to successfully change your behavior and solve your issues there must be some type of reward driving you to want to change. If there is no incentive to change your behavior, you will not change, regardless of whether or not the other factors are present. For example, if you are addicted to drugs and alcohol, there must be an incentive for you to stop using. This incentive may be repairing damaged relationships, unhappiness and/or saving your life. If you do have any reason to stop abusing drugs and alcohol, you will not stop.

What Are The Goals of Social Learning Therapy?

The goals of social learning therapy include:

  • To reduce aggressive behaviors
  • To foster positive changes within your family
  • To increase family unity
  • To encourage empathy
  • To support healthy relationships
  • To reduce conflicts
  • To strengthen problem-solving skills

What Happens During Social Learning Therapy Sessions?

Social learning therapy sessions consist of four stages (pre-treatment, treatment, generalization and follow-up). Each session focus on a different area of social learning training.

Topics may include the following:

  • Self-Control
  • Reinforcement
  • Support
  • Family Involvement
  • Willpower
  • Goals
  • Communication

Is Social Learning Therapy Effective?

Yes, social learning therapy is highly effective.Studies indicate that those who sought social learning therapy experienced positive behavioral changes at work, home and/or school, a decrease in undesirable behaviors and an increase in desirable behaviors, improvement in problem-solving capabilities, family unity, empathy and a reduction in conflicts.


Bandura, A. (2007). Much ado over faulty conception of perceived self-efficacy grounded in faulty experimentation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(6), 641-758.

McCullough, C. A. (2011). Social learning theory and behavioral therapy: Considering human behaviors within the social and cultural context of individuals and families. Social Work Public Health, 26(5), 471-481.


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