Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists tended to believe that the explanations offered by classical and operant conditioning were fully adequate to understand human behaviour. Classical conditioning is a form of learning in which a conditioned and unconditioned stimulus become associated, such that the former comes to elicit a response previously elicited only by the latter. It is also known as the Pavlovian or respondent conditioning. Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which voluntary behaviour becomes more or less likely to be repeated depending on its consequences. It is also known as Skinnerian or instrumental conditioning. However, it is now believed that there are many other factors involved in human behaviour, such as cognitive factors, especially observational learning / modeling, and as most of these are based around experience, they are often grouped loosely together under the umbrella term of the social learning mechanisms.
Dollars and Miller (1950) stated that, in humans, most learning is social and acquired through observing other people in social situations. Their Social Learning Theory, whilst having its roots in Skinnerian principles, aims to offer a more complex theory of learning in humans within a social context. Bandura (1977) states: "Learning would be extremely laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do". According to Bandura, the major theorist in the social learning theory, learning occurs in two ways: Response consequences and modeling / observational learning. Response learning is not dissimilar to the approach adopted by Skinner, in that the behaviors, which occur as a result of such learning can either, be reinforcing or punishing. Modeling or observational learning, Bandura et al.
(1961) argued, is a form of secondary learning, by which we observe and model our behavior o those around us. Bryan and Test (1967) also stated that behavior could be learned through learning. Imitation, as it is also termed, is a less time consuming alternative to operant conditioning, which has proved to be a long and tedious process. It also allows us to see quickly which actions are viewed of acceptable and those that are not, and also, those actions that are likely to have pleasant consequences.
These reinforcements can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic means that the effect of the reinforcement will be immediate and will have direct consequences for us e.g. diving into a swimming pool has the immediate and direct consequence for you of getting wet. However, the effect and consequences of extrinsic reinforcements may take longer, such as attending classes, which may not give you instant reinforcement, but the result of getting a good mark at the end of those classes will. Hence, the theorists no longer perceive reinforcement as an intimate drive as there can be a lapse of time between the action taking place and the reinforcement that follows. The social learning theory differs to the behaviorist theories of Classical and Operant conditioning in that they see the mechanism by which we learn as that of vicarious learning, with the key to this being empathy; how we experience another person's emotions though we are not in their body. According to the social learning theory, we are influenced by the reinforcement they receive, whether this is positive or negative.
It is the emotion, the empathy that creates a link between what you are observing and the process of feeling the reinforcer yourself. It is possible to experience both vicarious reinforcement and vicarious punishment, even though at no point does the observers actually have to carry out the behavior themselves. There are other aspects to help explain the way in which we learn. One of these is the area of meta cognition, an understanding of how our mind works. e.g. we learn how to go about learning something, we learn what we can and cannot do. There has been a significant amount of research studies carried out in this area which have shown that our meta cognitive skills are important in determining how we interact with others, which will in turn affect the type of social reinforcement we receive. We also develop a theory of mind, which we use to interpret other people's behavior, which is a fundamental aspect of human interaction.
It is an important learning mechanism as we learn to adjust our behavior to the accepted norms and values of society. It also forms an important basis for the social mechanisms involved in conformity and obedience to social norms. In a series of studies throughout the 1960's and 1970's, Bandura et al, illustrated how influential observational learning can be in relation to the acquisition of social rules by children. The main focus of Bandura's work was around a Bobo doll, a large inflatable rubber figure. Children would be split into two groups, one group would observe a model playing with such a doll in an aggressive manner and the other would observe the model playing with it in a placid manner with the doll. The children would then be allowed to play with a Bobo doll themselves.
The children's level of aggression towards the doll were recorded and it was found that children who had observed the model acting in an aggressive manner towards the doll would explicit this type of behaviour towards the doll more frequently than children who had observed the model playing placidly with the Bobo doll. It was also found that the effects on the child's behaviour were stronger if; the model observed by the child was of the same sex, the model was someone that the child looked up to (a role model) or it the behaviour of the model was rewarded rather then punished. Despite methodological problems with such research conducted by the social learning theorists, this theory has been influential in offering a possible explanation for how people learn behaviours. Hanna and Meltzoff (1993) also studied observational learning and reported that they too found that this particular type of learning begins at a very early age, they demonstrated that it could even begin in infants as young as one.
It is therefore possible to see, that the Social Learning Theory is similar to the key concepts that form the basis of Operant conditioning, developed by Skinner, in relation to the reward and punishment section of the theory, in that a child is more likely to imitate an observed behaviour that is rewarded that when punished. It is at this stage in the theory that the concepts of expectancy and inhibition are introduced. Expectancy is that which actually maintains behaviour after it has been observed in others e.g. a child sees another child being rewarded with a sweet for sitting quietly. The child observing empathizes and hence finds itself in a similar situation expecting to be rewarded in the same way as the original child. Expectancy is a cognitive term, and hence is non-observable. It is a mental phenomenon, which goes on inside the child's head.
This is an improvement on the work of behaviorists such as Skinner, who would have stated that if something were non-observable it would have been inappropriate to study. As the Social Learning Theory incorporates cognition, it is therefore after referred to as the Cognitive Social Learning Theory. The term inhibition refers to when for some reason, we chose not to perform a behaviour that we have previously learned. Skinner proposed that this is not possible by performing an experiment of rats, which had to press a lever to obtain food. He stated that the only way that this behaviour would become extinct would be if the food was withdrawn, the rat could not choose to stop. However, this has been challenged by the Social Learning Theorists who state that human beings will often learn a behaviour but choose not to display it, especially if it is anticipated that the behaviour will not be rewarded or if we anticipate that it will be punished.
These two concepts provide a radical shift from the position of Skinner in that the concepts of expectancy and inhibition allow the organism to have some control over its behaviour, this control coming from within rather that without. The complexity of social learning also implies that children need to have appropriate models to learn from, and appropriate social expectations around them, if they are not to find themselves later in opposition to their society. In 1974, Bronfenbrenner conducted observational studies of child rearing practices in Russia and the United States of America, and argued that because, at the time, Russia was very much more efficient in transmitting expected social norms and ideas to it's children than America, the children were much less likely to progress to the adult world alienated and disaffected from their society, than children in America. He argued that the social expectations and mechanisms which encourage us to feel part of a society and to share in that societies goals, and the systematic approach to the way in which children are socialized, are likely to be beneficial, both to the individual and to the society. In conclusion, it is possible to see that the basic structures involved in the learning process of human development, are considerably more complex than early psychologists such as Pavlov and Skinner (the founders of Classical and Operant conditioning) first thought. Children acquire their knowledge, understanding and skills through a varied means of social processes, all of which help them to learn the appropriate level of behaviour for their society.