What Is Social Cognitive Theory?

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  • Written By: Marlene de Wilde
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2019
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Social cognitive theory posits that people acquire and maintain behavioral patterns according to triadic reciprocal determinism incorporating behavior, personal factors and the environment. The key figure in the theory is Albert Bandura, a Canadian psychologist, who developed the theory based on the theory of social learning put forward by Miller and Dollard in 1941. The three factors — behavior, personal factors and the environment — influence each other in a reciprocal manner and the importance of each one varies according to individual reactions and behavioral changes.

Behavior influences and is influenced by environment, which in turn influences and is influenced by personal factors such as cognitive, affective and biological events. Personal factors influence and are influenced by behavior and so the interactive model of social cognitive theory is formed. Social cognitive theorists reject the traditional model of behavior being explained by unidirectional causation where behavior is shaped and controlled by either environmental influences or personal factors. They maintain that behavior, cognition and other internal dispositions and the environment operate as interacting determinants where one source of influence may be stronger than the others or different ones operate at different times.


The interaction between personal factors and behavior involves the interaction between thought, affect and action. Behavior is affected by the way the individual thinks, believes and feels; and the way he thinks, believes and feels is affected by the effects of his behavior. This aspect of the social cognitive theory model also includes biological properties such as physical structure and the sensory and neural systems influencing behavior. Behavior, in turn, affects the sensory systems and brain structures.

Personal factors also influence and are influenced by the environment. What people expect, believe, feel and think are changed by social influences such as modeling, instruction and social persuasion. Social reactions are affected by the way people behave. For example, someone who has an aggressive or hostile demeanor will evoke different reactions to someone who is of a milder disposition. This can then reinforce the behavior, which is where behavior influences and is influenced by the environment.

According the social cognitive theory, people are both products and producers of their environment. Life experience reflects and is reflected by the path people take through life, with different factors influencing each individual. For some, biological factors may play a large part in the way their life twists and turns while for others, sociocultural changes or environmental factors figure largely in their life path. The factors, however, are not static but dynamic and a change in one will result in changes in the others.


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