Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment in Psychiatry

General Developmental Theories-Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory

Bandura’s social learning theory, though acknowledging the constraints of biological origins and the role of neural mediating mechanisms, emphasizes the role of the individual’s experience of the environment in development. Other learning theories are based on the organism’s direct performance of behaviors, whereas social learning theory posits that most learning occurs vicariously by observing and imitating models. For survival and growth, humans are designed to acquire patterns of behavior through observational learning. Social behavior in particular is a function of one’s social learning history, instigation mechanisms, and maintaining mechanisms.

Four processes govern social learning: (1) attention, which regulates exploration and perception; (2) memory, through which observed events are symbolically stored to guide future behavior; (3) mo- tor production, through which novel behaviors are formed from the integration of constituent acts with observed actions; and (4) incentives and motivation, which regulate the performance of learned responses. Development involves biological maturation in these processes as well as the increasingly complex storage of contingencies and response repertoires in memory.

Instigation mechanisms include both biological and cognitive motivators. Internal aversive stimulation might activate behavior through its painful effect (on hunger, sex, or aggression). Cognitively based motivators are based on the organism’s capacity to represent mentally future material, sensory, and social consequences. Mentally represented consequences provide the motivation for action.

Maintaining mechanisms include external reinforcement (eg, tangible rewards, social and status rewards, reduction of aversive treatment), punishment, vicarious reinforcement by observation, and self-regulatory mechanisms (eg, self-observation, self-judgment through attribution and valuation, self-applied consequences). Development in social learning theory is decidedly not stage-like and has few constraints. For example, Bandura argued that even relatively sophisticated moral thought and action are possible in young children, given relevant models and experiences.

Applications of the Theory

Social learning theory has been applied most effectively to aggressive behavior, where it has provided powerful explanations for the effects of coercive parenting, violent media presentations, and rejecting-peer interactions on the development of chronic aggressive behavior. Furthermore, it provides the basis for most current behavior-modification interventions in clinical practice.

Criticisms of the Theory

Critics dispute the primacy of cognitive mediation in understanding learning effects and the relative emphasis on environmental influences over genetic and biological influences.

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