What is Social learning?

The definition of social learning is somewhat equivocal in the literature; with some scholars defining it in quite broader terms. Ison and Watson (2007), for instance, describe social learning “as achieving concerted action in complex and uncertain situations”. Others conceptualize it as a process of learning from each other which eventually leads to social change (Reed et al., 2010). Recently, a simpler characterization of social learning has been presented by Hoppitt (2013) stating it as any learning that is accentuated by reflection of, or interaction with, others in the surrounding.

The scope of social learning, as it might sound, is not limited to humans only. Instead, researchers have given a considerable attention to other animals such as monkeys (Kendal, 2009), fishes (Laland, et al. 2011), bees (Baracchi, D. et al. 2017) etc. and investigated how these animals acquire certain behaviors from their surroundings. A wide range of social learning practices has been found among animals where they acquired biologically important information not through communication or teaching, but from witnessing the actions of those in their surroundings. However, in its acute form, social learning is seen in human societies (Legare, and Nielsen, 2015).

History of Social Learning

Social learning manifested as a result of Bandura’s seminal work “Social learning: The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought” in 1977. He regarded social learning as a process through which individuals learn and this learning is affected by the social norms such as copying role models. However, later researchers critiqued Bandura’s concept and argued that no learning takes place out of social context (Reed et al., 2010).

Ultimately, the 1990s saw a shift in researchers’ attention from individual learning to organizational learning. This shift conceptualized that learning can ensue in numerous settings, including routines, bodies, dialogues, brains, and other social units (Blackler 1995). The proponents of this notion posited that social learning takes place in all the social units including communities of practice, institutions, or communities, vis-à-vis a huge number of individuals learning individually Armitage et al. 2008). Besides, the literature also seemed to emphasize that group procedures tend to overwhelm the learning and knowledge of individuals by developing a shared viewpoint of the surrounding (Janis, 1989). This argument is further strengthened by the study conducted by Argyris and Schön (1996) which stated that group learning is can do better than the sum of individual learning.

With the heightened impact of social learning on individuals’ decision making, social learning received the attention of many other fields because of its benefits for the overall society. Citizenship behavior among adults, for instance, was indoctrinated by using social learning practices (Reed et al., 2010). The underlying belief was that good citizenship behavior can best be inculcated not through words but rather through observation and active participation in the society (Benn, 2000).

Difference between Social Learning, Social Learning Theory and Social Cognitive Theory

Since the introduction of social learning, different social learning theories have been formulated. However, these theories have in common stress on the powerful interaction between humans and their surroundings (Maisto, Carey & Bradizza, 1999) and the resulting creation of sense and self (Muro and Jeffrey 2008). These theories perceive environment as the foremost power in growth (Hoffman et al., 1994). Literature classifies learning theories into three major categories namely, behaviorism, social learning theory, and social cognitive theory.

The following part is dedicated to explaining the difference between the latter two theirs.

Social learning theory (SLT) embodies a wide-ranging theory of behavior. It tends to be a major approach for understanding why individuals behave the way they do by integrating all the principles of learning and cognitive psychology (Maisto et al., 1999). It systematically elaborates how the social and individual proficiencies, generally called “personality”, develop from the social context in which learning happens. This theory was much appreciated by the then scholars and many fields used this theory to redesign their philosophies.  

However, by 1986, Bandura’s work took a more holistic turn and it led to the development of the Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) in 1986. This theory offers a framework for the comprehension, prediction, introducing change in individual behavior (Green & Peil, 2009).

Literature shows five cognitive characteristics that effect behavior in SCT. These characteristics are:

  1. Prospects of impending results and responses grounded on present condition;
  2. Indirect knowledge from others experiences;
  3. Prospects regarding forthcoming results influence how we mentally process new data;
  4. Expectations influence behavioral decisions; and
  5. Nonexistence of anticipated results have impacts.

In the cognitive science, nonetheless, social learning remains an untapped area up to a large extent (Heyes, 2012). A substantial quantity of knowledge is available regarding the adaptive functions of social learning which incorporates its role in social transmission, however, there is still a need to explore the cognitive processes underlying the social learning process.  


Argyris, C., and D. A. Schön. 1996. Organizational learning II: theory, method and practice. Addison Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, USA.

Armitage, D., M. Marschke, and R. Plummer. 2008. Adaptive co-management and the paradox of learning. Global Environmental Change 18:86-98.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning. The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought.

Baracchi, D. et al. (2017) Foraging bumblebees use social cues more when the task 544 is difficult. Behav. Ecol. arx143, DOI: org/10.1093/beheco/arx143

Benn, R. 2000. The genesis of active citizenship in the learning society. Studies in the education of adults. 32:241-256.

Blackler, F. 1995. Knowledge, knowledge work, and organizations: an overview and interpretation. Organization Studies 16:1021-1046.

Green, M., & Piel, J. A. (2009). Theories of human development: A comparative approach (second ed.): Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Heyes, C. (2012). What's social about social learning? Journal of Comparative Psychology, 126(2), 193.

Hoffman, L. N. W., Hoffman, L., Paris, S. G., & Hall, E. (1994). Developmental psychology today. McGraw-Hill College.

Hoppitt, W. and Laland, K.N. (2013) Social Learning Mechanisms: An Introduction 469 to Mechanisms, Methods and Models. Princeton University Press

Ison, R., & Watson, D. (2007). Illuminating the possibilities for social learning in the management of Scotland’s water. Ecology and society, 12(1).

Janis, I. 1989. Groupthink: the problems of conformity. Pages 224-228 in G. Morgan, editor. Creative organization theory. Sage, London, UK.

Kendal, R.L. et al. (2009) Identifying Social Learning in Animal Populations: A 548 New 'Option-Bias' Method. PLoS ONE 4, e6541

Laland, K.N. et al. (2011) From fish to fashion: experimental and theoretical 546 insights into the evolution of culture. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 366, 958–968

Legare, C.H. and Nielsen, M. (2015) Imitation and innovation: The dual engines of 471 cultural learning. Trends Cognit. Sci. 19, 688–699

Maisto, S. A., Carey, K. B., & Bradizza, C. M. (1999). Social learning theory. Psychological theories of drinking and alcoholism, 2, 106-163.

Muro, M., and P. Jeffrey. 2008. A critical review of the theory and application of social learning in participatory natural resource management. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 51:325-344.

Reed, M. S., Evely, A. C., Cundill, G., Fazey, I., Glass, J., Laing, A., ... & Stringer, L. C. (2010). What is social learning? Ecology and society, 15(4).

Daniel Shen

Daniel Shen