≡ Menu

We as humans construct our personalities and beliefs based on the multitude of aspects; amongst which the aspect of social influence plays a pivotal role. As we are social beings, we structure and design our perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours through the interactions around our social networks. Therefore, it is fitting to make the notion that our environment makes the most of us.

The society holds a big share in influencing and moulding our ideas and our internal schema about the world. This incessantly mentioned concept of society starts from home and extends itself to the entire global community.

What Is The Social Cognitive Theory?

The Social cognitive theory is developed by the renowned Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1980s. He is a behavioural psychologist and is well known in the field of psychology for the classic experiment called the “Bobo doll experiment” which was conducted to understand observational learning in children. This experiment served as an underlying principle for many important findings later in the field of psychology.

The Social cognitive theory which was earlier called social learning theory claims that humans acquire beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors by observing environmental events and vicariously learning from them. For example, a child holds a certain view about the world by observing the people around and the nature of interactions which take place.

Unlike other theories which are unidirectional, social cognitive theory adopts a bi-directional perspective to understand human behavior.

This theory holds an agentic view about humans, believing that people are independent beings and have the autonomy of behavior. This theory formulates that humans are self-regulating, self-reflecting, proactive and self-organizing species. Although humans learn from their environment, they are also guided by their internal consciousness and personal agency.

People have the power to produce the results they wish to attain. This theory, therefore, attempts to claim that humans are both people of personal agency and prey to external influences.

This theory adopts triadic reciprocal causation where personal determinants, behavioral determinants and environmental determinants are constantly interacting with each other in influencing a behavior.

Personal determinants include knowledge, expectations, and attitudes one possesses about a behavior. Behavioral determinants refer to skills, self-efficacy and practice and environmental determinants are the societal norms, access and influence on others.

This Theory Hypothesizes The Four Primary Capabilities Of Humans:

  1. Symbolizing Capability: This says that humans not only learn from direct experiences but also through the experiences of the people surrounding them. For example, to learn from an experienced person the dos and don’ts of running a business instead of taking a leap of faith.
  2. Self-Regulatory Capability: This aspect claims that humans are considered as a capable, self-regulatory individuals. They are not only knowledgeable but are also action-oriented people.
  3. Self-Reactive Capability: SCT theorizes that humans are bestowed with the self-reactive capability which is to look within and reflect on oneself meta-cognitively and self-evaluate.
  4. Vicarious Capability: The tendency for humans to observe and learn from their environment is vicarious capability. Without this ability, human evolution would’ve become a big struggle.

The Classic Bobo Doll Experiment

Albert Bandura conducted a classic experiment to explain the occurrence of learning through observations. In this experiment, he divided a group of children into three groups; two experimental groups and one control group.

The participants of one experimental group were shown a video of a person playing with a Bobo doll aggressively by punching. The other experimental group was shown a video of a person playing with a Bobo doll gently and kindly. The control group was not shown any videos.

The participants were then sent to a room with the Bobo doll and the researchers observed them from a one-sided mirror. As the researchers predicted, the participants who watched the aggressive video played more aggressively with the doll compared to the group which was shown a non-aggressive video and the control group.

From this experiment, Bandura concluded that behaviors can also be influenced by social models who act as the inspiration behind behaviors.

The Motivational Factors Of Social Cognitive Theory:

  1. Modeling: People are likely to engage in a behavior if they observe others modeling that behavior and experiencing the positive outcomes through it.
  2. Outcome Expectations: People usually imitate the behaviors of others keeping in mind the nature of the outcome expected. Reinforcements are the major drivers of observational learning. For example, Kelly avoids drunk driving because she is aware of the ill fate of her friend who committed that mistake.
  3. Self-Efficacy: Bandura argues that although people learn vicariously from others if they lack the efficacy to go ahead with their decision, they are unlikely to do it. Self-efficacy is the belief one has about their abilities. For example, although Lionel knew that signing up for the quiz would boost his grades, he failed to do so because he wasn’t sure if he would crack it.

Social Cognitive Theory In Media

The role of mass media has taken the world by storm over the past few decades. News and information from across the globe are easily accessible with just the tap of our fingers. When a medium such as this has immense salience, it also holds the power to influence and coerce people through its style of portrayal.

Mass media has united the entire world and made it one global platform. It has efficiently facilitated in understanding a variety of cultures, keeps us updated about some of the world’s important reformations, and helps reach a wide population, and spread awareness about various social causes and what not.

The tendency of humans to perceive abstractly or symbolically makes media an important source of information. The implication of the social cognitive theory is vast, especially in the field of mass communication or media.

As mentioned above, media holds an integral position in portraying events and delivering a message. Although this is a great tool to attain numerous positive changes in society, it can also show some downfalls.

From the literature related to the studies correlating social cognitive theory and mass media, it has been used to explain two kinds of effects of media: unintended effects and intended effects.

Unintended Media Effects

In talking about unintended media effects, over the years the positive and the negative consequences are frequently studied where social cognitive theory can be easily applied to understand the behavioral consequences. When media becomes swamped with attractive models engaging in a negative behavior, one can naturally assume that this behavior would be imitated. Sometimes, modeling of behaviors happens during the most non-deliberate attempts.

For example, a study conducted by Gidwani, Sobol, DeJong, Perrin, and Gortmaker (2002) found that the audience initiated smoking after watching a television show which portrayed the negative consequences of smoking.

In another example, in another television show, the positive and negative consequences of premarital sex was shown and when the viewers watched the negative consequence, their attitude about premarital sex became negative. On the other hand, when they watched the positive consequences of premarital sex, their attitude about premarital sex didn’t become more positive whatsoever.

Above studies conclude that an individual can have a pure consciousness on pursuing a behavior.

Intended Media Effects

Media has been extensively used for positive changes in society in many instances. Social cognitive theory has not only been able to explain the unintended effects but also the intended effects of media. Researchers used this theory to maximize the positive effects of the content portrayed and this is done substantially through a method called E-E which stands for Entertainment Education.

Entertainment education is used for amplifying the positive consequences of positive attitudes and behaviors using media. It is used for observational learning and behavioral modeling. This has proven to be of great success as this is a smart method to impart knowledge in a sugarcoated manner without triggering the audiences’ defenses.

This strategy has been used to educate the audiences about various things such as AIDS prevention, usage of contraceptives, literacy, gender equity and sex education.

Another strategy to enable observational learning is through health campaigns. Unlike E-E this method focuses particularly on the self-efficacy part and shows the audience the process, the required encouragement, and the confidence to pursue a particular positive behavior. Results of many studies reveal that this method is proven effective as the models make the process seem simple and provide the necessary motivation and encouragement to initiate a behavioral change.

Social Cognitive Theory And The Current Trends In Media

1. Social Media:

The media platform has been broadened today and holds a much higher scope than a decade ago. Applications such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn etc. have redefined the meaning of media and shown far higher prospects. Social cognitive theory can successfully be applied to the current trends in media as well.

New professional sectors have emerged through these platforms such as online shopping, online courses and another novel online-based role is influencing where people call themselves influencers and spread awareness about various social causes and advertise a variety of products and gain monetary benefits as compensation.

These people act as models of behaviors and they are capable of influencing people to alter their beliefs and behaviors and also because people look up to these influencers to help them make important decisions.

However, it is also important to add that many influencers today take it in their stride to break the stigma and prejudices about many misconceptions that existed earlier about beauty standards, race and ethnic discrimination, mental health and many other important social causes.

2. OTT Platforms:

Another form of revolution in media is OTT platforms which have now replaced television shows and movie theatres. They also play a key role in positively or negatively impacting the mass and influencing them in adopting new attitudes and behaviors. However, these OTT platforms face common criticism for having hyper-sexualized the young generation.

A recently globalized Korean show on Netflix called “Squid Game” created a ripple effect across the world with its interesting plot involving a sequence of childhood games that came with a fatal consequence. This show became so viral that the entire social media platform was swarming with content related to this show.

All social media users uploaded short videos imitating scenes from the show and many other creative versions of the plot. An article reported that the replica of the costumes used in the show witnessed a sudden hike in its price making it some of the most demanded products of that time.

3. Advertisements:

Marketers primarily advertise their products by bringing in influential figures to enable abstract modeling. By displaying famous personalities, they unconsciously influence the mass into imitating what they see on the screen.

For example, the famous malt brand “Boost” introduced famous Indian cricket players Dhoni and Virat Kohli to promote their brand. This would create an impression that they consume this product, and this assumption would encourage people to choose this product.

4. Video Games:

Another leading form of social influence occurs through video games. Today adolescents and young adults excessively indulge in playing violent video games such as PUBG, Mortal Kombat, Assassins Creed etc. and this have become a major platform of influence, particularly in a negative fashion.

Various studies have been conducted to prove that video games are linked to increased levels of prolonged aggression. Another study shows that teenagers prefer violent video games over educational ones.

Another overly preferred contemporary product of innovation is Virtual Reality (VR) which has had a great welcome among teenagers and adults. This system is used to blur the lines between virtualization and reality.

Adolescents use this medium for various purposes such as playing video games and watching movies etc. many studies show that this medium is put to more positive utility such as VR-based stress management, physical activity, and smoking prevention.

On the other hand, sexualized video games are equally on the rise. Studies conducted to explore this phenomenon report that sexualized video games and online pornography have the same level of influence in objectifying women and increasing violent sexual behavior.

5. Cartoons:

As children, a cartoon is one of the major sources through which children learn and emulate behaviors. Although they may seem funny and superficially innocent, studies reveal that one of the essential risk factors behind bullying behavior is cartoon violence. Globally famous cartoons such as Rick and Morty, Power Puff girls etc. portray excessive amounts of violence.

6. Reality Shows:

Another influential media portal is reality shows, and they hold as much power of influence as that of any other source. Research conducted by Crockett and Richard J exhibited that a 57% of the patients of cosmetic surgery claim that they watched a reality show on cosmetic surgery and they also reported that they were influenced by the cosmetic surgery television show.

Therefore, it can be concluded that social cognitive theory rings true with the reformation of media in enabling observational learning and modeling.

Other Applications Of Social Cognitive Theory

1. Physical Health:

Studies have shown that one of the constructs of the social cognitive theory called self-efficacy is linked to physical exercise. This theory could be applied to the area of physical health to identify that self-efficacy is an important aspect required to motivate individuals to engage in physical activity.

2. Breastfeeding:

Researchers attempted to study whether SCT could be used in increasing the number of breastfeeding mothers by conducting a program. So, they devised a program plan for new mothers using the constructs of SCT as the guide. The results reveal that the mothers who participated in the program showed significant improvement in their breastfeeding skills compared to their non-attended counterparts.

3. Organizational Settings:

Modeling is an important aspect in an organizational setting because the employees are constantly trying to model their supervisors in terms of work and etiquette. Employers also have a responsibility in improving the morale and productivity within the organization.

To achieve ideal modeling, mastery modeling programs are conducted where supervisors are exposed to teach them the interpersonal skills required to facilitate effective modeling.

When modeling certain behaviors, they also use self-efficacy to motivate the employees to show behavioral changes.


Although the social cognitive theory is highly used, the assumption that external factors will have an influence in behavior can’t be always precise. Although SCT is tested and significantly used in a multitude of fields and especially in the field of media, the number of studies done is lax in testing the effects of the theory in the context of media.

As media is taking new leaps, it is essential to test this theory further in understanding the ever-changing trends. Another limitation is that this theory forgoes the biological aspects of behaviors.

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment