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In this lesson, we’ll examine the effect that society has on individuals by looking at how social learning theory can explain the cause and treatment of some mental disorders.

Social Learning Theory

Why do people act the way they do? How do people learn that certain behaviors are good and others aren’t? That’s a question that Albert Bandura wanted to answer.Bandura was a famous psychologist in the middle of the 20th century. He was interested in what caused people’s behaviors.

Most people realized that behaviors were learned in some way. For example, if you have an itch on your arm and you scratch it, you’ll feel some sort of relief. You have just learned that scratching an itch feels good.

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The next time you have an itch, you will be likely to scratch it.But Bandura wondered if people only ever learned through trial and error, or if there was some other way that people learned their behaviors. In other words, is the only way that you might learn to scratch an itch by actually scratching it? Or could you learn from someone else?Bandura believed that people learn from observing the behaviors of others, an idea he called social learning theory. To test his social learning theory, Bandura ran a famous experiment involving a life-sized clown doll called a ‘Bobo doll.’ In the experiment, he let kids watch a video of an adult kicking, punching and cursing at the doll.Afterwards, he left each kid alone in the room with the Bobo doll and some other toys.

The children who had seen the video of the adults beating up the Bobo doll were more likely to kick, punch or curse at the doll themselves. In other words, they had learned from watching the adults beating up on Bobo.

Reinforcement

That’s all very interesting, but what does it have to do with the real world? How can it help people who struggle with psychological problems?Social learning theory can explain some types of mental disorders.

Let’s look at an example. Tyler goes to college and sees everyone around him getting drunk several times a week. All of the people who are popular and have lots of friends go out drinking, and they seem to be doing okay. From watching them, Tyler learns that drinking and getting drunk on a regular basis is a good thing.So Tyler begins drinking with all of the other kids. He has a lot of fun, but something isn’t quite right with him. He discovers that he can’t function without drinking.

He doesn’t know when or how to stop drinking. Tyler has developed alcoholism, a type of substance use disorder, which is considered a psychological disorder.But if social learning theory can help explain how Tyler became an alcoholic, can it also help him break his addiction? To answer that, we have to examine social learning theory a little more closely. There are two types of learning in social learning theory:

  1. Negative reinforcement is when a person learns not to do something because the consequences are bad. For example, if the children in Bandura’s experiment saw the adult who beat up the Bobo doll get punished, they were less likely to beat up the Bobo doll themselves.
  2. Positive reinforcement is when a person learns to do something because the consequences are good. Tyler learned to drink because all he saw was positive reinforcement.

    The people who drank were being rewarded for their actions by having lots of friends.

So if Tyler learned to become an alcoholic through positive reinforcement, perhaps he can learn to break the habit through negative reinforcement. For example, seeing or talking to people who are dying of liver disease from drinking too much or seeing someone who has lost his job due to addiction might help Tyler see the negative consequences of drinking. As a result, he might be able to curb his own drinking.

Skills Acquisition

But even if Tyler recognizes that there are some serious problems associated with drinking, how does he stop it? Where does he even start to beat addiction?Another area where social learning theory might be helpful in teaching people to overcome psychological disorders like addiction is in skills acquisition. If Tyler doesn’t know how to stop drinking, he might never be able to stop even if he understands the negative consequences. But if Tyler learns skills to deal with addiction, he might be able to shake his drinking problem.In this way, talking with people who have recovered from addiction or are recovering from addiction might be helpful to Tyler. He can see what they have done, what has worked and what hasn’t and gain the confidence to try some of the skills and strategies others have employed.And addiction is only one psychological disorder that can be improved with skills acquisition via social learning. For example, if someone has a phobia of rats, watching someone else overcome that same phobia can help the person learn strategies and skills necessary to conquer his or her own phobia.

Lesson Summary

Social learning theory says that people learn behaviors by watching others. For some mental illnesses, like addiction and phobias, this might mean that a person develops a disorder by watching other people be rewarded for that disorder. But it can also influence treatment. Seeing the consequences of negative behaviors can lead to a change through the process of negative reinforcement, while seeing others overcome a disorder can help a person gain the skills they need to also overcome it.

Learning Outcomes

When the lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Define social learning theory
  • Describe how social activities may influence behaviors in people
  • Detail how negative behaviors may be changed by changing social learning activities

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