Social Cognitive Theory

What is it?

Social cognitive theory (SCT) started out as social learning theory (SLT). Bandura extended the thinking of learning theory by showing that not only do people learn through the consequences of their actions, but also through direct observation and modelling of the behaviour of others. Social Cognitive Theory states that a significant portion of human behaviour is learned purely by observing others. Once an individual observes a behaviour they then use these observations to form their own ideas about how to perform new behaviours, and then use this information to produce a new behavioural repertoire. Social Cognitive Theory highlights the important distinction between the process of learning a new behaviour (observation and modelling) and putting that newly learned behaviour into practice.

Social Cognitive Theory stipulates there are four motivational elements that are crucial precursors to any behavioural change: (1) self-efficacy, self-control, and personal agency; (2) collective-efficacy; (3) goals and aspirations; and (4) outcome expectations.

SCT also stipulates that observational learning occurs through four processes: attentional, retention, production, and motivational.

The schema shows how the reproduction of an observed behaviour is influenced by the interaction of the following three determinants:

  1. Personal: Whether the individual has high or low self-efficacy toward the behaviour (i.e. Get the learner to believe in his or her personal abilities to correctly complete a behaviour).

  2. Behavioural: The response an individual receives after they perform a behaviour (i.e. Provide chances for the learner to experience successful learning as a result of performing the behaviour correctly).

  3. Environmental: Aspects of the environment or setting that influence the individual's ability to successfully complete a behaviour (i.e. Make environmental conditions conducive for improved self-efficacy by providing appropriate support and materials).

How could you apply this theory?

Aspects of this theory should be considered when designing a behaviour change intervention. For example, can the target population observationally learn the desired behaviour? Do they have the self-efficacy to change their behaviour? Do they have a goal/aspiration/motivation to do so?

Example of theory applied

An example of Social Cognitive theory in action within the cane industry is as follows:

1. A grower observes another grower implementing a new farming practice and forms an understanding of how that practice works and how to do it (social modelling).

2. The grower who observed the new practice has a belief in his ability to control his farming practices, and that by doing so, it will likely result in some positive consequence (self-efficacy).

3. The grower lives in a broader social context that believes in the importance of adopting new practices and how a unified approach is necessary for any kind of meaningful change in the industry to occur (collective efficacy).

4. The grower sets himself clear short- and long-term goals that are operationalised into specific plans and strategies such as the Smartcane BMP process (goals and aspirations).

5. The grower has an understanding that his new farming practices (behaviours) will produce positive outcomes at either a personal (e.g. feeling good about doing something new), environmental (e.g. Reef), material (e.g. lowered production costs), or social (e.g. I am being acknowledged by my peers for adopting new ideas) level (outcome expectations).

6. The grower introduces new farming practices to achieve the expected outcomes, signalling that a change in behaviour has taken place (behavioural change).

Why is this theory important for behaviour change?

The unique feature of SCT is the emphasis on social influence and its emphasis on external and internal social reinforcement. It considers the social environment which behaviour occurs in and also how people's past experiences will influence whether and why someone will engage in a behaviour.


Bandura, A 1977, Social learning theory, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

Bandura, A 2004, ‘Social cognitive theory for personal and social change by enabling media’, in Entertainment-education and social change: History, research, and practice, eds A Singhal, MJ Cody, E Rogers, M Sabido, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, pp. 75-96.

Related concepts

Social Learning Theory



Personal agency

Goal setting theory

Expectancy theory