Social Learning/
Cognitive Theory (SLT/SCT)


People and their social environments affect each other. The major insight of Social Learning Theory, the earliest version of Bandura’s theory, was that individuals can learn why and how to change their behavior vicariously, by observing what happens to other people who behave that way. Later, in Social Cognitive Theory (SCT), Bandura began to unpack what goes on in the minds of observers of behavior and its consequences, adding new constructs to his theory. The first and best-known of the new constructs is self-efficacy, the idea that an individual (through observation and perhaps trial and feedback) begins to believe that a behavior will result in good things, and that he or she is capable of taking the action if it is attempted. Over the years, SCT has been expanded further and further, and is now quite complex.

Two relatively recent additions to the theory have gotten a lot of attention in public health. First, SCT argues that individual actions change the environment, making it easier for the individual to repeat the action in the future, and easier for others to follow suit. A second major addition to the theory is that individuals have moral standards. Individuals monitor their behavior and regulate it to be consistent with their moral self-images because such consistency results in positive emotions. Violating a moral self-standard is uncomfortable; to avoid this discomfort, people sometimes use euphemistic terms to describe their actions (e.g., “fudged” instead of “cheated”), or say they weren’t solely responsible for an action, or dehumanize its victim. Finally, SCT has been extended beyond the individual level by incorporating ideas such as collective efficacy (i.e., that a group could be successful in a concerted effort).


Albert Bandura

Seminal references

Bandura A. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Bandura A. Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1999, (3), 193-209.

Major constructs

Outcome expectancies, Self-efficacy, Behavioral capability/skill, Observational learning/modeling, Reinforcement, Reciprocal determinism, Moral Agency/self-regulaton.


Parrott R, Steiner C, Goldenhar L. Georgia's harvesting healthy habits: a formative evaluation. J Rural Health. 1996;12(4 Suppl):291-300. PubMed PMID:10162860.

O'Leary A, Moore JS, Khumalo-Sakutukwa G, Loeb L, Cobb D, Hruschka D, Khan R, Padian N. Association of negotiation strategies with consistent use of male condoms by women receiving an HIV prevention intervention in Zimbabwe. AIDS. 2003 Jul 25;17(11):1705-7. PubMed PMID: 12853758.

Robinson JD, Silk KJ, Parrott RL, Steiner C, Morris SM, Honeycutt C. Healthcare providers' sun-protection promotion and at-risk clients' skin-cancer-prevention outcomes. Prev Med. 2004 Mar;38(3):251-7. Review. PubMed PMID: 14766106.

Baranowski T, et al. Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption among 4th and 5th grade students: results from focus groups using reciprocal determinism. Journal of Nutrition Education 25:114–327, 1993.

O'Leary A, Hoff CC, Purcell DW, Gómez CA, Parsons JT, Hardnett F, Lyles CM. What happened in the SUMIT trial? Mediation and behavior change. AIDS. 2005 Apr;19 Suppl 1:S111-21. PubMed PMID: 15838189.

Major advantages

Major Criticisms


National Cancer Institute, Theory at a Glance (see pages 19-21)

University of Twente, Social Cognitive Theory