Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory incorporates principles of behaviourism as well as social cognitive Theory.

One difference is that individuals defer gratification and therefore seek long-term awards.

The role of expectancies

The individual is motivated to engage in behaviours whose outcome is valued in which they feel capable of performing effectively.  There are two sets off expectancies.  The first, action-outcome expectancies reflected the degree to which individuals believe that an action will lead to a particular outcome, such as that smoking causes cancer or stopping smoking reduces the risk of cancer.  The value of this outcome is then considered.  The second set of expectancies, self-efficacy expectations, reflects the individual’s belief in their own ability.  Therefore, for example, smokers would be more likely to give up smoking if they value the consequences of not smoking and also believe in their ability to give up smoking. 

Efficacy beliefs operate at different levels.  Generalised efficacy beliefs referred to the belief that one can cope with most things life throws at one.  Such beliefs moderate a variety of behaviours and although such beliefs are relevant to a particular decision, behaviour specific efficacy beliefs are frequently more powerful determinants of behaviour.


Marlett et al (1994) identified a number of efficacy judgements relevant to different stages of drug and alcohol misuse.  The first, resistance self-efficacy beliefs, reflects the individual’s confidence in their ability to avoid Substance Abuse prior to its first use.  Harm reduction self-efficacy beliefs involve judgements of ability to be able to reduce the risks of drug use once they are initiated.  Action self-efficacy believes refer to the individual’s confidence in achieving abstinence or being able to control consumption.  Coping self-efficacy beliefs relate to their being able to avoid relapse.  Finally, recovery self-efficacy beliefs reflect the individuals perceived ability to recover from any relapse.


Kok et al (1992) found that there was a correlation between perceived self efficacy and the intentions to use clean needles, reported clean needle use, intentions to use condoms and reported condom use amongst drug addicts in Amsterdam.  Dzewaltowski et al (1990) similarly found adherence to a prescribed exercise regime correlated with perceived self-efficacy, outcome expectancies and dissatisfaction with previous levels of fitness.


It would seem that health promotion initiatives might benefit from changing efficacy beliefs.  One method of doing so is through teaching strategies or skills relevant to any desired behavioural change.  Vicarious learning and modelling is one way of doing this.

Vicarious learning and modelling

A good example of vicarious learning would be that of smoking.  The initial experience of smoking is unpleasant.  Operant theory states that this powerful punishment, directly associated with the act of smoking, should lead to an immediate cessation of such behaviour.  Vicarious learning suggests that at the same time the individual experiences the first consequences of smoking, they also observed in others that smoking can be an enjoyable and rewarding behaviour, so they persist in the expectation of future enjoyment.  Models can be Family and friends but the media also provides an enormous number of models of behaviour.  High status persons exert a stronger influence on behaviour than low status individuals (Winett et al 1989).  Modelling can be used to teach skills necessary to achieve behavioural change, or increased efficacy expectations through seeing others attempting and succeeding in change.

Good health as a valued outcome

Good health forms an action-outcome expectancy it is a probabilistic outcome; Engaging in health maintaining behaviour reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of disease.  It is also a long-term outcome; very few health related behaviours have an immediate and noticeable effect on health.  It is difficult to find the motivation to work towards the long-term goal considering that such a goal is in competition with a plethora of short-term rewards for behaving in health-damaging ways.  The short-term rewards are frequently more powerful influences on behaviour than the promise of long-term good health.  For example Klesges et al. (1989) indicated that about a third of young adults smokers use their smoking as a means of controlling their weight.  A smaller percentage of smokers (10% men 5% women) actually start smoking in order to do so.  Weight gain is also a significant factor in relapse.


Even when good health is highly valued, lapses in behaviour can be justified through a variety of cognitive processes, including denial (“my gran lived to 103 and smoked 20 cigarettes every day of her life”) or through some sort of bargaining (“I’ll eat ice-cream now and eat healthy food tomorrow”).