Social Cognitive Theory

Kate La Corte COM 499 Theory E-Article


April 27, 2009

Have you ever wondered why there are some things that you take hours, maybe days or years to learn and perfect and other things you do not even give the time of day to? Or have you ever wondered why you do not necessarily know when you learned that touching a hot stove would most likely not be in your best interest, but you just know not to. Well then you may be interested in learning about Social Cognitive Theory.


It was in 1941 that Miller and Dollard first proposed the idea of social learning (University of Twente, 2004). But it was not until 1963 when Bandura expanded the theory with observational learning and vicarious reinforcement did the theory become a solid one (University of Twente, 2004). Bandura himself followed up his study in 1977 with another concept to add to the tool box of social cognitive theory, which was the concept of self-efficacy (University of Twente, 2004). Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) is a theory in which others learn by watching (Bandura, 2001). A great example of this would be by taking our example of the hot stove. As humans we can watch someone touch a hot stove and see that, yes, in fact it is hot and that is most likely something that we ourselves should not touch because it will burn us. However if a mouse were to see another fellow mouse but his hand on a hot stove, he would not realize that his fellow mouse friend had gotten burned and he would be wise not to do the same thing. Therefore he will only learn that yes, the stove is hot and I should not touch it, until he actually has done so. Humans can learn not only from direct social contact but also from through the media (Bandura, 2001). We do not need to directly experience jumping off of a cliff to understand what it would be like or rather, what the consequences of it would be. This brings us to our Conceptual Model (Bandura, 2001). Now, there are three factors that affect SCT (Bandura, 2001). There are behavioral factors, personal factors, and


environmental factors. Personal factors would be biological, psychological or cognitive, or rather anything that would after a person’s learning that comes from them (Bandura, 2001). As for environmental factors, these can be social or physical (Bandura, 2001). Physical, is just what it says, what is around you or where you are when you are trying to learn (Bandura, 2001). If you are standing on a busy street corner, you most likely will not learn as well as if you were sitting in a quite library (Bandura, 2001). Social, on the other hand are the influence of those around you (Bandura, 2001). It is a classic case of what drives most preteens to argue, “but Mom, everyone is doing it”. There are five individually human abilities that make learning possible (Bandura, 2001). The first ability is symbolizing, this provides people with a tool to understand the environment in which they live and then be able to create and regulate this environment (Bandura, 2001). The second is self-regulatory, as humans, we set goals for our self and with these goals we can evaluate how we are doing (Bandura, 2001). The third is self-reflective, we think about the situation and all of the possible actions that could happen (Bandura, 2001). The fourth is vicarious, which, unlike the little mouse, we are able to understand when we see someone else do something, and see if they are rewarded for the action or not and then judge for ourselves if we would like to partake in that action (Bandura, 2001). Lastly is forethought, which we are able to predict what the future outcome of the action may be, as in our example above, we will know if we will get burned by the stove or not (Bandura, 2001). There are four major elements to social learning; attention, motivation, retention and production (Bandura, 2001). The easiest way to understand this is that if you do not want to learn something, you are not going to. If a little kid, let’s call him Billy, would rather just have Velcro shoes his entire life, he has no reason to learn how to tie shoe laces. However, if Billy realizes


that it is much cooler to have shoe laces, he may pay very close attention to how to make the rabbit ears with the laces and intertwine them. Then he may practice this skill over and over again until he has refined his shoe tying ability that it is no longer something that he must take special attention in doing. But why exactly would Billy change his mind that Velcro is just not as cool as manually tying up his laces. Maybe he needed some encouragement or what is known as one of the eight disinhibitory devices (Bandura, 2001). The first is moral justification which is when people do something for a higher reason such as to please a God (Bandura, 2001). Second would be advantageous comparison this is a fancy way of saying that you would compare a situation to something would be worse such as, “I’m sorry I dropped that barbell on you foot, but at least an elephant didn’t step on it and crush it into a million pieces” (Bandura, 2001). Moving on to the third device, euphemistic labeling, this is making something sound better then it is (Bandura, 2001). An example of this would be asking a sibling to do your chore of cleaning the bath tub but explaining it as an adventure on the high seas. Fourth on our list is displacement of responsibility, this is when people claim that they were simply following orders (Bandura, 2001). Fifth is diffusion of responsibility, this goes back to the idea that everyone is doing it therefore I should do it too(Bandura, 2001). This reason may be why our friend Billy decided Velcro was not as cool as he originally thought (Bandura, 2001). Moving down our list to disregard/distortion of consequences which is just another way of saying the famous last line, “What’s the worst that can happen” (Bandura, 2001). Dehumanization is next, an individual may just completely disregard that what they are doing is completely wrong and put whoever they are doing it to a lower level than themselves (Bandura, 2001). This goes very nicely with our next device which is attribution of blame (Bandura, 2001). This is when a person may reason their


actions by saying, “They were asking for it” (Bandura, 2001). And the final device on our list is Self efficacy, which is when we would think what we would do in a certain situation (Bandura, 2001). Now that you have learned about Social Cognitive theory, let us take a look at five different studies that have put this theory to work. The first study that tests this theory is one called Increases in Calls to the CDC National STD and Aids Hotline following AIDS-Related Episodes in a Soap Opera. The authors of this study had set three hypotheses about the differences in presenting the Hotline number after a soap opera episode of B&B (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). They tested the day it was shown, a day when it was not shown, and 2 days after it was shown to see how many calls the Hotline center received in accordance to the showing of the number after a related HIV episode (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). The methods that they used to conduct this study was that there were two episodes shown on B&B that had a character diagnosed with HIV and disclosed his HIV status to his friends (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). During the last 5 minutes of both of these episodes a public service announcement was shown about a HIV Hotline to call (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). A staff member at the hotline center would take the call and ask if they could collect information from the caller (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). If the caller declined this, information was not taken (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). Those who granted access and said that they had called the Hotline because of the Public Service announcement were asked the following questions; which show had they been watching, how often they watch said show, whether they intended to make


any changes or take any actions after watching the show and finally if they were to take an action, what would it be (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). What they found was that both days that the episode and public service announcement aired, there was a very large spike in calls, so much so that the Hotline center was overwhelmed with calls (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). In addition to this they found when any media outlet would run a story or public service announcement, there would be an outstanding spike in calls to the hotline center (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). The last finding was that the majority of first time callers to the Hotline identified themselves as African American females (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). Fifty-seven percent said that they intended to make a change or take action after seeing the show; of those, 44% said that they intended to “get tested” and 28% said that they intended to “use condoms” (Kennedy, O'Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004). Let us move on to a second study that has tested the theory called Drama Theory and Entertainment Education: Exploring the Effects of a Radio Drama on Behavioral Intentions to Limit HIV Transmission in Ethiopia. The authors were trying to find out that if the more an individual listens to a radio program about safe sex practices, the more they will find the information useful and actually start partaking in safer sexual activity (Smith, Downs, & Witte, 2007). Since Journey of Life, is a nationwide produced program there was no way to have a control group or assign individuals to listen to the show (Smith, Downs, & Witte, 2007). Therefore the authors recruited 862 random people from 16 different villages in 12 different districts in the rural areas in Ethiopia (Smith, Downs, & Witte, 2007). They then interviewed the


individuals with interpreters that spoke both English and Amharic fluently (Smith, Downs, & Witte, 2007). What the study found was that there was a great difference between those who listen to the radio program and those who did not (Smith, Downs, & Witte, 2007). Those who did listen to the radio program, especially for more than one episode and grew attached to the characters began to practice safer sex (Smith, Downs, & Witte, 2007). A third study to test Social Cognitive Theory is the Television Viewing and Ethnic Stereotypes: Do College Students Form Stereotypical Perception of Ethnic Groups as a Result of Heavy Television Consumption? This study examined whether heavy television viewing and program genre has an effect on college students’ ethnic stereotypes in terms of the Big-Five personality traits (Lee, Bichard, Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009). Based on the given literature, the following research questions were derived for this study. The study was trying to find the answer to the question: Does heavy consumption of television cause positive or negative stereotypes of Caucasians, Asians, African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, or Native Americans (Lee, Bichard, Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009)? The researchers answered this question by giving college students in northwest and southwest areas of the United States surveys (Lee, Bichard, Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009). The survey asked them to report their media usage as well as the type of programs they usually watch (Lee, Bichard, Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009). In addition to this they were also asked how often they use other forms of media such as newspaper, internet, magazines and radio (Lee, Bichard, Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009). Finally they were asked their own perception of five different


ethnic groups; African Americans, Asians, Caucasians, Latinos/Hispanics, and Native Americans (Lee, Bichard, Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009). The research showed that those who watch large amounts of television were more likely to hold negative stereotypes (Lee, Bichard, Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009). However, Caucasians, African Americans and Latino/Hispanics occasionally had more positive stereotypes, whereas Asians and Native Americans were almost always negative stereotypes (Lee, Bichard, Irey, Walt, & Carlson, 2009). Exploring the Limits of Social Cognitive Theory: Why Negatively Reinforced Behaviors on TV May Be Modeled Anyway is a fourth study in which well will look at how they test Social Cognitive theory. They questioned if an individual continuously views risky sexual behavior on television, if they will in turn practice risky sexual behavior (Nabi & Clark, 2008). The research is conducted in two different studies, the first looks at whether viewers felt that the main character would always overcome all adversity that he or she may encounter in the show (Nabi & Clark, 2008). The second looks at the female interaction on first dates and her actions of performing a one-night stand (Nabi & Clark, 2008). The first study is conducted by sixty undergraduate students at the University of California at Santa Barbara (Nabi & Clark, 2008). The surveys were given out at the end of the television season (Nabi & Clark, 2008). The survey consisted of questions about their favorite characters on the shows that they watch and what/if any consequences for their actions that they have (Nabi & Clark, 2008). However, this time in the second study they surveyed 400 women at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Participants were then asked to watch one of six possible part of a Sex in the City episodes (Nabi & Clark, 2008). In all six episodes the main


character had sex on a first day (Nabi & Clark, 2008). After viewing this they were then asked about their emotional reaction to the episode, the characters and the behavior she conducted (Nabi & Clark, 2008). In addition to this they then asked the participant about their only participation of one night stands (Nabi & Clark, 2008). The results from the first study concluded that their hypothesis was correct (Nabi & Clark, 2008). Those who participated believe that the characters who became ill or injured would “bounce back” to their normal state of being (Nabi & Clark, 2008). As for the second study, the results showed that those who have not had an one night stand, view more of a likelihood of it happening than before regardless of the consequences (Nabi & Clark, 2008). As well a majority of women recognized the fact that the main character does not actually have any long term consequences to deal with (Nabi & Clark, 2008). The final study that we will look at is called The Effects of Sex in Television Drama Shows on Emerging Adults’ Sexual Attitudes and Moral Judgments. This research looks at the relationship between the amount of sexual content on television and the attitudes that young adults have on sex and their moral judgments (Eyal & Kunkel, 2008). One hundred and ten college first years were asked to watch certain shows that exposed them to positive or negative consequences of sexual behavior (Eyal & Kunkel, 2008). They found that when shows that portray negative tones and consequences toward premarital sex, those watching also view premarital sex negatively (Eyal & Kunkel, 2008). However, since such said situation portrayed on television are rare, there is a less likelihood that this will happen when contrasted to the multitude of episodes where main characters do not have any consequences for their sexual actions (Eyal & Kunkel, 2008).


After reading a few studies you may be able to see some strengths in this theory, here are three different ones to think about. First it is a theory that is able to be applied to many different forms of media. As long as someone is trying to teach something or there is some trying to learn, it is a valid theory. Second because it is heuristically provocative there are many different case studies using SCT and coming up with different results. Lastly, it is a living theory, meaning it is always changing. There are constantly new studies coming out challenging the findings that Bandura first proposed. This may be a result from the testability of the theory. In comparison there are also some weaknesses in this study, here are some possibilities. Let us start with that even though there is much research about it, researchers tend to study the same fields. Many seem to focus mostly on television and movies where there is not as much research on print media such as newspapers and magazines. A second weakness could be that since it is such a living theory and constantly changing many of the earlier research studies are now out of date and not relevant to what the theory has now evolved to. A final weakness of the theory may be the amount of concepts that Bandura tries to cover in a single theory. There are so many different factors and parts that it may be hard to single out just one reason or another that people do things for that reason. Let us finally discuss some practical applications of this theory. Any time someone is trying to teach anything, this theory could come in handy. If you know how to teach so that an individual or group wants to do that act then that can be very helpful. Possibly this can be best seen in the study of the Public service Announcement and HIV prevention.


In addition to this, Social Cognitive theory would be pretty handy to any sales person or advertiser. Being about to make it out to be better than it is or even to convince the customer that everyone is doing it can be an pretty great sales position. A final thought may be this would be a pretty nifty theory to use if you were a government trying to convince its people to go greener, or accept a new tax program. In conclusion Social Cognitive Theory is one in which is completely unique to humans. We can not only learn through doing, but also watching others to see how their actions are rewarded or not.


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