top of page

Social, Moral, and Humanist Learning Theories

Social Cognitive Learning Theory

The Social Cognitive Learning Theory was the result of studies completed by Albert Bandura that emphasized the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. He maintained that learning is a three­way interaction between the environment, personal factors, and behavior (Bandura, 1977). Bandura's theory improved upon the strictly behavioral interpretation of modeling provided by Miller and Dollard (1941) because of its focus on motivational factors and self-­regulatory mechanisms that contribute to a person's behavior.

Social Cognitive Learning Theory explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental influences. The component processes are:

  1. Attention, including modeled events (distinctiveness, affective valence, complexity, prevalence, functional value) and observer characteristics (sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, past reinforcement)

  2. Retention, including symbolic coding, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal, motor rehearsal)

  3. Motor Reproduction, including physical capabilities, self­observation of reproduction, accuracy of feedback, and (4) Motivation, including external, vicarious and self reinforcement (Gredler, 2007)

Bandera’s theory has been applied extensively to the understanding of aggression (Bandura, 1973) particularly in the context of behavior modification as exemplified in the Bobo Doll Experiment involving videos containing violent scenes that support this theory of modeling. Children who saw an adult displaying aggressive behavior towards a Bobo doll performed significantly more imitative aggressive acts towards the doll than the children in the group who saw the adults ignoring the doll or the children in the control group who did not observe the video. The group of children who observed an adult ignoring a Bobo doll showed the least aggressive responses out of the three groups, so while aggression can be learned through imitation of models, non-­aggressive tendencies can also be learned in a similar manner.

Moral Reasoning Theory

On the other hand, Lawrence Kohlberg maintained that social experiences do promote development, but they do so by stimulating our mental processes, and children develop not because they are shaped through external reinforcements but because their curiosity is aroused. As children encounter views that challenge their thinking, they are stimulated to develop higher levels of moral thinking. These assumptions led Kohlberg to expand on Piaget’s research to study moral development and moral education and propose a stage theory of moral thinking.

Kohlberg’s stage theory was based on subject responses to a series of proposed dilemmas as exemplified by the following (1981):

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer, and a druggist had recently discovered a new drug that the doctors thought might save her, but he was charging 10 times what the drug cost him to make. The sick woman's husband went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later, but the druggist said: "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it," so the husband got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should the husband have done that?

The way that children answer the question from the example places them in one of

the six stages of Moral Judgment (Psi Café, 2001, “Lawrence Kohlberg”):

  1. ​Obedience and punishment orientation

  2. Individualism and exchange

  3. Good interpersonal exchange

  4. Maintaining social order

  5. Social order and individual rights

  6. Universal ethical principals

Kohlberg believed that it was possible for individuals to move increasingly higher from one stage to the next therefore reaching the highest possible stage of moral thought resulting in the best possible society (Kohlberg, 1976). This could be achieved if schools presented moral dilemmas for students to discuss and work through and offer students the opportunity to participate in a democratic society.

One criticism of Kohlberg's theory is that it is sex-biased, a view that has been expressed by one of Kohlberg's associates and co-authors, Carol Gilligan (1936-Present) (1982). Gilligan observed that Kohlberg's stages were derived exclusively from interviews with males, that the stages reflect a decidedly male orientation, and failed to take into consideration the different ways women approach situations.

According to Gilligan, women's morality is more tied to real, ongoing relationships rather than abstract solutions to hypothetical dilemmas. She believed that women score at different stages on Kohlberg’s scale because female morality centers not on rights and rules but on interpersonal relationships and the ethics of compassion and caring.

Gilligan’s theory promotes an educational approach that cultivates empathy and caring in both male and female students and suggests that development may proceed along more than one line. One line of moral thought focuses on logic, justice, and social organization, the other on interpersonal relationships. The recommendation is that teachers use the ideas to avoid gender stereotyping and plan activities that are beneficial for both genders.

Bandura, Kohlberg, and Gilligan present motivational and self-regulatory mechanisms “grounded in cognitive processes that extend beyond the issues of learning” (Bandua & Bussey, 2004). Social cognitive theorists present a wide variety of cognitive factors that are influential to human thought, motivation, affect, and action.

  • Using Bandura’s theory and ideas about aggressive behaviors, what could schools do to reduce violence and promote non-aggressive behavior displayed by the students?

  • Based on the ideas in Carol Gilligan’s Moral Reasoning Theory, what are some specific strategies that educators can use to avoid gender stereotyping and plan activities that are beneficial for both genders?

I'd love to read your responses. Please send me a message with your thoughts...

bandura kholberg gilligan.PNG


Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice­Hall.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Bandura, A. & Bussey, K. (2004). On broadening the cognitive, motivational, and sociostructural scopeof theorizing about gender development and functioning: Comment on Martin, Ruble, and Szkrybalo. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 130, No. 5, 691-701.

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggressions through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582. Retrieved April 9, 2009, from

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gredler, M. (2004). Learning and instruction: Theory into practice (5th edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kohlberg, L. (1976). ‘Moral stages and moralization’. In Lickona, T. (Ed.), Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research, and Social Issues: 31-53. New York: Holt & Winston.

Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on moral development: Vol. 1, The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development: Vol. 2, The Psychology of Moral Development. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Miller, N. & Dollard, J. (1941). Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Psi Café. (2001). Albert Bandura (1925-Current). Retrieved April 8, 2009, from

Psi Café. (2001). Carol Gilligan (1936-Current). Retrieved April 8, 2009, from

Psi Café. (2001). Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987). Retrieved April 8, 2009, from

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Follow Emil
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
  • LinkedIn App Icon
bottom of page