Differences Between Social Learning & Behaviorism

by Bryant Harland

Behaviorism and social learning theory are two psychological theories used for explaining behavior. Although the two both deal with behavior, they focus on somewhat different elements in their attempts to explain why people behave the way they do. Behaviorism and social learning have strong bases of support, so there is no clear answer to which one does a better job at explaining behavior.


Behaviorism is a psychological theory that attempts to explain why people behave the way they do. Behaviorism focuses on what can be observed. To behaviorists, all behavior can be traced back to an external stimuli. Further, behaviorists believe that behavior can be modified through reinforcements and punishments. Reinforcements are stimuli designed to encourage a particular behavior to occur again; punishments are stimuli designed to discourage a particular behavior. Early behaviorists, such as John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner, developed behaviorism to move the focus of psychology into the observable.

Social Learning

Social learning theory expands the ideas found presented by behaviorism. Like behaviorism, social learning attempts to explain why people behave the way they do; however, social learning says that behavior is based on a combination of observable stimuli, and internal psychological processes. Social learning suggests three requirements for someone to learn a behavior: retention, reproduction and motivation. Retention is the individual's ability to remember behavior that he observed, and reproduction is the individual's ability to reproduce that behavior. Motivation is the individual's desire to engage in that behavior.

Behaviorism vs. Social Learning

Although social learning theory shares some similarities with behaviorism, it adds an element of internal thought processes to behavior, which behaviorism does not study. Social learning says that, in addition to behaviorism's external reinforcements, individuals learn through observation, and by imitating the behavior of the people around them.


Both behaviorism and social learning theory have applications for society, and for everyday life. For example, parents who give their children an allowance for doing chores are using the behavior-modification process that behaviorism outlines. Similarly, parents choosing not to smoke in front of their children are following the tenants of social learning theory; they don't want their children to observe them engaging in an unhealthy habit because their children may want to imitate what they observe.