Most of the behaviours we carry out are not innate, but socially acquired .

We have learned to eat in a concrete way, to move in a certain way or to interact with our fellow men according to the situation and the context. In this way, our behaviour is strongly influenced by what the social environment and culture to which we belong show us throughout our lives, how we perceive others and the feedback we receive from them regarding our actions.

There are a variety of theories that focus on this fact from very different perspectives, such as the theories of social learning. Although the best known is that of Albert Bandura, there have been previous attempts to explain our behaviour from a social perspective. One of them is Julian Rotter’s theory of social learning , on which this article focuses.

The Social Learning Theory of Julian B. Rotter

Julian B. Rotter’s theory states that the behavior that human beings exhibit in their daily lives is acquired through social experience. Our patterns of behaviour depend on the interaction we have with the environment, which is largely carried out through bonding with others like us. Thus, in order to achieve our objectives we need the participation of other people.

This theory would be called by the author himself the theory of social learning , also known as the theory of cognitive learning. In it, Rotter considers that human beings seek to supply their needs through the search for positive reinforcements and the avoidance of punishment. In order to do this, they will or will not carry out certain behaviors, based on the learning they have done throughout their lives and whether or not these behaviors will be a reinforcement that will lead them to repeat them.

In addition, we also learn through the consequences of the behaviour of others, obtaining learning through their visualisation and affecting this knowledge to our own behaviour so that the results obtained by others can be replicated by ourselves, or avoided.

It is a theory made at a time in history when the predominant current was behaviorism, something visible in the terms and thought structures used. However, Rotter goes further by considering, contrary to behaviourism , that mental acts are indeed objectively studyable and considers thought, imagination, evocation, intentionality and other aspects linked to cognition and emotion as covert behaviours. All behavior is socially mediated and society provides us with reinforcements or punishments based on these, the consequences of which we learn.

Psychological needs

For Rotter, the human being has a series of basic and general needs on a psychological level that he must try to meet if he wants to maintain a state of well-being.

Of all these, at the social level we can find several with a significant emotional charge and which influence the capacity for gratification and even for perceiving the environment in a certain way. The following needs are highlighted.

1. Need for recognition

This is understood as the need for the achievements or objectives reached to be valued in some way by the social environment . Valuation in itself is a reinforcer that can stimulate our behaviour.

2. Need for domination or leadership

It’s about knowing one’s power over others, establishing relationships of influence in which others react to our behaviors.

3. Need for independence

Closely linked to the self-concept , is the need to have control over one’s own acts. To be able to modify the environment and to have an impact on the situations in which we live.

4. Need for affection

To feel loved and positively valued by our fellow human beings is one of the basic general needs of the human being as a gregarious being.

5. Need for protection

The possibility of being able to count on others and feel that we are protected and helped in case of need is another element that reinforces the theory of Rotter’s social learning .

6. Need for physical well-being

It is about the need to satisfy our basic needs and obtain pleasure and gratification by means of food, sleep, social bonding or sexual relations . Similarly, the avoidance of displeasure also falls within this need.

The motivation to act

The possibility of a particular behavior occurring in a given or potential behavior situation will depend, whether it is directly observable or covert, on the situation in question and the preferences for a behavior from among the available repertoire.

These aspects have been learned throughout the life history of the subject, and the concrete choice will take into account different considerations that the individual will carry out based on his learning. Specifically, Rotter establishes three of them.

The role of expectation

Expectations about the outcome of our conduct are a key element in whether or not we carry it out. When we encounter a certain situation, the human being compares it with similar situations that he has experienced throughout his history , so that he predicts a specific result of the situation, a certain behaviour is carried out and he expects what has been predicted to happen.

Thus, it is expected to obtain a certain reinforcement or result due to the partial generalization of the situation previously experienced, either with respect to obtaining reinforcements or to the possibility of solving or controlling the situation. The main and most determining factor when explaining the behaviour is the expectation of success or failure.

Evaluating what is expected: the value of reinforcement

Another of the main factors that lead us to behave in a certain way is linked to the assessment and the level of desire that the consequences of such action arouse in us.

The more desirable the booster is to the subject, the more likely it is to attempt to carry out a behavior to obtain it.

The psychological situation

Finally, the context in which the subject is situated at the moment of acting is also an essential part when selecting a specific behaviour . Depending on the situation, there will be some consequences determined by one or another behaviour.

The conditions of the context together with our assessment of the situation and our possibilities will vary the behaviour of the subject.

Personality and the locus of control

One of the most relevant contributions of Rotter’s theory of social learning is the idea of the locus of control as a fundamental element of personality .

For Rotter, personality is understood primarily as the use of behavior as a means to achieve goals from what she has learned and the desire to achieve her objectives. This is what causes us to tend to act in a certain way more or less steadily over time and through situations. Thus, personality is something learned for this author.

This consistent pattern of behaviour depends largely on the factors mentioned above as well as on perceived self-efficacy and attributions made on the basis of the locus of control .

The locus of control

The locus of control is posed as the expectation of the individual regarding his degree of control in obtaining the reinforcement. Specifically, it is understood as the subjective assessment by the subject of what makes our behaviour obtain certain results or not.

Thus, some people will believe that their own behaviour generates a gain or an avoidance of loss, so they will tend to act in a greater measure, to be more independent and to value themselves in a more positive way . These are individuals with a locus of internal control.

On the other hand, there are also people with external control locus . These tend to think that the presence of reinforcement or specific results are not linked to the behaviour itself but to chance. Thus, they think that their actions have no effect, which causes them to act to a lesser extent and not carry out the intended behaviour. Their self-esteem is lower and they depend on the environment to achieve their goals.

Bibliographic references:

  • Rotter, J. B. (1945). Social Learning and Clinical Psychology. Prentice-Hall.
  • Schunk, D.H. (1997). Theories of Learning. 2nd Edition. Pearson Education. Mexico.