This Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3) primer, part of a series of 8 research theory documents, is designed to explain "Social (or Observational) Learning Theory", which, as stated in the primer, "stipulates that people can learn new behaviors by observing others.....[S]ocial learning emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between social characteristics of the environment, how they are perceived by individuals, and how motivated and able a person is to reproduce behaviors they see happening around them. People both influence and are influenced by the world around them."

The theory can be applied to social and behavior change communication (SBCC) programmes. "It may be especially useful when a particular behavior is difficult to describe, but can be explained through demonstration or modeling. Also, when adopting or practicing a particular behavior requires overcoming barriers or challenges, social learning principles can be used to demonstrate how a person can overcome those challenges and succeed. Finally, because people tend to adopt and practice behaviors they see others doing, social learning principles can be used to change perceptions of the social environment, making behaviors seem more common and providing social support to people who are considering a behavior change."

The processes by which people learn include: observing other people; considering consequences; rehearsing what might happen in following the observed behaviour; trying the behaviour; comparing their experiences; and confirming their belief. 

Fundamental concepts of social learning theory are modeling, efficacy, and parasocial interaction.

  • Modeling shows someone performing the desired behaviour and requires four cognitive stages: attention (requiring the creation of engaging and locally understandable and relevant messages), retention (requiring memorable messages), reproduction (requiring repeated and sustained replication of the behaviour - measurable for evaluation, if needed), and motivation (messaging showing success of fictional or known characters and encouraging the successful to share experiences). "[R]esearch shows that negative models are less likely than positive models to motivate behavior change...."
  • "Efficacy describes a feeling of personal empowerment or confidence in one’s ability to perform a particular behavior. Efficacy increases with experience, either direct personal experience or vicarious experience. Vicarious experience can be gained by observing the success or failure of real people or by becoming cognitively and emotionally involved with fictional characters or models who succeed.
  • Parasocial interaction takes place when people begin to identify with and think of fictional characters as if they were real people. Social learning theory can help program designers identify the types of characters that most attract the audience, the benefits of a behavior that people value, and the types of stories that give people increased confidence in their ability to perform a behavior and achieve those benefits."

The primer concludes with an example of an entertainment-education (EE) television series, Intersexions from South Africa. [See Related Summaries below.]