Social Learning and Modeling

Scientists agree that people have to learn to be culturally incompetent; it is not an inherited trait. No one is born racist, homophobic, or sexist. So how do children become biased? In order to answer this question, let’s take a quick look at social learning theory.

Larry Martin, a noted psychologist, defines social learning as “a form of learning that occurs in the context of a social environment, such as home, peer groups, school, and recreational settings”.[i] Through this process, social learning shapes a person’s view of the world, including their values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Albert Bandura, a famous social learning theorist, performed numerous studies over the span of his career, including the classic Bobo doll experiment in the 1960s. In the study, young children watched a video of adults acting violently towards a Bobo doll. The adults punched, threw, hit, and kicked the doll. Later, children were left alone in a room with a Bobo doll. Guess what happened? The children treated the Bobo doll just like the adults had. To get a better idea of what we’re talking about, check out these snapshots from the study.

But exactly how much influence does social learning have? Years later, Albert Bandura and Richard Walters suggested that observational learning was the most important process in terms of children’s social development. Observational learning refers to the development of new behaviors and attitudes by observing, imitating, and modeling those around them.

The truth is, children are constantly observing our values, beliefs, and behaviors. Learning occurs whether our actions are intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious. The song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the 1949 musical South Pacific perfectly summarizes how racism is passed along from adults to children.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught from year to year.

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight.

Though the lyrics suggests that adults knowingly pass along their racism, it’s important to remember that social learning can also occur by accident. For example, as a young girl from the suburbs, I can recall the sound of our car doors automatically locking when my family ventured into an urban or poor section of town. Without saying a word, my parents were communicating a clear message: We don’t feel safe in this part of town.

Take some time to reflect on your childhood. Do you remember learning social messages from the adults in your life? Were they intentional or accidental messages? How do the messages you learned compare to the lessons you hope to teach your children?


[i] Martin, L.G. (1986).  Stigma: A social learning perspective.  In S.C. Ainlay, G. Becker, and L.M. Coleman (Eds.), The dilemma of difference: A multidisciplinary view of stigma (pp. 145-161). New York: Plenum Press.