Rotter’s Theory Of Social Learning

Rotter was a pioneering psychologist in the field of social learning, inspired by behaviorism.

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

We have learned to eat in a specific way, move around in a certain way or interact with our peers depending on the situation and context. In this way, our behavior is strongly influenced by what the social environment and the culture to which we belong shows us throughout our lives, how we perceive others and the feedback we receive from them regarding our actions.

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

Julian B. Rotter’s Social Learning Theory

Julian B. Rotter’s theory establishes that the behavior that human beings exhibit in their daily life is acquired through social experience. Our behavior patterns depend on the interaction that we maintain with the environment, which is carried out to a large extent through bonding with other peers. So to achieve our goals we need the participation of other people.

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

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

It is a theory carried out at a time in history in which the prevailing current was  behaviorism, something visible in the terms and thought structures used. However, Rotter goes further by considering, in contrast to behaviorism, that mental acts are objectively studyable and considers thinking, imagination, evocation, intentionality and other aspects related to cognition and emotion as covert behaviors. 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 at 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 that influence the capacity for gratification and even to perceive the environment in a certain way. The following needs are highlighted.

1. Need for recognition

It is understood as such the need for the achievements or objectives achieved to be valued in some way by the social environment. Valuation itself is a reinforcer that can stimulate our behavior.

2. Need for domination or leadership

It is about knowing your own power over others, establishing relationships of influence in which others react to our behaviors.

3. Need for independence

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

4. Need for affection

Feeling loved and positively valued by our peers 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 produces reinforcement in Rotter’s theory of social learning.

6. Need for physical well-being

It is about the need to satisfy our basic needs and obtain pleasure and gratification through means such as food, sleep, social bonding or sexual relations. In the same way, the avoidance of displeasure also falls within this need.

The motivation to act

The possibility that a specific behavior occurs in a specific situation or potential behavior will depend, whether it is directly observable or covert, on the situation in question and on the preferences about a behavior from the available repertoire. 

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

The role of expectation

Expectations about the result of our behavior are a fundamental element when it comes to carrying it out or not. When we encounter a certain situation, the human being compares it with similar situations that he has experienced throughout his history, with which he predicts a specific result of the situation, a certain behavior is carried out and waits for what has been predicted to occur .

Thus, it is expected to obtain a certain reinforcement or result due to the partial generalization of the previously experienced situation, either with regard to obtaining reinforcements or the possibility of solving or controlling the situation. The main and most determining factor in explaining the behavior is the expectation of success or not.

Assessing what to expect: the value of reinforcement

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

The greater the reinforcer’s desirability for the subject, the greater the probability of trying to carry out a behavior to obtain it.

The psychological situation

Finally, the context in which the subject is situated at the time of acting is also an essential part when selecting a specific behavior. Depending on the situation, there will be certain consequences for one or another behavior. 

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

Personality and 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 mainly as the use of behavior as a means to achieve goals based on what has been learned and the desire to obtain its objectives. This is what causes us to tend to act in a certain way more or less stably over time and through situations. Thus, personality is something learned for this author.

This consistent pattern of behavior is highly dependent on the aforementioned factors as well as perceived self-efficacy and attributions made based on locus of control.

Locus of control

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

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

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

Bibliographic references:

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

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