Rotter's Social Learning Theory

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The social learning theory is the most well-known theory of American psychologist Julian B. Rotter. The theory poses principles contrary to, and partially in reaction to, Freud’s drive-based psychoanalysis, which was the dominant theory when Rotter was educated. Rotter believed that personality and behavior are a product of an individual’s interaction with his environment.

Basic Theory

In social learning theory, the environment is defined as the external stimuli that the individual recognizes and responds to, and she is viewed as a composite of learning and experiences. Because of this, the personality is seen not as a set persona, but an array of potential actions in response to external settings. Rotter’s theory has four major elements: behavior potential, reinforcement value, expectancy and the psychological situation.

Behavior Potential

Behavior potential is a representation of the likelihood that an individual will choose a particular behavior in response to particular stimuli. In every environment, he has a selection of possible behaviors, the behavior chosen being the one with the highest behavior potential. While no personality is permanently set, the greater number of life experiences reinforcing a certain belief system, the higher the potential that he will make choices based upon that belief system.

Reinforcement Value

Reinforcement value is an assessment of the positive outcome of a situation. Reinforcement is a term meaning “a situation’s outcome,” and the higher the positive effect of an outcome, the higher its reinforcement value. The lowest reinforcement value that is still viewed as a positive outcome is called the “minimal goal” -- achieving this level or higher is viewed as success, and anything below this level of reinforcement value is viewed as failure.

Expectancy

Expectancy is the perceived probability that an action will result in the desired outcome. Expectancy and reinforcement value work together to determine the behavior potential of all choices in a situation. An action with a high reinforcement value (positive result) and a high expectancy (likelihood that the action will actually achieve this result) is most likely to have a high behavior potential (and so be the chosen action).

The Psychological Situation

Rotter actually described this relationship as a formula: BP = f (E + RV) This is merely a simplification, stating that BP (behavior potential) is a function of E (expectancy) + RV (reinforcement value). Rotter did not view this as a cut-and-dried calculation, however. Both expectancy and reinforcement value are subjective, calculated based on life experience of an individual, and not necessarily reflecting realistic or objective values. Rotter called this internal subjectivity an individual’s "psychological situation," and felt it was essential to determining behavior.

Treatment

The most prevalent influence of Rotter’s social learning theory is not seen in the teaching of psychology, but in its practice. Rotter countered the Freudian belief that behavior is instinct-driven with the belief that all behavior is learned. He therefore advocated a treatment methodology modeled after learning experiences and a teacher-student relationship. Modern cognitive behavioral treatment is rooted in this methodology.

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