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Example Answer for Question 6 Paper 2: AS Psychology, June 2017 (AQA)

AS, A-Level

Last updated 22 May 2017

Section A - Approaches in Psychology

Question 6: Describe and Evaluate [12 Marks] - SLT

Suggested Answer: Social learning theory (SLT) rests on the idea of observational learning: that learning occurs through the observation and imitation of behaviour performed by models in the social environment. It is evident from the conversation that John’s little sister has observed her older brother using a mobile phone and is imitating his behaviour by pretending to make a call. This may be because she looks up to John and sees him as a role model.

Unlike the behaviourist approach from which it derives, SLT recognises the importance of cognitive processing of informational stimuli (mediational processes) and rejects the notion that learning is purely the outcome of a stimulus-response loop. As its name implies, learning is a social phenomenon. For SLT to take place, someone must model an attitude or behaviour in a context defined by four distinct characteristics: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. If these factors are implemented, imitation (i.e. copying of what has been observed) can take place; if the observed behaviour is rewarded (either directly or vicariously), imitation is more likely. This learning from the observation of others’ rewards is what Bandura called vicarious learning. However, vicarious learning can also include learning from someone else’s misfortunes, and John’s sister does not to use her Dad’s favourite pen because she observed John being punished (told off) for using her Dad’s pen. Consequently, John’s sister will not imitate this behaviour because she has learned from the misfortunes of John who was punished for his actions.

One strength of SLT is its plentiful research support. For example, Fox and Bailenson (2009) found that humans were more likely to imitate computer-generated ‘virtual humans’ who were similar to themselves; Rushton and Campbell (1977) found that same-sex modelling significantly increased the number of female observers who agreed to, and then actually did, donate blood. These studies demonstrate support for different aspects of SLT, including modelling and vicarious reinforcement, adding credibility to the key principles of this theory.

Another strength of SLT is its applicability to real-world issues. For example, SLT has been used to examine and evaluate the effectiveness of advertising: Andsager et al. (2006) found that ‘identification with a character or example may increase the likelihood that audiences will model behaviour presented in an anti-alcohol message’. Consequently, the principles of SLT can be used to provide a positive impact on promotional health campaigns, and indirectly help combat problem behaviours like alcoholism.

However, one limitation of SLT revolves around the issue of causality: Do people learn behaviour from models, or do they seek out models who exhibit behaviour or attitudes they already favour? Siegel and McCormick (2006), for example, argue that young people who hold deviant values and attitudes are more likely to associate with similarly-inclined peers because they are more fun to be with, and thus the reinforcement of ‘deviant’ behaviour is a two-way process and not necessarily the result of SLT itself.  Consequently, it is difficult to distinguish behaviours that develop because of SLT from the many other factors that contribute to human behaviour, which poses an issue for the social learning explanation of behaviour. 

Please Note: These answers have been produced without the knowledge of the mark scheme and merely reflect my attempt at producing a model answer on the day of the exam. These answers are not endorsed or approved by AQA.

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