As media theorists moved away from the strong effect models of the magic bullet injecting its content into the undifferentiated mass audience and toward limited effect models, many scholars relied on psychological theories that distinguished between S-R models and S-O-R models. In other word, theorists began to ask about what human qualities-in particular, what psychological qualities- came between the stimulus pf the media message and the audience’s response. One of the most obvious conceptualization for this role of the organism (i.e., the “O”) is to see people as learners whose cognitions could make a difference in the acquisition of new attitudes and behaviors. Thus, turning to learning theories made a great deal of sense in the middle of the 20th century.
Early psychologists in the behaviorist mode (e.g., john B. Watson and B. F. Skinner) were concerned with the extent to which human action is a conditioned response to external stimuli. This behaviorist point of view represented by processes labeled as operant conditioning- is an S-R model that suggest that human learn by being rewarded (e.g., receiving positive reinforcement) or punished (e.g., receiving negative reinforcement) when they respond to a particular stimulus. For example, imagine that a child bites her nails. Her parents might paint her nails with bitter nail polish so that she will receive negative reinforcement every time she tries to bite them. Or a parent might promise a reward like a new toy if the nails are grown to a particular length. By directly rewarding and punishing behavior, the parents are hoping the child will learn the preferred behavior.
However, operant conditioning is an inefficient way to learn things. Imagine, for instance, that we had to learn about the danger of encountering fire only through direct reward and punishment when confronted with this stimulus: the hospital would be full of burn victims! It simply doesn’t make sense to presume that everyone has to learn everything through direct experience. Thus, it seems obvious that humans learn in other ways, and one of the most important alternative routes to learning is through watching others who are demonstrating behaviors (and perhaps being rewarded or punished for those behaviors) and imitating those behaviors. As Bandura (1977b) argues.
Observational learning is vital for both development and survival. Because mistakes can produce costly, or event fatal, consequences, the prospects for survival would be slim indeed if one could learn only by suffering the consequences of trial and error. For this reason, one does not teach children to swim, adolescents to drive automobiles, and novice medical students to perform surgery by having them discover the appropriate behavior through the consequences of their successes and failures. The more costly and hazardous the possible mistake, the heavier is the reliance on observational learning from competent examples.
The concept of learning through observation and imitation was first proposed in the psychological literature by N. E. Miller and Dollard (1941). These researches posited that if humans were motivated to learn a particular behavior, they would be able to learn by observing models and then being positively reinforced by imitating those models. These ideas were the first version of social learning theory.
Since these early ideas were proposed about the role of imitation in the acquisition of behavior, theoretical thinking about social learning has developed. The leader in the development of social learning theory (relabeled in the 1970s and 1980s as social cognitive theory) has been Albert Bandura. Bandura’s first key ideas in the area (Bandura, 1962) further developed Miller and Dollard’s earlier ideas about imitative learning. In more recent publications, Bandura has elaborated on the process of social learning and on cognitive and behavioral factors that influence the learning process. In the next few sections, we outline some of the key components of social cognitive theory and then discuss how it has been instrumental in studying the effects of mass media presentations on individuals in the audience.
Key concept in Social Cognitive Theory
As should already be clear, the key concept in social cognitive theory is the notion of observational learning. When there are models in an individual’s environment-perhaps friend or family members in the interpersonal environment, people from public life, or figures in the news or entertainment media-then learning can occur through the observation of these models. Sometimes the behavior can be acquired simply through the modeling process. Modeling or imitation, is “the direct, mechanical reproduction of behavior” (Baran & davis, 200, p. 184). As baranowski, perry, and parcel (1997) point out, “this process accounts for family members” often having common behavioral patterns”(p. 160). Modeling processes can also be seen with regard to media sources. That is, you might learn a new trick for rolling out pie dough simply by watching a cooking show on television. But there are times when simple modeling is not enough to influence or change behavior. In these cases, social cognitive theorsts turn to the basic operant conditioning concepts of rewrds and punishment but place those concepts in a social learning context.
Baranowski et al. (1997) state that “reinforcement is the primary construct in the operant learning” (p. 161). Reinforcement processes are also central to social learning processes. In social cognitive theory, reinforcement works through the processes of inhibitory effects and disinhibitory effects. An inhibitory effect occurs when an individual sees a model being punished for a particular behavior. Observing the punishment will decrease the likelihood of the observer performing that same behavior. For example, social cognitive theory would predict that when we observe criminals on television being incarcerated for their misdeeds, we will be less likely to engage in crime. In contrast, a disinhibitory effect occurs when an individual sees a model being rewarded for a particular behavior. In this situation, the observer will be more likely to perform the behavior. In this situation, the observer will be more likely to perform the behavior. For example, if a character on a situation comedy is rewarded for deceptive behavior, social cognitive theory would predict that the observer will be more likely to angage in similar behavior.
The effects posited here depend not on actual rewards and punishments but instead on vicarious reinforcement. According to bandura (1986), vicarious reinforcement works because of the concepts of outcome expectations and outcome expectancies. Outcome expectations suggest that when we see models being rewarded and punished, we come to expect the same outcomes if we perform the same behavior. As baranowski et al. (1997) state, “people develop expectations about a situation and expectations for outcomes of their behavior before they actually encounter the situation” (p. 162). Furthermore, individuals attach value to these expectations in the form of outcome expectancies. These expectancies consider the extent to which any particular reinforcement observed is seen as a reward or a punishment. This highlights the notion that different things are rewarding to different people and that value of the reward to the particular individual will influence the extent to which social learning will occur.
This is basic process of learning posited in social cognitive theory. However, several other concepts posited in the theory however, several other concepts posited in the theory will influence the extent to which social learning takes place. For example, if an individual feels a strong psychological connection to a model, social learning is more likely to occur. According to White (1972), identifications “spring from waiting to be and trying to be like the model with respect to some broader quality”. That is, if a child wants to be like a favorite sports hero, he might imitate that sports hero in terms of clothing and food choices.
Social cognitive theory also considers the importance of an observer’s ability to perform a particular behavior and the confidence the individual has in performing the behavior. This confidence is known as self efficacy (Bandura, 1977a), and its seen as a critical prerequisite to behavioral change. Think back again to our example of learning a new way to roll out pie dough from a cooking show on television. Social cognitive theory would argue that learning from the model would not occur if an individual had always bought preformed pie crusts and had always believed that making and rolling out pie dough was an incredibly difficult task best left to professional pastry chefs. It is likely that this individual would not have the necessary level of self-efficacy regarding pie dough to effectively learn form the model in the cooking demonstration.
Social Cognitive Theory and the Communication Media
To this point, we have sketched out some of the basic ideas proposed in social cognitive theory from these ideas (and from some of the examples we have presented), the applications of social cognitive theory to research in the mass media should be clear. That is, in today’s society, many of the models that we learn from are those we see, hear, or read about in the mass media. These models might be people who we observe on news and documentary shows. They might be characters we see in dramatic presentations on the big or small screen or read about in books. Or they might be singers or dancers who we hear on the radio and CDs or who we see in music videos. In short, there are a plethora of models in the media who are consistently being rewarded or punished by their behavior, and many media theorists believe that children and adults change their behaviors based on the observation of these models.
One area in which social cognitive theory has had a strong impact is in the study of media violence. Gunter (1994) reviews the research on children and adults and concludes that there is a great mix of evidence regarding the effects of violent media depictions on the behaviors, attitudes, and cognitions of viewers. Social cognitive theory, most concerned with behavioral effects, would suggest that depictions of violence could lead to either increases or decreases in violent behavior of the model was rewarded or punished. Indeed, early research by Bandura (1962) and Berkowitz (1964) supported this contention. However, recent research has added complexity to this equation, arguing that issues such as preexisting aggressive tendencies, cognitive processing of the media, realism of the media depictions, and even diet can affect the extent to which individuals “learn” violence from the media.
A second area in which social cognitive theory has had a strong impact is in considerations of health communication. The application of the theory in this area moves us from a consideration of the often unintended consequences of media deciptions to the purposeful development of media campaigns planner interested in changing behaviors regarding the use of sunblock might use social cognitive theory in designing a campaign. That campaign might emphasize an attractive and recognizable model who is rewarded with healthy skin and compliments when using sunblock. This campaign would be expected to encourage the use of sunblock, particularly when accompanied by messages about people’s efficacy regarding the use of sunblock on a regular basis.
Social cognitive theory provides an explanation of how behavior can be shaped through the observation of models in mass media presentations. The effect of modeling is enhanced through the observation of rewards and punishment meted out to the model, by the identification of audience members with the model, and by the extent to which audience members have self-efficacy about the behaviors being modeled. This theory, though based in the field of social psychology, has had strong effects of media violence on adults and children and on the planning of purposeful campaigns for behavior change launched through media sources. In the next section, we turn our attention to a model of media effects that highlights the concept of an active audience, whish is critical in many limited effects model.