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Rotter's theory of social learning

Rotter's theory of social learning

June 11, 2024

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

We have learned to eat in a concrete way, move in a certain way or interact with our peers according to the situation and the 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 variety of theories that focus on this fact from very different perspectives, such as social learning theories. Although the best known is that of Albert Bandura, there have been previous attempts to explain our behavior from the social. One of them is the social learning theory of Julian Rotter , on which this article focuses.


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The theory of social learning by Julian B. Rotter

The theory of Julian B. Rotter establishes that the behavior that the human being exhibits in his daily life is acquired through social experience. Our behavior patterns depend on the interaction that we maintain with the medium, which is carried out to a great extent through the connection with similar ones. So to achieve our goals we need the participation of other people.

This theory would be called by the author himself as a theory of social learning , also known as cognitive learning theory. In it, Rotter believes that the human being seeks to meet their needs from the search for positive reinforcements and the avoidance of punishment. For this purpose, he will carry out certain behaviors or not, based on the learning he has done throughout his life and whether or not they involve reinforcement that leads him to repeat them.


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

It is a theory realized at a moment in history when the predominant current was behaviorism, something visible in the terms and structures of thoughts used. However, Rotter goes further, considering the opposite that behaviorism that mental acts are objectively studyable and considers thought, imagination, evocation, intentionality and other aspects linked to cognition and emotion as covert behaviors. All behavior is socially mediated and society provides reinforcements or punishments based on these, whose consequences we learn.


  • Related article: "Albert Bandura's Theory of Social Learning"

The psychological needs

For Rotter, the human being has a series of basic and general needs at the psychological level that he should try to replace if he wants to maintain a state of well-being.

Of all these, at the social level we can find several with an important emotional load and that influence the ability to reward 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 that the achievements or objectives achieved are valued in some way by the social environment . Assessment is in itself a reinforcer that can stimulate our behavior.

2. Need for domination or leadership

It is about knowing one's 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 actions. Be able to modify the environment and have an impact on the situations in which we live.

  • Related article: "Self-concept: what is it and how is it formed?"

4. Need for affection

Feeling loved and positively valued by our fellows 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 intercourse . In the same way, the avoidance of displeasure also falls within this need.

The motivation to act

The possibility that a particular behavior occurs in a given situation or potential behavior will depend, whether directly observable or covert, on the situation in question and the preferences on a behavior from among the available repertoire.

These aspects have been learned throughout life history of the subject, and the concrete 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 outcome of our behavior are a fundamental element when it comes to carrying it out or not. When we find ourselves with a certain situation, the human being compares it with similar situations that he has experienced throughout his history , with what predicts a concrete result of the situation is carried out certain behavior and expects to occur that which has been predicted.

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

Evaluation of what is expected: the value of the 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 we are awakened by the consequences of said action.

The greater the desirability of the reinforcer 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 moment of acting is also an essential part when it comes to select a specific behavior . Depending on the situation there will be certain consequences determined by 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.

The personality and the 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 fundamental element of personality .

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

This consistent pattern of behavior depends to a large extent on the factors mentioned above as well as the perceived self-efficacy and the attributions made based on the locus of control .

  • Related article: "What is the control locus?"

The locus of control

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

Thus, some people will believe that their own behavior generates a gain or avoidance of loss, which will tend to act more, to be more independent and to be valued more positively . These are those individuals with locus of internal control.

On the other hand also there are people with locus of external control . These tend to think that the presence of reinforcement or concrete results are not linked to the behavior itself but to chance. Thus, they think that their action has no effect, which causes them to act less 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, J. B. (1945). Social Learning and Clinical Psychology. Prentice-Hall.
  • Schunk, D.H. (1997). Theories of Learning 2nd Edition. Pearson Education. Mexico.

Julian Rotter (Grom) (June 2024).


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