Health Communication

Social Cognitive Theory

explanation of behavioral patterns

History and Orientation

In 1941 Miller and Dollard proposed the theory of social learning. In 1963 Bandura and Walters broadened the social learning theory with the principles of observational learning and vicarious reinforcement. Bandura provided his concept of self-efficacy in 1977, while he refuted the traditional learning theory for understanding learning.

The Social Cognitive Theory is relevant to health communication. First, the theory deals with cognitive, emotional aspects and aspects of behavior for understanding behavioral change. Second, the concepts of the SCT provide ways for new behavioral research in health education. Finally, ideas for other theoretical areas such as psychology are welcome to provide new insights and understanding.

Core Assumptions and Statements

The social cognitive theory explains how people acquire and maintain certain behavioral patterns, while also providing the basis for intervention strategies (Bandura, 1997). Evaluating behavioral change depends on the factors environment, people and behavior. SCT provides a framework for designing, implementing and evaluating programs.

Environment refers to the factors that can affect a person’s behavior. There are social and physical environments. Social environment include family members, friends and colleagues. Physical environment is the size of a room, the ambient temperature or the availability of certain foods. Environment and situation provide the framework for understanding behavior (Parraga, 1990). The situation refers to the cognitive or mental representations of the environment that may affect a person’s behavior. The situation is a person’s perception of the lace, time, physical features and activity (Glanz et al, 2002).

The three factors environment, people and behavior are constantly influencing each other. Behavior is not simply the result of the environment and the person, just as the environment is not simply the result of the person and behavior (Glanz et al, 2002). The environment provides models for behavior. Observational learning occurs when a person watches the actions of another person and the reinforcements that the person receives (Bandura, 1997). The concept of behavior can be viewed in many ways. Behavioral capability means that if a person is to perform a behavior he must know what the behavior is and have the skills to perform it.

Concepts of the Social Cognitive Theory

Source: Glanz et al, 2002, p169.

  • Environment: Factors physically external to the person; Provides opportunities and social support
  • Situation: Perception of the environment; correct misperceptions and promote healthful forms
  • Behavioral capability: Knowledge and skill to perform a given behavior; promote mastery learning through skills training
  • Expectations: Anticipatory outcomes of a behavior; Model positive outcomes of healthful behavior
  • Expectancies: The values that the person places on a given outcome, incentives; Present outcomes of change that have functional meaning
  • Self-control: Personal regulation of goal-directed behavior or performance; Provide opportunities for self-monitoring, goal setting, problem solving, and self-reward
  • Observational learning: Behavioral acquisition that occurs by watching the actions and outcomes of others’ behavior; Include credible role models of the targeted behavior
  • Reinforcements: Responses to a person’s behavior that increase or decrease the likelihood of reoccurrence; Promote self-initiated rewards and incentives
  • Self-efficacy: The person’s confidence in performing a particular behavior; Approach behavioral change in small steps to ensure success
  • Emotional coping responses: Strategies or tactics that are used by a person to deal with emotional stimuli; provide training in problem solving and stress management
  • Reciprocal determinism: The dynamic interaction of the person, the behavior, and the environment in which the behavior is performed; consider multiple avenues to behavioral change, including environmental, skill, and personal change.

Conceptual Model

Model of reciprocal determinism

Source: Pajares (2002). Overview of social cognitive theory and of self-efficacy. 12-8-04.


Favorite Methods

Surveys, experiments and quasi-experiments are used. See for therapeutical techniques Bandura (1997) and Glanze et al (2002)

Scope and Application

The Social Cognitive Theory is relevant for designing health education and health behavior programs. This theory explains how people acquire and maintain certain behavioral patterns. The theory can also be used for providing the basis for intervention strategies


A project was started to prevent and reduce alcohol use among students in grades 6 till 12 (ages 11-13). The program took three years and was based on behavioral health curricula, parental involvement and community task force activities. The conclusion was that students were less likely to say they drank alcohol than others who did not join the program. With observational learning, negative expectancies about alcohol use and increased behavioral capability to communicate with parents the results were obtained. However, at the end of the 10th grade the differences were no longer significant.

A new program in the 11th grade was started in which reduced access to alcohol and the change of community norms to alcohol use for high-school age students were key elements. With (1) community attention (2) parental education (3) support of alcohol free events (4) media projects to don’t provide alcohol and (5) classroom discussions the program started. After the 12th grade a significant result showed that the alcohol use decreased. Furthermore, the access to alcohol was reduced and the parental norms were less accepting of teen alcohol use at the end of the study.

The outcomes of the SCT show that actions of the community level to change these constructs resulted in less drinking among teens. The community level appears to have success in changing the environment and expectancies to alcohol use by reducing teen access to alcohol, changing norms and reducing alcohol use among high school students.

Example form Glanz et al, 2002, p 176-177 (summarized)


Key publications

  • Glanz, K., Rimer, B.K. & Lewis, F.M. (2002). Health Behavior and Health Education. Theory, Research and Practice. San Fransisco: Wiley & Sons.
  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
  • Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentive perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.
  • Parraga, I.M. (1990). “Determinants of Food Consumption”. Journal of American Dietetic Association, 90: 661-663.
  • Bandura, A. (Ed.) (1995). Self-efficacy in changing societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychology Review, 106, 676-713.
  • Graham, S., & Weiner, B. (1996). Theories and principles of motivation. In D. C. Berliner & R. C. Calfee (Eds.). Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 63-84). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.
  • Pajares, F., & Schunk, D. H. (2001). Self-beliefs and school success: Self-efficacy, self-concept, and school achievement. In R. Riding & S. Rayner (Eds.), Self-perception (pp. 239-266). London: Ablex Publishing.
  • Schunk, D. H., & Pajares, F. (2002). The development of academic self-efficacy. In A. Wigfield & J. Eccles (Eds.), Development of achievement motivation (pp. 16-31). San Diego: Academic Press.
  • Bandura, A. & Walters, R.H. (1963). Social Learning and Personality Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Miller, N.E. & Dollard, J. (1941). Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

See Interpersonal Communication and Relations, Health Communication.