Evaluate the cognitive social learning theory developed by Mischel and Bandura

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As a response to important theoretical issues, such as the behavioural consistency debate and interactionism, cognitive social learning theory (CSLT) evolved from traditional learning theory with an emphasis on cognition in human functioning. The idea that behaviour is the result of an interaction between the person and the environment is a key concept in CSLT. In advocating the CSLT position, Mischel and Bandura have been highly critical of person approaches arguing that behaviour is situation specific and people have distinctive patterns of behaving in situations (Shoda, Mischel & Wright, 1994).

This essay will begin by discussing some of the key features of CSLT and further evaluate CSLT’s relative strengths and weaknesses. Firstly, progressing from the behavioural consistency debate, an Interactionist framework was seen as the way forward and is conceptualised in terms of reciprocal determinism. CSLT views the individual as active, using cognitive processes to represent events, anticipate the future, choose among courses of action and communicate with others (Mischel & Shoda, 1995).

In contrast, views of the person as a passive victim of unconscious impulses and past history or as a passive respondent to environmental events are rejected. Secondly, the utility of systematic empirical research and the social cognitive research of the social behaviour of humans are key defining features of the theory. Further, unlike traditional learning theory, CSLT argues that reinforcement is not a necessity for learning and that cognition facilitates learning.

Lastly, a great emphasis is placed on behaviour being situation specific but not situationally controlled therefore CSLT claims that it is more important to know in what kind of situations a person will display specific behaviours. CSLT is based on relatively few assumptions but, those it does make are broadly stated and designed to encourage further exploration into the ways in which social and cultural factors affect behaviour and thought. It gains merit in its impressive record of research.

Bandura and Mischel have been concerned with defining concepts in a way that leave them open to empirical verification and have always conducted active research programmes. In doing so they have provided empirical support for the key processes within CSLT for example, modelling and self-efficacy, throughout a diverse range of behaviours, such as aggression and altruism. In carrying out research on the social behaviour of humans it avoids the, often criticised, extrapolations from animal research to humans and from simple behaviours to complex human processes. Read also about the role of cognition in learning

Another strength of CSLT is that not only has it been responsive to change in literature but it’s also been responsible for change. Mischel, in particular, has been influential in addressing the problems associated with approaches that over-emphasise trait factors. It has been suggested that the person-situation controversy has been a fruitless debate, nevertheless it has led to a more realistic assessment of the complex, interacting causes of behaviour.

Finally, perhaps one of CSLT greatest strengths is that it’s an evolving responsive theory which, has changed over the years to remain consistent with developments in personality literature. As with all theories of personality there are limitations to CSLT. Firstly, it is not yet a systematic, unified theory. CSLT represents a blend of concepts and contributions, some unique to the theory and some taken from other theories. It tends to present a general view rather than a fully worked out statement of relationships.

Following on from this there are a number of Skinnerian objections. The theory’s emphasis on learning complex acts in the absence of reinforcement has been consistently criticised. Skinnerian’s suggest that observational learning can be subsumed by operant conditioning. Although an individual may learn a response performed by a model without being reinforced this does not mean that reinforcement was not a necessary part of the overall learning process; one cannot determine this without knowing the reinforcement history of the individual.

The use of self-reports has come under heavy criticism as it’s argued that they lack objectivity and that often people are unaware of processes within themselves. Skinnerian’s also argue that conditioning can occur without awareness, postulating no need for cognitive processes, and that success in therapy is due to learning processes rather than cognitive processes. In addition to these arguments CSLT has been criticised for describing observational learning rather than explaining, providing no theory for memory.

More recently the concept of self-efficacy has come under criticism. There is a suggestion that self-efficacy beliefs are tied to outcome expectancies and that outcome expectancies govern behaviour. Thus to the extent that one believes that performance to be related to outcome, ones self-efficacy beliefs would be expected to relate fairly closely to one’s outcome expectancies. What remains to be worked out in this controversy are the factors that determine when self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectancies match one another and when they diverge.

A second criticism of the concept of self-efficacy is that it remains to be determined why some self-efficacy beliefs are stable and others unstable, some resistant to change and others open to change. A third question concerns the micro-analytic measurement of self-efficacy. This allows considerable precision in measurement but does not provide broad explanatory power (Seligman, 1992). If self-efficacy percepts are so specific to tasks and contexts, of what use are they in relation to wider aspects of a person’s life or new situations?

It is impossible for a theory of personality to be all encompassing yet it still remains that CSLT eschews significant aspects of human functioning such as maturational factors and sexual feelings. Maturational factors would appear to be important in the feelings people experience and in the way they process information. Also sexual feelings do become increasingly important at certain stages in the life cycle. Turning to the concept of conflict, Bandura recognises that most behaviour is determined by multiple goals, yet he strangely ignores the concept of conflict.

For some people conflict is a fundamental part of their lives. Thus, it seems strange that such a seemingly important concept would be neglected. Bandura and Mischel’s work has had a considerable impact in the clinical and social psychology fields but, it has yet to make an impact on other disciplines, certainly it has not made the inter-disciplinary impact of Freud’s psycho-analytic theory. Although the results of guided participation and modelling are significant, these therapeutic processes remain to be tested by other therapists, with different patients with different problems.

In sum, CSLT strengths remain its emphasis on research, its history of development and elaboration as a theory and its focus on important theoretical issues. At the same time it is not yet a systematic theory, requires further study on areas such as motivation and personality organisation, and has yet to demonstrate its utility with a wide range of psychological difficulties. Nevertheless, CSLT remains an enthusiastic promising theory with an impressing willingness to change and openness to other points of view.

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