Medicine & USMLE

Social Cognitive Theory of Personality

  1. Trait Personality Theory and Five-Factor Model
  2. Social Cognitive Theory of Personality
  3. Biological Theory of Personality
  4. Humanistic Personality Theory
  5. Behaviorist Personality Theory
  6. Psychoanalytic Personality Theory


The Social Cognitive Theory of Personality posits that personality is shaped by interacting social factors, cognitive factors, and behavior. Social factors refer to those that are learned through observation. Cognitive factors stem from cognitive interpretations of the observed social environment. Personality, manifesting as behavior, is determined by both of the previous factors. Social factors, cognitive factors, and behavior all influence and are influenced by one another. This interplay is called reciprocal determinism, which means that they all affect one another.

Key Points

  • Social Cognitive Theory of Personality
    • Personality (behavior) shaped by interplay between social factors and cognitive factors
      • Social factors: observational learning from models (other people) in environment
      • Cognitive factors: decision of whether or not to replicate behavior modeled
    • Reciprocal determinism: above factors are related and influence one another
    • Theory is non-deterministic
      • Cognitive choice of whether to imitate observed behavior


One common example of social-cognitive theory is the famous Bobo doll experiment. The Bobo doll experiment made children watch an adult act violently towards a doll. The children learned certain behaviors, such as aggression, simply by observing the adult’s behavior. This experiment was notable for demonstrating that people learn not only by acting themselves, but they can also learn from watching, or observing somebody else. In other words, this was a potent example of observational learning in practice. 

For that experiment, every child that observed aggressive behavior learned how to be aggressive, but not every child subsequently acted aggressively. In fact, the experiment was later adjusted to assess the relationship between learned and exhibited behavior. That experiment found that rewards and punishments for the observed behavior mediated the likelihood that children would exhibit it. In other words, if the adult was rewarded for being violent to the bobo doll, the child was more likely to act violently themselves. And the opposite was true if the child saw the adult get punished for being violent. In summary, the children had to make a cognitive evaluation of whether the behavior was rewarded or not, and that cognitive evaluation in turn helped determine their behavior.