Understanding Social Cognitive Theory for Phobias

Girl being teased
Kevin Dodge/Blend Images/Getty Images

Social cognitive theory is a subcategory of cognitive theory that focuses on the effects that others have on our behavior. It is a form of learning theory but differs from other learning theories such as behaviorism in several important ways.

Tenets of Social Cognitive Theory

Expert opinions differ on exactly what separates social cognitive theory from the more general social learning theory. In general, however, these principles can be used to define social cognitive theory.

  1. People learn by observing others — a process known as vicarious learning — not only through their own direct experiences.
  2. Although learning can modify behavior, people do not always apply what they have learned. Individual choice is based on perceived or actual consequences of behavior.
  3. People are more likely to follow the behaviors modeled by someone with whom they can identify. The more perceived commonalities and/or emotional attachments between the observer and the model, the more likely the observer will learn from the model.
  4. The degree of self-efficacy that a learner possesses directly affects their ability to learn. Self-efficacy is a fundamental belief in one’s ability to achieve a goal. If you believe that you can learn new behaviors, you will be much more successful in doing so.

In Daily Life

Social cognitive theory is frequently used in advertising. Commercials are carefully targeted toward particular demographic groups. Notice how different the commercials shown during Saturday morning cartoons are from those shown during the evening news or a late-night movie.

Each element of a commercial, from the actors to the background music, is chosen to help the targeted demographic identify with the product.

And who hasn't, at one time or another, realized the power of peer pressure? We all want to belong, and so we tend to change our behaviors to fit in with whatever group we most strongly identify with. Although we often think of peer pressure as solely a teen phenomenon, how many of us drive a particular car or live in a specific neighborhood simply because it is expected of someone in our social class or peer group?

How People Develop Phobias

Social cognitive theory may explain why some people develop phobias. Many phobias stem from early childhood when our parents were our greatest influences and role models.

It is not uncommon for a parent’s distaste for spiders or rats to become a full-blown phobia in her child. Watching someone else, whether a parent, friend or even a stranger, go through a negative experience such as falling down the stairs can also lead to a phobia.

Social cognitive theory can also be used in the treatment of phobias. Many people with phobias genuinely want to overcome them and have a strong belief in their ability to do so. However, they get stuck when trying to unlearn the automatic fear response.

If there is a good relationship of trust and rapport with the therapist, modeling the behavior can help. In this situation, the therapist calmly goes through whatever process is being asked of the individual seeking help.

In some cases, just watching someone else perform the behavior without fear can be enough to break the phobic response. However, it is generally best to combine the techniques of social cognitive theory with other cognitive-behavioral therapies, such as exposure therapy. While watching others can greatly lower the level of fear, repeated practice is generally the best way to get rid of the phobia entirely.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Bandura A. Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. In: Bryant J, Oliver MB. Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. 3rd ed. Florence, KY;Routledge: 2008.