Julian Rotter's Social Learning Theory

Why do you act the way you do? Why do you choose one option over another? Why don't you always choose the alternative that theoretically offers better rewards? Rotter's social learning theory is one of the most important when it comes to explaining our behavior.
Julian Rotter's Social Learning Theory

Last update: 23 August, 2022

Julian Rotter’s social learning theory was a pioneering work in the field of behaviorism. He proposed that most human behaviors are learned. Rotter wasn’t the only one to put this perspective forward, but he was one of the first to do so.

From the point of view of Rotter’s social learning theory, the family environment, social environment, and culture into which we’re born and subsequently develop are the determining factors of our behavior. Indeed, the theory claims that our behavior is a result of the way in which we perceive others and the responses that our environment offers to our actions.

Julian Rotter first expounded his theory of social learning in 1954, in his work, Social Learning and Clinical Psychology. He based his theory on several experiments, conducted under controlled conditions, mostly with children and college students. As a matter of fact, his work, to a certain extent, was intended as a critique of Skinner’s ideas. However, it stayed within the confines of behaviorism, of which both he and Skinner were proponents.

Expectancy is the probability held by the individual that a particular reinforcement will occur as a function of a specific behavior on his part in a specific situation.” 

-Julian Rotter-

Boy with a tablet and father with a computer
According to Rotter, learning occurs from our own experiences, but also from that of others.

Julian Rotter’s social learning theory

Julian Rotter defined personality as the result of an individual’s interaction with their ‘significant environment’. This means the environment that has a specific impact on them. He pointed out that personality is learned and that it’s built and oriented toward the achievement of specific goals in each of its manifestations.

The theory of social learning indicates that behavior is oriented toward the search for positive reinforcement. These are responses of approval or reward from the people in the environment with whom you interact. At the same time, your motivation for the behavior is based on the avoidance of punishment.

In turn, behavior is configured from the learning that you build throughout your life. Therefore, if a behavior generates reinforcement in you, you tend to repeat it. On the contrary, if it provokes punishment, you’re likely to extinguish it. However, you also learn this from the visualization of the consequences of the behavior of others. In other words, you learn from your own experience, but also from that of others.

The basics of Rotter’s Social Learning Theory

Rotter’s social learning theory was built around four basic concepts. These configure the basic motivation of behavior. Let’s take a look at each concept and what they mean.

Behavioral potential

This concerns the probability of reinforcement that you anticipate when carrying out a certain behavior in specific circumstances. Its probability will depend on your perception/interpretation of the situation. In turn, your perception is conditioned by the circumstances of the field/ecosystem in which your behavior is launched. In addition, it’s influenced by your conscious preference toward a specific behavior.


Expectation is defined as the probability that you perceive that reinforcement will occur based on a specific behavior under certain conditions. Ultimately, it involves your expected response under specific conditions. You learn this expectation from previous learning. You also acquire it from generalization or association with similar situations.

Reinforcement value

Reinforcement value concerns the degree of preference you have for certain rewards or reinforcements, over others. It depends on the learning you’ve acquired as well as your expectations.

However, the expectation of reward doesn’t necessarily determine your choices. For example, you may prefer rewards that are more accessible to you, compared to others that are greater, but more difficult to obtain.

Psychological situation

This is the combination of internal and external factors. It results in your own particular perception of and response to a stimulus. In fact, in the theory of social learning, it’s estimated that behavior is predictable when the psychological situation of an individual is known.

man thinking

Locus of control

Another essential concept in social learning theory is that of locus of control. The word locus means place. Thus, locus of control refers to the place or situation in which you’re located in order to obtain a reward or reinforcer.

The locus of control can be internal or external. The first refers to your subjective position when you’re facing a specific situation. The second concerns how you relate to external elements in the same situation. Ultimately, the locus of control becomes the generalized expectation that you have in a specific situation. In fact, according to Rotter, it’s the essential element of personality,

These are the basics of Rotter’s social learning theory. His approaches had an important impact on the later work of Albert Bandura and on the development of behaviorism in general.

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  • Aroca Montolío, C., Bellver Moreno, M. D. C., & Alba Robles, J. L. (2012). La teoría del aprendizaje social como modelo explicativo de la violencia filio-parental. Revista complutense de educación.