Social Learning Theory & Rotter

Overview of Cognitive Social Learning Theory

Both Julian Rotter and Walter Mischel believe that cognitive factors, more than immediate reinforcements, determine how people will react to environmental forces. Both theorists suggest that our expectations of future events are major determinants of performance.

Biography of Julian Rotter

Julian Rotter was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1916. As a high school student, he became familiar with some of the writings of Freud and Adler, but he majored in chemistry rather than psychology at Brooklyn College. In 1941, he received a PhD in clinical psychology from Indiana University. After World War II, he took a position at Ohio State, where one of his students was Walter Mischel. In 1963, he moved to the University of Connecticut and has remained there since retirement.

Introduction to Rotter’s Social Learning Theory

Rotter’s interactionist theory is based on five basic hypotheses. First, it assumes that humans interact with their meaningful environments: that is, human behavior stems from the interaction of environmental and personal factors (Rotter). Second, human personality is learned, which suggests it can be changed or modified as long as people are capable of learning. Third, personality has a basic unity, suggesting that personality has some basic stability. Fourth, motivation is goal directed, and fifth, people are capable of anticipating events, and thus they are capable of changing their environments and their personalities.

Predicting Specific Behaviors

Rotter suggested four variables that must be analyzed in order to make accurate predictions in any specific situation. These variables are behavior potential, expectancy, reinforcement value, and the psychological situation.

  • Behavior Potential
    • Behavior potential is the possibility that a particular response will occur at a given time and place in relation to its likely reinforcement.
  • Expectancy
    • People’s expectancy in any given situation is their confidence that a particular reinforcement will follow a specific behavior in a specific situation or situations. Expectancies can be either general or specific, and the overall likelihood of success is a function of both generalized and specific expectancies.
  • Reinforcement Value
    • Reinforcement value is a person’s preference for any particular reinforcement over other reinforcements if all are equally likely to occur. Internal reinforcement is the individual’s perception of an event, whereas external reinforcement refers to society’s evaluation of an event. Reinforcement-reinforcement sequences suggest that the value of an event is a function of one’s expectation that a particular reinforcement will lead to future reinforcements.
  • Psychological Situation
    • The psychological situation is that part of the external and internal world to which a person is responding. Behavior is a function of the interaction of people with their meaningful environment.
  • Basic Prediction Formula
    • Hypothetically, in any specific situation, behavior can be predicted by the basic prediction formula, which states that the potential for a behavior to occur in a particular situation in relation to a given reinforcement is a function of people’s expectancy that their behavior will be followed by that reinforcement in that situation.

Predicting General Behaviors

The basic prediction is too specific to give clues about how a person will generally behave.

  • Generalized Expectancies
    • To make more general predictions of behavior, one must know people’s generalized expectancies, or their expectations based on similar past experiences that a given behavior will be reinforced. Generalized expectancies include people’s needs, that is, behaviors that move them toward a goal.
  • Needs
    • Needs refer to functionally related categories of behaviors. Rotter listed six broad categories of needs, with each need being related to behaviors that lead to the same or similar reinforcements: (1) recognition-status refers to the need to excel, to achieve, and to have others recognize one’s worth; (2) dominance is the need to control the behavior of others, to be in charge, or to gain power over others; (3) independence is the need to be free from the domination of others; (4) protection-dependence is the need to have others take care of us and to protect us from harm; (5) love and affection are needs to be warmly accepted by others and to be held in friendly regard; and (6) physical comfort includes those behaviors aimed at securing food, good health, and physical security. Three need components are: (1) need potential, or the possible occurrences of a set of functionally related behaviors directed toward the satisfaction of similar goals; (2) freedom of movement, or a person’s overall expectation of being reinforced for performing those behaviors that are directed toward satisfying some general need; and (3) need value, or the extent to which people prefer one set of reinforcements to another. Need components are analogous to the more specific concepts of behavior potential, expectancy, and reinforcement value.
  • General Prediction Formula
    • The general prediction formula states that need potential is a function of freedom of movement and need value. Rotter’s two most famous scales for measuring generalized expectancies are the Internal-External Control Scale and the Interpersonal Trust Scale.
  • Internal and External Control of Reinforcement
    • The Internal-External Control Scale (popularly called “locus of control scale”) attempts to measure the degree to which people perceive a causal relationship between their own efforts and environmental consequences.
  • Interpersonal Trust Scale
    • The Interpersonal Trust Scale measures the extent to which a person expects the word or promise of another person to be true.

Maladaptive Behavior

Rotter defined maladaptive behavior as any persistent behavior that fails to move a person closer to a desired goal. It is usually the result of unrealistically high goals in combination with low ability to achieve them.


In general, the goal of Rotter’s therapy is to achieve harmony between a client’s freedom of movement and need value. The therapist is actively involved in trying to (1) change the client’s goals and (2) eliminate the client’s low expectancies for success.

  • Changing Goals
    • Maladaptive behaviors follow from three categories of inappropriate goals: (1) conflict between goals, (2) destructive goals, and (3) unrealistically lofty goals.
  • Eliminating Low Expectancies
    • In helping clients change low expectancies of success, Rotter uses a variety of approaches, including reinforcing positive behaviors, ignoring inappropriate behaviors, giving advice, modeling appropriate behaviors, and pointing out the long-range consequences of both positive and negative behaviors.

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