Social Cognitive Theory
Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) is a commonly used model for development, implementation and evaluation of health and nutrition education programming. SCT stems from the Social Learning Theory (SLT) made famous by Julian Rotter (Cottrell, Girvan, & McKenzie, 2009). SLT provides principles to account for human behavior. Behavior is described as any response to a meaningful stimulus (Rotter, 1982). Within SLT, four basic concepts are utilized to predict behavior: behavior potential, expectancy, reinforcement value, and the psychological situation (Rotter, Chance, & Phares, 1972). Building upon this theory, in the 1970s, Albert Bandura published a comprehensive framework for understanding human behavior, named Social Cognitive Theory (Glanz & Rimer, 1997). Bandura sought to further highlight social influences in behavior. He maintained that people learned not only from external cues, but also from observing models. People that focus their attention on watching others create and analyze mental images, and make decisions that affect their own learning; as learning is an active internal mental process of obtaining, committing to memory, and using knowledge, rather than the passive process influenced by the external cues (Holli, Calabrese, & O’Sullivan Maillet, 2003). SCT also presents behavior as being influenced by a plethora of thoughts and beliefs about self, and that most behaviors are regulated by beliefs about perceived outcomes from engaging in a behavior and the value of those outcomes. Outcome expectations can be physical outcomes (physical and health effects accompanying behavior), social outcomes (behavioral social consequences), and self-evaluative outcomes (our reactions to our behaviors) (Contento, 2011).
Cottrell et al. (2009) describes SCT as a reciprocal interaction among an individual’s environment, cognitive processes, and behavior. Personal, behavioral, and environmental factors work in a dynamic and reciprocal fashion to influence health behavior. Personal factors involve people’s thoughts and feelings. Behavioral factors include their food-, nutrition-, and health-related knowledge and skills, together called behavioral capability, and their skills in regulating and taking charge of their own behaviors, called self-regulation skills. Environmental factors include those factors external to individuals, such as the physical and social environments (Contento, 2011).
Significant constructs of SCT that relate to personal, behavioral, and environmental factors include behavioral capability, expectations, locus of control, reciprocal determinism, reinforcement, self-control/self-regulation, self-efficacy, and emotional-coping response. Behavioral capability involves the knowledge and skills necessary to perform a behavior. Expectations involve beliefs about outcomes of certain behaviors. Locus of control concerns the perception of the center of control over reinforcement. Reciprocal determinism involves behavior changes as a result of interaction between the individual and the environment. Reinforcement involves responses to behaviors that increase the chances of repeating the behavior. Self-control/self-regulation concerns gaining control over our own behavior through monitoring and adjusting it. Self-efficacy concerns people’s confidence in their ability to perform a certain desired task or function. Emotional-coping response requires individuals to be able to deal with the sources of anxiety that surround a behavior (Contento, 2011).
To apply SCT, activities must be implemented at each level in programming. In behavioral capability, information and training can be provided to take action. For reciprocal determinism, programs must involve the individual and relevant others. For expectations, programs must incorporate information about likely results of action in advice. Self-efficacy points out strength and uses persuasion and encouragement, as well as approaches behavior change in small steps. With observational learning, role models must be identified, and others’ experiences and physical changes can be highlighted. For reinforcement, incentives, rewards, and praise can be provided, and self-reward is encouraged (Glanz & Rimer, 1997).
Within SCT, self-efficacy is considered to be the major motivator of action and mediator of behavior change and involves both the skills and the confidence that we can effectively and consistently use these skills (Contento, 2011). Bandura (1997) suggests that to build a sense of controlling efficacy, people must develop skills for regulating their own motivation and behavior and that once they obtain this, they will be better able to practice healthy behaviors and eliminate unhealthy behaviors. Bandura (1997) also suggests that to be most effective, health communications should be framed in ways that instill in people the belief that they have the capability to alter their health habits and should instruct them in how to do it. Persuasive health communication may contribute to increases in learning and individual self-efficacy that may sustain long-term health habits (Bandura, 1997).
SCT is one the most widely used theories for designing nutrition education and health promotion programs. SCT constructs have been applied to a variety of programs within the African American population to highlight health behavior change (Wilcox et al., 2010), and in implementation and evaluation of programs that may emphasize self-efficacy, modeling, and environmental factors (Cullen & Thompson, 2008; Gaston et al., 2007). Below is a table of application of various SCT constructs to the program “Eve’s Apple Nutrition Education Program.”
EVE’S APPLE NUTRITION EDUCATION PROGRAM
OUTCOME EXPECTATIONS (PHYSICAL)
-discussion of weight gain in response to poor eating habits
-discussion of feeling better as a result of healthier eating
OUTCOME EXPECTATIONS (SOCIAL)
-discussion of eating in the restaurant, or at church events and how to handle those situations
OUTCOME EXPECTATIONS (SELF-EVALUATIVE)
-emphasis on treating yourself when you eat fruits and vegetables
-individuals are probed to determine what are the barriers to eating healthier
-feedback and encouragement is given to participants to encourage them each week concerning doing the challenges
-handouts are provided for all sessions
-role-playing is utilized in several sessions
-a food demonstration of a healthy breakfast is provided
-group is advised to utilize healthy recipes during the week and report on them during the next session
-verbal praise is given at each session
-those who complete certain challenges receive incentives
-after most lectures/discussions, individuals are put in application groups to develop self-regulatory, goal setting, and problem solving skills
Contento, I.R. (2011). Nutrition Education: Linking Research, Theory, and Practice, 2nd Edition. Salisbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Cottrell R., Girvan J., & McKenzie J. (2009). Principles and Foundations of Health Promotion and Education, 4th Edition. San Francisco: Pearson Education.
Glanz, K., & Rimer, B.K. (1997). Theory at a Glance: A Guide for Health Promotion Practice. United States Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute.
Holli, B.B., Calabrese, R.J., & O’Sullivan Maillet, J. (2003). Communication and Education Skills for Dietetic Professionals, 4th Edition. Baltimore, MA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Rotter, J.B. (1982). The Development and Applications of Social Learning Theory: Selected Papers. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers.
Rotter, J.B., Chance, J.E., & Phares, J.E. (1972). Applications of Social Learning Theory. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.