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Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment

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Social Learning Theory

Bruce A. Thyer PhD & Laura L. Myers PhD
a a c

School of Social Work and Department of Psychology, The University of Georgia


Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior, Medical College of Georgia


School of Social Work, The University of Georgia

Available online: 20 Oct 2008

To cite this article: Bruce A. Thyer PhD & Laura L. Myers PhD (1998): Social Learning Theory, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 1:1, 33-52 To link to this article:

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Social Learning Theory: An Empirically-Based Approach to Understanding Human Behavior in the Social Environment
Bruce A. Thyer Laura L. Myers
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(SLT), respondent conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning, are empirically-supported approaches to understanding normative human development and the etiology of psychosocial problems. The principles of SLT are completely consistent with the currently popular eco-systems framework within social work practice. A thorough integration of SLT within the eco-systems model will substantially reduce the shortcomings of the latter, namely its lack of a testable theoretical framework, and lack of prescriptive guidelines for social work assessment and intervention. [Arficlecopies
available f i r a @e fmm The Haworth Document Delivery Sewice: 1-800-342-9678.E-mail addm: gefinfo@haworfh.comJ

ABSTRACT.The conceptual foundations of social learning theory

KEYWORDS.Social learning, theory, empirical-based approach

Bruce A. Thyer, PhD, is affiliated with the School of Social Work and Department of Psychology, The University of Georgia, and the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior, Medical College of Georgia. Laura L. Myers, PhD (candidate) is affiliated with the School of Social Work, The University of Georgia. Correspondence may be addressed to B. A. Thyer, School of Social Work, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Vol. l(1) 1998 0 1998 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.



Change the environment; do not try to change man. -R. Buckminster Fuller

The most widely adopted generic practice perspective in social work today has been called the eco-systems or ecological perspective (Meyer, 1988;Germain, 1 9I which was derived from the disciplines of ecology 9 ) , and general systems theory (GST). Ecology has been defined as The study of relationships between environment and organisms (Barker, 1995, p. 114) while GST is A conceptual orientation that attempts to explain holistically the behavior of people and societies by identiQing the interacting components of the system and the controls that keep these component (subsystems) stable and in a state of equilibrium (Barker, 1995,p. 1 8 . 4) Despite its widespread adoption, these ecosystems perspectives have presented some problems for the field. For one, they are not based upon any integrated theory of human behavior, rather they are supposedly models or lenses which the social worker can use to comprehend the client-insituation. Secondly, as is widely acknowledged, The ecosystems perspective offers no prescription for intervention. . . (Barker, 1995,p. 14. As 1) Meyer notes, It is not a model, with prescriptions for addressing cases; it does not draw fiom a particular theory of personality; it does not specify outcomes. It is often misunderstood as being a treatment model. ... (1988, p. 275). For some, these two shortcomings are fatal flaws. What is the scientific value of a perspective which, itself lacking a specific theoretical foundation yielding testable hypotheses, cannot be shown to be true or false? And, more practically, where shall the social worker obtain guidance as to selecting effective interventions? Wakefield (1996) has presented a devastating critique of the eco-systems perspective and its subtle, pernicious effects on the social work profession. H advocates dropping e the eco-systems approach and suggests instead, that . . . the true challenge is to master, improve, and integrate the many domain-specificclinical theories available t practitioners (Wakefield, 1996,p. 2 ) o 9. It may be that there is an in-between ground: keep the eco-systems perspective but ground it in social learning theory and the behavior analytic approach to practice. What is this? Someone claiming that behaviorism and the eco-systems model have much in common? Well, in fact, they do. Let us look at the hndamental assumptions of the two approaches. Germain, a major promoter of the ecological approach to working with clients, states:

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Bruce A. Tliyer and Laura L. Myers


The human being and their environment reciprocally shape each other. People mold their environments in many ways and, in turn, they must then adapt to the changes they created. (Germain, 1992, p. 407) and Meyer similarly notes that: The ecological metaphor of mutual adaptation suggests that the connectedness referred to is reciprocal-that is, a certain adaptiveness takes place between the person and. other in the environment they share. (Meyer, 1988, p. 276) Contrast these positions with the learning theory perspective of contemporary behavior analysis: Men act upon the world, and change it, and are changed in turn by the consequences of their action. Certain processes, which the human organism shares with other species, alter behavior so that it achieves a safer and more useful interchange with a particular environment. When appropriate behavior is established, its consequences work through similar processes to keep it in force. If by chance the environment changes, old forms of behavior disappear, while new consequences build new forms. (Skinner, 1957, p. 1)

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.we no longer look at behavior and environment as separate things or events but at the interrelation among them. (Skinner, 1969, p. 10)
Thus, the stimulating conditions that constitute the environment produce changes in behavior; these behavior changes alter the environment; . . . the altered environment produces further behaviors that again modifL the environment, etc., resulting in the construction of unique cultures (modified environments) on one hand, and unique individual psychological developments on the other. (Bijou & Baer, 1978, p. 12) Here is a more specifically developmental illustration: The modern behaviorist believes that in every interaction with the environment, the child contributes her own responses and internal stimuli, which have been determined by her genetic structure and personal history. Furthermore, as the child develops, she responds increasingly to stimuli and environmental factors she herself has produced, so that she is engaging in active self-management. (Thomas, 1992, p. 22 I)



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It is hard to imagine a more congruent fit between a domain specific perspective (social learning theory) and the hndamental assumptions of the eco-systems perspective! In the balance of this paper, we will review the basic tenets of social learning theory (i.e., learning theory which can be applied to understand and influence social behavior). In one sense, the learning processes described below are not theoretical, rather they are empirically-supported principles by which all human beings acquire behavior, from birth to death. As a whole, they provide a comprehensive conceptual framework to analyze and intervene in virtually all problems of social significance. In doing so, the edifice of the eco-systems perspective is shored up by a solid foundation of theory and facts, which has led to the development of some highly effective, and prescriptive, approaches to social work practice at all levels, including individual practice, group work, marital and couples therapy, community and organizational practice, and the design of social welfare policy.

Before we begin to define the basic principles of social learning theory, it is important to clarify the term behavior, as it has been misunderstood by many in the human services field (cf. Myers & Thyer, 1994). The term behavior refers to what a person does, regardless of the observable nature of the phenomena. Modem day behaviorists do not limit themselves to the study of publicly observable behavior, although such was the position of the founder of behavioral psychology, John Watson, in 1913. Since then, Skinner (1953,1957) and others have expanded the domain of behaviorism to encompass both overt (publicly observable) behaviors and covert behaviors (those events which transpire beneath the skin, such as feelings and thoughts) in terms of the principles of social learning theory. This is recogok nized by The Social W r Dictionary, which defines behavior as: Any action or response by an individual, including observable activity, measurable physiological changes, cognitive images, fantasies, and emotions. Some scientists even consider subjective experiences to be behavior. (Barker, 1995, p. 33) For the behavior analyst, behavior is whatever the body does, regardless of whether it can be publicly observed. Both observable and unobservable (e.g., emotions, thoughts) behaviors are sought to be explained through similar social learning theory mechanisms, as described below.

Bruce A . Thyer and Laura L. Myers


Respondent Conditioning

Respondent conditioning is the most fbndamental learning mechanism by which all humans and other animals learn to adapt to their environment. Adults, children, infants, neonates, and even unborn fetuses have been shown to learn by means of respondent conditioning (Bernard & Sontag, 1947; DeCasper & Fifer, 1980; DeCasper & Spence, 1986; Lipsitt & Kaye, 1964). This type of learning occurs in all animal species that have been examined, including one-cell organisms, and evidence indicates that even individual animal nerve cells can be affected through respondent conditioning (Walters & Bryne, 1983). The work of Pavlov primarily brought respondent learning processes to the attention of psychologists and others concerned with learning and behavior change. The focus in respondent conditioning is on how certain environmental stimuli can come to evoke relatively automatic reactions over which the person has little control. A neutral stimulus, if presented one or more times immediately prior to the occurrence of an event (unconditioned stimulus) that produced an innate reflexive response (unconditioned response), the previously neutral stimulus could come to elicit a similar response. After one or more such conditioning trials, the neutral stimulus that now elicits such responses is called a conditioned stimulus and the largely involuntary response to the conditioned stimulus is called a conditioned response. If a conditioned stimulus is repeatedly presented, and no longer paired with an unconditioned stimulus, over time the conditioned stimulus will likely lose its ability to evoke a conditioned response. This process is called respondent extinction. For example, in the winter as the air dries out, it is common to begin experiencing a static shock after touching the car door handle. After a few such pairings, simply bringing your hand close to the door elicits the involuntary avoidance reaction associated with being lightly shocked. Some people actually have difficulty in forcing themselves to grasp the car door handle. Come spring, and things become more humid, the static shocks no longer occur, and the avoidance to touching the door handle eventually extinguishes (until next winter!). In this example, touching the door is a neutral stimulus. Being shocked is an unconditioned stimulus which produces the unconditioned response of jerking your hand away. Pairing touching the door handle with immediately being shocked produces the reaction of becoming hesitant to touch the door (a conditioned response), with the door handle becoming a conditioned stimulus through its association (in the real world, not in the mind of the driver) with shock. Sometimes stimuli which resemble aspects of a conditioned stimulus

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can come to elicit reactions similar to those evoked by the conditioned stimulus itself. For example, a door handle on a house may become difficult to grasp easily if one has been shocked a few times by touching a car door handle. This phenomenon is known as respondent generalization. Respondent conditioning is also known as Pavlovian or classical conditioning, and has been referred to as S-R(stimulus-response) psychology.
Operant Conditioning
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Operant conditioning is another form of learning addressed by social learning theory, and it differs entirely from the processes of respondent conditioning. Respondent conditioning focuses on how environmental events or stimuli occurring before a behavior come to automatically elicit relatively simple reflexive acts. Operant conditioning focuses on how the consequenceswhichfollow a behavior come to influence the future probability of that behavior occurring. In the operant model developed by Skinner and others, the consequences that follow a behavior can take four major forms: somethinggood is presented (positive reinforcement), something bad is taken away (negative reinforcement), something bad is presented (positive punishment), or something good is taken away (negative punishment). Both positive and negative reinforcement processes are rewarding. We like it when we get nice things or when aversive things are removed, hence we tend to engage in actions which produce these results. Conversely, since we dislike receiving aversive things or having desired consequences removed, punishment tends to reduce the chances that the behaviors will be repeated in the future. Since many people confuse the process of negative reinforcement with the operations of punishment, it may help to remember that the terms positive and negative refer to whether a consequence represents something being presented or taken away (respectively), and the terms reinforcement and punishment refer to whether the likelihood of the behavior recurring is strengthened or weakened. All behaviors which are affected by their consequences are said to operate on their environment,thus the term operant conditioning. Operant conditioning occurs as a natural process through which human beings learn from the consequences of their actions and modie subsequent behavior accordingly. Based upon this relatively simple model, operant theory has expanded to address most human activities which are considered voluntary behaviors. In addition, virtually all animal species have shown to acquire new behavior or modify existing ones through operant learning processes, a capacity that seems to be present in humans from birth (Bijou & Baer, 1967; Rheingold, Gewirtz, & Ross, 1959; Siqueland &

Bruce A . Thyer and Laura L. Myers


Lipsitt, 1966). Keep in mind that the principles of operant learning are soundly empirically supportedfacts in a scientific sense. This is more than mere theory. Rule-Governed Behavior: Rule-governed behavior is a more complex form of operant learning which develops when human beings acquire receptive and expressive verbal behavior. Humans learn to alter behavior in response to instructions which signal the presence of reinforcing or punishing consequences if certain behaviors occur. Rules may be viewed as verbal substitutes for actually experienchg contingencies. The operant class of following instructions will be strengthened over time when instructions are given, obeyed, and reinforcing consequences follow. Initially the reinforcement is provided intentionally by the caregiver. Later, the rule-governed behavior generates naturally occurring reinforcing consequences. Hayes (1989) provides an excellent introduction to the topic of rule-governed behavior, and its distinction from direct, contingencyshaped behavior. The conceptual model of rule-governance goes far towards providing a coherent account, based strictly on social learning theory, of how people acquire new behavior without a direct history of contingency-shaping mediated through directly and immediately encountered rewards or punishments. It is probably fair to state that once people become verbal, far more of their behavior is acquired via rule-governance than through contingency-shaping. Both, however, are forms of operant learning. Shaping. In many instances, behavior is so complex that it is acquired through the selective reinforcement of successive approximations of the desired response. As each level of approximation is mastered, the response must then be one step closer to the desired response before reinforcement occurs. Piano playing is an example. Initially teachers set a low standard of appropriate behavior, afier which praise is doled out. Then, as the pupil masters elementary skills, formal reinforcement for these simpler, mastered tasks is faded out, and more complex behavior must be demonstrated prior to obtaining the teachers approval. Ultimately the result can be the concert pianist who completes an entire sonata flawlessly prior to receiving applause from the audience, and even that only occurs after many practice sessions conducted alone. Operant Extinction. Operant extinction can occur with behaviors that are maintained through reinforcement. If the reinforcing consequences are discontinued, either naturally or intentionally, the frequency or strength of a behavior will eventually decrease. It is interesting to note that behaviors maintained with a continuous schedule of reinforcement (reinforcement occurs every time the behavior occurs) are easier to extinguish than behav-

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iors with a history of being reinforced intermittently. Behaviors which are only occasionally reinforced are sometimes very durable and are quite resistant to extinction, particularly if the reinforcers are powerful ones. Ferster and Skinner (1957) discuss further the power of various types of schedules of reinforcement.
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Observational learning, also known as modeling, is viewed by some as a complex form of operant learning. Similar to rule-governed behavior, the behavior of imitating others becomes strengthened over time by reinforcing consequences. The capacity for imitation appears to exist in humans at birth (Field, Woodson, Greenberg, & Cohen, 1982), and has been demonstrated in other animals as well (Fiorito & Scotto, 1992; Whiten & Ham, 1992). Anyone who has watched a parent with their newborn infant is aware of the positive reinforcement provided the infant when imitative behaviors occur. When such imitative behavior is reinforced, the imitated behavior itself is strengthened, and the generic operant called imitation is strengthened as well. Over time, one learns that behaviors which appear to result in reinforcing consequences for others will likely yield reinforcement for oneself as well (Liebert & Fernandez, 1970).

Social learning theory suggests that in physiologically normal individuals, there are no essential or qualitative differences between what is labeled normal behavior and what is labeled abnormal or pathological. The same fundamental learning processes are believed to explain both. Empirical research has clearly demonstrated that in both clinical and natural environments, complex human behaviors are largely a function of respondent, operant, and observational learning processes. Examples of this can be found in almost every human behavior. In children, desired behaviors, such as saying Thank you or obeying a command, are rewarded by the caregiver and are therefore strengthened. Positive reinforcement, such as a smile or a hug, may be given, or negative reinforcement, such as not having to take a nap, may be offered as an incentive. Undesirable behaviors can be reduced through positive punishment, such as a harsh word or look, or negative punishment, such as sitting out of recess in school. Reinforcement and punishment happens more

Bruce A. Thyer and Laura L. Myers


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naturally as one gets older. For example, one works hard at a job, and is positively reinforced with a raise or promotion. One learns to wash hands after shopping and meeting new people, and one may be negatively reinforced by the absence of colds. Undesired behaviors may be positively punished, such as getting a speeding ticket for driving too fast, or negatively punished, such as losing a loved spouse after having an extramarital affair. Illustrations of how humans learn through respondent learning can be seen throughout the life span. Almost anyfeeling of anticipation or anxiety over a coming event is an example of respondent learning. This includes such things as excitement before Christmas or going to the fair, nervousness before a big test, fear when walking down a dark alley, or anxiety when giving a speech before a large crowd. It is also obvious how observational learning is an integral part of human development, from childhood and learning to talk and walk, through adolescence when youth mirror their peers, to adulthood when we continue to learn new skills by watching those around us.

Normal Development
The social learning theory perspective on normal human development has been proposed as a viable alternative to traditional stage theories (Bijou, 1993; Lundin, 1974; Thyer, 1992a, 1994). Rather than suggesting a hierarchy of causal stages to explain moral, cognitive and behavioral development, the emergence of differential human capabilities is explained in gradualist terms as the concomitant result of respondent, operant and observational learning over time. From the perspective of social learning theory, human development is primarily a function of selection by consequences (Skinner, 1981), mediated of course by ones genetic endowment and biological structure and function (of course these too have been shaped by natural selection). The emphasis in behavior analysis is on developing as complete account as is plausible and possible in terms of social learning theory factors, before exploring potential biological, cognitive or intrapsychic mechanisms. Human development is not seen as a progression of inviolate stages to be mastered. Rather it is a continuum through which infants, children and adults pass through at varying speeds and during which they acquire somewhat varying behavioral repertoires. Depending upon ones mvironmental experiences, various repertoires may be particularly strengthened (music, tl la Mozart) or impaired (verbal skills among chiljren of deaf parents). Ones age is not as significant in accounting for jevelopmental phenomena as is the variety and richness of ones environ-


mental experiences (Baer, 1970; Bijou & Baer, 1978). This alternative (i.e., nonstage) view can be summarized as follows: Contrasting with this conception of sudden change from one phase to another is the nonstage model that pictures growth as a very gradual process. Changes occur in minuscule amounts. It is true that in both stage and nonstage theories the child at 6 will be obviously different from the way she looked and acted at age 3. But to nonstage theorists she has not arrived at 6 by any sudden leaps or insights. Instead age 6 is just an accumulation of very slight alterations since age 3. (Thomas, 1992, p. 214) For all practical purposes, so-called stage theories of human development, be they intellectual, intrapsychic, or moral, are dead in a scientific sense (cf. Brainerd, 1978; Kurtines & Greif, 1974; Germain, 1987). Although they do remain widely cited and even taught, particularly within schools of social work, generally speaking, descriptive, structuralist stage theories such as those of Piaget, Freud, and Kohlberg have not been well-supported by credible empirical research, and are now seen to poorly reflect the way human beings develop. Table 1 presents an array of developmental phenomena which have been shown, to some extent at least, to be a function of the operation of operant factors. It should be noted that these are experimental research studies, not simply descriptive or theoretical ones. As such, social learning theory can be distinguished from many of its counterparts in developmental stage theory (e.g., Freud).
Applications to Assessing and ConceptualizingProbletns

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In clinical social work practice, one often sees symptomsthat have been learned by the client through the processes of operant, respondent, or observational learning. While it can almost always be argued that other forces are at play (i.e., genetics), the environmental influence on the client is often strikingly clear. Phobic disorders are often clearly initiated through the process of respondent learning. Recently a client came in complaining of a fear of elevators. The client had recently been caught on an elevator for over an hour. During the hour, the client experienced extreme feelings of fear and anxiety. For months after the experience (until receiving behavior therapy), the client experienced the same feelings of anxiety simply by walking by an elevator or even thinking about being on an elevator (see Myers, in press, for a lengthier discussion of this case). This is an example in

Bruce A. Tlzyer and Laura L. Myers


TABLE 1. Exam les of Behavior Which Have Been Experimentally Demonstratedto e a Function of Operant Factors**


Age Range of Subjects

3 months 9 months Downloaded by [INASP - Ethiopia ] at 05:04 15 January 2012 2-3 years 3-4 years
4 years


Supportive Citation

Simple Vocalizations Interacting with Peers Using Newly Taught Words Praising Peers/ Sharing Toys Playing with Peers Improvising Tools Improving Racial AttitudedBehavior Hitting Others Sharing Toys with Peers Sharing Food with Peers Self-Controlin School Asking Questions Cooperative Play Cooperative Work

Rheingold et at. (1959)

Becker (1977) Whitehurst & ValdezMenchaca (1988) Charlesworth & Hartup (1967) Allen et al. (1964) Parsonson & Baer (1978) Spencer & Horowitz (1973) Walters & Brown (1963) Presbie & Coiteux (1971) Midlarsky & Bryan (1967) Drabman et at. (1973) Ladd (1981) Azrin & Lindsey (1956) Schmitt (1976)

3-6 years 3-6 years 7 years 6-7 years 6-9 years 9- 10 years 9- 10 years 7-12 years 18 years +

'Table reproduced from Thyer (1992a, p. 414). "This table doesnot presentthe sequence in which these behaviorsnecessarilydevelopin human beings.

which the neutral stimulus of riding an elevator became a conditioned stimulus, and the conditioned response became one of anxiety and fear. Other problematic behaviors that have been linked to operant learning include psychogenic impotence or vaginismus, preferences for sexual stimulation through children, violence, or fetish, and the anticipatory nau-


sea that occurs when cancer patients enter the chemotherapy clinic (Nesse, Carli, Curtis, & Kleinman, 1980). In the histories of some clients, it is found that certain pathological or dysfunctional behaviors have been reinforced. For example, some clients use dissociation in an effort to deal with certain difficult circumstances. By removing their thoughts and attention from an undesirable situation, the discomfort, pain, or displeasure is decreased; thus the act of dissociation is reinforced. A client with obsessive-compulsive disorder discussed problems his son was having that were very similar to the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. While there is some question that there may be a genetic component to obsessive-compulsive disorder, it was also clear that the clients son had very likely learned some of the traits through observational learning. Many psychosocial problems involve a component of observational learning. Adolescents often imitate behaviors displayed by family and peers. Thus problems such as teen pregnancy, drug use, and gang participation increase as teens imitate each other in problematic behaviors they feel are socially acceptable or even desirable in their circles. Smoking crack produces an immediate and intense rush, a highly pleasurable sensation which lasts for a few minutes and then subsides. This sensation becomes a very powerful reinforcer for behaviors that allow the addict to gain access to crack, such as prostitution, robbery, etc. Therefore, these behaviors are greatly strengthened and maintained in part by the positive consequences of using the drug. One example of an intermittentlyreinforced behavior that has proven to be a difficult one to extinguish is gambling. Currently, state lotteries offer a very powerful reinforcer (money) on an intermittent schedule. If a lottery player received 75 cents for every one dollar ticket purchased, this regular reinforcement would soon be viewed as a losing proposition and the player would quit buying tickets. However, if the player wins 10 dollars after 15 tries, or 100 dollars after 125 tries, he or she is much more likely to continue trying for the big win.
Applications to Social Work Intervention

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The social learning theory foundation of behavioral social work has produced an empirical approach to social work practice that is committed to understanding the objective relationships between the human beings and their psychosocial environments. Over 50% of the controlled studies resulting in positive outcomes that have been published in the social work literature have been based on social learning theory (see MacDonald,

Bruce A . Thyer and Laura L. Myers


Sheldon, & Gillespie, 1992; Reid & Hanrahan, 1982; Rubin, 1985; Thomlison, 1984). Thyer and Hudson (1987) offer a definition of behavioral social work Behavioral social work is the informed use, by professional social workers, of interventive techniques based upon empirically-derived learning theories that include but are not limited to, operant conditioning, respondent conditioning,and observational learning. Behavioral social workers may or may not 'subscribe to the philosophy of behaviorism. (p. 1) Space limitations do not permit a detailed review of the applications of social learning theory to the effective treatment of psychosocial problems and disorders which are the focus of social work intervention. What we have done is prepare a brief table which lists particular problems/diagnoses, and one or more references to empirically based practice-research literature which describes methods of effective psychosocial intervention. The breadth of problems addressed, and the research support to be found for each illustrative treatment, demonstrate that social learning theory provides a practice model which comes close to encompassing the entire spectrum of social work services (see Table 2). Liberman and Bedell (1989) note that practice research has demonstrated that among the psychosocial therapies, behavior therapy may be considered the initial treatment of choice for a wide variety of disorders, including anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, depression, eating disorders, psychosomatic complaints, sexual dysfunctions, substance abuse, childhood disorders, mental retardation, and other developmental disabilities such as autism. The application of behavioral principles has expanded consistently since 1965 to include the treatment of more and more complex disorders. As practice guidelines for various disorders have been developed, the behavioral therapies derived from social learning theory are better represented than any other psychosocial approach to practice (cf. Chambless et al., 1996). The behavioral studies are also considered among the best designed and controlled studies in the social and behavioral sciences. In addition to applications involving individuals, couples, and families, behavioral perspectives also have applicability . to community practice (Rothman & Thyer, 1984; Thyer, Himle, & Santa, 1986) and to the formulation of social welfare policies (Thyer, in press). A large body of empirical research currently exists in the areas of administration, supervision, community and organizational practice, and policy analysis and development, but is unfortunately ignored by many social work academics

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46 JOURNAL OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR IN THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT TABLE 2. Selected Empirically Supported Psychosocial Interventions Based on Social Learning Theory Problem/Disorder

Representative Citation Meyers & Smith (1995) McEachin, Smith & Lovaas (1993) Tutek & Linehan (1993) Franzen (1991) Myers (1996) Jones & Azrin (1973) Higgins el al. (1993) Persons (1993) Houts, Berman, & Abramson (1994) Sireling, Cohen & Marks (1988) Christopherson & Purvis (1991) Morin et al. (1993) Steketee & White (1990) Barlow & Cerny (1988) Welch (1987) Foa et al. (1991) Paul & Menditto (1992) Rosen & Leiblum (1995) Bordnick (in press)

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Alcoholism Autistic Disorder Borderline Personal Disorder Brain Injury Bulimia Nervosa Chronic Unemployment Cocaine Abuse Depression Enuresis Grief Injury Control Insomnia Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Panic Disorder Post-Divorce Adjustment Rape Victims Schizophrenia Sexual Disorders Trichotillomania

(Thyer, 1992b). Behavioral principles have been applied in community settings to such topics as reducing unemployment, crime, employee absenteeism, school vandalism, and highway speeding, as well as promoting public health practices, industrial safety, and community-based recycling efforts. These social problems have traditionally been the concern of social workers, and effective interventions have been developed based on social learning principles. Social work above the community level involves lobbying efforts and legislative action. Most legislative action uses explicit contingencies, usually in the form of punitive fines or penal sentences (Skinner, 1953). For example, in order to reduce the number of drunk drivers on the road, mandatory fines and prison sentences were established. Countries found to

Bruce A. n y e r and Laura L. Myers


violate human rights may have trade restrictions imposed upon them, while friendly countries receive liberal loans or grants. Henry Kissinger defined this approach as linkage create a network of incentives and penalties to produce the most favorable outcome (1994, p. 717). A clearer explication of diplomacy as an example of contingency management based on operant principles is difficult to imagine.

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The practice of social work involves a wide variety of interventive domains, ranging from individual and group therapy, marital and family counseling, community practice, and efforts at social and legislative reform. Social learning theory offers social workers a theory of normative human growth and development (Bijou, 1993; Schlinger, 1995; Thyer, I992a), a framework for understanding the etiologies of psychopathology (Ullman & Krasner, 1969), a comprehensive theory of human personality (Lundin, 1974), and a widely applicable approach to clinical practice (Thyer, 1983). In addition to this broad coverage of psychological and social issues, social learning theory also fits closely with social works traditional person-in-environment perspective. There is no assumption in social learning theory that all behavior is learned, rather the view is that much of it is acquired via respondent, operant, and observational learning processes, and that it is a viable perspective to empirically ascertain to what extent they may be operative, as this may afford valuable etiological and interventive leads. There is no assumption in social learning theory that other explanatory accounts are irrelevant. Each requires its own justification in terms of empirical research support. To the extent that the eco-systems perspective suffers from a lack of sufficient empirical support, grounding this approach in the principles of contemporary social learning theory can reduce this deficiency and produce a stronger practice perspective of greater value to clients. REFERENCES Allen, K. E., Hart, B., Buell, J. S, Harris, F R., & Wolf, M. M.(1964). Effects of . . social reinforcement on isolate behavior of a nursery school child. Child
Development, 35,51 1-518.

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