Application of Rotter’s Social Learning Theory in the Workplace

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Julian Rotter’s greatest contribution in the field of psychology is his development of a Social Learning Theory which sees personality as a result of a person’s interaction with his or her environment. Rotter’s interest in psychology began in high school when he was able to read books by Freud and Adler (Mearns, 2007).

The Great Depression, which affected his father’s successful business, contributed to his awareness of social injustice and the effects of the situational environment on people. Rotter attended Brooklyn College and finished his master’s degree at the University of Iowa (Mearns, 2007).He then took an internship in clinical psychology at the Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts, one of the few schools that offer such a course at that time. With his interest in clinical psychology, it was quite likely that his doctorate be also focused on this subject.

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Completing his dissertation on level of aspiration, he earned his Ph. D. in clinical psychology from the Indiana University in 1941. He became one of the very first clinical psychologists to be trained in what is now known as the traditional mode.

Despite Rotter’s extensive studies in the field of clinical psychology, it wasn’t until his entry into the academe that he was able to formulate his social learning theory. The Ohio State University where he accepted an academic position became the venue for his major accomplishment. In 1954, he published Social Learning and Clinical Psychology, where his theory was discussed in detail. He left the Ohio State University in 1963 to become the director of the clinical psychology training program in the University of Connecticut, where he remained until his retirement (Mearns, 2007)Rotter’s Social Learning Theory Rotter believes that an individual’s personality is developed by his interaction with his environment.

Someone’s personality therefore cannot be seen as inherent and internal to the individual, completely independent of the environment on which the individual lives. In Social Learning Theory 3 order to understand someone’s behavior, one must take into account the individual himself – his background, history and experiences, and his environment – the stimuli that the person is aware of and is responding to (Mearns, 2007).Viewed in this light, behavior is thus seen as something dynamic, something that can be changed. Rotter does not believe that personality is set at a definite period in one’s life.

By changing the way a person thinks, or by modifying his environment, one can change that person’s behavior. However, such a change becomes more difficult as the person acquires more experiences that influence his beliefs. Rotter’s theory is based on four basic constructs: the psychological situation, reinforcement value, expectancy, and behavior potential.The four concepts are related to each other such that in a given psychological situation, a person’s behavior potential or his ability to engage in a particular behavior is determined by the reinforcement value or a person’s preference for a particular outcome; and the person’s expectancy that the outcome will actually be obtained (Grant, 2004).

Reinforcement is another name for the outcomes of our behavior (Mearns, 2007). Reinforcement value is a person’s desirability for a particular outcome. Things that a person wants to happen have a high reinforcement value while those that he avoids have a low reinforcement value.Reinforcement value is subjective which means that similar events or experiences differ in reinforcement value for different persons depending on their life experiences.

Parental punishment usually has a low reinforcement value for most children as they would want to avoid it. Some children however, especially those who have experienced little parental attention would seek punishment (therefore giving it a high reinforcement value) as they view it as better than being neglected (Mearns, 2007). Each person also has an expectancy about the likelihood that a particular outcome will be obtained (Grant, 2004).A person will have “high” expectancies if he is confident that his Social Learning Theory 4 behavior will result to his desired outcome, while he will have “low” expectancies if he feels that his behavior will unlikely result to an outcome (Mearns, 2007).

Expectancy is independent of reinforcement value, but like it is also subjective. It is influenced by past experiences as the behaviors that have led to reinforcement in the past will result to a higher expectancy that the behavior will result to an outcome now.According to Rotter, there are two types of expectancies: specific and generalized. Specific expectancy is a person’s subjective estimate that a specific outcome will be reached by engaging in a particular behavior (Grant, 2004).

A person has specific expectancy for example if he weighs the probability that auditioning for a specific school play today will result to his being part of the play’s cast. Generalized expectancy on the other hand refers to a person’s prediction of the probability of obtaining a particular class or category of outcomes.In contrast to specific expectancy, a person who estimates the odds of being accepted in any play is exhibiting generalized expectancy. In the social learning theory, every generalized expectancy has a specific counterpart.

The beauty of the social learning theory is the blending of generality and specificity in order to enable psychologists to make a larger number of accurate predictions (Mearns, 2007). The behavior that a person will engage in is dependent on behavior potential. Behavior potential is the likelihood that a person will exhibit a particular behavior in order to obtain a particular outcome (Grant, 2007).There are many behaviors that an individual can engage in for any given situation.

Each behavior has a given potential and the behavior ultimately exhibited by the individual has the highest potential. As mentioned earlier, the behavior potential is determined by both the reinforcement value and the expectancy. The potential for a person to act in a certain manner is influenced by how much he expects as a reward for the behavior and how high he values that reward Social Learning Theory 5 (“The Role of Expectancy”, 2004).In order for a behavior to occur, both factors must exist.

Since both are independent factors, a person’s behavior potential can be predicted by using the following formula: Behavior Potential = Reinforcement value x Expectancy. From the equation, it can be perceived that when either the reinforcement value or expectancy is low, the likelihood of engaging in that particular behavior is also low. When either the reinforcement value or the expectancy is zero, the behavior will not be performed (Grant, 2004).Thus, when we have no desire to engage in a particular behavior or we believe that the outcome is unobtainable, there is no motivation to perform that behavior.

Conversely, when either reinforcement or expectancy is high, the behavior potential is also high. Thus, a student, realizing that a degree is of great value, has a high reinforcement value for studying and will likely spend long hours engaging in that behavior. This is despite the fact that there may be low expectancy of success considering that there is intense competition in the field (Grant, 2007).Although the psychological situation is not reflected in Rotter’s formula for predicting behavior potential, he nevertheless believes that people differ in how they perceive and react to stimuli.

Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that a person’s way of behaving is dependent on his subjective interpretation of his environment rather than on the stimuli itself (Mearns, 2007). Social Learning Theory Knowing the reinforcement value and expectancy of a person regarding a specific behavior is significant for a manager in a workplace.A worker who is not motivated to do a certain job may either feel that he is not fully rewarded or that the reward is not very significant. It is also possible that the worker thinks that the job cannot be performed.

Such factors may be difficult to determine in a busy workplace where everyone is beating Social Learning Theory 6 deadlines. Nevertheless, it is the manager’s job to find out how to increase efficiency in the workplace and one of the ways is to determine the reinforcement value and the expectancy of a worker regarding a specific job.By keeping an open communication line, the manager will be able to learn and recognize why some perform well while others perform poorly. By making an effort to keep either reinforcement value high (higher salary perhaps) or the expectancy strong (increasing worker’s confidence that the job can be successfully done), the manager is more assured of a greater efficiency.

An example of a generalized expectancy expanded by Rotter which can also be of significant use in the workplace is the concept of locus of control. This refers to an individual’s concept of responsibility for his success or failure.There are two types of locus of control: internal and external. People with internal locus of control believe that their actions are a result of their own preparations, decisions, belief and efforts.

People with external locus of control on the other hand believe that their actions are a result of external circumstances, or are influenced by others’ actions, fate or luck Internals are often generally seen as more desirable among managers as they tend to have lower absenteeism rates, are less alienated from their work setting, are more involved in their jobs and are capable of doing more risky decisions (Kralik, 2005).As a result, they tend to be more successful and be on the higher ranks of an organizational structure. Externals on the other hand attribute both success and failure to luck, fate or external circumstances. A manager’s way of motivating employees should also employ the use of locus of control.

There are many tests available that can give the manager a basic idea on an employee’s locus of control. Internals may only need a slight nudge to keep going but externals may require a harder push in order to be motivated.It will require a certain effort for the manager to make the worker’s realize that their success and failure depend on their Social Learning Theory 7 own actions. When they become more motivated and start to believe in themselves, the organization will most likely succeed in the market (Kralik, 2005).

It is also important for an organization to have an efficient and well-organized recruiting team who can assess whether an employee is fit for a higher position. Persons with a higher locus of control are more able to control people because in the first place, they are able to control themselves.

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Application of Rotter’s Social Learning Theory in the Workplace. (2017, May 08). Retrieved from

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