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A Comparison and Contrast of the Family Systems and Social Learning Theories


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A Comparison and Contrast Of the Family Systems and Social Learning Theories Identification and Introduction

The Social Learning Theory it is believed that behaviors are learned from the environment through a technique referred to as observational learning. The idea is that people, especially children, observe other adults or children around them and begin to act out those behaviors they have witnessed. The Social Learning Theory is most noted for an experiment knows as the “Bobo Doll Experiment” (Bandura, 1961), in which a group of children observed aggressive behaviors of adults, and then exhibited similar aggressive behaviors toward a toy “Bobo” doll. The Family Systems Theory is “a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally.” (Theory, 2018). Family Systems Theory is made up of eight concepts that are known as: “triangles, differentiation to self, nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process, emotional cutoff, sibling position, and societal emotional process.” (Kerr, 2000). The idea is that each concept affects the other, and any imbalance in the family system will affect all processes in the family dynamic, and each family member is affected by the behaviors or emotions of the other family members.

Founder of Theory

Albert Bandura and Murray Bowen are the founders of the Social Learning Theory and the Family Systems Theory, respectively. Murray Bowen attended medical school before joining the army becoming involved in the field of psychiatry. His ideas regarding human behavior are considered revolutionary, as he went against the “norms” of psychiatry and sociology for that time period in which he was practicing. Murray Bowen is described as, “a scholar, researcher, clinician, teacher, and writer. He worked tirelessly toward a science of human behavior, one that viewed man as a part of all life.” (Kerr. 2000).

In his biography sketch, Frank Pajares describes Bandura’s work at Stanford University, describing, how when Albert Bandura began working with Stanford University, he worked alongside Richard Walters, and of how “they began work researching aggressive behaviors in boys. During this time, they noticed that the boys displayed hyper aggressive behaviors exhibited by their parents.” (2004). Bandura went on to study the concept of social modeling in behavior patterns. He went on to further expand on his theories and wrote books about his ideas such as self-efficacy. He is most noted for the “Bobo Doll experiment” (Bandura, 1961) in which children modeled aggressive behaviors they witnessed being displayed in adults toward an inflatable toy doll. According to Pajaras, “Bandura continued to teach at Stanford into his eighties.” (2004).

Literature Review

In an article written in 2016 titled, “Family Systems and the Historical Roots of Global Gaps in Democracy”, written by Selin Dilli, it takes a look at the impact the Family Systems Theory has on a globalized democracy structure. “The current study investigates the role of ‘family systems’ as a historical institution in explaining why some countries have enduring democracy while others remained authoritarian despite the repeated global waves of democratization.” (Dilli, 2016). The article looks at socioeconomic and international factors and the ideas that countries who become encounter more economic evolvement will develop a democratic structure as they progress through stages of that economic development. The study looks at the structure of the family roles and explains how those roles have helped establish patterns that help shape the development of democracy within their country.

An article co-written by Colleen T. Fogarty of the University of Rochester and Larry B. Mauksch of the University of Washington takes a look into “the clinical world without the inclusion of the Family Systems Theory” (Fogarty, 2017). The article looks at the practice of family medicine and the amount of consideration into the family system is regarded in application of treatment. The article states, “A shared mental model of linear causality seduces us with its simplicity and the illusion of control. It is far easier to learn linear rubrics such as “If x, then y, and I do B to fix it” than to conceptualize a health care problem as the product of a surrounding family system. Systems thinking can be difficult to understand and conceptualize, especially for early trainees who grapple with the notion of “tell me what to do” and “tell me how not to hurt people.” (Fogarty, 2017). Often times within the medical setting, family members can be perceived as in the way, or intrusive to the doctor – patient confidentiality dynamic . The article points out that in many instances, the family practitioner is aware of many of the family influences involved in the patient’s lifestyle, but they do not always take those influences into consideration with their treatment plans for the patient’s condition.

In the article, “Separations: A Personal Account of Bowen Family Systems Theory” (2016), Martina Palombi writes of her personal experiences and how they tie in to the Family Systems Theory. Her experiences included separation from a parent at a very young age, when her mother was arrested at the age of five, then subsequent relocations to various places, with many taking her away from her extended family as well. Palombi concluded her research article in saying that, “A family systems lens does not discount the importance of disruptions to the mother/primary-carer child dyad, especially pre-verbally, or the impact on adverse events and highly stressful relationship disruptions. However, it does add an understanding of how all family members played a part in the way these coping patterns are embedded in generational adaptations over time and across generations of the family.” (2016). Further enforcing Bowen’s Family Systems Theory in that what happens to one member of the family, carries a subsequent implication to all members of the family dynamic. In essence, what happens to one, affects all. The research Palombi did, helped her better understand and process the anxiety she experienced from the separation form her mother and other extended family members while being moved around from one place to another.

In a collaborative effort by Nighat Gul, Nasreen Ghani, Sajid Mehmood Alvi, Farhana Kazmi, and Asgher Shah, research was conducted on “the influence the Family Systems Theory has on the well-being of children.” (2017). The research was conducted by looking at both single (one set of married opposite sex parents) and joint (extended family) families. In their study, the collaborative efforts of the team, in fact, reiterated that, “Research has shown that family structure influences child well-being through various mechanisms like parental resources, mental health of parents, quality of relationship between parents, etc.” (2017). Their study found “differences in gender variations, and family dynamics such as single or joint family” (2017), but overall concluded that family structure is associated with the psychological well-being of children from an early age.

Linda MacKay wrote an article for the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy,” Trauma and Bowen Family Systems Theory: Working with Adults Who were Abused as Children” (2012), in which she studied adults who were victims of childhood abuse. She formatted her research based on the ideas of Bowen’s Family Systems Theory and studied the basic concepts of the “forces of individuality and togetherness, unresolved emotional attachment, differentiation to self, triangles and triangling, and chronic anxiety”, (2012). She used case studies and coaching as part of her research methods. Stating in her concluding paragraph, “Work within a Bowen family systems frame recognizes that any extended focus on feeling responses reduces the ability of the survivor to think rationally, to have access to her higher cortical functions, and consequently set a course of action, guided by her own principles and values.” (2012). She emphasized that the importance was not to “focus on the victim’s sensitivity to specific people” (2012), but to rather aid it the developing self-awareness and thinking for oneself.

A study of the Social Learning Theory conducted by Neal Miller and John Dollard while at Yale University on the aspects of personality and behavioral concluded, “Simply put, social learning theory proposes that our likelihood of responding in certain ways- termed “habits”- are built up in terms of a hierarchy of secondary, or acquired, drives.” (Friedman, 2012). The study provides an example in which acquire habits through drives. Such as, if a person is mugged, they will avoid situations that place them in perceived vulnerability to be victimized again, but that reluctance could be reinforced by doing such things as “walking with friends or staying in well-lit areas at night”. (2012).

A study conducted by Albert Bandura, Joan Grusec, and Frances Menlove in 1966 observed children following exposure to a short four-minute film. As the study mentioned, “Since observers can acquire only perceptual and other implicit responses resembling the sequences of modeling stimuli while they are occurring, symbolic processes which mediate subsequent behavioral reproduction must play a prominent role in observational learning.” (1966). The purpose of behind the study was to examine the differences between children who watched the film passively or actively, and the time elapse between viewing the film and when the behaviors were exhibited by the children. As was predicted in the study, they found the more engaged the children were with the film and the subsequent reinforcement obtained from obeying the command to mimic the behaviors shown, the more eagerly the children were to display the behaviors observed, and had a longer retention of the behavior, which presented itself at a later time without prompting.

In a report titled, “A Social Learning Perspective on Childhood Trauma and Same-Sex Intimate Partner Violence” (2017), authors, Lamerial McRae, Andrew Daire, Eileen Abel, and Glenn Lambie studied how effects of childhood trauma would impact the choices they made in relation to violence toward intimate partners later in adult life. The study focuses on the learned behaviors as children witness violent behaviors exhibited by one or both of their parents, and their acceptance and subsequent mirroring of those behaviors in their own intimate relationships. “A correlation design method combined with survey methods was used in the study”. (2017). The participates that were part of the study were made up of college aged students from the LGBT community. The conclusion of their study shows a relationship between childhood trauma and “individualized characteristics” (2017) that predicted a pattern of partner violence in adulthood. They also suggest that further research is needed in this area of study, in that, “The greater a child’s trauma history, the greater the chance that he or she will grow up accepting IPV as an appropriate relational pattern.” (2017).

In a collaborative piece, “An Application of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory: A New Approach to Deafblind Support Groups” (2009), authors, Paul Deeming and Laurie Lee Johnson, looked at the resulting success of a “two-year project that applied the Social Learning Theory to the therapeutic practices to deafblind support groups in Minnesota” (2009). Factors that were present during the study included how the participant with moderate to profound vision loss would engage in observational learning or how communication barriers between those who were fluent in sign language versus those who were not would impact the study. They utilized the aid of interpreters in the study to assist with any communication barriers presented. In one aspect the study differed from other Social Theory models in that “The deafblind group did not intend that the group reflect the environment in which they go about their daily activities because none of the members live or socialize exclusively with other deafblind people.” (2009). The groups were divided into teams, each with two interpreters. The first was an interpreter to “facilitate communications in the modeling process” (2009), while the second interpreter acted as a monitor to “observe the behaviors within the groups” (2009). During the conclusion of the study, the participants overall felt they benefited from the group and obtained new still to seek and provide support to each other within the study. Also, the study concluded that “empathy and support levels” (2009) increased between the participants.

A study written by Paul Torrens, and Aaron McDaniel, “Modeling Geographic Behavior in Riotous Crowds” (2013), looks into “modeling behaviors exhibited in rioting crowds that incite others to follow along and join in on the rioting act” (2013). Computer generated riots in a lab were used as a study method, since it wasn’t feasible to engage in an actual riot, or always convenient to locate one. The elements studied included “spatial interaction, scaling, geographic behavior, and physical geography” (2013), as these elements all play in integral role in the behaviors witnessed during a riot. The computer-generated models included a “rebel-oriented strategy as well as a police- oriented strategy (2013). They goal was to establish a basis for debunking the hypothesis of the “crowd mentality”- a popular notion that the crowd will “abandon their sense of individualism and engage in a pack like mentality”. (2013). Yet, the idea of “crowd mentality” (2013) is a considered relevant by many. The conclusion of the study was that, “Riots are difficult to experiment with tangibly or using standard social science analyses. One alternative might be to use modeling and simulation to explore riots synthetically.” Computer generated riot models can provide a certain degree of indication and explanation for rioting behaviors. However, it is hard to predict human behaviors, and completely explain the internal drive that leads people in crowds to join in on the rioting behaviors.

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Compare and Contrast Theories

In comparison of both the Social Learning Theory and the Family Systems Theory, both lend an air of conclusion that behavior patterns generally are originated from the influences we have, whether it is social influence, such as peers at school, or our siblings and parents. Behaviors are learned through modeling and reinforcement, whether good or bad. “Individuals learn to behave, therefore, through a process of modeling and reinforcement, and through a vicarious process of observing models and the consequences models experience as a result of their behavior. Because individuals establish goals for the future, social learning theory recognizes the importance of self-regulation and self-control.” (15)” (Hawkins 1993). In contrast, the biggest difference between the two theories is how the Social Learning Theory sees the environmental factors as the greatest determinant in learned behaviors. The idea being that the environmental system as a whole is more important than the individual parts that are contained within. Whereas, with the Family Systems Theory, the family dynamic is what determines a person’s sense of self. When one member of the family acts out of accordance with the expected beliefs and behaviors within the family, the family system is then broken, and every member of the family is in some way impacted by the shift in the family dynamic.


I believe these systems are culturally sound, because it is important to recognize the influence the culture plays in the life of the individual. It is helpful when working with the client to be sensitive to that influence and take into consideration the individual’s role within their own culture. Because their environment and family dynamic will both have an effect on the outcome of the individual’s success or failure in a therapy situation, and therefore, they will need a good support system from both. In an article for the Journal of Clinical Psychology, John McNamara wrote in his article titled, “The Broad-Based Applications of Social Learning Theory to Treat Aggression in a Preschool Child” (1970), about the need for study in identifying the source of learned behaviors and subsequent methods used in behavior modification for rectifying undesired or unwanted behaviors, stating, “Recently, there has been increased interest in the application of learning principles to modify undesirable behavior patterns in children. When behavioral modification is achieved in this way, a person's response to stimuli is changed through appropriate environmental manipulation” (McNamara 1970).


Albert Bandura, a., Joan E. Grusec, a., & Frances L. Menlove, a. (1966). Observational Learning as a Function of Symbolization and Incentive Set. Child Development, (3), 499. doi:10.2307/1126674

Deeming, P., & Johnson, L. L. (2009). AN APPLICATION OF BANDURA'S SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY: A NEW APPROACH TO DEAFBLIND SUPPORT GROUPS. Journal Of The American Deafness & Rehabilitation Association (JADARA), 203-209.

Dilli, S. (2016). Family Systems and the Historical Roots of Global Gaps in Democracy. Economic History Of Developing Regions, 31(1), 82-135. doi:10.1080/20780389.2015.1109440

Fogarty, C. T., & Mauksch, L. B. (2017). 'Imagine a clinical world without family systems thinking.'. Families, Systems, & Health, 35(4), 395-398. doi:10.1037/fsh0000321

Friedman, Howard S., and Miriam W. Schustack. Personality: Classic Theories and Modern Research. Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2012.

Gul, N., Ghani, N., Alvi, S. M., Kazmi, F., & Shah, A. A. (2017). FAMILY SYSTEM'S ROLE IN THE PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING OF THE CHILDREN. Khyber Medical University Journal, 9(1), 29-32.

Hawkins, W., Clarke, G., & Seeley, J. (1993). Application of social learning theory to the primary prevention of depression in adolescents. Health Values: The Journal Of Health Behavior, Education & Promotion, 17(6), 31-39.

Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000.

MacKay, L. (2012). Trauma and Bowen Family Systems Theory: Working with Adults Who were Abused as Children. Australian & New Zealand Journal Of Family Therapy, 33(3), 232-241. doi:10.1017/aft.2012.28

Mcleod, Saul. “Social Learning Theory.” Albert Bandura | Social Learning Theory | Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 2016,


McRae, L., Daire, A. P., Abel, E. M., & Lambie, G. W. (2017). A Social Learning Perspective on Childhood Trauma and Same-Sex Intimate Partner Violence. Journal Of Counseling & Development, 95(3), 332-338. doi:10.1002/jcad.12147

Pajares, Frank. “Biography Sketch.”, 2004,

Palombi, M. (2016). Separations: A Personal Account of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Australian & New Zealand Journal Of Family Therapy, 37(3), 327-339. doi:10.1002/anzf.1170

"Theory." The Bowen Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 February 2018. <>.

Torrens, P. M., & McDaniel, A. W. (2013). Modeling Geographic Behavior in Riotous Crowds. Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers, 103(1), 20-46.

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