APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

The Social Learning Theory Is Pivotal to Hospitality Education

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

The Social Learning Theory (SLT) was first developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in 1969. Since its inception, SLT has been modified and adapted to many different contextual phenomena, including alcohol consumption, ethical dilemmas, career development decision making, and various formal education environments.

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The Steps of Social Learning Theory

SLT essentially posits that human beings learn from one another through social interactions, observation, memorization and imitation. Bandura proposed that the learning of many social skills begins with watching social interactions, either as a party to such interactions or as a witness to them. The learner in this sense is referred to as an “observer,” and the individual being observed is often referred to as the “model.”

The next step in the mechanics of social learning involves evaluation. Assuming basic rationality, humans will observe social interactions and then measure the value of the behaviors observed, based primarily on the consequences of those behaviors.

Therefore, if a particular behavior leads to a perceived positive consequence (e.g., a smile is observed to promote kindness), such behavior would naturally be perceived as valuable. Conversely, if a behavior leads to a perceived negative consequence (e.g., a frown is observed to promote hostility), such behavior would be perceived as relatively less valuable.

Another step in the learning process involves memorization. Those behaviors that are deemed valuable are committed to memory, as the observer hopes to recreate the positive consequences in future interactions. Likewise, behaviors deemed less valuable (due to promoting negative consequences) are memorized to the extent necessary to avoid those behaviors in the future (i.e., “I will remember not to do that ever again.”).

The final step in the SLT sequence is referred to as “imitation.” As the label would suggest, this is the point at which the observer adopts and attempts to repeat the behaviors that are deemed to be valuable in hopes of yielding benefits similar to those previously observed.

It is important to note that this final step, imitation, also functions as the first step (observation) in an entirely new SLT sequence. Therefore, when a particular behavior is repeated based on perceived value, the new consequences are evaluated and compared with those of the initial observation.

If they are consistent, then this interaction reinforces perceptions about the value of the behavior in question. However, if the new consequences are dissimilar to those observed in the original sequence, this may weaken or even destroy the observer’s perceived value of the behavior.

The Social Learning Theory is of particular importance to hospitality education, because it is well established that the success of most hospitality businesses is largely determined by the quality of the interactions between hospitality professionals and their customers.

Consider, for example, the hotel casinos that dominate the most-visited tourism destination in the world, Las Vegas. There are indeed myriad factors that influence the frequency and extent to which Las Vegas visitors will part with their disposable income, including price, location, amenities, affinity and others. However, through such concrete concepts as the service-profit chain, we understand that service quality plays a considerable role in shaping guests’ perceptions of value and in driving their future purchasing decisions.

The skills necessary to deliver impeccable service are also learnable, as evidenced by the success of many brands that emphasize employee service training as a core competency and/or as a competitive advantage. Many of these training regimens involve promoting the types of social interactions that are conducive to SLT, such as role playing and shadowing senior employees in real guest encounters.

Through observation, evaluation, memorization, and imitation, employees learn which behaviors are conducive to guest experiences that are most consistent with their company’s goals. Therefore, in light of this connection, the importance of SLT to hospitality education is quite obvious: The mastery of social dexterity is a critical tool in every hospitality professional’s belt. Hospitality schools recognize the importance of social dexterity, as they develop their curriculum around this principle with group projects, presentations, role-playing scenarios, internships and other social learning opportunities.

The Social Learning Theory is an integral part of hospitality education, as it is central to the core hospitality product. Formal higher education serves to develop a solid foundation of social learning so that when students graduate, they have the means to continue educating themselves as their career paths may require to reach their highest potential.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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