Social Behavior: Definition and Explanatory Theories

This facet of behavior unites us to the lives of others and our relationships with them.


Human beings are bio-psycho-social entities, which means that in each of us there are components of a biological, psychological and social nature. With regard to social behavior, this will be the result of the fusion between the genetic characteristics (DNA) and the environmental factors that surround individuals.

However, in practice we can not separate one element from the other in order to study them separately. The truth is that although each person is something apparently isolated, we are all defined by social behavior.

What is social behavior? Definition

To understand such a complex issue as social behavior, it is necessary to review some of the main theories. In this way we can familiarize ourselves with the subject.

Since antiquity, philosophers as relevant in Western thought as Aristotle and glimpsed the importance of social behavior and society for the lives of people. For the polymath, the human being was a social animal whose individual actions were inseparable from the social, because it is in society that the people where we form morally, being citizens and relating to the environment.

From these ideas we can sketch a simple definition of what social behavior is: the set of behavioral dispositions in which there is a great influence of social interactions.

As we have seen before, it is a complex issue, so it is best to know the most relevant theories about social behavior so that you know how people around you can act on a daily basis.

Main theories

The most important theories of social behavior are the following.

1. Theory of social influence

Social influence is a social psychological process in which one or several subjects influence the behavior of others. In this process factors such as persuasion, social conformity, social acceptance and social obedience are taken into account.

For example, at present it is common to see how in social networks the so-called “influencers” have a significant influence on social behavior, especially among adolescents. This influence can be of two types:

Influence of information

It happens when a person changes their thinking or behavior because they believe that the other’s position is more correct than their own. This means that there is a conversion process.

Normative influence

Unlike the informative, it occurs when a person is not completely convinced by the position of the other, and yet, by wanting to be accepted by others, ends up acting against their own beliefs.

2. Theory of classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov states that an innate response corresponds to a stimulus, but maintains that if that stimulus is associated with other events, we can obtain a different behavior. According to Pávlov, through induced stimuli, people’s behaviors can be changed.

From here it is mainly where marketing is nurtured. For example, if in an advertising campaign the product is associated with a pleasant stimulus for people (smiles, beaches, beauty) this will result in a greater amount of sales.

3. Theory of operant conditioning

Developed by B. F. Skinner, operant conditioning is a way of learning based on rewards and punishments. This type of conditioning holds that if the behavior brings with it a consequence, whether of reward or punishment, the consequence of our behavior will lead us to learning.

This type of conditioning is often studied during learning at early ages of development (childhood), but it is able to explain many other behaviors.

4. Theory of vicarious learning

In vicarious learning (learning by imitation), reinforcement is another characteristic; it focuses mainly on cognitive imitative processes of the individual who learns with a model figure. In the first years, parents and educators will be the basic models to imitate.

The concept was proposed by the psychologist Albert Bandura in his Theory of Social Learning in 1977. What he proposes is that not all learning is achieved by personally experiencing the actions.

5. Sociocultural theory

The Sociocultural Theory of Vygotsky emphasizes the interaction of young people with the environment that surrounds them, understanding cognitive development as the result of a multicasual process.

The activities carried out jointly give children the possibility to internalize the ways of thinking and behavior of the society where they are, adapting them as their own.

The community and the masses

The study of the Psychology of the masses initially comes from the psychoanalytic tradition. What I was looking for was to increase the influence of the actions of large groups on the isolated person; that is, on the identity of the latter, and understand how those actions influence cultural and other movements.

However, during the twentieth century both behaviorism and cognitive-behavioral current began to explain this part of human life, from the study of the stimuli and the responses operationalized by records.

As we have seen so far, social behavior is truly a fairly deep issue where there is a diversity of feedback relationships, bearing in mind that the behavior of one individual influences the behavior of another, thus forming a collateral effect.

In conclusion

It is clear that understanding social behavior in an exact way is nothing more than a utopia, perhaps because in society we are more unpredictable than individually. However, the social factor must be taken into account in any behavior analysis.