Social Cognitive Theory



Social Cognitive Theory explains how individuals initiate and maintain a given behavior (i.e., quitting smoking) by emphasizing the role of interactions among various cognitive, environmental, and behavioral factors (i.e., reciprocal determinism):

  • Cognition: Various mental processes that occur within the individual, such as behavioral capability, outcome expectancies, emotional coping responses, and feelings of self-efficacy.
  • Environment: Any factor physically external to the individual that can impact one’s behavior. The environment is comprised of social factors (i.e., family, friends, observational learning), and physical factors (i.e., weather, availability of tobacco products, etc.).
  • Behavior: The manner in which the individual reacts to various inputs from their social and/or physical environment (i.e., self-regulation).


Key Constructs


Definition (for Tobacco Users)

Behavioral Capability

Knowledge and skill to perform a given behavior; promote mastery learning through skills training

Reciprocal Determinism

The interaction between the tobacco user, smoking, and the environment in which the behavior is performed. Environmental factors can have an effect on the tobacco user. The tobacco user can also have an effect on the environment.

Emotional Coping Responses

Strategies or tactics that are used by a person to deal with emotional stimuli

Outcome Expectations

A tobacco user’s beliefs about the likelihood and value of the consequences of their choices regarding smoking.


A tobacco user’s confidence and beliefs to perform behaviors to bring about cessation of tobacco use.

Collective Efficacy

The beliefs about a group of tobacco user’s ability to perform actions together to bring about the cessation of tobacco use.

Observational Learning

Behavioral acquisition that occurs by watching the actions and outcomes of others’ behavior; Include credible role models of the targeted behavior


Incentive Motivation


Use of rewards and punishments to modify tobacco use (i.e., increasing taxes on tobacco)


Providing tools, resources, or environmental changes for a smooth tobacco cessation process.



Personal regulation of goal-directed behavior; The tobacco user’s ability to control themselves through several methods, including, self-monitoring, goal-setting, feedback, self-reward, self-instruction, and enlistment of social support.

Moral Disengagement

Ways of thinking about tobacco use and the individuals who are harmed by one’s tobacco use (i.e., second-hand smoke) that make infliction of harm acceptable


Strategies to Use with Tobacco Users

  • Help clients acquire the necessary skills for change
  • Ask the client to self-monitor tobacco use via a behavior diary
  • Discuss previous attempts to quit and the factors (cognitive & environmental) that contributed to relapse
  • Emphasize behavior changes that the client has made and discuss how past success can generalize to quitting tobacco use
  • Increase the positive outcome expectancies for quitting smoking


  • Increase the client's feelings of self-efficacy for quitting tobacco use by utilizing the following methods:



Mastery Experience

Enabling the tobacco user to succeed in attainable but increasingly challenging performances of cessation behaviors (i.e., via role-plays about non-use). The experience of performance mastery is the strongest influence of self-efficacy belief.

Social Modeling

Showing the tobacco user that others like themselves can quit. This may include modeling non-use of tobacco and use of various tasks involved in the process of smoking cessation, as well as introducing client to other who have quit.


Improving Physical & Emotional States


Making sure the tobacco user has addressed any physical or emotional concerns before attempting to quit. This may include efforts to reduce stress and depression.

Verbal Persuasion

Telling the tobacco user that he or she can quit. Strong encouragement can boost confidence enough to initiate efforts toward quitting.



Tables Adapted from:

Glanz, K., Rimer, B.K. & Lewis, F.M. (2002). Health Behavior and Health Education. Theory, Research and Practice. San Fransisco: Wiley & Sons. p169.

McAlister, A. L., Perry, C. L., & Parcel, G. S. (2008). How individuals, environments, and health behaviors interact: Social cognitive theory. In Glanz K, Rimer BK, Viswanath K, Eds. (4th ed). Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp167-188.