Learning Theories

8 Cognitive Learning Theories

In contrast to behavioural theories of learning, cognitive learning theory approaches stress the importance of internal mental processes. This perspective views people as problem solvers who actively use information from the world around them to master their environments. Supporters of this view also stress the role of creativity and insight during the learning process. One important aspect of a cognitive learning perspective is observational learning; this occurs when people change their own attitudes or behaviours simply by watching the actions of others—learning occurs as a result of vicarious rather than direct experience. This type of learning is a complex process; people store these observations in memory as they accumulate knowledge, perhaps using this information at a later point to guide their own behaviour. Modeling is the process of imitating the behaviour of others. You should have no trouble thinking of advertisements you’ve seen that encourage you to model an actor’s behaviours at a later point in time.

Observational Learning

Four children playing with a ball in a field surrounded by trees.
Children learn about the world around them by observing the behaviours of others. Over time they may eventually model these behaviours which inform their preferences, attitudes, and ultimately their decision making as consumers.

Not all forms of learning are accounted for entirely by classical and operant conditioning. Imagine a child walking up to a group of children playing a game on the playground. The game looks fun, but it is new and unfamiliar. Rather than joining the game immediately, the child opts to sit back and watch the other children play a round or two. Observing the others, the child takes note of the ways in which they behave while playing the game. By watching the behaviour of the other kids, the child can figure out the rules of the game and even some strategies for doing well at the game.

This is called observational learning. This form of learning requires the observation of other people’s behaviours: it differs from the previously discussed learning theories (associative, classical, operant) because it doesn’t involve reinforcements or repetition. Instead, observational learning takes on the form of modeling—as in modeling the behaviour of others (who are referred to as “social models”) we’ve observed through media, for example.

Social models are typically of higher status or authority compared to the observer, examples of which include parents, teachers, and public health officers. In the example above, the children who already know how to play the game could be thought of as being authorities—and are therefore social models—even though they are the same age as the observer. By observing how the social models behave, an individual is able to learn how to act in a certain situation. Other examples of observational learning might include a child learning to place their napkin in their lap by watching their parents at the dinner table, or a customer learning where to find the washroom after observing where other customers have gone when leaving their tables.

Bandura theorizes that the observational learning process consists of four parts. The first is attention—as, quite simply, one must pay attention to what they are observing in order to learn. The second part is retention: to learn one must be able to retain the behaviour they are observing in memory. The third part of observational learning, initiation, acknowledges that the learner must be able to execute (or initiate) the learned behaviour. Lastly, the observer must possess the motivation to engage in observational learning.


Modeling is the process of imitating the behaviour of others. This is a particularly common form of learning for young consumers, who often observe the behaviour of others (often individuals who they look up to or admire, such as an online influencer) and imitate their behaviour. Naturally, when speaking of young consumers, the negative effects of this learning model are clear: smoking, high-risk behaviour, violence, self-harm, etc. are behaviours that children are not only observing in others, but also learning how to copy and perform on their own. The responsibility of advertisers with regard to their influence and impact on children and young consumers has brought into question, what should be marketed to kids and what should not? Remember advertisements for smoking? No? I do—but that’s because I grew up at a time when there was little consideration about the effects (role) models had on children. Often seen in smoking commercials and billboards, attractive and idealized adults modeled to a young audience the perceived joy and sophistication that came along with being a smoker. After years of scrutiny, activism, and eventually legislation, tobacco companies were no longer permitted to advertise their products to children and young consumers.

Student Op-Ed: Creating the “Pepsi Generation”

Throughout Pepsi’s history, the cola company has often utilized the modeling theory of learning to convey a brand message to consumers. The Cola Conquest is a documentary film that follows the creation and growth of cola drinks throughout the United States, and eventually around the world. Coca-Cola’s main competitor, Pepsi, has been the only alternative with a shared history in what marketing historians call, the “Cola Wars,” proving that the cola brand has always been a worthy competitor to the sugary drink conglomerate (Angelico, 1998).

Since it’s conception, Coke’s marketing has represented quintessential American symbols and values of freedom and family, while often drawing on nostalgia and wholesome traditions to target middle to upper class American consumers of the dominant culture. To differentiate itself from Coke, Pepsi took an alternate direction, using, pop culture imagery and icons in its marketing to reach youth and street culture demographics (Angelico, 1998). The documentary features original Pepsi commercials starring Michael Jackson, who’d taken the world by storm with innovative creativity and catchy pop songs. Similarly, supermodel Cindy Crawford lent her star power to the youthful brand by acting as somewhat of a spokesperson (Webb, Angelico, & Neidik, 1998). This type of cognitive learning that we refer to as modeling demonstrates how celebrities and pop culture icons directly influence young (and youthful) consumers who learned to favour Pepsi over Coke (Dahl, White, & Solomon, 2015).

Modeling can play an important factor in a consumer’s decision making process since it plays into our desires to imitate the behaviour of others. Modeling as a marketing strategy can be particularly effective when the models are individuals (or more appropriately, “influencers”) who consumers admire. Marketers utilize the learning theory of modeling by featuring individuals which consumers aspire to be like or imitate into their advertising campaigns (Dahl, White, & Solomon, 2015). When Pepsi launched the infamous, “Pepsi Generation” marketing campaign, they used celebrities, models, and edgy pop culture icons of the time, to connect the brand with consumers who identified as part of youth street culture (Angelico, 1998). Modeling proved to be a successful strategy for this campaign because it spoke directly to children who are more easily influenced by celebrity star-power as well as their peers (Dahl, White, & Solomon, 2015).

These advertisement campaigns were proven highly successful since entertainment and celebrity status was growing drastically in the 1980’s (Angelico, 1998). Michael Jackson was Pepsi’s most successful celebrity model, inspiring subculture youth in the urban cities of the United States to model the pop icon’s choice  in cola drinks (Angelico, 1998). One individual shared with me that when Michael Jackson’s first Pepsi commercial premiered, teens rushed home to record it and re-watched repeatedly it in admiration. (Angelico, 1998). Pepsi continues to apply this marketing strategy as seen in their infamous television commercial featuring model and reality star Kendall Jenner. The intention was to leverage Jenner’s global popularity and influence on the youth market; however, the content and messaging of the ad was in poor taste and caused controversy by both appropriating and trivializing the Black Lives Matter activist movement that campaigns to bring awareness of and an end to systemic racism and violence towards black youth. Despite being pulled from the airways, Jenner’s endorsement and association with Pepsi drew considerable attention towards the brand.

In response to Coca Cola’s capitalization on traditional upper-class American culture, I believe that Pepsi appropriately targeted a more specific consumer market of urban street culture, by integrating highly admired pop culture icons. As Coca-Cola has successfully captured the attention of mainstream consumers, Pepsi successfully adapted its brand by claiming a brand position closely reflective of street and pop culture, thereby becoming know as the “Pepsi Generation”. Its positioning strategy established both a title adopted by youth and a much needed image for the brand which youth desired to be a part of.

Media Attributions

  • The image of four young children playing ball on an open field of grass surrounded by tall trees is by Robert Collins on Unsplash.

Text Attributions


Angelico, I.L. (Director). (1998). The Cola Conquest [Film]. DLI Productions.

Solomon, M., White, K. & Dahl, D.W. (2017). Consumer Behaviour: Buying, Having, Being Seventh Canadian Edition. Pearson Education Inc.



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Introduction to Consumer Behaviour Copyright © 2021 by Andrea Niosi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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