Influence of Social Learning on Youth Behaviour


By Dr. Kellen Kiambati

Today we start a series of articles to articulate how policy makers can leverage the principles of behavioural economics to formulate, implement and influence youth policies. Young people’s behaviour is strongly influenced by what and how they see others conduct themselves.  This is termed as social learning and it takes place both subconsciously and consciously.  In this process of social learning, the youth social identity takes centre stage and they carefully consider how their comrades would behave in the same situation when making decisions.  When they are in situations that value social capital because of strong support networks and mutual trust, they identify play as an extremely important role.  The influence of people’s behaviour on social norms which in turn influences yet more people’s behaviour, gives rise to an ever evolving system of shifting social norms among young people. Usually, this happens because most of the young people are always pursuing status that is socially defined and changes through time.


Traditionally, policy actors have tended to ignore where young people’s preferences come from, failing to take into consideration the place of external behaviour and how social norms influence their behaviour.  Preferences are not fixed and it is not always that young people are sure of what they want.  External factors influence their choices and make it difficult for them to independently know exactly what they prefer.  This kind of thinking can probably apply in short term decision making but cannot explain long term sustainable decisions.  The assumption commonly taken is that young people will carry out a full rational analysis of all their available options. It is also argued that values are fairly distant influences on behaviour; their impact is mediated and moderated by factors such as worldviews, personal norms, the self‐concept, attitudes, and situational or contextual influences. In most cases, they end up copying the actions of other people.  Once in a while, we see young people adjust their behaviour according to the feedback they receive from trusted sources. This explains why it is important to have structured institutions that take care of specific youth needs in as far as youth policy designing is concerned.

Research has shown that through social learning and social proof,  people observe and copy what others do –  especially in ambiguous situations.  Young people social identity comes from those groups with whom they associate and they tend to show strong bias in favour of insider group members even if they were formed arbitrarily.  They show preference for members of their group over other people. The key influencers in this behaviour formation are the people in authority with legitimate power and those they like.

What does this mean for policy-makers?  Policy makers should consider social learning and identities when formulating policies.  Those policies that fail to do so will more often be responding to immediate effects ignoring the long term ones.  Policies makers should focus on changing social norms if they expect to see lasting positive behaviour change after a policy cycle.   They should examine and view youth preferences as fixed in the short term and not sustainable long term solutions.  As soon as policy makers have identified the particular youth behaviour they are trying to change, they can evaluate the role that social norms play in influencing this behaviour. If other people’s behaviour plays an important role, this should be leveraged as a matter of priority.




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