Primer on Learning Theories and Spiritual Development

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Social Cognitive Learning Theory and Vygotsky’s Socialcultural Theory are two human growth and development theories that research supports, and Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory is continually examined but lacks support. The research from these theories demonstrates the importance of spiritual development in human growth and development. In this primer I will discuss each theory and how they relate to spiritual development.

Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory suggest our personality is comprised of three different parts, id, ego and superego.

• The id is your involuntary and instinctual urges that are present from birth.

• The ego acts as a cushion between the world and your id. This buffer regulates our childish impulses out of safety reasons and integration into the world.

• The superego is your conscious and makes decision by balancing right and wrong. Your influences teach you the boundaries of right and wrong while you were a infant.

As I learned about the superego it reminded me of the shoulder angels I used to see on cartoons when I was a child. When there was a hard decision of good versus evil, two like images would attempt to persuade the cartoon character. An angel on the right shoulder and a devil at the left shoulder representing good versus temptation. Researching the origins of this concept I found the cartoon image is modern. Then I found a document, The Shepherd of Hermas, that dates back from the mid 2nd century. This document mentions the word dipsychia which means double-mindedness. Double-mindedness can be found in James 1:6-8 (ESV),

“But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

Double-mindedness is not being able to decide between right and wrong. The Angel serves as the superego while the devil is the id. There is another example of double-mindedness that I will share with you in Matthew 6:24 (ESV),

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Social Cognitive Learning Theory

Social Cognitive Learning Theory is learning by imitating people. Albert Bandura, a developmental psychologist is credited with focus on this theory. To simply describe it the personal phrase that springs to mind is, “monkey see, monkey do.” There are four phases to this theory.

  1. The attention phase where the subject must notice the action.
  2. Then the remembrance phase where the subject must remember each step.
  3. Next is the repeat phase where the subject sees the action repeated again.
  4. Then finally the reward stage where the subject is stimulated by the end result.

My son can be used as an example for the explanation of this theory. When he was capable of sitting up well. I would set him on my lap and read a book. Eventually he began turning the pages from the right-hand side to the left, mimicking me turn the pages. Then he spoke in broken gibberish trying to reproduce the sounds I make. Now turning the pages and pointing to pictures as I would, he calls out certain picture and word combinations he recognizes. He is repeating and as he matures he will recognize eye movement left-to-right among other aspects of our behavior as we read.

Social-cultural Theory

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky’s Social-cultural Theory is a community based theory. The theory states we understand the world by playing and cooperating with other children while young. During this interaction we learn what is important. The environment and the people inside of it influence the little ones.  The older children are included in this community that influences little ones and receives the same influence form older community members.

In my personal experience I am close to my extended family. I came of age with all my extended family supporting one another. However, after my first marriage ended and I moved into Washington, D.C. Metro area, my oldest son remained in Illinois. He doesn’t have the closeness with extended family and have the same sense of family as I do. It is his mother, a brother, who recently went away to college, and his grandfather, who interact with him daily. The family or community dynamic is much different for him.

The biblical principle that we should emulate is the Body of Christ. We are all members of The Body. Christ is the head and we are the limbs. We are a community of believers and we look after and share mutually. During a baptism the congregation attests it will assist, look after and teach the new member of the church as they grow in their faith. This is seen in 1 Corinthians 12:12-24 (ESV) and Ephesians 2:19 (ESV),

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

Research has suggested that spiritual development parallels brain development in the course of a persons life. The connections with physical development amount to a great deal even as infants. If an infant doesn’t receive the consistent emotional nurturing then they may lack the physical development for neuronal complexity and interconnectedness. The foundations of courage, autonomy, hope, trust and strength make provision for psychological and spiritual development. The lack of these foundations can cause a physical disconnect between the neurons during development. This may prevent the person from exploring spirituality and it meanings.


Feldman, R. (2014). An Introduction to Lifespan Development. In Development across the life span (Seventh ed., pp. 14-25). Upper Saddle: Pearson Education.

Roehlkepartain, E. (2006). A Neuropsychological Perspective on Spiritual Development. In The handbook of spiritual development in childhood and adolescence (pp. 187-190). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

Verheyden, J. (2006). The Shepherd of Hermas. The Expository Times, 117(10), 397-401. Retrieved October 23, 2014.