Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Albert Bandura - Profile

I have become a big fan of Albert Bandura in the past few weeks. He was a behavioral psychologist who introduced social learning theory to the mix, effectively changing the future of how the behavioral model is implemented.

It's easy for some of us to see how reductive the behavioral model is, but if we are clear about things, we have to acknowledge how much behavioral theory has become an integral part of so many therapeutic approaches. Like Freud, who is also neglected in his influence, Skinner changed the face of psychology forever.

In that sense, Bandura also stands as a giant in the field.

Albert Bandura





When people first try a new sport, they often know what they need to do before ever stepping onto a playing field or court because they've watched other people play. Albert Bandura recognized the importance of this process, called observational learning or vicarious learning, in which people learn to do something without actually performing the behavior themselves or being directly rewarded or punished for it. The advantage of this kind of learning is that it lets people learn from the experience of others, without having to reinvent the wheel every time they do something new.

In a series of classic studies, Bandura and his colleagues looked at the way observational learning affects aggressive behavior in children. Some children were shown a film in which an adult punched, hammered, and kicked a plastic inflatable doll, called a Bobo doll. Those who viewed the film were later more likely to act aggressively themselves when given a chance to play with the doll. Furthermore, seeing the adult in the film be rewarded for aggression increased the likelihood of aggression in the children even more, while seeing the adult punished had the opposite effect. However, just watching the aggressive behavior was enough for the children to learn it, regardless of whether rewards or punishments were given. The Bobo doll experiments became some of the best-known studies in psychology.

Yet, as important as observational learning is, Bandura also stressed that people have self-control over which behaviors they copy and which they do not. This self-control is exercised through cognitive, or thought, processes. Bandura's other major contribution to psychology has been the description of one key cognitive process, called perceived self-efficacy. People's perceived self-efficacy refers to their beliefs about how capably they will be able to perform a behavior in a particular situation.

These two central themes in Bandura's work—observational learning and self-efficacy beliefs—have been brought together with other factors under the label "social-cognitive theory." According to Bandura's social-cognitive theory, the outer world and the inner person—including that person's beliefs, thoughts, and feelings—combine to determine an individual's actions. The results of those actions, in turn, help shape the person's future beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. In this way, a cycle is established, in which the outer world, the inner person, and the person's behavior all act on and feed off each other. However, this does not necessarily have to be a vicious cycle. In fact, by changing his or her self-efficacy beliefs, a person can potentially break free of an old, negative cycle and establish a new, positive one. This theory is the culmination of Bandura's lifetime of study and research.

In 2002, a psychologist named Steven Haggbloom and his colleagues published a paper in which they attempted to rank the 100 most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century. They based their ranking on six different variables: citations in journals, mentions in introductory psychology textbooks, a survey of American Psychological Society members, election as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) or receipt of the APA Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award, membership in the National Academy of Sciences, and use of the psychologist's surname to identify a particular theory or school of psychology. Bandura ranked number four, right behind B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget, and Sigmund Freud.

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The college years

When it came time for college, Bandura headed for the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Once there, he stumbled onto psychology by chance. Bandura was carpooling to school with a group of other students who were early risers. He signed up for an introductory psychology class just to fill the early morning time slot, but he quickly became fascinated with the subject. Within three years, in 1949, he had graduated with a prize in psychology. Years later, Bandura discussed how personal actions often place people in situations where fortunate events can then shape the future course of their lives.

For graduate school, Bandura settled on the University of Iowa. At the time, the psychology department there was a hotbed of research and scholarly activity. Among the distinguished faculty members were Kenneth Spence and Kurt Lewin. Spence was known for his research on learning and conditioning. Earlier, Spence had studied with Clark Hull, a leading figure in behaviorism, a school of psychology that posits that organisms can be trained, or conditioned, to respond in specific ways to specific stimuli. At Iowa, Spence extended Hull's theories and research in an effort to come up with a precise mathematical formula to describe the learning of behavior. The two men's research on learning became known collectively as the Hull-Spence theory.

Lewin, on the other hand, had a rather different approach to the study of human behavior—an approach he called field theory. Lewin held that a person's behavior arises from complex interactions among psychological factors inside the person, environmental factors outside the person, and the relationship between these inner and outer worlds. Lewin proposed his field theory as a method for analyzing these kinds of causal relationships.

It must have been a very exciting time and place for Bandura. As he later recalled in a book by Richard Evans:

I found Iowa to be intellectually lively, but also very supportive. . .At Iowa we were imprinted early on a model of scholarship that combined high respect for theory linked to venturesome research. It was an excellent beginning for a career.

Bandura also found time for nonacademic interests. One day, while golfing with a friend, he found himself playing behind a pair of female golfers. Eventually, he wound up in a sand trap with one of the women, Virginia Varns, who was on the teaching staff at the College of Nursing. The two struck up an acquaintance that blossomed into a lifelong romance. Bandura and Varns were married in 1952, the same year Bandura finished his PhD in clinical psychology. The couple went on to have two daughters: Mary, born in 1954, and Carol, born in 1958.

Career at Stanford

In 1953, Bandura took a job as an instructor in the psychology department at Stanford University. He has remained at Stanford ever since, becoming a full professor in 1964. In 1974, Stanford awarded Bandura an endowed chair, a high honor in the academic world, and he became the David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology. The intellectual climate at Stanford has served Bandura well, providing eminent colleagues and bright students with whom to conduct research and exchange ideas.

Perhaps the first prominent colleague to influence Bandura at Stanford was Robert Sears, who was chairman of the psychology department when Bandura arrived. Among other things, Sears was studying child-rearing patterns that led to aggressiveness and dependency in children. Following this line of work, Bandura and his first graduate student, Richard Walters, began studying the family backgrounds of very aggressive delinquents. They discovered that one factor affecting aggression among teenagers was whether or not the teens' parents were hostile or aggressive. In 1959, Bandura and Walters published a book titled Adolescent Aggression, which described their research on this subject.

Bandura was struck by the seeming influence of parental role models on teenagers' aggressive behavior. He wanted to study this effect in more depth experimentally, but first he had to come up with a workable study design. The result was the now-famous Bobo doll experiments, which Bandura conducted with Dorothea Ross and Sheila Ross. In 1963, the findings from this research were summarized in a second book with Walters, titled Social Learning and Personality Development. Few areas of psychological research have ever captured the public imagination as well as the Bobo doll studies did. As Bandura told Evans, "When I'm introduced at invited lectures at other universities, the students place a Bobo doll by the lectern. From time to time I have been asked to autograph one. The Bobo doll has achieved stardom in psychological circles."

Of course, it was Bandura himself who was really the rising star. In 1964, in addition to being made a professor at Stanford, he was elected a Fellow of the APA. During the 1969–70 school year, he was awarded a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a center near Stanford that brings together scientists and scholars from around the world who show exceptional accomplishment or promise in their fields. In 1969, Bandura published Principles of Behavior Modification, the first important book in cognitive behavior therapy. In 1974, Bandura received his endowed chair at Stanford, and, during the 1976–77 school year, he served as chairman of the psychology department there.

Meanwhile, Bandura continued his ambitious research program. In 1977, he offered a theoretical framework for his findings in Social Learning Theory. This book had a dramatic impact on psychology. It heralded a great upsurge in interest in social learning theory among other psychologists during the 1980s.

By this time, however, it was already growing apparent to Bandura that something was missing from his theory. In a 1977 paper, titled "Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change," he identified the missing piece as self-beliefs. Soon, Bandura had broadened his social learning theory to include a wide range of self-beliefs and self-control abilities. He described a system in which a person's beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and physical responses interact with both the environment and the person's behavior. He then renamed his expanded theory the "social-cognitive theory," both to distinguish it from other social learning theories of the day and to stress the central importance of beliefs and thoughts. In 1986, Bandura published Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, which set forth his new theory of human functioning.

The linchpin of social-cognitive theory is self-efficacy. In the last few decades, Bandura has continued to explore this concept and its many practical applications. Researchers around the world have taken up the torch as well. In 1993, a scientific conference was held in Germany on young people's beliefs about their personal efficacy to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world. Bandura later edited a book, titled Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies, containing papers presented at the conference. Then, in 1997, he published Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, in which he set forth his detailed ideas about the causes and effects of self-efficacy beliefs.

Lifetime of achievement

Over the years, Bandura has collected numerous awards and honors. These include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1972), the APA Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award (1980), the APA William James Award (1989), the APA Thorndike Award for Distinguished Contributions of Psychology to Education (1999), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy (2001). He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He has also received 14 honorary degrees from universities around the world.

In return, Bandura has given generously of his time and energy to the field of psychology. He has held a number of offices in scientific societies, including serving as APA president in 1974 and being named honorary president of the Canadian Psychological Association in 1999. He has also sat on the editorial boards of some 30 journals. In addition, he has authored seven books and edited two others. Several of his books have been translated into languages such as Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Japanese, Russian, French, Italian, and Korean. Today, Bandura's name and ideas are familiar to psychologists and psychology students worldwide.


  • With R. H. Walters. Adolescent Aggression. New York: Ronald Press, 1959.
  • With R. H. Walters. Social Learning and Personality Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963.
  • Principles of Behavior Modification. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969.
  • Editor. Psychological Modeling: Conflicting Theories. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton Press, 1971.
  • Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
  • "Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change." Psychological Review 84 (1977) 191–215.
  • Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977.
  • Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.
  • Editor. Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman, 1997.

In his late seventies, at a age when most people have long since retired, Bandura continues to publish and make contributions to psychology. His most recent interests include the psychological impact of electronic media, the means by which people affect their own motivation and behavior, the way people view their self-efficacy to influence events in their lives, and the source of stress reactions and depression.


Perhaps the most notable aspect of Bandura's long career is the number of significant contributions he has made through the decades. In the 1960s, he published classic research on observational learning and modeling. In the 1970s, he expanded upon these findings to develop an influential theory of social learning. In the 1980s, this evolved into a social-cognitive theory of human functioning. And in the 1990s, Bandura further refined his ideas about self-efficacy. In recent years, his followers have found widespread practical uses for self-efficacy theory in education, mental health, physical health, sports, business, and politics.

Observational learning and modeling

Main points Behaviorism, the dominant school of psychology when Bandura was a student, holds that people are conditioned, or trained, to respond in certain ways by rewards and punishments. Bandura soon realized that this could not be the whole explanation for how people learn. It would take several lifetimes to learn all the complicated responses that people need to know by rewards and punishments alone. Bandura suggested that there must be a way that people can learn simply by watching others, thereby removing the need to learn everything by tedious trial-and-error.

This process of learning by watching others is called observational learning or vicarious learning. It is closely related to the concept of modeling, in which people fashion themselves after the image of another. According to Bandura, people do not just mindlessly mimic whatever they see. Instead, although people may learn a multitude of behaviors by observation, they consciously decide which ones to actually copy.

Explanation One powerful factor influencing whether or not a behavior will be copied is the expected outcome. Bandura's research showed that people are more likely to copy behavior that they expect will lead to a positive outcome. However, this expectation is not rooted only in the actual rewards and punishments that people have seen. It is also based on anticipated consequences; in other words, on people's beliefs about what will happen.

Several other factors may also affect the likelihood that an observed behavior will be imitated:

  • Characteristics of the person being observed—For example, studies have found that the person's age, sex, similarity to the observer, status, skill, and power may all be important.
  • Characteristics of the observer—For example, research has shown that people with low self-esteem, those who are more dependent, and those who have been rewarded in the past for imitative behavior are more likely to copy someone else. In addition, the observer obviously must have the necessary mental and physical skills to carry out the task.
  • Characteristics of the behavior—For example, behavior that is simple or admired is more likely to be imitated.

Examples In the famous Bobo doll experiments, Bandura and his colleagues showed some children a film in which an adult hit, hammered, and kicked the inflatable doll. These children were more likely than ones who had not seen the film to later hit and kick the doll themselves when given a chance to play with it. This tendency was strengthened if the adult in the film was rewarded for aggressive behavior, and the tendency was weakened if the adult was punished. However, just seeing the aggressive behavior was enough for the children to learn it, even when no rewards or punishments were given.

Of course, Bandura was not the first person to note that people often learn by copying others. Anyone who has spent time around young children, for instance, has undoubtedly noticed how they mimic their parents. Two decades before the Bobo doll experiments, Neal Miller and John Dollard had published the first scholarly book about observational learning, titled Social Learning and Imitation. Miller and Dollard's work was still in the behaviorist mode, but they construed conditioning more broadly than had earlier theorists. They emphasized not only personal and social rewards, but also factors such as motivations and drives. Bandura took these ideas a step further. More than any other psychologist, Bandura built a solid foundation of scientific evidence about how observational learning actually occurs, with or without rewards and punishments. In so doing, he helped the study of observational learning truly break free of behaviorism.

At the same time, Bandura's findings also ran counter to another major strain in psychology: psychoanalytic theory. According to the psychoanalytic concept of catharsis, when people are given an opportunity to safely release feelings of aggression, it relieves those feelings and reduces the impulses associated with them. Based on this theory, watching the adult model pummel the Bobo doll should have drained the children's aggressive feelings and reduced their violent behavior. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Bandura's studies soundly refuted the notion that watching aggressive behavior might offer a healthy catharsis for the observers.

Social learning

Main points Before Bandura, psychologist Julian Rotter had put forth his own theory of social learning. In a 1954 book, titled Social Learning and Clinical Psychology, Rotter held that people choose which behaviors to perform based on two factors: reinforcement value and outcome expectancy. Reinforcement value refers to the degree to which an individual values the expected reinforcement, or reward, for an action. Outcome expectancy refers to how strongly the individual expects the action to have a positive result. Clearly, Rotter laid the groundwork for much of Bandura's thinking. He also served as a crucial bridge between behaviorism and Bandura's more modern version of social learning theory.

In his theory, Bandura stressed the importance of observational learning and modeling. However, like Rotter, he also emphasized the role of expected outcomes. Bandura held that, even when people have observed and learned how to perform a behavior, they will only actually do it if they believe their action will lead to a desirable outcome.

Explanation Bandura believed that the imitation of someone else's behavior was not a passive process. Instead, it was an active choice involving four different mental functions:

  • Attention—This factor was affected mainly by characteristics of the person being observed and the situation.
  • Retention—This factor was affected mainly by the observer's ability to mentally process the observed behavior and store it in memory.
  • Motor reproduction—This factor referred to the observer's ability to turn the stored memory into physical action. It also included the person's capacity for mentally rehearsing the behavior.
  • Motivation—This factor referred to the observer's desire or drive to copy the behavior. Of all the factors, this one had the greatest influence on whether an observed behavior was actually imitated.

Bandura believed that people are capable of self-reinforcement. In other words, they can teach themselves to act in a certain way by thinking about the potential consequences of the action. Eventually, Bandura expanded this into a broader concept: self-regulation, or self-control. According to Bandura, self-regulation is the sum of a person's goals, planning, and self-reinforcement. As part of the self-regulation process, people set their own internal standards of behavior, against which they judge their own success or failure. The standards can be picked up by observational learning, and especially from watching key role models, such as parents and teachers. However, the standards can also be based on the person's own past behavior, which is used as a yardstick against which to measure future actions.

Examples Bandura studied self-regulation in several ways. For example, along with student Carol Kupers, he conducted research in which children watched either an adult or another child play a bowling game. The models had a supply of candy, from which they rewarded themselves based on either a high performance standard or a low one. Then the children who had been observing were given a chance to play the game. They, too, were provided with candy, and they were allowed to dole out their own rewards according to whatever standards they chose for themselves. Children who had watched a model set a high standard were more likely to adopt a strict standard as well. The reverse was true for children who had watched a model set a low standard.

Bandura has always been interested not only in theory, but also in practice. Based on his research, he developed the use of modeling as a therapeutic tool. Modeling has been used most often in the treatment of phobias, or irrationally intense fears. The client watches a model come into contact with the feared object, then is encouraged to imitate the model's behavior. At first, this is done under relatively nonthreatening conditions. As therapy progresses, though, the threat level is gradually raised. Eventually, the client confronts the feared object on his or her own.

Social learning and aggression

Main points Aggression is one of the most troubling, yet pervasive, aspects of human existence. It is no wonder, then, that a number of theories about the nature and causes of aggression have been proposed over the years. For example, Sigmund Freud explained aggression as a death wish that is turned outward onto others through a process called displacement. Dollard, Miller, and their colleagues proposed that aggression is a response to the frustration of some goal-directed behavior. And several ethologists who studied animal behavior, such as Konrad Lorenz, have argued that aggression is a natural instinct common to both humans and other animals.

Among these many theories, Bandura's theory of aggression as a socially learned behavior remains one of the most influential. In his early work with Walters, Bandura found that very aggressive teenagers often came from homes where the parents modeled hostile attitudes and aggressive behavior. Even when the parents would not tolerate aggression at home, they often demanded it of their sons when settling disputes with other boys. The parents were hostile toward both the school system, and the students who were blamed for harassing their sons. To Bandura, it seemed clear that the teenagers in these families were imitating the hostility and aggression of the parents.

Bandura explored this idea further in the Bobo doll studies. These studies showed the key role that observational learning plays in aggressive behavior. As Bandura later told Evans:

If there is any behavior where observational learning is important, it is aggression, because ineffectual aggression can get one disfigured, maimed or killed. One cannot afford to learn through trial and error. So most aggressive patterns are transmitted through modeling.

Examples In the Bobo doll experiments, children watched a short film of an adult behaving violently toward the doll. The adult model not only punched the doll, but also engaged in some unusual aggressive behavior that the children were unlikely to have seen elsewhere. At one point, the model laid the doll on its side, sat on the doll, and punched it repeatedly in the nose. Then the model stood the doll back up and struck it on the head with a mallet. After that, the model threw the doll up into the air aggressively and kicked it around the room. The children were then turned loose in a playroom filled with toys, including the Bobo doll. Many who had watched the film did indeed imitate the aggressive behavior they had observed.

From this finding, it was only a short jump to wondering how media violence might be affecting millions of viewers, especially young ones. The Bobo doll studies attracted the attention of activists and politicians as well as a Presidential Commission on Violence in the Media. Bandura himself testified at congressional hearings on the subject. He also wrote about the widespread influence of media violence in a 1973 book, titled Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Bandura believed that public hearings and self-regulation by the entertainment industry were of little practical use in curbing media violence. Instead, he championed the cause of viewer demand for less violent alternatives.

In the early years of the twenty-first century, the effect of television has only become more pervasive. Its global reach has changed the world in many ways—not least of which, by greatly increasing the kinds of behaviors that children have a chance to observe. As Bandura wrote in an article in European Psychologist:

In the past, modeling influences were largely confined to the styles of behavior and social practices in one's immediate community. The advent of television vastly expanded the range of models to which members of society are exposed day in and day out. By drawing on these modeled patterns of thought and behavior, observers transcend the bounds of their customary environment.

Explanation Of course, not everyone who grows up with an aggressive parent or who watches a violent television show goes on to copy what he or she has seen. According to Bandura, there are two major triggers for aggression. One is stress, or frustration, as it is called in Dollard and Miller's theory. However, Bandura notes that stress produces general emotional arousal, not a specific drive to act in a certain way. Some people may express that arousal through aggression, but others may express it by asking for help, becoming withdrawn, or escaping through alcohol or drugs. And still others use the arousal to motivate themselves to take positive steps.

The other major trigger for aggression is the expectation of benefits. This explains why some people behave aggressively even when they are not emotionally aroused. For example, some children learn that, if they act like bullies, the other children will let them have their way. Therefore, aggression can serve many purposes. As Bandura put it:

Some people will resort to aggression to get material benefits. Others behave aggressively because it gains them status and social approval. Still others rely on aggressive conquests to build their self-esteem and sense of manliness. Some people derive satisfaction from seeing pain inflicted on those they hate. And in many instances, people resort to aggression to terminate mistreatment.

Social-cognitive theory

Main points Bandura's work on self-regulation shed new light on how people understand their own motivations and control their own actions. It also aroused Bandura's interest in how people exercise control over the nature and quality of their own lives—a capacity he refers to as human agency. Writing in the Annual Review of Psychology, Bandura explained the concept of agency this way: "To be an agent is to intentionally make things happen by one's actions." This capacity involves not only self-regulatory skills, but also other abilities and belief systems that play a role in self-directed change. It allows people to adapt to changing circumstances, and it gives them a means of self-development and self-renewal.

In Bandura's view, agency has certain core features that cut to the very heart of what it means to be human:

  • Intentionality—Agency refers to acts that are done intentionally, and this implies the ability to make future plans.
  • Forethought—In addition to making plans, people think about the future in other ways. They set goals, anticipate the likely consequences of different actions, and choose a course of action that is likely to produce positive consequences and avoid negative ones.
  • Self-reactiveness—Once people have formed an intention and created an action plan, they still have to put the plan in motion. Therefore, people also must be able to motivate themselves and regulate their own behavior.
  • Self-reflectiveness—People are not only agents of action, but also of thought. They have the ability to reflect on their own thoughts, motivations, and values as well as the meaning of their lives.

Giving an address as honorary president of the Canadian Psychological Association, Bandura explained why human agency holds such an important place in his social-cognitive theory:

People have the power to influence what they do and to make things happen. They are not just onlooking hosts of brain mechanisms orchestrated by environmental events. The sensory, motor, and cerebral systems are tools people can use to accomplish things that give meaning, direction, and satisfaction to their lives.

Explanation In the 1980s, Bandura gathered all the diverse strands from his earlier research into a single theory, which he dubbed social-cognitive theory. This theory sees human functioning as the dynamic interplay of personal, environmental, and behavioral factors. (Personal factors include an individual's beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and physical responses.) Each of the three factors influences the others and is influenced by them in turn. Therefore, people are not only products of their environment, but also producers of it.

This broader view of human functioning led Bandura to realize that there might be wider possibilities for promoting change. Within the social-cognitive view, a change at any point in the three-part system can lead to changes in the other parts. The implication is that a therapy or social program can be aimed at a variety of targets and still succeed. It can be aimed at instilling positive beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Or, it can be aimed at decreasing undesirable behaviors and increasing desirable ones. Or, it can be aimed at changing the social conditions under which people live, work, and go to school. In other words, there is more than one path to the same destination.

Examples Consider the example of an educational program aimed at improving the academic performance of students. Teachers might address personal factors by encouraging a positive attitude toward school and instilling a realistic sense of confidence in the students. They might address behavioral factors by teaching students the academic skills and good work habits that are needed to do well in school. Or, they might address environmental factors by asking the school board for funds to buy better books and supplies.

In recent years, the trend in psychology has been to shy away from grand, comprehensive theories. Bandura's social-cognitive theroy is a notable exception to the rule. By bucking the trend, Bandura has set himself apart, drawn attention to his ideas, and left his mark on fields ranging from psychology and education to healthcare and business. As he told Evans, "I have tried to analyze human lives from a broader social perspective that transcends the arbitrary boundaries of academic disciplines."


Main points The centerpiece of social-cognitive theory is self-efficacy. Bandura defines perceived self-efficacy as people's beliefs about their capability to produce desired results through their own actions. According to Bandura, people with a high sense of self-efficacy approach difficult tasks as challenges to be met, rather than threats to be avoided. They also set challenging goals for themselves, and they maintain a strong commitment to achieving them. When faced with a setback, they quickly recover their confidence and simply redouble their efforts. Bandura states that this type of outlook leads to personal successes while reducing stress and decreasing the risk of depression.

In contrast, people with a low sense of self-efficacy avoid difficult tasks, which they view as personal threats. They rarely push themselves to excel, and they have a weak commitment to any goals they do decide to pursue. When faced with an obstacle, they dwell on their personal weaknesses and the potential for failure rather than looking for solutions. If a setback occurs, they are quick to give up and slow to recover their confidence afterward. It takes relatively little for such individuals to lose faith in themselves. As a result, they easily fall prey to stress and depression.

In an article in European Psychologist, Bandura explained why self-efficacy beliefs are so crucial to his social-cognitive theory:

Among the mechanisms of self-regulation none is more central or pervasive than beliefs of personal efficacy. This belief system is the foundation of human agency. Unless people believe they can produce desired outcomes and forestall undesired ones by their actions they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties. Whatever other factors serve as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one has the power to produce changes by one's actions.

Explanation According to Bandura, people's motivations, thoughts, feelings, and actions often have more to do with what they believe than with what is really true. He posits that self-efficacy beliefs have such a strong impact because they affect four major psychological processes:

  • Cognitive processes—Most courses of action are first organized in thought. Often, they revolve around setting goals. The stronger people's perceived self-efficacy, higher the goals they are apt to set for themselves, and greater their commitment to achieving them. People who think of themselves as having high efficacy also tend to imagine successful outcomes. These imagined scenes of success help them plan and rehearse the steps they need to take in order to succeed in real life. In addition, people with a strong sense of self-efficacy are better equipped than those with low self-efficacy to stay task-oriented in the face of pressures, setbacks, and failures.
  • Motivational processes—There are different theories about how people motivate themselves, but all are consistent with Bandura's concept of self-efficacy. For example, in attribution theory, people keep themselves motivated by attributing failures to insufficient effort, rather than low ability. This kind of thinking is typical of people with high perceived self-efficacy. In expectancy-value theory, motivation is based on people's expectation that a given action will lead to a particular result, as well as on the value they attach to that result. People who are high in perceived self-efficacy are more likely to expect that their behavior will lead to a desirable outcome. On the other hand, people who are low in perceived self-efficacy may not go after valued goals, because they do not expect to achieve them.
  • Affective processes—Affective states, or feelings, are also closely tied to perceived self-efficacy. In particular, people's beliefs about their ability to cope seem to have a significant effect on how much stress and depression they actually feel in threatening or difficult situations. People who believe they can control their own disturbing thoughts are less likely to be overwhelmed by anxious or depressed thinking. In addition, two common paths to depression are unfulfilled dreams and social isolation. People with a low sense of self-efficacy are less likely to fulfill their dreams and attain their social goals.
  • Selection processes—While people can affect their environment, the environment affects them in return. Therefore, one final way in which perceived self-efficacy can help shape people's lives is by influencing the kinds of environments in which they put themselves. In a 1994 article, Bandura gave the example of perceived self-efficacy affecting career choice: "The higher the level of people's perceived self-efficacy the wider the range of career options they seriously consider, the greater their interest in them, and the better they prepare themselves educationally for the occupational pursuits they choose. . ."

Obviously, a strong belief in one's own efficacy has many benefits, based on Bandura's theory. It follows that knowing how to foster this self-belief would be very helpful. Bandura has outlined four ways in which a strong sense of self-efficacy can be developed. The first and most effective way is through mastery experiences. Simply put, past successes strengthen the belief that future success is possible, while past failures undermine it. After people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed, they are more likely to stick with their goals, even when problems arise.

A second way to build strong self-efficacy beliefs is through vicarious experience; in other words, by watching other people perform the behavior. The impact of modeling on perceived self-efficacy depends largely on how much the observer sees himself or herself as being like the model. The more similar the model and observer, greater the effect. When people watch someone similar to themselves accomplish a task through sustained effort, they are more likely to believe that they can do it, too. At the same time, they may learn some of the skills they need to succeed by observing the successful model. On the other hand, when people see someone fail despite great effort, they are more likely to lose faith in their own abilities as well.

A third way to instill self-efficacy beliefs is by social persuasion; that is, by telling people that they can be successful. People who are persuaded by others that they have what it takes to succeed are likely to try harder and be more persistent than those who hold self-doubts. Unfortunately, it is much harder to build up perceived self-efficacy this way than it is to destroy it. Unrealistically positive messages may be quickly disproved, leading to failure and demoralization. On the other hand, overly negative messages may keep people from achieving as much as they could, by persuading them not to attempt a challenging task in the first place or by convincing them to give up at the first sign of difficulty.

A final way that self-efficacy beliefs are reinforced is through emotional and physiological reactions. When people face a stressful or challenging situation, they naturally experience emotional and physiological arousal. Those who are high in perceived self-efficacy may see this arousal as a sign that they are energized. The energetic feeling, in turn, helps them perform their best, which adds to their sense of self-efficacy in the future. In contrast, people who are low in perceived self-efficacy may see arousal as a sign of stress they are helpless to control. The situation can quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy. For example, athletes who view arousal before a game as a sign of fear or weakness are unlikely to play their best. The poor performance, in turn, further lowers their sense of self-efficacy.

In sum, Bandura contends that perceived self-efficacy is critical to success in almost any area. As he wrote in his 1994 article, "the successful, the venturesome, the sociable, the nonanxious, the nondepressed, the social reformers, and the innovators take an optimistic view of their personal capabilities to exercise influence over events that affect their lives. If not unrealistically exaggerated, such self-beliefs foster positive well-being and human accomplishments."

Examples Everyday life is filled with obstacles and difficulties. Bandura believes that people need a strong sense of self-efficacy in order to take on a challenge or keep plugging away when problems arise. He notes that when people vastly overestimate their own abilities, this can lead to trouble. However, people may need a somewhat optimistic view of themselves in order to achieve great things. As Bandura wrote in a 1994 article: "If efficacy beliefs always reflected only what people can do routinely they would rarely fail but they would not set aspirations beyond their immediate reach nor mount the extra effort needed to surpass their ordinary performances."

High perceived self-efficacy can help people keep trying in the face of setbacks. As an example of this, Bandura cites a number of great authors, artists, musicians, and scientists who met with early rejection, including James Joyce, Vincent Van Gogh, Igor Stravinsky, and Robert Goddard. Without a strong belief in their own capability to achieve something worthwhile through their actions, these individuals might have given up early in their careers, and the world would have been the poorer for it.

Bandura claims that groups of people can hold beliefs about their collective self-efficacy as well. He says that the strength of organizations and even whole nations lies partly in the members' belief that they can improve their lives through their combined efforts. Without this belief, people may not choose to work as a group, or they may not put much effort into it. They also may not have the determination to stick with their goals if their joint efforts fail to produce fast results.

How do different people come to see themselves as having more or less self-efficacy? According to Bandura, people's experiences at key points in life can affect the development of their perceived self-efficacy. These are not firm stages that everyone must pass through, however. Instead, they are merely typical experiences that help shape many people's views of their own abilities and limitations.

  • Infancy—Newborns have no sense of self, according to Bandura. However, as babies grow, they gradually develop an awareness of their ability to produce effects by their own actions. They shake a rattle to make a sound, for instance, or cry to bring Mom into the room. Babies who get reliable results from their actions start to become more and more attuned to their own behavior and its effects. At the same time, babies become increasingly aware of their separateness from other people. Eventually, they form an abstract idea of themselves as a distinct self.
  • Childhood and families—Young children continue to test their abilities and learn from the results they get. At this early age, children are adding new physical, mental, social, and language skills almost daily. If they are able to put these new skills to good use, then they develop a sense of self-efficacy. Bandura believes that parents can encourage this process by being responsive to their babies' behavior and providing a safe but rich environment for trying out the new skills. For example, a toddler might learn that every time he says "Momma, look," Mom appears and takes a few minutes to talk to him. Or, a young child might learn that she is able to create fascinating, colorful patterns by moving a crayon across a sheet of paper. From these kinds of daily experiences, children learn that they have the power to control some of the things that occur in their world.
  • Childhood and peers—As children grow, they begin to learn from and compare themselves to other children. Older children may serve as role models, while children of the same age provide a standard against which youngsters can compare their own abilities. Because peers serve as important influences, a lack of interaction with siblings and friends can interfere with the development of perceived self-efficacy.
  • Childhood and school—As children reach school age, school becomes the main place in which they acquire and test their mental abilities. These abilities are learned not only through formal education, but also from observing how other students use their thinking skills. Several factors affect how children come to see their own abilities. These factors include comparisons to other students, comments from teachers, rewards for progress, and the satisfaction of achieving goals.
  • Adolescence—The teen years are a period of rapid change. Teenagers need a strong sense of self-efficacy to handle all the physical, mental, and social changes in their lives. Tricky new issues may arise, such as decisions about drug use and sexual behavior. According to Bandura, teenagers who are overly sheltered from making these kinds of choices may not have a chance to learn good decision-making skills. On the other hand, teenagers with a weak sense of self-efficacy may not be prepared to stand up to peer pressure. During these years, teenagers also must get ready for the challenges of adulthood that lie ahead. This means they need to master a whole new set of skills for living in adult society. In addition, they must make important choices about college and career, and their beliefs about their own abilities are likely to have a big impact on the choices they make.
  • Early adulthood—As young adults, people need to cope with many new demands, including marriage, parenthood, and career. A firm sense of self-efficacy can help them master the skills they need. On the other hand, those who see themselves as low in self-efficacy are likely to find that they are plagued by self-doubts and ill-equipped to tackle new challenges. As a result, they may fall victim to stress and depression.
  • Middle age—In middle adulthood, people tend to settle into stable routines, which helps them solidify their sense of self-efficacy in key areas of their lives. However, the apparent stability is an illusion. It is always balanced by the need to keep up with changes in society. At work, there is constant pressure from younger competitors. Even in middle age, then, people need to keep growing and learning. A strong belief in their own efficacy helps them accomplish this growth.
  • Late adulthood—The major issues of late life often revolve around retirement, illness, and the loss of loved ones. As in earlier years, a firm sense of self-efficacy helps. For example, people with high perceived self-efficacy are better prepared to take up a new hobby or make new friends after retirement. In addition, older adults with a strong sense of self-efficacy are less likely to exaggerate the decline in abilities that occurs with age. In contrast, those with low perceived self-efficacy are apt to see every small problem as a sign that they are going downhill fast. This belief may keep them from fully enjoying the last years of their lives.

A quick survey of any psychology journal from just a few years ago will reveal that many of the studies and theories published in these journals are already outdated. Yet Bandura's work over the span of more than 40 years has remained remarkably fresh and timely. His first important research dealt with modeling and aggression. Much of his more recent work deals with the development and importance of self-efficacy beliefs in a variety of settings. Both lines of research are still very active and relevant areas of study—a tribute to Bandura's skill as both researcher and theorist.

Social-cognitive theory and moral disengagement

Main points Bandura began his career by studying aggression in children and teenagers. Near the end of his career, the roots of aggression and violence are still of great interest to him. He has extended his research to include all kinds of moral disengagement; in other words, the capacity for all types of antisocial and immoral acts. In social-cognitive theory, the capacity for self-control over moral behavior has two functions. On one hand, it gives people the ability to refrain from acting inhumanely. On the other hand, it gives people the ability to behave in a kind and sensitive manner.

According to Bandura, people set standards for themselves that guide their moral behavior. Most of the time, these standards help people keep themselves in line. People refrain from behaving badly, because that would bring self-blame and guilt. Instead, they usually prefer to act in a way that leaves them with a sense of worth and self-respect. Sometimes, however, people use tricks of thinking to let themselves off the hook for violating their own standards.

Explanation The kinds of thoughts that lead to moral disengagement include:

  • Moral justification—To make bad conduct seem more acceptable, people tell themselves that it serves a worthy purpose.
  • Euphemistic labeling—When discussing offensive or upsetting behavior, people avoid describing it bluntly and instead substitute harmless-sounding terms.
  • Advantageous comparison—To make vile acts seem less reprehensible, people compare them to even worse behavior.
  • Displacement of responsibility—To avoid personal responsibility for their actions, people view themselves as just following orders.
  • Diffusion of responsibility—To reduce their own responsibility for an act, people share the labor and focus on just their part of it, which seems harmless by itself.
  • Disregard or distortion of consequences—When people hurt others, they think about the consequences in ways that ignore or minimize the harm.
  • Dehumanization—To justify inhumane behavior, people view the victims as being less than human.
  • Attribution of blame—To excuse cruel or violent behavior, people blame it on the victims.

Fortunately, just as people can use their thoughts to justify immorality, they can also use them to motivate moral behavior. As Bandura sees it, moral thinking helps stop immoral actions in part by helping people control their angry feelings. Anger control, in turn, is based partly on people's belief in their ability to handle their emotions; in other words, on their perceived self-efficacy for emotional control.

Social factors also play a big role in moral behavior. Problems can arise when there is a conflict between the moral standards people set for themselves and the standards of society. At times, people may find themselves being pressured by others to follow courses of action that are at odds with their own moral code. The response to this kind of pressure depends on the relative strength of the personal and social forces. In some cases, a moral tug-of-war can produce principled dissent and social activism. In other cases, however, it may lead to moral disengagement.

Examples In recent years, Bandura has studied how people reach the point of moral disengagement. For example, in one study, Bandura and three colleagues from the University of Rome studied 799 Italian students in the sixth through eighth grades. The students filled out several questionnaires designed to assess their moral disengagement as well as other relevant aspects of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The researchers found that students who reported lots of morally disengaged thinking did indeed tend to commit more aggressive and antisocial acts.

Compared to students with a strong sense of morality, those who were morally disengaged also tended to be easily angered. In addition, they were prone to thinking about revenge for past slights. These feelings and thoughts just added to their propensity for aggression. When the morally disengaged students did act aggressively, they were not much bothered by guilt. They also did not feel the need to make amends for any harm they had caused.

The flip side is that morally oriented thinking can prevent many aggressive and antisocial acts. People who take personal responsibility for their actions are less likely to behave badly, even when provoked. When such people have an aggressive impulse, one way they keep themselves from acting on it is through self-reproof. And if they occasionally fail to keep their behavior in check, such people try to make amends to those they have hurt.

In these dangerous times, exploring ways to promote a more humane society seems like a particularly important use of social-cognitive theory. In Bandura's words, "At the social level, we need to create control mechanisms so that social systems support compassionate behavior rather than inhumane activities."

~ Psychologists and Their Theories for Students. Ed. Kristine Krapp. Vol. 1. p39-66. (20416 words) From Gale Virtual Reference Library.

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