Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory

Overview of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura’s social cognitive theory takes an agentic perspective, meaning that humans have some limited ability to control their lives.  In contrast to Skinner, Bandura (1) recognizes that chance encounters and fortuitous events often shape one’s behavior; (2) places more emphasis on observational learning; (3) stresses the importance of cognitive factors in learning; (4) suggests that human activity is a function of behavior and person variables, as well as the environment; and (5) believes that reinforcement is mediated by cognition.

  1. Biography of Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura was born in Canada in 1925, but he has spent his entire professional life in the United States.  He completed a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Iowa in 1951 and since then has worked almost entirely at Stanford University, where he continues to be an active researcher and speaker.

III.    Learning

Bandura takes a broad view of learning, believing that people learn through observing others and by attending to the consequences of their own actions.  Although he believes that reinforcement aids learning, he contends that people can learn in the absence of reinforcement and even of a response.

  1. Observational Learning

The heart of observational learning is modeling, which is more than simple imitation, because it involves adding and subtracting from observed behavior. At least three principles influence modeling: (1) people are most likely to model high-status people, (2) people who lack skill or status are most likely to model, and (3) people tend to model behavior that they see as being rewarding to the model.  Bandura recognized four processes that govern observational learning: (1) attention, or noticing what a model does; (2) representation, or symbolically representing new response patterns in memory; (3) behavior production, or producing the behavior that one observes; and (4) motivation; that is, the observer must be motivated to perform the observed behavior.

  1. Enactive Learning

All behavior is followed by some consequence, but whether that consequence reinforces the behavior depends on the person’s cognitive evaluation of the situation.

  1. Triadic Reciprocal Causation

Social cognitive theory holds that human functioning is molded by the reciprocal interaction of (1) behavior; (2) personal factors, including cognition; and (3) environmental events—a model Bandura calls triadic reciprocal causation.

  1. Differential Contributions

Bandura does not suggest that the three factors in the triadic reciprocal causation model make equal contributions to behavior.  The relative influence of behavior, environment, and person depends on which factor is strongest at any particular moment.

  1. Chance Encounters and Fortuitous Events

The lives of many people have been fundamentally changed by a chance meeting with another person or by a fortuitous, unexpected event.  Chance encounters and fortuitous events enter the triadic reciprocal causation paradigm at the environment point, after which they influence behavior in much the same way as do planned events.

  1. Human Agency

Bandura believes that human agency is the essence of humanness; that is, humans are defined by their ability to organize, regulate, and enact behaviors that they believe will produce desirable consequences.

  1. Core Features of Human Agency

Human agency has four core features: (1) intentionality, or a proactive commitment to actions that may bring about desired outcomes: (2) foresight, or the ability to set goals; (3) self-reactiveness, which includes monitoring their progress toward fulfilling their choices; and (4) self-reflectiveness, which allows people can think about and evaluate their motives, values, and life goals.

  1. Self-Efficacy

How people behave in a particular situation depends in part on their self-efficacy, that is, their beliefs that they can or cannot exercise those behaviors necessary to bring about a desired consequence.  Efficacy expectations differ from outcome expectations, which refer to people’s prediction of the likely consequences of their behavior.  Self-efficacy combines with environmental variables, previous behaviors, and other personal variables to predict behavior.  It is acquired, enhanced, or decreased by any one or combination of four sources: (1) mastery experiences or performance, (2) social modeling, or observing someone of equal ability succeed or fail at a task; (3) social persuasion or listening to a trusted person’s encouraging words; and (4) physical and emotional states, such as anxiety or fear, which usually lowers self-efficacy.  High self-efficacy and a responsive environment are the best predictors of successful outcomes.

  1. Proxy Agency

Bandura also recognizes the influence of proxy agency through which people exercise some partial control over everyday living.  Successful living in the 21st century requires people to seek proxies to supply their food, deliver information, provide transportation, etc.  Without the use of proxies, modern people would be forced to spend most of their time securing the necessities of survival.

  1. Collective Efficacy

          Collective efficacy is the level of confidence that people have that their combined efforts will produce social change.  At least four factors can lower collective efficacy.  First, events in other parts of the world can leave people with a sense of helplessness; second, complex technology can decrease people’s perceptions of control over their environment; third, entrenched bureaucracies discourage people from attempting to bring about social change; and fourth, the size and scope of worldwide problems contribute to people’s sense of powerlessness.

 VII.  Self-Regulation

By using reflective thought, humans can manipulate their environments and produce consequences of their actions, giving them some ability to regulate their own behavior.  Bandura believes that behavior stems from a reciprocal influence of external and internal factors.

  1. External Factors in Self-Regulation

Two external factors contribute to self-regulation: (1) standards of evaluation, and (2) external reinforcement.  External factors affect self-regulation by providing people with standards for evaluating their own behavior.

  1. Internal Factors in Self-Regulation

Internal requirements for self-regulation include: (1) self-observation of performance; (2) judging or evaluating performance; (3) and self reaction, including self-reinforcement or self-punishment.

  1. Self-Regulation through Moral Agency

Internalized self-sanctions prevent people from violating their own moral standards either through selective activation or disengagement of internal control.  Selective activation refers to the notion that self-regulatory influences are not automatic but operate only if activated.  It also means that people react differently in different situations, depending on their evaluation of the situation.  Disengagement of internal control means that people are capable of separating themselves from the negative consequences of their behavior.  People in ambiguous moral situations—who are uncertain that their behavior is consistent with their own social and moral standards of conduct—may separate their conduct from its injurious consequences through four general techniques of disengagement of internal standards or selective activation.   The first is redefining behavior, or justifying otherwise reprehensible actions by cognitively restructuring them.  People can use redefinition of behavior to disengage themselves from reprehensible conduct by: (1) justifying otherwise culpable behavior on moral grounds; (2) making advantageous comparisons between their behavior and the even more reprehensible behavior of others; (3) using euphemistic labels to change the moral tone of their behavior.  Second, people can disengage their behavior from its consequences by displacing or diffusing responsibility.  A third set of disengagement procedures involves dehumanizing or blaming the victims.  A fourth method is to distort or obscure the relationship between behavior and its injurious consequences.  People can do this by minimizing, disregarding, or distorting the consequences of their behavior. 

VIII.  Dysfunctional Behavior

Dysfunction behavior is learned through the mutual interaction of the person (including cognitive and neurophysiological processes), the environment (including interpersonal relations), and behavioral factors (especially previous experiences with reinforcement).

  1. Depression

People who develop depressive reactions often (1) underestimate their successes and overestimate their failures, (2) set personal standards too high, or (3) treat themselves badly for their faults.

  1. Phobias

Phobias are learned by (1) direct contact, (2) inappropriate generalization, and (3) observational experiences.  Once learned they are maintained by negative reinforcement, as the person is reinforced for avoiding fear-producing situations.

  1. Aggression

When carried to extreme, aggressive behaviors can become dysfunctional.  In a study of children observing live and filmed models being aggressive, Bandura and his associates found that aggression tends to foster more aggression.

  1. Therapy

The goal of social cognitive therapy is self-regulation.  Bandura noted three levels of treatment: (1) induction of change, (2) generalization of change to other appropriate situations, and (3) maintenance of newly acquired functional behaviors.  Social cognitive therapists sometimes use systematic desensitization, a technique aimed at diminishing phobias through relaxation.

  1. Related Research

Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy has generated a great deal of research demonstrating that people’s beliefs are related to their ability to perform in a wide variety of situations, including coping with the threat of terrorism and managing Type 2 diabetes.

  1. Self-Efficacy and Terrorism

Psychologists have always been interested (even before 9/11/01) in both how people are drawn into terrorist culture, and how innocent people cope with the constant threat of terrorism (Ben-Zur & Zeidner, 1995; Moghaddam & Marsella, 2004; Zeidner, 2007).  After 2001, this interest in terrorism increased exponentially, and some researchers began to consider how self-efficacy might help people cope with terrorism.  People report feeling less personal security following a terrorist attack (Gallup, 2002).  An increased sense of self-efficacy may help to offset this insecurity and negativity.  Peter Fischer and colleagues wanted to investigate relationships among self-efficacy, religion, and coping with the threat of terrorism (Fischer, Greitemeyer, Kastenmuller, Jonas, & Frey, 2006).  They used Allport’s Religious Orientation Scale (ROS; see Chapter 13).  Previous research had found that using prayer as a coping mechanism is related to an increased feeling of internal control over events (Ai, Peterson, Rodgers, & Tice, 2005), so Fischer and colleagues predicted that intrinsically religious people would experience greater self-efficacy.  The results of their study found that the intrinsically religious did report greater feelings of self-efficacy, and better moods due to the increased sense of self-efficacy, but only when the salience of terrorism was high.  When salience of terrorism was low, religiosity caused no difference among test subjects.  The conclusion is that in the face of a threat, self-efficacy is crucial to decreasing the threat’s harmful effects.

  1. Self-Efficacy and Diabetes

Bandura himself has written about the usefulness of his theory for encouraging people to engage in healthy behaviors that can increase overall well-being and longevity (Bandura, 1998).  Recently, William Sacco and colleagues (2007) studied self-efficacy related to diabetes. Since depression is twice as prevalent in diabetics as in the general population (Anderson, Freeland, Clouse, & Lustman, 2001), and a hallmark of depression is lack of motivation, the strict adherence to diet and exercise plans required of Type 2 diabetes management is especially problematic.  Sacco and his colleagues (2007) thus wanted to explore the role of self-efficacy in raising adherence to disease management plans, and in lowering negative physical and mental health symptoms.  The results clearly showed that self-efficacy is important to managing chronic disease:  Higher levels of self-efficacy were related to lower levels of depression, lower BMI, lower incidence and severity of diabetes symptoms, and higher levels of adherence to doctors’ orders.  BMI was positively correlated with depression, and adhering to doctors’ orders was negatively correlated with depression.  Self-efficacy was directly responsible for the relationships of depression to both BMI and adherence.  Of the many parts of social-cognitive theory that have influenced psychological research, these studies on terrorism and diabetes show the far-reaching implications of the construct of self-efficacy.  Bandura’s theory continues to generate an impressive amount of research.

XI     Critique of Bandura

Bandura’s theory receives the highest marks of any in the text largely because it was constructed through a careful balance of innovative speculation and data from rigorous research.  In summary, the theory rates very high on its ability to generate research and on its internal consistency. In addition, it rates high on parsimony and on its ability to be falsified, organize knowledge, and guide the practitioner.

XII.   Concept of Humanity

Bandura sees humans as being relatively fluid and flexible.  People can store past experiences and then use this information to chart future actions.  Bandura’s theory rates near the middle on teleology versus causality and high on free choice, optimism, conscious influences, and uniqueness.  As a social cognitive theory, it rates very high on social determinants of personality.


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