Albert Bandura - Cognitive Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Albert Bandura
Cognitive Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1924, Mundare, Alberta, Canada


Educated at the University of British Columbia and the University of Iowa



Albert Bandura’s theories have spanned social psychology, cognitive psychology, personality psychology, and even psychotherapy. He is best known as the originator of social learning theory, which puts forth the idea that much of our behavior—including aggression—is learned through modeling and imitation. He later came to call this social cognitive theory. His theory is one of reciprocal determinism, with the environment causing our behavior and our behavior also influencing the environment. An individual’s personality, Bandura theorizes, is the product of the interaction of environment, behavior, and cognitive processes.

While the behaviorists emphasized the need for reinforcement to exist in order for a behavior to be performed or repeated, Bandura has observed that we often initiate behaviors even if we are not being directly rewarded. Instead, we may be imitating behaviors we have seen performed by someone else. According to Bandura, such social modeling has four components: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

The meaning of attention is clear: In order for us to observe something in the first place, we must be paying attention to it. The level of attention we give something can, of course, be affected not just by our own variables (Are we tired? Preoccupied? Upset?) but also by the variables of the behavior we are observing, and of who is performing it: Does the person stand out? Is he attractive? Is she competent? Do we think of her as similar to ourselves? All of those factors make it more and more likely that we will pay attention.

The next step is retention: the process of actually recording and recalling what it is we have observed. We might create our own version of mental notes to categorize and summarize this behavior for later use.

Reproduction is the actual imitation that occurs, and this will depend on our abilities. It would likely take just one attempt for you to imitate someone turning a doorknob, whereas it might takes weeks of practice to imitate someone flipping a perfect pancake. And certain behaviors—performing gracefully in Zumba class, anyone?—might be forever outside your abilities.

The final component of modeling behavior, according to Bandura, is motivation. The behaviorists, of course, thought that motivation causes learning. Bandura says that we can learn through observation alone, but that motivation is necessary in order for us to imitate. This motivation can take the form of positive reinforcement or of punishment. But what sets social learning theory further apart is Bandura’s argument that not just past reinforcement or punishment but also the promise of future reinforcement or punishment—and even vicarious reinforcement or punishment, which involves simply watching someone else be rewarded or punished—can serve as motivators. Like the behaviorists, Bandura acknowledges that positive reinforcement is typically more effective than punishment.

Bandura’s most groundbreaking experiments have involved the motivation to act in aggressive ways. He showed that simply witnessing someone acting aggressively can spur on our own aggressive behavior. But if the temptation to model aggression is all around us, how do we ever learn to regulate our behavior? Bandura hypothesizes that the processes involved in self-regulation are self-observation, judgment, and self-response. We look at our behavior, we assess it in comparison to the behavior of others, and we determine how we should reward or punish ourselves. Related to this is Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy, that is, the effect of our believing that we can be effective in a certain situation and can enact a desired behavior. This concept is distinct from the concepts of self-esteem and self-worth, both of which have to do with more general attitudes about our value as individuals.

Finally, Bandura has worked to develop types of therapy in which social modeling is put to good use. Self-control therapy involves overcoming habits by creating behavior charts that make you closely examine the details of your actions, creating contracts with yourself, and altering your environment in ways that will help you along in modifying your behavior patterns. In modeling therapy, patients with specific fears watch other people modeling the behavior of overcoming their own fears, as when someone who at first is terrified of a snake gradually makes his way toward it and eventually even drapes it around his neck.

KEY EXPERIMENT Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment (1961) and its follow-ups are among psychology’s most famous, and they suggest that aggressive behavior is very frequently imitated. (A Bobo doll, by the way, a popular toy of the era, was an inflatable vinyl clown several feet tall with a weighted bottom, which meant that after Bobo was punched, he would quickly bounce back to an upright position.) The participants were 36 male and 36 female preschoolers at Stanford University’s nursery school. The children were over the age of 3.5 years but under the age of 6 and were assessed beforehand for their baseline levels of natural aggressiveness. (It is worth noting that their race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class were not recorded, and it is often assumed that Bandura’s participants were overwhelmingly white and from a relatively high socioeconomic class, assumptions that have been the basis of some of the criticisms leveled against his findings. Later researchers have also criticized the study for not considering whether a given child was familiar with the Bobo doll and have suggested that such familiarity, or its absence, might have affected the level of the children’s aggressiveness toward the doll.)

The original experiment had three groups of children and three conditions: children who were shown an aggressive interaction, children who were shown a nonaggressive interaction, and a control group of children who were shown no interaction at all. The groups were equally split, with 24 children (12 girls and 12 boys) in each. In addition, the experiment used a matched-pairs design, whereby children with similar levels of baseline aggressiveness were paired as they went through the experiment.

The children who were shown an aggressive interaction saw a male or female adult actor (called a behavior model) behave violently toward a Bobo doll for about 10 minutes. The behavior models were physically as well as verbally aggressive, with various ways of attacking the doll—saying “Pow!” or “Sock him!” or “Boom!” and throwing it up in the air or even attacking it with a hammer. The children who were shown a nonaggressive interaction saw a male or female adult actor playing with Tinker Toys near the doll but not interacting with it. And the children in the control group, of course, saw no behavioral model or interaction at all. In controlled conditions after these witnessed interactions, Bandura found that the children who had observed the aggressive interaction were far more aggressive themselves and were prone to imitate the specific behaviors they had witnessed with the Bobo doll. Boys were more likely to favor imitating a same-sex behavior model than girls were. Boys imitated more physically aggressive acts than girls did, but there was no sex difference for verbal aggression. In a later version of this experiment, Bandura had children witness aggression on the part of real-life behavior models, human film models, and film cartoon (cat) models and found that children who had seen any of these models behaving aggressively were later, in the same controlled conditions, significantly much more likely than the children in the control group to behave aggressively themselves. Bandura also looked at whether seeing the model punished, rewarded, or not responded to at all influenced the children’s later aggressive behavior. He found that it did not affect their learning of the aggressive behavior (the children could still demonstrate what they had seen), but it did affect their motivation to perform it on their own (when models were rewarded, the children were more likely to imitate the aggressive behavior spontaneously).


Bandura’s theories—part of the cognitive revolution that has emphasized the role that interpretation of an external event plays in the motivation to behave in certain ways—helped dethrone behaviorism as the predominant school of thought in psychology. His approach to observing behavior has greatly contributed to social psychology and even influenced personality theory. As a result, many now consider him one of the greatest living psychologists.


Naturally, there is a lot of controversy about the nature of aggression and how easily it is modeled—especially in our modern age of not just watching violence, but also being able to participate in simulated versions of it through video games. For every study (and there have been plenty since Bandura’s) that suggests that we are more likely to act aggressively after watching aggression—and thus more likely to act violently after being exposed to violence—there is someone who gets defensive. But what personalized anecdotes (“Video games never hurt me!”) fail to account for is that nowhere in any study’s findings is it implied that every single person in every single real-life circumstance will exhibit exactly the same effects of being exposed to violence. Like most other research, studies on aggression are about probabilities. They don’t purport to determine the exact nature of you or your life or your temperament or your experiences. They merely look for general trends in the data. Not everyone who smokes gets cancer; not everyone who drives without a seatbelt gets killed in a car accident. But that doesn’t take away from what we know about the importance of those risk factors. Think about the habits we pick up through observation—phrases we use because a friend did, clothes we wear because they looked great on a model, sports we took up because our dads played them in high school. And the negatives— curse words we learned on the school bus, racist attitudes we absorbed from our grandparents, a habit of making fun of overweight people because our sisters did. We intuitively accept that many of our behaviors are learned because of our loved ones, our social influences, and our culture. There’s no reason to assume that aggressive behavior would be an exception to this rule, but because aggression is a loaded subject, it is sometimes hard to talk about without a high level of emotion.


The concept behind modeling therapy is also something that resonates with our daily lives. “If I can do it, you can do it!” your friend might say when she starts to train for a 5K run, and when you watch how she starts slow, fits running into her schedule, and gradually increases her distances, you may deduce that you, too, can run such a race. “You go first,” you might say to your brother when the two of you come across a particularly scary roller coaster at an amusement park, and then you watch from below as he gives you the thumbs-up on the second hill. In both situations, observing others—especially someone you consider to be like you—can pave the way for you to take on a new or feared challenge. Of course, if your friend is a triathlete and fitness model, her encouragement to you might not mean much. But, as Bandura found, if you consider someone to be like you, you pay more attention and are more likely to imitate that person’s behavior. It’s the fact that someone presumably has fears just like yours and is able to overcome them that makes that person a particularly effective cheerleader.