APS Observer Online
Volume 14, Number 6
July/August 2001

Beliefs, Bobo, and Behavior

By Jill D. Kester
APS/AAAS 2001 Media Fellow

Human beings face a vast array of challenges in their daily lives, from minor frustrations such as malfunctioning audio-visual equipment, to sweeping global environmental and social problems. How successful we are in meeting these challenges depends a great deal upon our beliefs of personal efficacy, according to Albert Bandura, who delivered the Keynote Address to a standing-room-only crowd at the APS Convention in Toronto.

Keynote Address
On Shaping One's Future:
The Primacy of Human Agency
Albert Bandura, Stanford University

"Unless people believe they can produce desired effects, and forestall undesired ones by their actions," says Bandura, "they have little incentive to act, or to persevere in the face of difficulties."

By emphasizing what he calls the primacy of human agency - the exertion of control over thought processes, motivation, emotional life, and goal achievement - Bandura has brought a new perspective to social cognitive theory.

Many theories within social cognition tell "only half the story, and the less interesting half," he contends, because personal efficacy beliefs are not taken into consideration.

For example, in expectancy-value theory, what actions people are motivated to undertake depends upon a rational analysis of expected outcomes and the value of those outcomes. However, as Bandura observes, "There are countless attractive options that people do not pursue because they judge they lack what it takes to succeed. They exclude entire classes of options rapidly, on efficacy grounds, with out bothering to analyze costs and benefits." Behavior such as this can only be explained by adding perceived efficacy to the decision making model.

The dramatic effect of perceived efficacy on motivation and achievement was demonstrated in a study conducted by Bandura and his colleague Bob Wood. Business graduates were asked to manage a computer simulation of an organization. Perceived efficacy was manipulated by informing participants that the simulation required skills that were either innate, or that could be acquired through practice.

Participants who were led to believe that the skills could be acquired set challenging goals for themselves, were efficient in their analytic thinking, and achieved high performance. In contrast, participants who were led to believe the skills were innate lowered their goals, were more erratic in their thinking, and their performance gradually declined. Viewing ability as inherent rather than acquirable has a similarly detrimental effect on the development of motor skills.

Results such as these underscore the danger of what Bandura refers to as "Bell Curve thinking," the belief that intelligence is largely innate. "We argue over small ethnic and racial differences [while] we ignore the huge influence of motivation and self-management factors in intellectual performances."

Bandura's daughter, Mary Bandura, has conducted research demonstrating that children who view intelligence as an acquirable skill are highly resilient in their personal efficacy beliefs. Failures are attributed to factors that are correctable, such as insufficient effort, lack of knowledge or faulty strategies, rather than inherent personal deficiencies. Instead of giving up quickly, children with strong efficacy beliefs will redouble their efforts in the face of difficulty, and learn from their mistakes. Bandura suggests that while it is important to be realistic about tough odds, it is equally important to maintain optimism that one can beat those odds.

Not only does perceived efficacy influence motivation and achievement, it also plays a role in emotional health and well-being. "Those who believe that threats are unmanageable," Bandura explains, "see their environment as fraught with danger."

The mind can become a dangerous place as well, filled with ruminative, disturbing thoughts. "It is not the sheer frequency of disturbing thoughts, but the perceived helplessness to turn them, that is the major distressor." Treatment programs that encourage the development of strong self-efficacy beliefs through mastery experiences have proven particularly successful in the treatment of phobic disorders.

Albert Bandura autographs his book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, for Paul Presson and Michael Ransom during the APS Annual Convention in Toronto.

Stress and depression can be ameliorated by the presence of social supports, but weak self-efficacy beliefs interfere with this aspect of well-being as well. "Social support is not a self-forming entity waiting around to buffer us," Bandura asserts. "We have to go out and find supportive relationships, maintain them. It requires social efficacy to do so."

As social animals, human beings face many challenges that require people to work together, pooling their knowledge, skills and resources. Social cognitive theory therefore distinguishes between personal agency, the exertion of direct control over one's own life, and collective agency, where people work in concert to effect change at the communal level. With the growing globalization of economic and social life, the need for people to cooperate at the local, national and international level is greater than ever.

Bandura expresses the concern that "many of the contemporary conditions of modern life undermine the development of collective efficacy." Our lives are increasingly shaped by technologies that many people believe are beyond their control or even their understanding. "Paradoxically, the technologies we create to control our life environment have come to control how we think and behave." Bandura suggests that bureaucracies, growing social fragmentation, and the immense magnitude of environmental and social problems further undermine people's sense of collective efficacy.

A possible remedy for collective feelings of powerlessness draws upon lessons learned from Bandura's early research into social modeling. "The Bobo doll continues to follow me wherever I go," he quips, going on to describe how modeling principles have been translated into engrossing serial dramas that address social issues such as family planning, women's equality, environmental conservation and literacy. Social cognitive theory predicts that observing people similar to oneself succeed through perseverance will increase confidence in one's own ability to succeed.

Serial dramas drawing upon these principles of social psychology have been broadcast in countries such as Tanzania, where overpopulation and the spread of AIDS are severe problems. The National AIDS Control program distributed 32 million condoms in the region of Tanzania receiving the broadcast, and only 2 million condoms in a control region that did not receive the broadcast. Bandura concludes that the serial dramas increased people's self-efficacy beliefs, leading them to take actions to help control the spread of AIDS.

Studies such as these are encouraging because they demonstrate that social cognitive theories derived from laboratory studies hold up in the real world. Perhaps more importantly, they provide evidence of the primacy of human agency. "As a society," Bandura observes, "we enjoy the benefits left by those before us, who collectively fought for reforms that improved the human condition. Our own collective efficacy will shape how future generations will live their lives."

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