Albert Bandura

Although trained in behaviorism, Albert Bandura (1925-present) maintained that it would take too long for people to learn everything by associating stimuli or being rewarded. We are much more capable than that. According to Bandura, people primarily learn by watching others.

Vicarious learning resonates with personal experience. Most can remember learning how to do something by watching their parents, siblings or friends do it. We watch people we know to learn how to fit in, what to do in a crisis, how to behave in public, and how to treat those we love. We watch famous people and learn how to wear our clothes, have elaborate weddings or adopt children from other countries. Demonstration learning is also a popular pastime on television: how to cook, how to buy a house, how to play golf, and how to behave when you’ve made a winning goal.

The process of observation learning is pretty straightforward. We watch what someone does. We make a mental note (representation) of how they did it. And we use our mental model as a guide of how we should behave. Bandura suggests four stages in the modeling process: attention (tracking the environment), retention (converting observations into a cognitive rule), reproduction (being able to apply the rule correctly) and motivation (having a reason to do the behavior).

When I was growing up, I watched my older brothers, and used them as models of how (and how not) to behave. I learned how to tie a Winsor knot, lift weights, snap a wet towel at a friend, and, most of all, how to look cool. On more than one occasion, I watched what they with the intention of learning from them. I found that modeling can help but it’s not without its difficulties.

Before digital  photography, making even a small contact print seemed like magic. With the lights on, you opened the lid of a little box, and put a negative on the glass. In the dark, you put a piece of photosensitive paper on top of the negative, closed the door, pushed a button to turn on a light which would shine through the negative onto the paper, counted for a few seconds, let go of the button (to turn off the light), placed the photosensitive paper into a tray with some chemicals, counted for several seconds, moved the paper to another tray with different chemicals, counted for a while, moved the paper to another tray and swooshed it around for a bit. If you did all of this correctly, an image formed on the paper, and you were the greatest (or at least proudest) photographer in the world. Simple, right?

I watched my brother do it thousands of times (according to ten-year-old world view). I was sure I could do it too. He didn’t want to be bothered with me, so he went off to do something else. But I could use his equipment, as long as I swore (repeatedly) not to break the equipment or screw up. So I started. I put the negative in place, added the paper, counted carefully, moved the paper, counted…I did everything just as I’d seen him do. But it didn’t work.

I tried it again; still didn’t work. Finally, sheepishly, I asked him for help. After yelling a bit at me for wasting his valuable paper and time, he (at my parents’ urging) asked me exactly what I had done. I told all of the steps I’d taken: placing the negative and the paper, closing the lid, counting..everything. “What about pushing the button?” he asked. “Button?” I said. “What button?”

While watching him, I was able to observe everything he did, except pushing the button; it was on his side of the table. And since he wasn’t explaining the process to me (his tolerance only extended to allowing me to be present), I didn’t know there was a button to be pushed.

I had correctly encoded what I saw. I also retained the rule and was able to apply it correctly. My retention, reproduction and motivation stages were above reproach. I even correctly encoding what I saw. But clearly, if our knowledge of the environment is incomplete, we won’t encode the model properly. Of the four stages, attention is the most important.

Most people don’t have a problem with the retention stage of modeling. We are very efficient at converting our observations into cognitive rules. Parents are often surprised when their children put a rule into action: swearing when you bash your finger with a hammer, kicking the cat when you’re angry, yelling at cars who have cut you off, licking your fingers while eating, and shopping when you’re depressed.

Reproduction, however, is not quite as simple. I’ve watched many Olympic and professional athletes. I’ve seen basketball players who can jump up, backwards and throw the ball at the same time. I’ve seen marathon runners, speed skaters, and pole-vaulters perform. But I can’t reproduce those behaviors. I get the idea of how to play golf (use a stick to hit a ball into the hole) but I can’t do it well. Reproduction of ideas into practice is the most difficult stage of modeling.

The last stage, motivation, is where Bandura is most at odds with Skinner. According to operant conditioning, reinforcement is necessary for learning to occur. But Bandura believes learning and performance are separate items. Acquiring the rule and applying it occur is separate stages. According to Bandura, learning occurs prior to performance. You watch and learn, even if you don’t do the behavior. Reinforcement only impacts the likelihood of applying what you know.

To understand people, we must look at the environment and behavior, but we also must include the person: how the model was encoded, which goals were in operation. Bandura calls this interaction between person, behavior and environment “reciprocal determinism.” His theory is behaviorism+. Environment-behavior plus what happens inside the person.

Bandura points out that people are motivated by their goals and dreams. People more likely to perform a modeled behavior if the consequence is something they value (helps reach their goal). Consequently, we tend to model ourselves after people who are similar to us or those we admire (want to be similar to). We provide our own rewards (self-reinforcement), and are capable of delaying gratification. Learning occurs by observing others to getting an idea of how to behave, and using this information as a guide of what to do in future situations. Learning is more than imitation. It is a process of active discovery.

Discovery learning is more than just observing. The key difference is active encoding. Observing is the first step but then the observations have to be converted into symbols. The encoding of a model produces bettern retention than simply observing. Whether the information is converted into words or images (Bandura doesn’t specify how the model is encoded), the conversion of an observation into a mental representation improves retention.

Modeling can, of course, be extended beyond behaviors. It can also be applied to modeling attitudes and emotions. TV commercials are essentially modeling sessions. You watch people you admire use products the sponsors want to sell. The reasoning is if you admire the model or the outcome goal, you’ll want to buy the product. For Bandura, modeling explains the acquisition of behaviors and attitudes.

One application of Bandura’s theory is self-regulation. A three-step process, self-regulation is essentially using standard as a model. The first step is self-observation. Look at yourself and track the behavior you want to change. If you wish, you can use a behavioral chart or diary for documentation. The second step is judgment. Compare your behavior with a standard: you internal standard or an external one (what your friends do, what your doctor says, etc.). Judging also implies the establishment of a goal (walk a mile per day, read a book a month, etc.). The third step is to convert your personal rule into action. This “self-response” step includes rewarding yourself when you meet your standard and punishing yourself when you don’t.

Self-regulation also includes things that didn’t make it into the steps. Some form of environment planning and intervention is also included. You should alter your environment to make reaching your goal easier. Throw out the cookies, cakes and ice cream, so you won’t eat sweets. Or pour the booze down the sink. Remove things that might interfere with your goal, or at least avoid some of the cues. Bandura also recommends personal contracts. The contracts should be specific, written, and witnessed. They should clearly state the behavior to be performed and the respective consequences for compliance and non-compliance.

Like Skinner, Bandura is not in favor of using punishment excessively. He proposed three possible consequences for excessive punishment: (a) compensation (acting as if you were superior to cover your failures), (b) inactivity (being bored, depressed and inactive), and (c) escape (into fantasy, drugs, etc.). Bandura didn’t specify why one outcome would be more or less likely for an individual…which pretty much makes the prediction useless. But his general rule still stands: don’t be mean to yourself.

Here’s a short video lecture I did on Bandura.


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