Socialcognitive 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."

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