Dr Brian Apter with a memoir of his times with Dr Albert Bandura, who died last July.

In 1985, I worked as a teacher in Glenthorne Youth Treatment Centre, a specialised national secure unit and rehabilitation facility for serious child offenders. Most professionals in Glenthorne owned a dull green soft-cover copy of Albert Bandura’s 1977 Social Learning Theory, bought in bulk for us by the clinical psychologist-led senior management team. Glenthorne operated under a 'contingency management' system – like a token economy but without tokens. We awarded points that enabled our students to move up and down (but mostly up, over time) a 'Level System' of privileges. I understand that Bandura had had direct influence over this system in Glenthorne and in its previous incarnation in a group of special schools in Devon in the 1970s. The system was of its time and worked well for young people and staff during my 11 years there.

Many years later, in 2004, I was working for Wolverhampton LA as an educational psychologist and I had been commissioned to develop an applied psychology course for teachers and social-workers. I was designing the introductory module and I had prepared a slide showing Bandura's development of behaviour modification into SLT. I used his diagram of 'Reciprocal Determinism' (RD), linking personal cognitive, behavioural and environmental factors. I found myself questioning the vector in the diagram that pointed from the 'environment' towards 'behaviour'. I had always thought it improbable that 'environment' could affect a person's behaviour directly without the mediation of the person and their cognitions, which sat above the two in the diagram.

With the arrogance of a young man's need to challenge old wisdom, I decided that I would contact Professor Bandura to explain why his drawing of so many years standing was wrong. I found a likely email address at Stanford and wrote: “Is this the email address of Professor Albert Bandura?" The next day, I received the response: "Who wants to know?" Thus began an email conversation, the start of a friendship that lasted up until a year or so before Bandura's death last year. 

Serve and volley

That first episode of our conversation established a style sheet between us. It was like a slow game of tennis. I would challenge with increasingly elaborated questions and Bandura would refute the premise or in other ways respond across the court with caustic brevity and wit. We knocked that RD vector backwards and forward using increasingly preposterous premises. A framed picture of a Democrat on a sideboard would directly affect the behaviour of Republican postman who glimpsed it through the window of a house he was delivering a letter to. Bandura challenged me that the postman would not need to think about what the photograph meant to him. I protested that the postman could not help but think consciously about the photo, once he became aware of it.

After a good few serve and volley exchanges back and forth, Al said that I should stop calling him Professor – from then on I addressed him as Al. In respect of that RD vector, Al suggested that we had exhausted the discussion, ad absurdum. The discussion was thus unconcluded – in my mind, to this day. I did not attempt to return to the topic with Al… probably for the best.

Our exchanges from then on were much less challenging. We seemed to agree about a lot. Al sent me copies of articles and chapters he was writing. I would write back to say what I thought. I was not a very stern critic. Once, I wondered whether he might appreciate a phone call to discuss an unpleasant exchange in a journal he was having that had begun a couple of years earlier (see Bandura, 2003). He said no, saying that from 6 a.m. until midday each day, he switched off all communication devices in order to write, and the time-difference did not favour me later in his day. I was relieved. I think phone calls would have been awkward and dysfluent on my part.

So our pen-friendship – Al's term – continued. We demolished social-constructivism, the rise of the neo-cons, military adventurism in the middle-east and weapons of mass destruction. He told me about going to classical music concerts in Stanford with his wife, Virginia, and he clearly enjoyed Bach. I sent him a set of Gould's 'Well Tempered Clavier' on CD and introduced him to Jacques Loussier's jazz versions. He appreciated these. Al sent me un-proofed versions of papers he was writing – particularly pertaining to the social-modelling of pro-social behaviour using media devices such as radio documentary-dramas in Tanzania and China. I would try and respond usefully. Sometimes I would point out a typo.


In 2009 Al was invited to talk to the BPS, a trip initially funded (against door-takings) by the South East branch of the BPS. I managed to get a ticket. A week or so before, I received a call from the organisers to say that Al wanted to meet with me; would I mind looking after him during his brief time in London before the talk? 

I do not have heroes but turning the corner into the makeshift TV studio in Friends Meeting House, the Quakers’ London HQ, was an extraordinary moment. He reached out his hand, smiled broadly, and said, 'Hello, Brian’. At 84, a tall, elegant man, he put me at ease immediately. After wrapping up his interview duties, we walked through the leafy squares in the bright sunshine. It was one of those 'in the moment' lucid experiences, walking and chatting at the side of this mild-mannered, pleasant man whose voluminous writings I knew so well – an undeniable founding father of modern psychology.

Al explained that he could not afford to be away in London for long, as his wife Virginia was not well. He had asked the BPS for the best flight and hotel room because he did not want to be tired out by the travel, so that he could most easily resume his carer-role and his writing on his return to Stanford. We sat in a breakfast room in the splendid Russell Hotel eating finger sandwiches and drinking tea for a couple of hours, and Al let me ask any and every question I wanted. He answered with elegance, scholarly honesty and voluminous generosity. His memory for names and dates was faultless – as was his recall of citations from the last 50 years. A steel-trap mind indeed.

We talked about Freud and psychoanalysis, his ongoing friendship with Philip Zimbardo and his sadness and disappointment with Stanley Milgram. He explained that in his opinion, Milgram had made a mistake in concentrating on the compliance of ordinary people rather than upon the psychological exceptionality of people who did not comply with authority. Al thought that Milgram's choice might have contributed to his rather depressed view of humanity which had been further exacerbated by the rather too-hard work-over by critics of his method as being unethical. Al's view was that these strictures might have ultimately shortened Milgram's life.

Al talked about how his parents had come to Canada from Eastern Europe under an immigrant settlement scheme that entailed them being given a packet of arable land to build a house on. He talked about how he had come to psychology, and how he had met his wife, as two sequences of opportunities that he had had the good sense to grasp and hold on to. Al’s established way to meet the world was to optimistically embrace opportunities in order to give oneself the best chance of finding good outcomes.

I was also fascinated about whether Al had always intended to write a grand unified theory of psychology when he first published Social Learning Theory in 1977, and then Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory in 1985. Al said that he did not understand why other academic psychologists did not attempt to establish more expansive general logical psychological structures. He did not hold at all with the idea of post-modern theories where contradictions could be assimilated with apparent ease to sit alongside each other without the logic of such an over-arching theory. Al reminded me that I should include 1977’s Self Efficacy: the Exercise of Control in the canonic sequence of his general psychology theory-development. He commented that this last title incorporated all of his ideas in one tome, and was the most complete version of his grand theory of Social-Cognitive Psychology.

Al wondered whether general grand psychological theories were out of fashion, and whether theorists like himself, and Skinner, Piaget and Freud before him, were now undermined by the 'mix and match' practices that were the stuff of modern social media. Al thought that psychology might be particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of social media – more so than other scientific bodies of knowledge and application. Al riffed on the horrors of mobile phones and the unpleasant phenomenon of a ghost-phone vibrating in one's pocket when in-fact, one had accidentally left the horrible thing at home.

Applied psychology

Friends House is a big hall with seating for 2000 and it was nearly full when Al began speaking. He seemed anxious, partly about tech issues. Controlling his own slide-sequence, there were slow deliberate pauses as he asked the audience to consider what he was saying. He took us on a chronological tour of the development of his psychology to date from the earliest days in the 1950s. Nearing the conclusion of his talk, Al talked about ‘Social Diffusion Theory’ (Rogers, 1962), its interaction with Social Learning Theory and his involvement with the Chinese government’s creation of a television drama that extolled the virtues of having female babies. He explained how IVF and the one-child law in Shanghai had led to a disproportionate percentage of successful male births. The television drama that Al had been indirectly involved in had attempted to influence and redress this phenomenon. 

Al invited questions from the audience and this part of his talk was criticised in a number of challenges. One or two respondents appeared angry. 'Why did Professor Bandura think it was okay to collude with a repressive government in trying to manipulate birth patterns?’Al’s answer was long, patient, complicated and nuanced. He described a matrix of human rights drawn from the International Declaration and how he and his colleagues scored requests for social-manipulations of the sort he had described against this matrix before they had agreed to assist. The controversial utilisation of psychology in this way disturbed some who shouted out subsidiary challenges to Al. One or two audience members noisily gathered their things and left the hall in protest. Al looked perplexed and baffled but he patiently answered the challenges. Was not all applied psychology 'manipulative'? Was this not the method of applied psychology, to ‘manipulate’ variables? If it was 'manipulative' in terms of being directed towards an accepted clearly stated ethical 'good' – such as those enshrined in the International Declaration of Human Rights – was that not OK? I think that Al was deeply uncomfortable with being controversial, when he believed that his involvement in this type of work was ethically logical and of good intention. Al did not write a summative book about Social Diffusion Theory and using mass social-behavioural influence in an ethical way. I wish he had – but maybe he was not sure how such a book would be received. There are a few journal articles and chapters about these projects, though (e.g. Bandura, 2006). 

Al was not the smoothest, most good humoured or most relaxed speaker I have ever enjoyed – but every word he used during that hour and a half was carefully chosen and compelled the audience to consider the impactful role psychology might come to have in the modern world, however perplexing. It was a paradigm-shifting talk. Al predicted the Western governmental obsession, for good or ill, with the psychology of behaviour change and influence. It was no surprise when a few people walked out. A non-psychologist friend of mine, a London theatre director, who attended, said it was the most moving, disturbing, politically significant talk he had attended for years. Al was suggesting that mass social diffusion could be a force for good if it were ethically guided towards an agreed utilitarian good. Of course, Al’s optimism would be severely counteracted if that same Theory of Diffusion were used in ways that exacerbate inequality.

A full-stop

Al looked tired when he came down from the podium. He apologised to me about being required to attend a formal dinner that evening by the sponsors of his visit. He was whisked away. I did not see him again before he flew home to Stanford the day after – but after a week or so our email conversations resumed. 

I was writing a piece for The Psychologist about Al’s visit. I had been fascinated by what he had said in London about his parents’ emigration from Poland. The Bandura family name is recorded in various public records in Krakow. I wondered whether Al might have Jewish connections in that region. I was given to believe that Al had never been to Poland, the homeland of his parents. I offered to be his guide.

It is difficult to be sure about emotional tone in an email, but Al told me in no uncertain terms not to publish any of my suppositions about his forbears. He told me I was heading into the area of 'yellow journalism'. I withdrew the article and apologised for my presumptuousness. He left me to stew for a while but eventually wrote to accept my apology. I learned that it was fine for me to challenge him theoretically – but the personal was personal, and I had no business there.

Al had largely finished with Social Diffusion Theory and social-influencing research when he spoke in London. The talk had been a full-stop and he was considering a new direction.

Then Al's wife died.

I sent commiserations. I did not hear from him for a good long while. His written output was on-hold. The following Christmas I sent him an Art Tatum CD. He responded positively. 

Then Al sent me some shorter articles that he was writing about 'how people lived with themselves after doing bad things'. It all related to compartmentalising bad stuff in order to maintain self-efficacy, he said. Al explained that he had begun writing another book and that he was going to collate the articles he had already written and add some more that he was planning to write. I asked to see drafts as he wrote and he agreed. I sent him my responses. I wanted Al to write a chapter about pornography and the way in which it was re-writing the sexuality of young people – a negative effect of inadvertent diffusion – but he thought it might be something he tackled in a future project. 

After a few months, Al’s publisher sent me a near-final draft of the book. I wrote a 'blurb' for the North American edition, feeling flattered but with significant imposter anxiety. Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves was published by Macmillan in 2015 [read an extract] – the same year I was finishing my doctorate at Cardiff. Al sent me a signed copy and a 'thank you'.

I heard from Al a few more times after that. He sent me a couple of journal articles that listed him as the most cited living psychologist, and as the 4th most cited psychologist of all time. I started work on proposing Al for a Queen's honour and for a BPS lifetime fellowship – but life was busy, and to my regret, I did not complete either task. 

During the last year of Al's life, I did not hear from him at all. I was not disappointed or sad. I understand that Al had a small network of 'students' of psychology that he kept in touch with, and that he viewed teaching as his most important responsibility at Stanford. I am grateful to have been one member of that network. I learnt a lot. 

- Dr Brian Apter, CPsychol, AFBPsS, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Wolverhampton

-       See also the tribute from Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Ozer and an article based on that London talk.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A.; Locke, E.A. (2003) ‘Negative Self-Efficacy and Goal Effects Revisited’. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 88, No. 1, 87–99

Bandura, A. (2006) ‘On integrating social cognitive and social diffusion theories’. In A Singhal & J. Dearing (Eds.). Communication of innovations: A journey with Ev Rogers. Beverley Hills; Sage Publications.

Rogers, Everett (1962). Diffusion of Innovations, New York: Free Press.

Other major books by Bandura

Bandura, A., & Walters, R.H. (1959). Adolescent Aggression. Ronald Press: New York.

Bandura, A. (1962). Social Learning through Imitation. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE.

Bandura, A. & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social Learning & Personality Development. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, INC: NJ.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of behavior modification. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bandura, A. (1971). Psychological modeling: conflicting theories. Chicago: Aldine·Atherton.

Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: a social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A., & Ribes-Inesta, Emilio. (1976). Analysis of Delinquency and Aggression. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, INC: NJ.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber