Albert Bandura 1925-2021

Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Ozer with their reflections.

Albert Bandura was one of the most frequently cited psychologists of all time. He was awarded the 2015 order of Canada, the USA’s 2016 National Medal of Science, and 16 honorary degrees from universities around the world. Bandura’s groundbreaking contribution was to change how scientists thought of human behavior. Instead of thinking of humans as responding to punishments and rewards, he ushered the psychology field out of the strict behaviorism era and into the era of recognising the power of human volitional agency, and social influences on our behavior. 

Bandura’s social cognitive theory (SCT) of human functioning, emphasising an agentic perspective toward self-development, adaptation, and change, has had a profound effect across psychology, revolutionising theories of behavior change and shaping education, public health, parenting, clinical health practice, and public policy. A resilient sense of efficacy is central to the ability to self-develop, to achieve personal goals, and to alter life trajectories. Extending beyond individual personal agency, Bandura emphasised the role of collective agency – shared beliefs about capabilities to effect change – in addressing problems on the community and societal level.  

Bandura was prescient at applying theory to the most urgent transdisciplinary challenges facing humankind, addressing global issues such as population growth, climate change, social injustice towards girls and women, family planning, improving literacy rates, and public health crises. He collaborated with the Population Media Center to develop mass media programs and telenovelas that led to widespread changes in prosocial attitudes and health behaviors. (For more details on his scientific legacy, see Obituary by Ozer, American Psychologist.) 

Looking back to look forward

Starting in the early 2000s, Bandura focused on the importance of utilising psychological knowledge to address climate change, long before most psychologists. His work integrated both principles of behavior change as well as preventing moral disengagement. He wrote: ‘Ecological systems are intricately interdependent. Global-level changes affect everyone regardless of the source of the degradation. Because of this interconnectedness, lifestyle practices are a matter of morality not just environmental sustainability… If we are to be responsible stewards of our environment for future generations, we must make it difficult to disengage moral sanctions from ecologically destructive practices’ (Bandura, 2007). In his last paper, he showed how the principles of collective efficacy and social modeling, including through social media, were fueling the youth climate movement (Bandura & Cherry, 2020).

Bandura became increasingly devoted to understanding how people persuade themselves and/or others that their actions are not harmful through processes of moral disengagement, developing the social cognitive theory of morality fully laid out in his final book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2015). He dedicated the book to the memory of his wife, Virginia, who he described as a dedicated humanitarian.

At this time, Bandura’s work on human behavior is more important than ever. We are in a critical period of challenging global problems, such as climate change, attitude polarisation, and vast socioeconomic inequality, where social behaviour has created these often structural problems and the solutions require large changes, based on our scientific understanding of human behaviour. The fundamental principles of human behaviour that Bandura mapped out guide our science and public health interventions today. We are looking back on the foundations of social learning/social cognitive theory to look forward. 

He lived his theory

We both had the good fortune to have Al as a research mentor while we were undergraduate (EE) and graduate (EO) students at Stanford. We experienced his remarkable qualities up close – robust optimism, kindness and humility, his easy distinctive laugh, generosity with his time, and dedication to scholarship. He made others feel that their research was important and worth pursuing, and he lived his theory of self-efficacy – instilling confidence for success experiences.  

Al had such joy in sharing knowledge. He would explain ideas like a well-organised essay in his mind – with verbal paragraphs often punctuated by references – authors and years, and sometimes even the journal names. Students and anyone who collaborated with him are familiar with the detailed edits he would pencil in the margins. In class, lecturing with an old style overhead projector, he would lay out the problem, the evidence, and the knowledge gaps so clearly, it was palpable. He inspired us to see how we might contribute to science; altering career paths with the vicarious social modeling of his own career. It was like aligning with a strong magnetic force.  

I (EE) was on a direct path to medicine when I first took Al’s undergraduate class in the late 80’s. Learning about the social cognitive determinants of health behaviors was revelatory to me. I was amazed at the self-efficacy interventions showing the power of the mind to shape daily behavior and physiological health such as diet and cholesterol levels. The seeds were planted: I decided to instead pursue the psychology of health. Thirty-plus years later, I am still on this path of understanding how to best alter psychological and behavioral health to promote public health. 

After taking his class, I decided to do a senior research project testing the power of self-efficacy. I approached him during office hours, with my heart racing, asking if we could apply social cognitive theory to the problem of homelessness. Together, we devised a study to measure self-efficacy for finding housing but needed access to a family shelter. One after another, the city’s shelters turned me away. But Al Bandura was not easily deterred by obstacles. He didn’t blink an eye, but rather asked what was next on my list, confident that we would find an open door if I only kept knocking (literally). Indeed, I eventually found a shelter system in a nearby city that welcomed us.The outcome of that study was like a parable. Those with low efficacy seemed to give up on searching for housing whereas those with high self-efficacy searched harder for housing (Epel, Bandura, Zimbardo, 1999). In the end, they were no more likely to end up with permanent housing, given how severe the US housing crisis was at that time, demonstrating the hard rule of life that we can control our behaviors, but we cannot always control outcomes. However, if we don’t have sufficient self-efficacy in the first place, the doors may as well be closed. As Al said, ‘Self-belief does not necessarily ensure success, but self-disbelief assuredly spawns failure’ (Bandura, 1997).

The self-efficacy song

My (EO) relationship with Al as mentor and collaborator began as a doctoral student in the late 1980s with a study elucidating the mechanisms of empowerment through a self-efficacy analysis of a women’s self-defense class (Ozer & Bandura, 1990), and continued until his death. For over 35 years, Al served as a source of ongoing support and inspiration as I continued to incorporate social cognitive theory into my research. Reflecting Al’s clarity in applying his theory to an ever-evolving world, over the past decade, he loved collaborating with me on research to integrate social cognitive theory into artificial intelligence (AI) gaming technology to reduce risky alcohol use among adolescents. Over these many years, I had the privilege of knowing his wife Virginia (Ginny) and experiencing both professional relationships and friendships with his daughters.

Al loved to laugh, and we found a way to make him keep laughing. In a surprise ‘Bandurafest’ event honoring Al around the time of his 65th birthday, I (EO) was one of four of Al’s early-career mentees who composed a ‘Self-efficacy’ song to the tune of the Beatle’s song ‘Yesterday’ (O'Leary et al., 1994). The event took place in Napa (reflecting Al’s love of the “noble grape”), and Al was surrounded by his former students, colleagues, and family. Al laughed and greatly enjoyed the riff on his great theory – so much so that he kept a framed copy of the lyrics in his office at Stanford and posted a video of the performance on his website.

A few representative stanzas below reflect the gist of our creation. 

Yesterday, I thought helplessness were here to stay.  

There was nothing I could do or say.

From snakes and bugs I ran away.


Then you see, I took a course in guided mastery.

It beat all my years of therapy.

I finally learned self-efficacy.


Finally, now rejection means nothing to me.

Now I choose and try persistently.

I really do believe in me.


Modeling, your example was so grand to see.

We learned so much vicariously.

We set our goals proximally…

Towards human betterment

Eventually Al’s writing and intensive research conversations transitioned from his Stanford office in the Psychology Department to his home office on Stanford’s campus, but they never ceased. Multiple-hour research meetings continued with me and other collaborators, as did Al’s responsiveness to public requests – often from high school students – for guidance and information.

At a core level, Al’s theory of human agency is an optimistic one. It instills belief in our ability to navigate life’s challenges to alter life and societal trajectories for the better. Over the course of his long career, his guiding motivation was to foster practices that lead to human betterment. Until the final months of his life, he was immersed in writing about the importance of empowering youth to save the earth. His efficacy force has forever shaped us for the better. 

Elissa Epel, PhD, Elizabeth Ozer, PhD

University of California, San Francisco

Find much more from Albert Bandura in our archive, including on the disengagement of morality, social cognitive theory goes global, and drone warfare 

References

Bandura, A. (2015). Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves,  Worth Publishers, New York, New York.

Bandura, A. (2007) Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement Int. J. Innovation and Sustainable Development, Vol. 2.

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

Bandura A, Cherry L. (2020). Enlisting the power of youth for climate change. Am Psychol. Oct;75(7):945-951.

Epel, E. S., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P. (1999). Escaping Homelessness: The Influences of Self-Efficacy and Time Perspective on Coping With Homelessness. Journal of Applied Social Psychology29(3), 575–596.

O Leary, A., Ozer, E. M., Parker, L., & Wiedenfeld, S. (1994). Efficacy: For Albert Bandura. The Behavior Therapist, 17, 127.

Ozer, E. M., & Bandura, A. (1990). Mechanisms governing empowerment effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 472-486.

Ozer, E. (in press). Albert Bandura, Obituary.  American Psychologist.

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