Albert Bandura (1925-2021): Renowned Psychologist Behind Bobo Doll Experiments

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Eminent psychologist Albert Bandura passed away recently at the age of 95 on 26 July.

He brought focus to the dynamism of social learning and its importance to the expression of the self.

How much of human behaviour is learnt and how much is innate?

How does the environment interact with the innate factors in shaping human behaviour?

How does our moral universe evolve?

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and American psychologist B F Skinner had their mutually exclusive empires across psychology departments in universities. Bitter battles were fought and much ink spilled in torrents.

It was then that a psychologist came up with a novel experiment.

Albert Bandura died at the age of 95 years on 26 July. His Bobo doll experiment changed the way Western psychology understood the evolution of the behavioural self.

Born 1925 in Mundare, Canada, to parents from Ukraine, Bandura worked on the Alaskan Highway even as he studied psychology at the under-graduate level at the University of British Columbia.

Later, he moved to the United States (US), where he obtained his Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees from the University of Iowa.

In his 90s, he was David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Stanford University.

Bobo doll experiment

An inflatable clown doll named "Bobo" was subjected to aggressive behaviour by adults. A set of nursery school children watched it.

When one group of children engaged in violent behaviour of the kind the adults were doing, they were rewarded. They continued engaging in the imbibed aggressive behaviour.

When another group of children, who also witnessed adults pummeling the Bobo doll, displayed aggressive behaviour, they were punished and thereafter ceased to show aggressive behaviour.

However, the aggressive behaviour would return after the punishment was withdrawn.

The rest of the children formed the control group.

Bandura pointed out that learning by observation involved four processes.

The attention process pertains to how the learner (the child) observes what the model (the adult) is doing (pummeling the doll). It concerns the child's excitability and expectation.

Then comes the retention process, which has to do with imbibing the observed process into memory, as perceived by the child, for latter use. This involves the cognitive abilities of the child.

Next is production — of behaviour which depends on the child’s ability to recall and imitate. It involves the physical abilities of the child.

Then comes the motivational process, which either offers either reward or punishment for the imitation of behavior by the learner, either for the imitation or for deviation.

This system, built on the interacting triad of person, behaviour, and environment, was called reciprocal determinism by Bandura.

The experiment has had a huge influence on the way we look at the impact of media in the behaviour of impressionable minds. It has also placed a strong sense of ethical responsibility on those who consider themselves role models in any society.

How a role model behaves, surely the impressionable imbibe. Incidentally, that is the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita (3:21).

Unlike the behaviourist school of thought that reduced all learning to altering the behaviour through stimuli response as well as conditioning, here the self is an important part of the social learning system.

Humans go out and learn. They learn proactively. They are not passive receptors of conditioning mechanisms. Of course, rewards and punishments work. But the human organism is functionally more complex than the sum of stimuli and responses as well as reward and punishment.


Another important contribution of Bandura lies in the importance he gave to what he called "self-efficacy". The self here is one that constantly expands through the social learning process. Yet a truly great work is not the product of social factors but a creation from one’s self.

In Bandura's worldview, the importance of self-efficacy cannot be over-emphasised. Bandura goes to the extent of saying that erring on the side of the positive with respect to self-efficacy could be beneficial:

"When people err in their self-appraisal they tend to overestimate their capabilities (Taylor, 1989). This is a benefit rather than a cognitive failing or character flaw to be eradicated. ... An affirmative sense of efficacy contributes to psychological well-being as well as to performance accomplishments. ... The findings show that it is often the normal people who are distorters of reality. But they display self-enhancing biases and distort in the positive direction. Thus, those who are socially anxious or prone to depression are often just as socially skilled as those who do not suffer from such problems. But the normal ones believe they are much more adept than they really are. The nondepressed people also have a stronger belief that they exercise some control over situations that are unmanageable." - Albert Bandura

But self-efficacy is not a simple auto-suggestion. Bandura explains:

"Self-efficacy beliefs are the product of a complex process of self-persuasion that relies on cognitive processing of diverse sources of efficacy information conveyed enactively, vicariously, socially, and physiologically. Once formed, efficacy beliefs contribute importantly to the level and quality of human functioning." - Albert Bandura

The concept of self-efficacy as one of the more important agents of human activities at all levels — individual, social, family, and more — is an important domain for Hindu psychologists to study, particularly in the light of the Bhagavad Gita.

Professor Dharm Bhawuk from the University of Hawaii in his study of the Bhagavad Gita observes:

"Can self-efficacy be divided into two categories, one set for the outer world (for the expanding social self), which would capture the conceptualization presented by Bandura and colleagues, and the other for the inner world (the shrinking social self), which is likely to be found in India? If so, research needs to explore how people develop this new type of self-efficacy not addressed in the literature." - Prof Dharm Bhawuk, University of Hawaii

Furthermore, equally beneficial can be a study of the works of Swami Vivekananda with respect to strengthening one’s self and Bandura’s self-efficacy. Bandura’s self-efficacy in the light of Yogic psychology can offer many tools for the improvement of the quality of life for the individual, family, society, and nation.

His book Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves (2015) is a classic of sorts and tries to understand how terrorism, religious and secular, employs inhuman violence, even as those who engage in violence in their idea of an ideal world and in their in-groups abhor such mindless inhuman violence.

The book explores al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Central Intelligence Agency (US) tortures, environmental transgressions of corporates, and so on. In conclusion, Bandura wrote:

"Monolithic sociopolitical systems that exercise tight control over institutions and communications can wield a greater power of moral disengagement than can pluralistic systems that represent diverse perspectives, interests, and concerns. ... To function humanely, societies must establish social systems that uphold compassion and curb cruelty. Regardless of whether social practices are carried out individually, organizationally, or institutionally, it should be made difficult for people to delete humanity from their actions." - Albert Bandura

With Bandura's death, a life dedicated to expanding our knowledge of ourselves has come to an end.

The light that illuminates our inner chambers, as it comes in through the windows opened by the Bobo doll experiment, shall remain forever.

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