Psychologist Bandura Awarded National Science Medal

Albert Bandura
Albert Bandura

Stanford’s Albert Bandura, a psychologist who first gained acclaimed for his study of learned violence involving a Bobo doll, has received one of seven National Medals of Science awarded by President Barack Obama this year. He and the other awardees, who hail from the physical, natural and medical sciences, will be honored at a White House ceremony early next year. [The medal was awarded May 19, 2016. – ed.]

Calling the winners’ work “a testament to American ingenuity,” Obama added that “science and technology are fundamental to solving some of our nation’s biggest challenges. The knowledge produced by these Americans today will carry our country’s legacy of innovation forward and continue to help countless others around the world.”

Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments took place in the early 1960s at the Stanford University nursery. He would show the children of Stanford staffers film of a woman beating up a Bobo doll – a child-size inflated clown figure that has a weighted round bottom so once hit it bounces back. After seeing the film, the kids were let loose in a room with toys, including a Bobo doll. As Bandura observed, the children often would gravitate to the doll and then imitate the women abusing the doll.

From this and subsequent similar experiments he theorized that children will model violent behavior, and furthermore that violent behavior isn’t inherent but acquired. As summarized  at SAGE Knowledge, “Since he believed that aggression is learned, Bandura claimed that potentially criminal behavior can be avoided if aggression is diagnosed early and other learning behaviors are used to rectify the aggressive behaviors.”

Bobo doll under attack
Bobo doll under attack

The work propelled him into the public eye – hey, what does this say about TV? — and in some ways, into the eye of a hurricane. As he wrote in an autobiographic essay:

Look magazine invited me to write a piece on the social influence of television for a special issue they were publishing on youth. When it appeared, the Television Information Office, a subsidiary of the National Association of Broadcasters, sent a large packet of material to its sponsor stations explaining why my research on social modeling should be disregarded. This was just the beginning of a multipronged offense. Psychologist Ruth Hartley prepared a documentary commissioned by CBS in which she took me to task and criticized the relevance of other experimental studies demonstrating a positive relation between exposure to violent fare and aggressive behavior. In an article prepared for TV Guide under the title, “The Man In the Eye of the Hurricane,” Edith Efron dismissed the modeling studies, complained that the research by members of the “Bandura school … won them center stage in Washington,” and criticized the Surgeon General’s office for acting “as if Rome were burning and Dr. Bandura were a fire extinguisher.”

Social scientists seek to advance knowledge that can inform public policy. As the stealthy workings of the sociopolitical forces swirling around the issue of television effects illustrate, we also need to study how politics and power, which shape public policy, determine how our knowledge is used.

(His autobiography, current to 2005, appears here.)

Bandura survived that brush with infamy and developed other influential theories, such as the theory of self-efficacy., “Self-efficacy,” SAGE Knowledge notes, “is an individual’s belief in their ability to accomplish certain goals. This belief stems from various sources and is domain specific, meaning that a person has efficacy beliefs regarding a specific task in a given situation and does not necessarily generalize those efficacy beliefs to other situations.”

Bandura was born in a tiny town in Alberta, Canada in 1925 and received his bachelor’s in psychology from the University of British Columbia in 1949. He received a master’s and then a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Iowa in 1951 and 1952, respectively. After a postdoctoral internship at the Wichita Guidance Center, he accepted a teaching position at Stanford where he remained ever since.

He served as the president of the American Psychological Association in 1973 and received a number of awards from the APA, including the William James Award for outstanding achievements and the Thorndike Award for Distinguished Contributions of Psychology to Education. He was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1969 and in 1974 became David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology.

In addition to the Medal of Science, Bandura has received a growing number of honors, among them a Guggenheim fellowship, the Distinguished Contribution Award from the International Society for Research in Aggression, the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, and honorary presidency of the Canadian Psychological Association.

In a 2002 survey in the Review of General Psychology, Bandura was named the most cited living psychologist and the fourth most-frequently cited psychologist of all time (following B.F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget).

The National Medal of Science was created in 1959. In selecting the annual honorees, the president receives nominations from a committee of presidential appointees based on their knowledge in and contributions to chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, and the biological, behavioral/social and physical sciences.

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