Albert Bandura, 1925-2021: The Social Psychologist Who Transformed How We Think of Learning and Morality

Albert Bandura teaching in a class
Albert Bandura (Credit: Stanford University)

Albert Bandura, a world-renowned social cognitive psychologist who changed the nature of his field and whose name and work became cornerstones of introductory psychology classes everywhere, died on July 26 at the age of 95 in his home in Stanford, California. He passed in his sleep from congestive heart failure, according to his daughters Carol Bandura Cowley and Mary Bandura.

Widely regarded as one of the most influential psychologists of all time, Bandura was best known for his Bobo doll experiments. While he conducted the experiment early in his career, the conclusions of the Bobo doll experiments not only laid the groundwork for his future work but also changed the landscape of the psychology of learning as we know it.

Bandura conducted his famous Bobo doll experiments early in his career at Stanford University with two colleagues in the 1960s. In these experiments, Bandura presented preschool-age children with televised footage of adults hitting, punching, and essentially abusing an inflatable Bobo clown doll. When compared to same-age children who did not see the aggressive footage, the children who saw adults abuse the doll were more likely to do the same, and to be more violent towards the doll when presented with the opportunity to play with it.

colored photographs of the Bobo Doll experiments conducted by Albert Bandura
The Bobo Doll experiments studied the way children learn, specifically how they mimicked aggressive behavior after watching adults model the same behavior. (Photos: Stanford University).

The Bobo doll studies contributed to Bandura’s overarching theory of social learning, in which he proposed that individuals learn by observing the behaviors of others and mimicking those learned behaviors, attitudes, and emotions. This was a landmark finding for the psychology of learning; until then, the primary theory of behaviorism, or behavioral learning, had been the primary psychological explanation for learning. Behaviorism, championed by B.F. Skinner, proposed the idea that learning any type of behavior was dependent on conditioning through the reinforcement of either punishments or rewards.

Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment was radical for its time as it challenged Skinner’s preexisting theory and built upon it, by suggesting that environmental and cognitive factors interacted with one another to influence human learning and behavior. While this may seem like common sense to most people today, it was a novel and groundbreaking perspective the time that Bandura had first proposed it.

“It makes a lot sense to people today because Al Bandura made it make sense,” said Laura L. Carstensen, a fellow professor of psychology at Stanford.

While the academic merit is evident, Bandura’s research became increasingly relevant during the 1960s and ‘70s, as an increased public anxiety about the effect of televised violence on children, especially as the Vietnam War raged on and dominated news programs. Prior to this era, the primary mental health belief at the time ­– psychoanalysis – was that watching aggressive violence would serve as a catharsis, thus diminishing the desire to physically act out in an aggressive manner. The Bobo doll experiments, however, suggested otherwise, implying that watching acts of aggression would potentially encourage children to similarly mimic the violence they watched onscreen.

Bandura was brought before the public, his work scrutinized as he testified before Capitol Hill on the detrimental effects of televised violence on children. Though he was criticized by broadcast networks, his research and testimony helped the Federal Trade Commission set new standards for televised advertising and televised content depicting children.

The Bobo doll experiments were foundational for the rest of the work that Bandura would do in his research studying social learning theory and social modeling, which overall “enabled people to change their lives for the better,” Bandura wrote in his book, Communication of Innovations, in 2006.

He was also known for developing the theory of self-efficacy, which asserts that how a person views their own abilities is a key component to how they think, act and feel, and the concept of moral disengagement, which explains how people can detach themselves from ethical standards in order to justify immoral and harmful acts.

Through his research, Bandura introduced and reexamined theories of personality formation, cognition and the treatment of mental disorders, which were then applied to reforms in education, public health and drug and alcohol abuse awareness campaigns. For several years, Bandura worked with the Population Media Center, a U.S. nonprofit organization, to create televised programs that modeled positive outcomes for situations such as family planning, climate change, and protection against HIV/AIDS.

“[Bandura was] also one of the most important social scientists in history,” Arthur C. Evans Jr., the chief executive of the American Psychological Association, said in a statement. “His contributions have substantially influenced our understanding of human behavior today.”

Born on December 4, 1925 in Mundare, Canada to Eastern European immigrants, Bandura was the youngest and only son among six children. While his town had scant educational resources, Bandura’s parents instilled a sense of hard work in him and he found ways to take charge of his own educational path.

He later wrote in his autobiography that “while the content of courses is perishable … self-regulatory skills have lasting functional value whatever the pursuit might be.”

Bandura attended the University of British Columbia for his undergraduate studies, where he happened upon a course catalogue and chose to enroll in an introductory psychology class by chance because it fit in his schedule.

After finishing his undergraduate degree in three years, Bandura attended the University of Iowa, the then-epicenter of psychological research, for his graduate degrees in psychology, where he graduated with his M.A. in 1951 and his Ph.D. in 1952. At Iowa he met Virginia Varns, and they married in 1952 after Bandura received his Ph.D. and had accepted a teaching position at Stanford University.

As an academic, Bandura spent the entirety of his 57 year-long career at Stanford University, where he had been the David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in Psychology, Emeritus, in the School of Humanities and Sciences until his death. Over his tenure, he published hundreds of scientific papers, wrote 17 books, was awarded 19 honorary degrees, named the president of the American Psychological Association in 1974 and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1980. Bandura’s awards and honors include the Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association, the James McKeen Cattell Award from the American Psychological Society and the Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Lifetime Contribution to Psychological Science from the American Psychological Foundation. In 2014, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 2016, was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama.

Towards the end of his life, Bandura was heavily invested in climate change research, and studying how moral disengagement among businesses contributed to and sustained environmentally harmful behaviors and practices.

“He was a moral figure,” said Carstensen. “He believed that science should be directed toward improving societies.”

In 2002, the Review of General Psychology ranked Bandura fourth among the most-cited psychologist of the 20th century, just behind Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner and Jean Piaget.

“It is difficult to put into words the impact he had on psychology,” said Patrick Baillie, former president of the Canadian Psychological Association.

Bandura is survived by both of his daughters, Carol and Mary Bandura, and two grandsons. In lieu of flowers or gifts, Bandura’s family requested that donations instead be made to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Population Media Center or Young Voices for the Planet.

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Stephanie Tom

Stephanie Tom is studying people, culture, media and technology at Cornell University. She is the social science communications intern at SAGE Publishing.

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