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Behavioural and Cognitive Theorists

Behavioural & Cognitive Theorists

Albert Bandura states that human psychological development occurs primarily through observational learning (witnessing others). Unlike in the Skinnerian scheme, no direct reinforcement of attitudes, traits and associated behaviours may be required. Simply vicarious reinforcement can alter their future frequency, intensity and duration and, consequently, shape human development itself. As with any behaviourist thinker, however, Bandura considers human psychological development to be largely a matter of learning, with genetic factors not especially central. Cognitive (information processing) factors evidently have a significant role to play, however, taking him away from the purist behaviourist position which values only stimulus and response (although observational learning is often proposed as the third behaviourist model of learning after classical conditioning and operant conditioning). In fact, Bandura advocates a position termed reciprocal determinism, whereby human development is shaped by internal cognitive processes and external stimuli. Further still, triadic reciprocality encapsulates his belief in the mutual interaction between cognitive, behavioural and environmental factors in the developing human personality.

The person develops, essentially, by identifying with a series of role models, imagining himself to be in the same situations and to be experiencing similar consequences. Again in contrast to the views of Skinner, subsequent direct reinforcement is only deemed to be important insofar as it motivates the person to pay attention to, remember and want to perform the observed behaviour. Thus, Bandura highlights the internal processes of attention, retention, motor reproduction and motivation.

  • Before learning can occur, the person needs to pay attention to the role model. Who and what, specifically, are attended to are governed by the needs and interests of the individual.
  • Retention is necessary due to the gap between observation and attempted replication. It involves the encoding of verbal, visual and, less commonly, kinaesthetic representations to form the basis of subsequent memory and mental rehearsal of the role model’s “performance”.
  • For motor reproduction of the modelled behaviour, the person must possess and practise the necessary skills – such as strength and agility – to translate mental representations into physical actions.
  • Motivation to model depends upon the ongoing consequences (i.e. reinforcement) of using the modelled behaviour for both model (i.e. vicarious reinforcement) and learner (i.e. direct reinforcement). There is then a loop back to attention, since degree of motivation will guide the person’s focus of attention. Motivation is also influenced by the individual’s confidence level or, in Bandura’s terminology, perceived sense of self-efficacy (see below).

Hence, the rate of human developmental change depends upon the level of advancement of the physiological and neurological structures associated with the above perceptual, cognitive and motor skills.

Learning, and the shaping of human personality, are also influenced by characteristics of the model and the learner. It has been found that a model who is attractive and of similar age and gender to the learner tends to be more influential, while a learner who exhibits a high level of perceptiveness or dependence more easily assimilates behaviour. It is evident, therefore, that human psychological development may be strongly influenced by chance encounters – unintended meetings with previously unknown people.

In Bandura’s thinking, the self is reduced principally to a set of cognitive and behavioural processes and structures, two important aspects of which are represented by self-reinforcement and self-efficacy. Self-reinforcement results in a self-regulation of behaviour and involves self-administered rewards or punishments in line with the degree of achievement of one’s expectations or standards. Illustrating his movement away from a traditional behaviourist stance, Bandura states that:

If actions were determined solely by external rewards and punishments, people would behave like weathervanes, constantly shifting in different directions to conform to the momentary influences impinging upon them. . . . [People] set certain standards of behaviour for themselves, and respond to their own actions in self-rewarding or self-punishing ways. (1977: 128-129)

Such internally generated rewards may be tangible, as with buying oneself a treat, or intangible, as with feelings of satisfaction and pride. A similar framework applies to punishments, which may respectively comprise self-destructive behaviour, for instance, or feelings of shame or worthlessness. Despite Bandura’s protestations to the contrary, his formulations of self-reinforcement interface closely with the Freudian superego (see Section 1.3), the initial standards usually having been learned from parents.

Critical to human psychological development is Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy (or perceived self-efficacy). We tend to engage only in tasks we feel we are capable of performing. Thus, development is strongly influenced by how a person perceives her potential effectiveness in coping with the demands of the environment. A high level of self-efficacy leads to persistence in the face of challenges (though overconfidence might become a problem). A low level tends to generate the view that problems are greater than they really are and the person easily gives up striving to solve them, therefore depriving herself of opportunities for personal growth. Bandura unequivocally advocates self-efficacy as pivotal to psychological health.

People strive to exercise control over events that affect their lives. By exerting influence in spheres over which they can command some control, they are better able to realise desired futures and to forestall undesired ones. The striving for control over life circumstances permeates almost everything people do because it can secure them innumerable personal and social benefits. The ability to affect outcomes makes them predictable. Predictability fosters adaptive preparedness. Inability to exert influence over things that adversely affect one’s life breeds apprehension, apathy, or despair. (Bandura, 1995: 1)

Bandura proposes four strategies for enhancing self-efficacy:

  • setting reachable goals and experiencing success in their attainment
  • exposure to successful appropriate role models
  • verbal encouragement and persuasion towards self-belief
  • physiological strengthening through nutrition, exercise and stress reduction.

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