Social Cognitive Theory Research Paper

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1. Social Cognitive Theory

Human behavior has often been explained in terms of one-sided causation. In these unidirectional models, behavior is depicted as being predominantly shaped and controlled by environmental influences, or impelled by inner drives and dispositions. Social cognitive theory explains human functioning in terms of triadic reciprocal causation (Bandura 1986). In this model of reciprocal determinism personal determinants in the form of cognitive, biological, and emotional factors, behavior patterns, and environmental events all operate as interacting determinants that influence each other bidirectionally.

2. Agentic Perspective

Social cognitive theory is rooted in an agentic perspective. People are self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating, not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by external events. Human adaptation and change are rooted in social systems. Therefore, personal agency operates within a broad network of sociostructural influences. In these agentic transactions, people are producers as well as products of social systems. Sociostructural and personal determinants are treated as co-factors within a unified causal structure rather than as rival conceptions of human behavior.

3. Fundamental Human Capabilities

In social cognitive theory, people are characterized in terms of a number of fundamental capabilities. These are enlisted in effecting personal and social change.

3.1 Symbolizing Capability

The extraordinary capacity to represent events and their conditional relations in symbolic form provides humans with a powerful tool for comprehending their environment and for creating and managing environmental conditions that touch virtually every aspect of their lives. Most environmental events exert their effects indirectly, through cognitive processing, rather than directly. Cognitive factors partly determine which environmental events are observed, what meaning is conferred on them, what emotional impact and motivating power they have, and how the information they convey is organized and preserved for future use. Through the medium of symbols, people transform transient experiences into cognitive models that serve as guides for reasoning and action. By symbolizing their experiences, people give structure, meaning, and continuity to their lives. The sociocognitive methods for promoting personal and social change draw heavily on this symbolizing capability.

If put to faulty use, the capacity for symbolization can cause distress. Indeed, many human dysfunctions and torments stem from problems of thought. People live in a psychic environment largely of their own making. In their thoughts, they often dwell on painful pasts and on perturbing futures of their own invention. They burden themselves with stressful arousal through apprehensive rumination, debilitate their efforts by self-impeding ideation, drive themselves to despondency by harsh self-evaluation and dejecting modes of thinking, and often act on misconceptions that get them into trouble. Thought can thus be a source of human failings and distress as well as a source of human accomplishments. Faulty styles of thinking can be changed to some extent by verbal analysis of faulty inferences from personal experiences. However, corrective and enabling mastery experiences are more persuasive than talk alone in altering faulty beliefs and dysfunctional styles of thinking (Bandura 1986, 1997, Rehm 1988, Williams 1990).

3.2 Vicarious Capability

There are two basic modes of learning. People learn by experiencing the effects of their actions, and through the power of social modeling. Trial and error learning is a tedious and hazardous process. Fortunately, this process can be short cut by social modeling. Humans have evolved an advanced capacity for observational learning that enables them to expand their knowledge and competencies rapidly through the information conveyed by the rich variety of models (Bandura 1986, Rosenthal and Zimmerman 1978).

Modeling is not simply a process of response mimicry as commonly believed. Modeled activities convey rules for generative behavior. Once observers extract the rules underlying the modeled activities they can generate new patterns of behavior that go beyond what they have seen or heard. Self-regulatory and other cognitive skills can also be developed by using models to verbalize plans, action strategies, and self-guidance to counteract self-debilitating thought patterns, as solutions to problems are worked through (Meichenbaum 1984). Deficient and faulty habits of thought are corrected as participants adopt and enact the verbal self-guidance.

In addition to cultivating new competencies, modeling influences can alter incentive motivation, emotional proclivities, and value systems (Bandura 1986). Seeing others achieve desired outcomes by their efforts can instill motivating outcome expectations in observers that they can secure similar benefits for comparable performances; seeing others punished for engaging in certain activities can instill negative outcome expectations that serve as disincentives. Observers can also acquire lasting attitudes and emotional and behavioral proclivities toward persons, places, or things that have been associated with modeled emotional experiences. Observers learn to fear the things that frightened models, to dislike what repulsed them, and to like what gratified them.

During the course of their daily lives, people have direct contact with only a small sector of the physical and social environment. As a result, their conceptions of social reality are greatly influenced by modeled representations of society, mainly by the mass media (Gerbner 1972). Video and computer systems feeding off telecommunications satellites are now rapidly diffusing new ideas, values, and styles of conduct worldwide. At the societal level, symbolic modeling is transforming how social systems operate and serving as a major vehicle for sociopolitical change (Bandura 1997). As Braithwaite (1994) has shown, the speed with which Eastern European rulers and regimes were toppled was greatly accelerated by televised modeling of successful mass action.

The vast body of knowledge on modeling processes is being widely applied for personal development, therapeutic purposes, and social change (Bandura 1997, Bandura and Rosenthal 1978, Rosenthal and Steffek 1991). For human problems that stem from sociocognitive deficits, the guided mastery approach that is highly effective in cultivating personal efficacy and psychosocial competencies combines three components. First, the appropriate competencies are modeled in a stepwise fashion to convey the basic rules and strategies. Second, the learners receive guided practice under simulated conditions to develop proficiency in the skills. Third, they are provided with a graduated transfer program that helps them to apply their newly learned skills in their everyday lives in ways that will bring them success. In ameliorating anxiety and phobic dysfunction, the modeling provides coping strategies for managing threats. One can eventually overcome fears without the aid of modeling through repeated unscathed contact with threats, although it takes longer and is more stressful. However, modeling of cognitive and behavioral skills is a key ingredient in the development of complex competencies.

Sociocognitive approaches rely on mastery experiences as the principal vehicle of change. The enabling power of social modeling is enhanced by guided mastery enactments. When people avoid what they dread, they lose touch with the reality they shun. Guided mastery treatment quickly restores reality testing in two ways. It provides disconfirming tests of phobic beliefs by persuasive demonstrations that what phobics dread is safe. Even more importantly, it provides confirmatory tests that phobics can exercise control over what they fear. Intractable phobics, of course, are not about to do what they dread. Therapists must, therefore, create environmental conditions that enable phobics to succeed despite themselves. This is achieved by enlisting a variety of performance-mastery aids. Threatening activities are repeatedly modeled to demonstrate coping strategies and to disconfirm people’s worst fears. Intimidating tasks are reduced to graduated subtasks of easily mastered steps. Joint performance with the therapist enables frightened people to do things they would refuse to do on their own. Another method for overcoming resistance is for phobics to perform the feared activity for only a short time. As they become bolder the length of involvement is extended. Protective conditions can be introduced to weaken resistance that retards change. After effective functioning is fully restored, increasingly challenging self-directed mastery experiences are then arranged to strengthen and generalize the sense of coping efficacy. Varied mastery experiences build resiliency by reducing vulnerability to the negative effects of adverse experiences. This is a powerful treatment that eliminates phobias, anxiety arousal, biochemical stress reactions, and wipes out recurrent nightmares and intrusive rumination (Bandura 1997, Williams 1990).

Symbolic modeling lends itself readily for society-wide applications through creative use of the electronic media. For example, the soaring population growth and the environmental devastation it produces is the most urgent global problem. Worldwide use of enabling and motivating dramatic serials is raising people’s efficacy to exercise control over their family lives, enhancing the status of women to have some say in how they live their lives, and lowering the rates of childbearing (Singhal and Rogers 1999, Vaughan et al. 1995).

3.3 Self-Regulatory Capability

People are self-reactors with a capacity to motivate, guide, and regulate their activities through the anticipative mechanism of forethought. People set goals for themselves, anticipate the likely consequences of prospective actions, and plan courses of action that are likely to produce desired outcomes and avoid detrimental ones. The projected future is brought into the present through forethought. A forethoughtful perspective provides direction, coherence, and meaning to one’s life.

Much human motivation and behavior is regulated anticipatorily by the material and social outcomes expected for given courses of action. Social cognitive theory broadens this functionalism to include self-evaluative outcomes. People do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and refrain from actions that evoke self-devaluative reactions. Incentive systems are enlisted, if needed, to promote and help sustain personal and social change (Bandura 1986, 1998, O’Leary and Wilson 1987).

In keeping with the agentic perspective of social cognitive theory, the greatest benefits that psycho- logical treatments can bestow are not specific remedies for particular problems, but the self-regulatory capabilities needed to deal effectively with whatever situations might arise. To the extent that treatment equips people to exercise influence over events in their lives, it initiates an ongoing process of self- regulative change.

Personal standards for judging and guiding one’s actions play a major role in self-motivation and in the exercise of self-directedness (Bandura 1991, Locke and Latham 1990). Self-regulatory control is achieved by creating incentives for one’s own actions and by anticipative reactions to one’s own behavior depending on how it measures up to personal standards. Sociocognitive principles of self-regulation provide explicit guidelines for self-motivation, personal development, and modification of detrimental styles of behavior.

A favorable self-regulatory system provides a continuing source of motivation, self-directedness, and personal satisfaction, but a dysfunctional self-system can breed much human misery. For people who adopt stringent personal standards, most of their accomplishments bring them a sense of failure and self-disparagement (Bandura 1997, Rehm 1988). In its more extreme forms, harsh standards of self-evaluation give rise to despondency, chronic discouragement, and feelings of worthlessness and lack of purposefulness. For example, Hemingway, who took his own life, imposed upon himself demands that were unattainable throughout his life, pushed himself to extraordinary feats, and constantly demeaned his accomplishments.

Effective treatments for despondency arising from stringent self-imposed standards remedy each of the dysfunctional aspects of the self-system (Rehm 1981). They correct self-belittling interpretative biases that minimize one’s successes and accentuate one’s failures. To increase self-satisfaction and a sense of personal accomplishment, participants are taught how to set themselves attainable subgoals in activities of personal significance and to focus their efforts and self-evaluation on progress toward their aspirations. Through proximal structuring, goals become motivating rather than demoralizing. Depressed individuals tend to be less self-rewarding for successes and more denying and self-punishing for failures than the nondepressed for similar performances. They are taught how to be more self-rewarding for their progressive personal attainments.

Deficient or deviant standards also create problems, although the distress is inflicted on others rather than on oneself. Unprincipled individuals who pursue an ethic of expediency, and those who pride themselves in antisocial activities readily engage in conduct that is socially injurious (Bandura 1991). Antisocial and transgressive styles of conduct have diverse sources requiring multifaceted approaches to personal change. Successful treatments promote the development of competencies and prosocial self-regulatory standards and styles of behavior sufficiently attractive to supplant antisocial ones (Bandura 1973, Reid and Patterson 1991, Silbert 1984). Education provides the best escape from crime and poverty. Promoting educational development is, therefore, a key factor in reducing crime and delinquency.

3.4 Self-Reflective Capability

Among the mechanisms of personal agency none is more central or pervasive than people’s beliefs in their capability to exercise control over their own functioning and over environmental events (Bandura 1997). Efficacy beliefs are the foundation of human agency. Unless people believe that they can produce desired results by their actions, they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties. Meta-analyses, which combine the findings of numerous studies, attest to the influential role played by efficacy beliefs in human adaptation (Holden 1991, Holden et al. 1990, Multon et al. 1991, Stajkovic and Luthans 1998).

Self-efficacy beliefs regulate human functioning through their impact on cognitive, motivational, emotional, and choice processes. They determine whether people think pessimistically or optimistically, and in self-enhancing or self-debilitating ways. Efficacy beliefs play a central role in the self-regulation of motivation through goal challenges and outcome- expectations. Whether people act on the outcomes they expect prospective performances to produce depends on their beliefs about whether or not they can produce those performances. It is partly on the basis of efficacy beliefs that people choose what challenges to undertake, how much effort to expend in the endeavor, how long to persevere in the face of obstacles and failures, and whether failures are motivating or demoralizing. Efficacy beliefs play a key role in shaping the courses lives take by influencing the types of activities and environments people choose to enter. By choosing their environments, people can have a hand in what they become.

People’s beliefs in their coping capabilities also play a pivotal role in the self-regulation of affective states (Bandura 1997). Efficacy beliefs influence how potential threats are perceived and cognitively processed. If people believe they can manage threats they are not distressed by them. But if they believe they cannot control potential threats they experience high anxiety. Through inefficacious thinking they distress them- selves and constrain and impair their functioning.

Many human distresses result from failures of thought control. It is not the sheer frequency of disturbing cognitions, but the perceived inability to turn them off that is the major source of distress. Similarly, in obsessional disorders, it is not the ruminations, per se, but the perceived inefficacy to stop them that is perturbing.

Phobics display high anxiety and physiological stress to threats they believe they cannot control. After their perceived efficacy is raised to the maximal level by guided mastery experiences, they manage the same threats with equanimity.

It was widely assumed that phobic behavior was controlled by anxiety. Many therapeutic procedures were, therefore, keyed to extinguishing anxiety arousal. The anxiety control theory has not withstood experimental scrutiny, however. A low sense of coping efficacy produces both anxiety and phobic behavior. People often perform activities even though highly anxious, as long as they believe they can master them. Intense stage fright, for example, does not stop actors from going on stage. Conversely, people avoid situations they believe exceed their coping capabilities without waiting for visceral arousal to tell them to do so. Williams (1992) has shown that people base their actions on efficacy beliefs in situations they regard as risky not on anxiety arousal.

A low sense of efficacy to exercise control over things one values can give rise to feelings of futility and despondency through several pathways. In one pathway, a low sense of efficacy to fulfill personal standards of worth gives rise to self-devaluation and depression. A second pathway occurs through a low sense of social efficacy to develop social relationships that bring satisfaction to people’s lives and enable them to manage chronic stressors. Another is through the exercise of control over depressing thoughts themselves. Low efficacy to regulate ruminative thought contributes to the occurrence of depressive episodes, how long they last, and how often they recur.

People’s beliefs about their efficacy are constructed from four principal sources of information. The most effective way of instilling a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences. Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy. Failures undermine it. Development of resilient self-efficacy requires experiences in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort. The second method is by social modeling. Models serve as sources of competencies and motivation. Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by perseverant effort raises observers’ beliefs in their own capabilities. Social persuasion is the third mode of influence. The fourth way of altering self-efficacy beliefs is to enhance physical strength and stamina and alter mood states on which people partly judge their capabilities.

These different modes of influence create and strengthen beliefs of personal efficacy across diverse spheres of functioning. Such beliefs predict the level, scope, and durability of behavioral changes (Bandura 1997). Microanalyses of how given treatments work, reveal that the efficacy belief system is a common pathway through which different types of treatment produce their effects. Knowledge of the determinants and processes governing the formation of efficacy beliefs provides explicit guidelines on how best to structure programs to achieve desired change.

4. Sociostructural Change

Many human problems are sociostructural, not simply individual. Common problems require social solutions through collective action. Social cognitive theory extends the conception of human agency to collective agency (Bandura 1997). People’s shared belief in their collective power to produce desired results is a key ingredient of collective agency. The stronger the people’s perceived collective efficacy the higher their aspirations and motivational investment in their undertakings, the stronger their staying power in the face of impediments and setbacks, the higher their morale and resilience to adversity, and the greater their accomplishments.

Efforts to improve the human condition must, therefore, be directed not only at treating the casualties of adverse social practices, but also at altering the social practices producing the causalities. The models of social change derived from social cognitive theory (Bandura 1986, 1997), draw heavily on knowledge of modeling, motivational, regulatory, and efficacy mechanisms operating at the collective level.


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