A General Overview of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory


 A General Overview of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory

Rodney L. Mulhollem

Liberty University


This paper explores a comprehensive overview about Dr. Albert Bandura and his social cognitive theory.  Many psychologists consider Bandura to be the most influential psychologist of modern times.  He has been able to break the mold of traditional cognitive theories, creating a theory that combines cognitive, psychosocial, and behavior processing.  His theory is broken down into five main concepts including: Learning, Triadic Reciprocal Causation, Human Agency, Self-regulation, and Dysfunctional Behavior.  With the focus of plasticity, people have the ability to change who they are as well as change the fingerprint of personality taught from earlier experiences.  Using triadic reciprocal causation people have the ability to regulate their lives.  Human Agency consists of three molds including self-efficacy, proxy agent, and self-regulation through moral agency.  With the implementation of external and internal factors, people regulate their behavior from a combination of both cognitive processes and environmental manipulation. From a counseling perspective, social cognitive theory opens additional avenues in helping the client heal. When a client understands who they are is not only determined by uncontrollable forces and situations, this gives hope and the assurance that through agentic perspective, their life can be transformed becoming healthier and happier.

Keywords: triadic reciprocal causation, human agency, self-regulation, self-efficacy, proxy agent, and moral agency


Brief History and Development

Brief History of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory

“Bandura learned from simply observing others and incorporating this concept into his theory” (Mulhollem, 2009).  In his view, early psychological theories “ignored important humanistic features such as subjectivity, deliberative self-guidance, and reflective reaction” (Bandura, 2001).  Bandura’s theory has become increasingly popular.  William Rottschaefer (1991) was so impressed he said, “It is no news that a cognitive revolution has occurred in psychology”.  Lerner (1990) writes, “Finally, a developmental audience would expect these ideas to be embedded within a metatheoretical argument…” (p.93).  Meichenbaum (2002) believed so strongly in his theory he writes, “…I first encountered the writings of Albert Bandura… In 1963, Bandura and Richard Walters’s book, Social Learning and Personal Development, became the cornerstone of the Illinois clinical program”.  Meichenbaum (2002) also summed up Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory as, “According to social cognitive theory, human behavior is viewed as self-regulated, where individuals anticipate, plan, and reflect on their behavior, thoughts and feelings”.  Bandura agreed that a person’s personal experience is important in shaping who they are, but people have the ability to change through plasticity.  He believed that through observation and the use of cognitive processes, people have their strongest potential and ability to learn.  By observing natural behavior, people have the ability to incorporate and delete others behavior as they evolve their own.  He called modeling the core observation of learning.   Bandura (2004) comments: “Social cognitive theory specifies a core set of determinants, the mechanism through which they work, and the optimal ways of translating this knowledge into effective health practices”.

Bandura also believes that there needs to be a disconnection between psychology and neurobiological theories as many modern proposals want to combine these two theories.  Bandura (1991) states:

… knowledge of the brain circuits involved in learning does not tell one much about how best to devise conditions of learning in terms of level of abstractness, novelty, and challenge; how to provide incentives to attend to, process, and organize relevant information… to optimal conditions must be specified

Development in the Area of Counseling

With genetic management of fortuity, people have the opportunity to make decisions even upon circumstances they are forced into.  A person can be forced to be in a certain class with a certain professor.  However, what they make of the class, the attitude they choose to have, people they choose to converse with, and the relationship they build with the professor has a direct impact based upon the individual.  Although the person is forced in that class based upon availability, their personal choices and decisions are based upon the person themselves.

A counseling focus of emerging primacy of human agency and not only primarily neurodynamics, allows the counselor the opportunity to work with an individual’s personal decisions.  Since the individual is in control of their coevolution, a decision is possible.  When implementing human agency, a counselor can guide the conversation allowing extrinsic motivation in better helping boost the person’s intrinsic motivation.  Although there is a place for psychological dynamics with biological disorders such as Bipolar Disorder, Tourette syndrome, or Parkinson Disease (to name a few); psychological dynamics are vital as many decisions are made through self-regulation.  As modern technology shows, many biological diseases stem from an unhealthy level of human agency.  When a person’s environment is highly stressful, diseases such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke are more common.  The decision to live in this environment results in an increased risk for these diseases and others.  Even the choice to worry, live in fear, or nervousness can have an effect on physical and psychological well-being and health.

With Bandura’s four core features (intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-regulation), people possess a stronger hold on their lives and decisions than past cognitive theories give credit.  Through the guidance of a counselor, these human agencies can be re-evaluated, adjusted, and changed to adjust an unhealthy lifestyle into a more productive and healthy lifestyle.  With self-reflectiveness (motivation) being influenced by a counselor, this can be one of the many perspectives of potential help for the client.

Bandura’s Agentic Perspective

Agents are intentional and embody the endowments, belief systems, self-regulatory capabilities and distributed structures and functions.  Agents allow people to make their own decisions and are not ‘forced’ to make decisions based on circumstances.  It is this agentic perspective that he believes to be missing from the earlier psychological cognitive theories.

Emerging Primacy of Human Agency in Biosocial Coevolution: Importance in the Field of Counseling

In the article Agentic Perspective in Social Cognitive Theory Summary, Mulhollem (2010) writes:

Psychological dynamics are being downgraded for neurodynamics.  There is a strong influence to combine biological and psychological disciplines.  It is important to remember that biological determinants change very slowly over decades and even centuries.  New technologies such as MRI, fMRI, and additional neurological scanning do not answer psychological questions.  The statement of Martin Luther King, “I have a dream!” may be able to be mapped through modern technology but the social influence cannot.

Social cognitive theory recognizes biological changes.  However, people, cultures, and societies change much more quickly. Biologically, people have changed very little over the last number of decades, but have changed dramatically on the psychosocial front (p.8).

An Overview of Bandura and His Social Cognitive Theory

Hierarchical Dual Control Mechanism

Bandura believes three basic concepts under this action. Conception, not one-to-one mapping between representation and action is directly related to the outcome of adaptive performance.  Transformation and generative operations are directly connected to cognitive action.  Foresight conceptions are actions that are the direct result of knowledge gained through observational learning, inferences from exploratory experiences, information conveying by verbal instruction, and innovative cognitive synthesis of preexisting knowledge.  The result of foresight conceptions of action result in appropriate behavior and internal standards for corrective adjustment, in the development of behavior proficiency.

Determinism and Freedom

Mulhollem (2009) explains,

Determination is defined as the ability to make one’s own decision. They are not determined completely by past events.  Freedom is defined as the ability to make one’s own decisions based upon past events, personal reflections, and goals (p.5)

The argument of the inability to control one’s motivation and action rest on the analysis of external events.

Bandura’s theory consists of three determinants include: knowledge, perceived self-efficacy and outcome expectations, and goals perceived facilitators. Bandura (2004) described these determinants as:

…knowledge of health risks and benefits of different health practices, perceived self-efficacy that one can exercise control over one’s health habits, outcome expectations about the expected costs and benefits for different health habits, the health goals people set for themselves and the concrete plans and strategies for realizing them, and the perceived facilitators and social and structural impediments to the changes they seek.

Human Agency

Another major factor to Bandura’s social cognitive theory was labeled human agency.  Bandura believed “… people are self-regulating, proactive, self-reflective, and self-organized and that they have the power to influence their own actions to produce desired consequences” (Feist & Feist, 2009, p.486).  Human Agency is not a thing but an active process.  There are four core features called intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness.  It is also important that a person have what Bandura called self-efficacy or the belief of having the ability to achieve a certain task or goal.  Bandura believes this is the most important self-reflective ability.

Modes of Human Agency

Although personal agency can bring influence in a person’s life, social cognitive theory distinguishes among three different modes of human agency including: personal, proxy, and collective.  In most personal and corporate spheres of society, people do not have direct control over the conditions nor institutional practices.  People do not have the time to master every realm of life, outside resources and expertise is sought.  This would be considered the first of the three modes of human agency: personal.

Proxy control is an action people use to manipulate direct influence on another.  Many times people do not feel they are as capable as others in achieving a level of success and thus use personal control to manipulate the accomplishments.  This proxy control is due to either a person believing someone else can achieve a certain task better, lack of personal commitment, or choice to work towards making themselves better in achieving a particular goal or task.

Most people live in a society and not in isolation.  Most things achieved are done through social interdependent efforts.  This is accomplished by a group of people that normally would not be accomplishable on the individual level.  This is the third mode of human agency, social.  Bandura (2001) states, “Group attainments are the product not only of the shared intentions, knowledge, and skills of its members, but also of the interactive, coordinated, and synergistic dynamics of their transactions.”

In general, overall study results from Bandura (1997) find the stronger the perceived collective efficacy, the higher the groups desired and goals.  It also found the strength of collective efficacy had a direct impact on group motivation and staying power.

Physicalistic Theory of Human Agency

The three tools that allow people to accomplish tasks and goals are sensory, motor, and cerebra systems.  These tools are what give people purpose, direction, and satisfaction of their lives.  Agentic actions play a role in shaping the neuronal and functional structure of the brain. Mulhollem (2010) explains, “People can create unique thoughts as well as analyze different course of action possibilities.  People are also capable of using these tools to construct new thought processes like a disappearing talking cat with a melancholy personality as portrayed in the story of Alice in Wonderland” (p.4).

Psychological discipline can be divided into two major routes.  Cognitive processing or simply stated, people try to figure out what is wanted of them.  Next, people set goals and create personal motivation and execute the decisions made.  If mistakes are made, re-evaluation can be psychologically processed.  A new hypothesis is created and a different avenue is constructed.  This process has been overlooked in cognitive science of the past.  A second type of theorizing focused on micro analytic working of social situations. Human functioning is analyzed as social interdependent.

Learning – Four Models or Core Processes

Bandura believed there are four models or core processes governing the observational learning processes including: attention, retention, behavior production, and motivation.  First and foremost a person must give some kind of attention.  Secondly, some kind of memory retention or, as Bandura called it, representation is needed.  Following representation, there must be some kind of behavior production.  Depending on positive or negative consequences, motivation is controlled.

Distinction between Self of Agent and Object/Human Agencies and Pscychoneural Process

“Social cognitive theory rejects the dichotomous conception of self as agent and self as object” (Bandura, 1998).  People act as agents over themselves.  People analyze their past through thought processes and make current decisions.  Operative thinking and later evaluation is also a contributing factor to this same process as well as action strategies.  Human agency does not imply psychophysical dualism.  Belief system and personal competencies are not a result of knowledge of neurophysical.  External events in conjunction with internal created events must be present in this process.

Triadic Reciprocal Causation

Bandura designed a theory called Triadic Reciprocal Causation.  He believed instead of human behavior functions being mainly environment, all three causations were really where the final determinants lie.  Kihlstrom and Harackeiwicz (1990) explain Bandura “attempts nothing less than a sweeping integration of cognitive, personality, and social psychology… showing we are individuals”.  Personal is referred to mostly as the cognitive factors of memory, anticipation, planning, and judging.  Environment is partially determined by the person as this is many times a choice. This choice is a cognitive ability.  Although cognitive is a very dominate part of this triadic combination, it is not an independent part.

The factors of personal and environment come together to show that many things in people’s lives are under their direct control; however, it is impossible for a person to predict sudden changes that are outside of their personal world or environment.  The experience of the chance encounter was defined as a fortuitous event.  This event is unexpected and catches a person off guard.  Bandura understood people cannot control the chance encounter, but are able to control the actions and responses to an event.  An example would be the pre-assigned seating arrangement on a jet.  A person does not have the ability to predict who will sit beside him, but does have control over whether to engage in conversation or not.


People that posses high levels of self-efficacy also have the ability to self-regulate their personal behavior.  Bandura believes there are three factors to self-regulation including external and internal factors and self-regulation through moral agency.  With each of these factors, a person has the ability to grow and become an even better person and continue to increase self-efficacy.

Internal or personal factors of self-regulation can be broken down into three categories including: Self-observation, judgmental process, and self-reaction. Self-observation is usually focused on personal interest.  This form of self-regulation is monitored by the person and many times personal bias is dominate.  We focus on things of interest to us and many times ignore things not of interest.  As people use self-observation, evaluating performance is also incorporated and thus creates a judgmental process. Judgmental process allows people to regulate their selves on a cognitive level.  By setting personal standards, this allows the person to counter balance their performance and work towards achieving success.  In addition to the limits to personal standards, standards of reference are usually incorporated to allow a person to cross reference with others.

Self-reaction of moral agency is the third factor of self-regulation.  People can either self-punish or self-reinforce their actions.  This concept is the opposite thought process of Skinners theories (Feist & Feist, 2009 p.496).  Self-regulation through moral agency is primarily focused on morality.  Bandura did not believe in an automatic internal controlling agent or as some would call a self-conscious.  Instead his theory teaches non-automatic self-regulation and disengagement of internal control based upon positive or negative consequences.

Dysfunctional Behavior

Like Bandura’s theory of triadic reciprocal causation, depression, phobias, and aggression are the primary reason for dysfunctional behavior.  Depression is primarily the negative results of failure when a person sets personal goals too high.  When this process is continued over a long period of time people also increase self-judgment.  As a person continues to fail and increase their self-judgment, the depressive prone person also treats themselves in an extremely negative way.

Phobias are fears that are strong enough to stop a person from functioning in a healthy manor in certain circumstance.  As long as the person can avoid situations that would put them face to face with their phobia, they live very normal lives.  Aggression can be a dysfunctional behavior when taken to the extreme.  Bandura believes dysfunctional aggression is a learned behavior.  Feist and Feist (2009, p.500) describe five reasons for this type of behavior as:

…enjoy inflicting injury on the victim (positive reinforcement), avoid or counter the aversive consequences of aggression by others (negative reinforcement), receive injury or harm for not behaving aggressively (punishment), live up to their personal standards of conduct by their aggressive behavior (self-reinforcement), and observe others receiving rewards for aggressive acts or punishment for nonaggressive behavior.

The goal is, “…the growing interdependence of human functioning.” (Bandura, 2000).

Bandura’s Approach to Therapy

Bandura has three basic approaches to therapy including: overt or vicarious modeling, covert or cognitive modeling, and enactive mastery.  The goal in social cognitive theory is self-regulation, creating this positive and healthy cognitive mind set.  These efforts in conjunction work with each other and have been proven successful.

Overt or vicarious modeling is allowing the person to be able to view the feared task being accomplished by another person which, many times, decreases anxiety level.  Next, incorporating convert or cognitive modeling allows the therapist to help the person visualize the task being completed by them.  With the combination of overt and covert modeling, many times success is achieved.  Enactive mastery is implementation of the person actually doing the task that was originally fears and causing the phobia.

Bandura’s theories sound great but, do they really work?  Segelken (2008) published an article named Research in Practice: Cornell tried the “Bandura Model” and reports the following interesting results: “Mexico rose (in literacy programs) from 100,000 to a million a year when TV characters learned to read, according to Bandura. And radio dramas about HIV-AIDS in Tanzania led to increased condom distribution and reductions in numbers of sexual partners”.

Biblical Values and Insights/ Personal Reflections

Bandura’s social cognitive theory is remarkable in its approach of what makes a person a person.  The Bible references the importance of cognitive processing and action combination.  In Hosea 10:11-13 (NIV) we see cognitive processing or you are what you think about, establishing a plan, and implementation: “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD… Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity; ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men”.  Job 4:7-9 (NIV) also discusses the same concept when he writes, “…they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same”.  David also mentions sowing (cognitive process) and reaping (physical reaction) in Psalms 25:18 (NIV) when he writes, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy”.

However, Bandura’s theory does not teach an automatic internal controlling agent.  The Bible talks about the old man and new man, referring to the old man being our inherited sin nature, and the “new man”, being our new nature upon salvation with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Bandura appears to go against what he so passionately believes in with cognitive decision making bringing morality down to a “reaction” based upon “circumstances”.  This thought process is as elementary a concept as stimuli and reward.  The Bible discusses two natures in reference like Colossians 3:8-10, Ephesians 4:21-23, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-18.


Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory is believed, by many, to be the most influential and advanced theory of the twentieth century.  Previous theories concentrated primarily on cause and effect theories, simple cognitive theories, biological theories, or social influential theories.  Combining personal plasticity through cognitive processing, biological instilled personality, and biosocial coevolution, humans possess the unique ability to change based upon these multiple factors that influence their lives.  What makes the Social Cognitive Theory so unique is the blending of influences, not one primary influence or determinant.  Simply stated, through cognitive processing humans have the ability to take multiple influences, as well as forward thinking, to make decisions creating a road map of life that is every changing instead of concrete.

Implementing this thought process into counseling allows the client to understand previous behavior, biosocial coevolution, and biological factors have had an influence on their lives, but through plasticity an opportunity to change.  Working from this multiple perspective in counseling educates the client.  If a client understands certain influences can be changed as well as altering cognitive processing, this allows hope and encouragement that negative past conduits can be changed to future healthy choices and lifestyle.  With the knowledge of human agency, people can be self-regulating with the power to change their lives.





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