Beyond Bandura’s Bobos

March 3, 2011, 3:02 a.m.

With twinkling eyes and a gently wrinkled face in a perpetual half-smile, Albert Bandura looks every inch the quintessential kindly grandfather, from the muted burgundy sweater to the soft lull of his voice.

Bandura, a man of many talents, has had a long and illustrious academic career spanning over six decades. The David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology, Bandura has contributed immensely to the field of social psychology, and is the father behind the theory of self-efficacy and social learning theory. Ranked as the most cited living psychologist in the world, Bandura has authored seven books to date and has written over 180 articles.

Beyond Bandura's Bobos
(Courtesty of Albert Bandura)

Bandura was born and raised in Mundare, a small hamlet in northern Alberta, Canada with a population of approximately 400 people, mostly immigrants from Poland and Ukraine. His elementary and secondary school years at the only school in town were “very limited in education resources,” recalled Bandura. Usually, limited educational resources would be seen as a hindrance, but Bandura looks back on his schooldays as an opportunity for self-learning, a major skill that is the center of his social learning theory.

“We pilfered a teacher’s trigonometry book, so that we could study it ourselves,” Bandura said. “The students had to take charge of their own education.”

Bandura’s early resolve for scholastic success was largely due to his upbringing because his parents, though they received no formal education, placed enormous emphasis on academic development.

“My mother told me I could till the land, play pool and drink myself to oblivion,” Bandura said. “Or I could get an education.”

“Needless to say, I chose the latter,” Bandura added with a lighthearted chuckle.

Bandura’s summers were spent picking up carpentry, a skill set that would later help pay for his college education. One memorable summer after high school graduation, Bandura ventured farther north, where he worked at Whitehorse in the Yukon filling in holes along the Alaskan highway.

Bandura recalled the shock he received almost immediately upon his arrival.

“I pulled up to the base camp, and the first thing I saw was an ambulance. I asked someone if there had been an accident, and someone told me, ‘No, that’s our cook. He drank all of the lemon extract for the alcohol, so we have to take him in to get his stomach pumped out.’”

The robust, quirky life of the workers at Whitehorse was an exciting time for Bandura, who saw the Yukon tundra as a backdrop for “the blossoming of the psychopathology of everyday life.”

“Booze was their main nutrient,” Bandura said. “They were ordering large quantities of sugar that they used to brew up. This one morning they go up early, [to check] on the deepest alcoholic mash. What they found there instead was half a dozen drunken grizzly bears lumbering around camp. Fortunately, they were a little too tipsy to actually be really dangerous.”

According to Bandura, fortuity–a factor generally avoided by psychologists, who interpret such events as unpredictable–plays a more important role in shaping people’s lives.

“In psych, we avoid fortuity,” Bandura said. “Fortuitous events are just nuisances in our causal theories. I tried to bring some science to bear on my fortuitous life, and that’s how I got into psych.”

It was, in fact, fortuity that led Bandura to ultimately choose psychology as his field of study for his bachelor’s degree at the University of British Columbia, a decision largely based on a chance encounter with a course catalog.

“I had originally planned to major in biology,” Bandura said. “I was with pre-meds and engineers who had really early schedules. I didn’t have classes that early–those were at a time that I didn’t know even existed! So I had a lot of time. I noticed someone had left a course catalog. While flipping through it, there was a psych course that fit in with my schedule that I decided to take.”

Bandura was hooked on psych. Making use of his carpentry skills, he was able to speed through his education, earning his B.A. in three years and receiving his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in three additional years. It was also during his graduate student years, by another stroke of luck, that he met his wife, whom he married in 1952.

“One morning, we were late to our golf time, so they bumped us to a later time,” Bandura said. “Two women were ahead of us. They were slowing down, and we were speeding up. I met my wife in the sand trap. Had we been at the earlier time, our lives would have never converged.”

In 1953, Bandura joined Stanford’s faculty, where he has remained ever since. He has taught thousands of students and prolifically contributed many research articles and studies involving various aspects of social psychology. The Bobo doll study, which looked at the social patterns of behavior associated with aggression, is his most well known piece of research.

“That study always seems to haunt me,” Bandura admitted. “The great thing about psychology is that it is the only study that integrates interpsychic events, social relations, biology and socio-structural events. There’s no other discipline that integrates all of these very different disciplines.”

Bandura and his wife, Ginny, have two daughters, Mary and Carol, both of whom grew up to follow careers within the fields of either clinical or social psychology.

Over the years, Bandura has become an expert at juggling several roles at once–as professor, as father and more recently, as grandfather.

“He loves his grandchildren,” said Ian Gotlib, also a David Starr Jordan Professor of Psychology. “And he appreciates good wine.”

Now in the twilight of his career, Bandura has more time for leisure activities, which include wine tours, backpacking in the Sierras and gardening.

“I maintain some of my rural roots,” Bandura said. “I have a huge garden, where I am the major supplier of tomatoes, which have been claimed as ‘the golden standard’ by my colleagues.”

But Bandura still likes to keep busy. Instead of settling back into the comfort of his armchair, basking in the glow of his numerous achievements, Bandura’s back is erect, leaning slightly forward toward the future, while always having a number of current projects buzzing away. One of his major current projects is the application of social learning theory and the self-efficacy model to address major concerns on a global level, such as human rights in developing countries, environmental sustainability and the AIDS epidemic.

That’s not bad for someone who stumbled into psychology by fortuity. Having learned from a lifetime of serendipity, Bandura believes in maximizing every chance opportunity.

“You can take [hardships] and turn them into enabling experiences,” Bandura said. “You can’t afford to be a realist. Realists will abort if they run into difficulties, or they will become cynical. Learning how to work through it when encountering setbacks and conflicts is a life-long skill, but an important one for success.”

“You don’t get bored that way,” he added.

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