Social Cognitive Personality Theories

Developed over nearly five decades by Albert Bandura, social cognitive theory—which emphasizes the reciprocal interaction of behavior, cognitive, and other personal factors, and environmental influences on human functioning—has been carefully derived from empirical findings and subjected to repeated tests within many areas of human functioning. This reciprocal process of theory development and testing has, over the years, yielded multiple versions of this continuously evolving theoretical perspective. It is important to understand some background regarding the conceptual and empirical underpinnings of the theory before describing the theory as it stands today.

Social Cognitive Personality Theories Background

Social cognitive theory had its origins in the 1950s and 1960s with the paradigm shift from psychodynamic approaches to psychotherapy to psychotherapeutic interventions increasingly based on learning theories. In fact, Bandura was instrumental in moving psychotherapy from a predominantly intrapsychic, talk-based intervention toward more active, learning-based interventions that relied heavily on performance and mastery. A hallmark of learning approaches was the reliance on observable behavior and framing hypotheses that are open to refutation.

A landmark in this evolution toward learning-based interventions was Bandura and Richard H. Walters’s seminal book Social Learning and Personality Development, which was published in 1963. It built upon John Dollard and Neal Miller’s earlier social learning theory and argued for the importance of modeling and self-regulatory processes in behavior change. In his 1969 Principles of Behavior Modification, Bandura further developed this emerging social learning theory of human behavior. The word social as it is used here refers to observational learning and the attendant self-regulatory processes inherent in learning vicariously from models. Further empirical and theoretical work enhanced and expanded this social learning theory approach to behavior change throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The range of learning theory-based therapies expanded dramatically at this time and included theorists and researchers whose work was characterized under the rubric of behavior modification. Although this work generally relied on Skinnerian principles and eschewed intrapsychic phenomena, Bandura’s research and theoretical writings were based on broader conceptions of human functioning. Bandura’s early approach to therapy encompassed Skinnerian learning by response consequences, but also emphasized learning through observation, cognitive control, and the reciprocal determination of behavior. In Bandura’s theory, the origins of personal functioning lay in the complex, ongoing, and reciprocal interaction of behavioral, environmental, and personal determinants. “Personal” influences in this model include the role of cognitive and affective variables, including self-regulatory mechanisms that enable people to guide their own behavior.

The early empirical tests of social learning theory conducted by Bandura and his colleagues focused mainly on modeling interventions with phobic disorders. Guided mastery, the treatment approach studied and refined in this line of inquiry, has proven remarkably robust and effective when applied to a broad range of phobias and anxiety disorders. It is based on the assumption that people avoid what they fear, and that avoidance can instill higher levels of anxiety about the feared object. This technique consists of systematic and repeated exposure to the feared object or situation, planned carefully such that early exposures are mild, and more intense exposures are only introduced upon extinction of anxiety associated with milder levels of exposure. This is accomplished by having the therapist, in real time, “guide” the client through the different levels of exposure, using encouragement and modeling to promote a gradual approach to the feared object or situation.

For example, people with snake phobias were exposed, at a distance, to a snake in a cage, and led through a series of steps that brought them into closer and closer contact, over time, with the caged snake, until eventually they could touch and even handle the formerly feared object. The guide in this intervention would go first at each stage, modeling approach behavior, and providing encouragement and whatever other aid was necessary. The aides and prompts were reduced and eventually eliminated as mastery increased and anxiety and fear decreased. Although clinical phobias of this type were sometimes critiqued as being far removed from the problems of real counseling clients, in fact this general procedure has been proven effective for a wide range of clinical problems, including such intransigent disorders as agoraphobia, with treatment effects often shown to generalize to areas of functioning beyond anxiety reduction.

Over the years it was established that a purely behavioral explanation of the effects of participant modeling and guided mastery was sorely inadequate. As Bandura examined the treatment components that directly produced change, he became increasingly intrigued with the role of client beliefs about their personal competence that appeared to underlie the effectiveness of social modeling interventions. Bandura labeled these pivotal beliefs about personal competence self-efficacy in his landmark 1977 article “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change.”

Self-Efficacy Theory

As originally proposed by Bandura, self-efficacy expectations refer to a person’s beliefs concerning his or her ability to successfully perform a given task or behavior. Self-efficacy expectations determine whether a behavior, task, or course of action will be initiated and also influence the persistence and the amount of effort expended in pursuing a task or course of action. Efficacy precepts are therefore postulated by Bandura to be central mediators of behavior and behavior change. In this view, successful psychological interventions, regardless of their specific elements, are successful through their ability to enhance efficacy expectations. Efficacy expectations are also situation specific. Self-efficacy is not viewed as a trait, nor is it viewed as a global personality characteristic. Rather, it is a specific cognitive judgment made with regard to a specific task, behavior, choice, or course of action. Furthermore, self-efficacy often predicts future behavior better than does past performance, primarily because the effects of past behavior are mediated by cognitive judgments in the form of efficacy beliefs. A central premise running throughout Bandura’s work is that people create and produce rather than simply foretell their future behavior. In other words, people are human agents, capable of directing their own behavior, and not merely hapless bystanders to environmental events or intrapsychic processes.

Efficacy expectations vary on the dimensions of level or magnitude, strength, and generality. Where behaviors can be rank ordered in terms of a hierarchy of difficulty, level of efficacy expectations refers to the difficulty level in that hierarchy that a person feels he or she can master. Of course, many behaviors of great import are complex and cannot be so ordered. But when tasks can be ranked in terms of the challenge presented, the level dimension of efficacy expectations is crucial. For example, the level of mathematics self-efficacy can be measured by assessing which mathematics courses a person feels confident of mastering, and can predict the point at which specific students begin avoiding mathematics, for example, in high school when math is no longer required.

Strength of self-efficacy expectations refers to how confident an individual is in his or her expectations of succeeding at a given task or course of action, whatever the level. For example, whereas the level of mathematics self-efficacy might indicate the most challenging math course an individual thinks he or she can master in high school (e.g., Algebra II), strength would indicate the robustness or confidence of the individual’s belief in being able to succeed at that course (e.g., on a scale ranging from no confidence to total confidence). Because individuals with high and strong efficacy expectations have confidence in their ultimate success, they are likely to initiate challenging tasks, make choices, persist in endeavors, and ultimately succeed in their chosen courses of action. A lack of confidence or weak self-efficacy regarding a behavior or behavioral domain leads an individual to avoid those behaviors for which efficacy is low and weak, undermines effort expenditure and persistence, and may also produce anxiety in relation to the behaviors for which efficacy is low and weak.

Self-efficacy strength affects not only choice, effort, and persistence but also influences thought patterns, attributions, and emotional reactions. For example, people with low and weak self-efficacy tend to doubt themselves, judge challenges to be unrealistically difficult, and tend to ascribe failure to their lack of ability. All of these thought patterns can produce debilitating negative emotions. Individuals holding high and strong efficacy beliefs, conversely, judge even difficult tasks as within their ability range, are more likely to organize their abilities well and mobilize resources necessary to ensure success, and tend to attribute success to their own efforts.

Finally, generality of self-efficacy expectations refers to the range of associated behaviors that are affected by the level and strength of efficacy beliefs. That is, generality indicates whether self-efficacy with regard to a particular behavior is circumscribed (limited to that specific behavior) or applies to related behaviors. For example, success on a challenging mathematics test may produce high and strong efficacy expectations for succeeding only in that course (e.g., Algebra II) or may generalize to expectations for success in other mathematics courses (e.g., pre-Calculus and Calculus) as well.

In addition to postulating this core mechanism by which behavior change occurs, Bandura also specified four sources of information through which self-efficacy expectations are learned and by which they can be modified. These sources of information include performance accomplishments, that is, experiences of successfully performing the behaviors in question; vicarious learning or modeling (observing similar others); verbal (or social) persuasion, for example, encouragement and support from others; and physiological arousal (physical and emotional states), for example, anxiety in connection with the behavior.

Of these four sources of efficacy information, performance accomplishments are hypothesized, based on empirical observations and social learning theory, to exert the strongest influence. Mastery experiences and performance accomplishments are hypothesized to influence behavior through the strong and resilient changes they produce in efficacy beliefs. Conversely, personal failures are less likely to produce performance decrements or undermine efficacy in the face of previous successful performance accomplishments and a consequent strong self-efficacy. Modeling or vicarious learning alone is likely to exert a less potent influence on efficacy beliefs than will performance-based experiences. Decreasing debilitating anxiety and lowering other forms of negative arousal can also strengthen self-efficacy. And finally, verbal encouragement or discouragement (later referred to as social persuasion), although alone a weaker source of efficacy information than the other three sources, may have a strengthening or undermining effect on efficacy beliefs as well.

Because of its major role in mediating choice, performance, and persistence, self-efficacy can be useful not only in understanding and predicting behavior but also in designing interventions to change behavior. Anxiety, for example, is viewed by Bandura as a “co-effect” of self-efficacy expectations in that the level of anxiety is seen to covary inversely with the level and strength of self-efficacy expectations; as self-efficacy expectations are increased, anxiety should decrease, and vice versa. Thus, interventions focused on increasing self-efficacy expectations via attention to the sources of efficacy information should increase approach versus avoidance behavior, enhance competence, and, concurrently, decrease anxiety in relationship to the behavior.

Finally, in this first major article delineating the theoretical underpinnings of self-efficacy theory, Bandura made an important distinction between efficacy and outcome expectations. Whereas self-efficacy expectations are an individual’s cognitive judgments about his or her ability to successfully engage in a behavior or perform a task, outcome expectations are judgments about the consequences of successfully performing the task. That is, self-efficacy beliefs address the questions, “Can I do this?” or “How confident am I that I can do this?” In contrast, outcome expectations involve the question, “What will happen if I do this?” Efficacy expectations are usually a primary influence on behavior, always important and usually primary, but outcome expectations can also be important under certain conditions. People are more likely to choose to engage in an activity not only to the extent that they view themselves as competent at performing the activity but also to the extent to that they expect their efforts to lead to valued, positive outcomes (e.g., social and self-approval, tangible rewards).

Efficacy and outcome expectations also interact with actual, or measured, ability in some predictable ways. A person with strong self-efficacy and high outcome expectations will engage in determined, confident action that is likely to be successful and personally satisfying, assuming that efficacy expectations are reasonably consistent with actual performance capabilities. Efficacy expectations that are unrealistically low compared to potential performance can be debilitating, but efficacy expectations that are somewhat high compared to available objective indicators of performance can be empowering and produce enhanced performance. This is probably often the case in individuals labeled by others as “overachievers.”

When self-efficacy is high and strong but outcome expectations are negative, self-efficacy may lead an individual to efforts at overcoming and changing aspects of the environment that fail to produce positive outcomes, in essence attempting to change his or her environment. Conversely, in the face of negative outcome expectations (or environmental unresponsiveness), an individual with low and weak self-efficacy may tend to give up easily and become despondent. An individual with both low self-efficacy and low outcome expectations is most likely to be apathetic, foregoing efforts to engage in the behavior or to change the outcomes associated with successful performance.

In addition to efficacy and outcome expectations, goals are also identified as important to the self-regulation of behavior. By setting goals, people help to organize and guide their own behavior, and to sustain it in the absence of more immediate payoffs and despite inevitable setbacks. Social cognitive theory posits that goals are importantly tied to both self-efficacy and outcome expectations: People tend to set goals that are consistent with their views of their personal capabilities and of the outcomes they expect to attain from pursuing a particular course of action. Success or failure in reaching personal goals, in turn, provides valuable information that helps to alter or confirm self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations.

Although the work of Bandura and his colleagues initially focused on the role of self-efficacy expectations in the genesis and treatment of clinical syndromes such as phobias, the potential of self-efficacy theory to contribute to the understanding of, and intervention in, a variety of other clinical and counseling areas was quickly recognized. In the late 1970s and 1980s researchers began applying self-efficacy theory to a multitude of issues, such as addictive behaviors, depression, stress, health promotion, and education and instruction. In the field of counseling, Gail Hackett and Nancy Betz first extended self-efficacy theory to understanding the career development of women and the career domain more generally. Applications of self-efficacy theory were found to have considerable utility for the understanding of gender differences in academic major and occupational choice, mathematics self-efficacy, and career decisions; the performance of students in science and engineering; the educational and career behavior of racially and ethnically diverse students; and the work adjustment of adults.

Social Cognitive Theory

With the publication in 1986 of his work Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, Bandura formally introduced a fully developed social cognitive theory, which encompassed and extended his previous work on social learning and self-efficacy theories. In fact, self-efficacy theory remained the most crucial element in his theoretical model of human functioning. In his 1997 book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, Bandura defined self-efficacy expectations as “beliefs in one’s capability to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations” (p. 2). The shift in label from social learning to social cognitive theory represented not a break or radical departure from previous conceptualizations but, rather, the evolution, maturation, and considerable further refinement of many of the concepts that had been previously introduced, along with some additions and the increasing recognition of the primacy of cognitive capabilities in human functioning. Essentially, the label change reflected the fact that

Bandura’s theorizing had moved considerably beyond its earliest social learning underpinnings.

In his description of social cognitive theory in 1986, Bandura emphasized the triadic and reciprocal interaction of behavior, cognitive, and other personal factors, and environmental influences on human functioning. Furthermore, social cognitive theory rests on the recognition of the vital importance of four basic human capabilities in understanding human behavior: symbolizing capability, forethought capability, vicarious capability, and self-regulatory capability.

Symbolizing capability refers to people’s ability to form cognitive representations of their worlds, allowing them to build internal models to guide future action. Forethought is the ability to anticipate the future, including imagining the possible consequences of actions, which can provide motivation for pursuing courses of action that do not have immediate payoffs. Vicarious capabilities refer to the ability to learn from observation. People not only can learn in an imitative sense, reproducing observed behavior, but also can learn rules and expectations, and can absorb lessons from the consequences experienced by models. This can significantly reduce the amount of time necessary for learning. And finally, people learn from the direct environmental consequences of their actions and the expectations of others and self-regulate their behavior. Self-defined standards and expectations develop which then govern behavior just as effectively as do external contingencies.

Self-reflection is an integral part of the self-regulatory process, and a uniquely human capability that profoundly affects human behavior. People’s ability to analyze their own experiences, examine their thoughts and feelings, and make choices about their behavior is a crucial aspect of human functioning. And, as noted earlier, self-efficacy expectations and related self-referential thoughts are central to any understanding of human functioning. Also included under self-regulatory capabilities are self-monitoring, self-evaluation, development of internal standards such as performance goals, social referent functions such as comparisons with others, valuation of activities (e.g., interests), performance appraisals, and performance attributions.

Applications of Social Cognitive Theory in Counseling

The research literature on the applications of social cognitive theory in counseling and clinical psychology has grown exponentially. Evidence is also accumulating for the usefulness of social cognitive theory in intervening across domains of human functioning, including a wide range of counseling concerns.

One productive example of the applications of social cognitive theory is its extension to the area of cognitive functioning and academic performance. Studies of children’s efficacy beliefs and school performance consistently demonstrate the central role of efficacy judgments in predicting academic achievement. Research on the role of the four sources of self-efficacy information has also yielded results supportive of social cognitive theory’s propositions. Studies of school performance have included investigations of teacher efficacy and learner academic efficacy, that is, self-efficacy with regard to achievement in specific school subjects.

Academically oriented studies have also focused on the role of social cognitive factors in the self-regulation of learning, self-appraisal skills, coping with setbacks, persistence, effort, motivation, and task choice. Bandura himself has studied the role of the collective efficacy of teachers in student learning outcomes. More broadly, applications of social cognitive theory have guided studies of, and interventions with, physical activity and sports, healthy functioning, various medical conditions, alcohol and drug abuse, organizational performance, political efficacy, decision making, and mastery of occupational roles, to name but a few of the areas of study.

In the field of counseling psychology, there have been several notable and sustained applications of social cognitive theory. For instance, the theory has been used as a basis for studying subjective well-being (an aspect of psychological wellness), counselor development, and research productivity. The most extensive application of social cognitive theory in counseling psychology lies in the area of career development. Robert Lent, Steven Brown, and Hackett’s social cognitive career theory (SCCT) builds on earlier research on self-efficacy and seeks to explain three interrelated aspects of career development: (1) how basic academic and career interests develop, (2) how educational and career choices are made, and (3) how academic and career success is obtained. Central variables of Bandura’s social cognitive theory form the core building blocks of SCCT— self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, and goals. According to SCCT, these beliefs play key roles in interest development, choice, and performance.

Career-related self-efficacy refers to an individual’s personal beliefs about his or her capabilities to perform successfully particular educational or vocational behaviors or courses of action. A person might, for instance, feel very confident in being able to accomplish tasks for successful entry into, and performance in, scientific fields, but feel much less confident about his or her abilities in social or enterprising fields, such as sales. Career-related outcome expectations refer to the expected consequences of attempting particular educational or vocational pursuits. Personal goals may be defined as a person’s intentions to engage in a particular activity (e.g., to pursue a given academic major) or to attain a certain level of performance (e.g., to receive an A in a particular course).

In SCCT, interests in career-relevant activities are seen as the outgrowth of self-efficacy and outcome expectations. Interests, along with self-efficacy and outcome expectations, incline people to set and pursue particular academic and career goals. Success (or failure) in the goal pursuit process then serves as a source of performance feedback, helping to revise or stabilize self-efficacy and outcome expectations in a continuous loop. SCCT also incorporates a wide array of additional factors (e.g., abilities, culture, social supports, and barriers) that have been found to influence career development, highlighting the central paths through which individual, behavioral, and environmental factors jointly determine academic and career outcomes.


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