Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura was born in 1925 in a small town in northern Alberta, Canada. He was the youngest of six children and the only son. The local schools he attended were very short of teachers, so the young students had to be self-directed in their learning. This may have been where the young Bandura began to learn what would become a central theme in his later research on human development and functioning, that of self-directedness, or agency. Bandura earned his B.A. in psychology at the University of British Columbia and his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. After receiving his doctoral degree in 1952, under the direction of Arthur Benton, he joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology at Stanford University where he has spent his entire professional career.

Early Social Learning Theory: The Importance of Observational Learning

Albert Bandura is one of the founders of behaviorally-oriented approaches to behavior change, including behaviorally-oriented psychotherapy. The psychody-namic drive model dominated the field of psychotherapy when he began his academic career, so his early work was met with skepticism and resistance from the established psychotherapy community. Beginning with his landmark 1963 book Social Learning and Personality Development, coauthored with R. Walters, he proposed a learning model based on the important role of observational learning and the consequences of behavior. He then began a major program of research focusing in particular on the role of observational learning (also known as imitation or modeling) on the behavior of children.

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Bandura soon applied his work to the treatment of adults with phobias, first snake phobia and later the broader family of agoraphobias. The treatment that evolved was based on the idea of guided mastery and designed to decrease fears by gradually increasing the client’s sense of confidence or mastery in the behavioral domain in question. This guided mastery involved successful exposures to the feared stimuli through modeling, for example, of the therapist successfully engaging in the feared behavior, along with exposure to a graded series of “approach” tasks.

The Emergence of Self-Efficacy

While evaluating these guided mastery treatments, Bandura found that they often generalized to other domains of behavior. For example, clients successfully treated for an animal phobia often showed gains in social confidence and public speaking confidence. Bandura concluded that the success of the treatment was actually the result of increased self-efficacy expectations (i.e., an increased sense of confidence in one’s own behavioral competencies) with respect to the target behavior (and often other domains of behavior). In the 1970s he proposed a theory of behavior change with self-efficacy as the underlying causal mechanism. He theorized that psychological treatments worked because and to the extent that they were successful in increasing clients’ perceptions of self-efficacy with respect to target behaviors. Based on the assumption of self-efficacy as the underlying mechanism of change, the counselor could design interventions designed to increase self-efficacy expectations.

Bandura noted in his 1977 book, Social Learning Theory, that perceived self-efficacy refers to “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (p. 3). Higher levels of self-efficacy are postulated to lead to “approach” rather than “avoidance” behavior, to better performance of enacted behaviors, and to persistence in the face of obstacles and disconfirming experiences. Bandura’s theory identifies four sources of efficacy information that both lead to the initial development of efficacy expectations and can be used to increase them: performance accomplishments, vicarious learning (modeling), emotional arousal (anxiety), and social persuasion and encouragement.

The concept of self-efficacy expectations is now widely used to develop counseling interventions to help with a variety of types of problems, including low social confidence, difficulties in educational and career decision making, development and maintenance of healthy behaviors, and avoidance of risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse and unsafe sexual behaviors. In adolescents, perceived self-efficacy for affect regulation has been found to be related to higher self-efficacy in managing academic development and resisting pressure to engage in antisocial behaviors. Perceived coping self-efficacy also has been found to be related to recovery from traumatic experiences such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and sexual and criminal assaults. Self-efficacy concepts have been used to facilitate exercise programs in the elderly, and to assist people with disabilities, female offenders, and battered women. Such interventions require, in essence, that the counselor design a program including elements of the four sources of efficacy information—new performance accomplishments (successes), modeling of new behaviors, anxiety management, and verbal persuasion, encouragement, and social support.

Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective

As his work evolved, Bandura expanded his focus to what he called social cognitive theory. This represents Bandura’s attempt to understand the core element of what it means to be human, which for Bandura is the quality of human agency (i.e., the capacity to exercise control over the quality and directions of one’s life).

There are four features of agency—intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness.

Intentionality is the formulation of plans for future action. Intentions are action plans directed toward some future desired goals. In some situations, intentions must involve a collective or community if collective agency is to be served. Forethought is the anticipation of future events—projected goals toward which individuals guide their behavior and the anticipated outcomes of their behavior. These can also be called outcome expectations or incentives.

Self-reactiveness is individuals’ capacity to monitor and modify their behavior to serve goals and desired outcomes. Self-reflectiveness involves self-observation and self-examination, but those alone are insufficient. Plans require action in order to be realized. Self-reflectiveness also requires changes in behavior based on the self-observations. The individual’s self-efficacy beliefs are the most important basis for determining whether the individual will engage in the effective self-regulation of behavior.

Bandura and others are now applying social cognitive theory, including these four central elements, to a wide range of individual and societal issues that require agentic responses for adaptive functioning and adjustment. In addition, Bandura has written that the concept of agency can be applied beyond personal agency to agency by proxy and collective agency. Agency by proxy occurs when we rely on others to act in agentic ways to help us meet our goals. Collective agency occurs when we rely on socially coordinated and interdependent actions. Central to collective agency is collective efficacy, essentially the shared belief that a group can work together to achieve its goals. Bandura has discussed the usefulness of collective efficacy in understanding the effective functioning of the family unit, educational systems, business organizations, athletic teams, the military, and political systems.

Awards and Honors

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of Albert Bandura’s work on the field of psychology in general and counseling in particular. His work on collective efficacy is now influencing fields such as political science, economics, and business. Not surprisingly, Bandura has received much recognition and many honors in his career. He has been elected president of the American Psychological Association and Western Psychological Association, and honorary president of the Canadian Psychological Association. He has been awarded the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award of the American Psychological Association, the William James Award of the American Psychological Society, the James McKeen Cattell Award for Distinguished Achievement in Psychological Science from the American Psychological Society, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and, most recently, the Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Science of Psychology from the American Psychological Foundation. He is the author of nine books and hundreds of journal articles and has served on the editorial boards of more than 30 journals. He continues to publish actively.


  1. Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
  4. Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 75-78.
  5. Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.
  6. Bandura, A. (2001). Swimming against the mainstream: The early years in chilly waters. In W. T. Donohue, D. A. Henderson, S. C. Hayes, J. E. Fisher, & L. J. Hayes (Eds.), A history of the behavioral therapies: Founders’ personal histories. Reno, NV: Context Press.
  7. Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social learning theory and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

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