The Legend of Dr. Albert Bandura


Dr. Albert Bandura has been one of the foremost influential thinkers and researchers in Psychology since his career began in the mid-1950’s. His work with Social Learning Theory, Social Cognitive Theory, Self-Efficacy, and the related clinical applications with Guided Mastery have been seminal to our understanding of everything from how people learn, to the Psychology of Media and media’s affects on behavior, to a basic understanding of cognitive processes, to cognitive-behavioral therapies. Now, at age 93, he continues to publish a few articles a year and has turned his focus to using the theoretical implications of his research to help younger people do what their elders have not: to heal this world  (<– this link, and the children featured on the Young Voices for the Planet are amazing!).

As a preface to this conversation I’d like to be candid about a few things. Over  more than 22,000 miles of travel on this journey, I have reached out to many scholars in Psychology and agonized endlessly about who might consent to meeting with me. The thing is, Psychologists, especially the influential ones, tend to be busy. Crazy, intensively busy. They have multiple collaborations pending, data to be analyzed, new experiments in the works. They have grant deadlines, upcoming conferences, and a laundry list of administrative and logistical tasks amounting each week. In research the most precious commodity is time.

And here I am. This stranger from a little known public university in northern New Jersey. This guy requesting the indulgence of time from people who have little or none to spare. I knew that each request was a long shot and that each opportunity I had to record a voice, a set of stories that helped to birth modern Psychology, was a treasure. I have reached out to many amazing people and been astounded at the generosity of these scholars to give their time and attention in support of this project — nearly 40 conversations recorded and another dozen in the works! Many have also declined and while it is totally understandable, it also saddens me to have missed the opportunity to capture their voices for this project. And even sadder, during this journey some amazing Psychologists have died before I made my way to them. Their deaths are great losses to their families, their close colleagues, and to all those who never got the chance to hear them and learn from them.

I reached out to Dr. Bandura with little hope of successfully reaching him. I’ve since learned  that he reads all of the communications sent his way — hundreds of requests each week! Dr. Bandura is 93 years old and he didn’t know me. He’s done countless interviews, written his own autobiographical essay, been the subject of multiple biographers. He didn’t need to meet with me nor to offer his time, his stories, his support to this project. He didn’t need to do this, but he did. And so, it is with great pleasure that I share with you some tidbits, excerpts, and reflections from my conversations with Dr. Albert Bandura, the David Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University.

Dr. Bandura introduces himself:

He is one of the few endowed chairs I’ve met who was given an actual chair — a heavy wooden piece with an attached plaque specifying the position and its recipient — to serve in commemoration of the honor.  The  historian in me also appreciates his recognition of the important people (Drs. Jordan and Terman) who structured Stanford Psychology to enable his career and chair he now occupies.

Past biographical materials have provided some detail about Dr. Bandura’s modest childhood in Mundare, Canada. To get us started, he recalled his parents and their immigration to Mundare from eastern Europe:

I’m not sure how common it was at that time and place, but Albert’s father, Joseph Bandura, seems to have been a rather audacious young man. As teenager he left Krakow to seek his fortunes in Canada. He arrives in Edmonton and makes his way to Mundare and the tiny Ukrainian settlement they had formed. He would have had no or limited Ukrainian language training, no family in Mundare to speak of, and money for little more than his passage. However, he was willing to work. He labored on the Transcanadian railway and earned enough to buy a homestead. With the other families who settled the area, they constructed the town, worked the land to arable soil, and he and his wife raised a family.  The Ukrainian spirit of the town was strong and Dr. Bandura recalled an anecdote from WWII in which the townspeople attempted to raise money for Messerschmitt (the company that manufactured airplanes for the Nazi military). In that homesteader, immigrant family climate is where Albert Bandura was born, back in 1925.

In this next excerpt, Dr. Bandura recalls some of his early life:

The town had a one-room schoolhouse and a few teachers trying to manage the education of students from those just starting to the those needing high school. Most of the students were from farming families and were likely to spend their life farming after graduation. For those with an interest, there was a fairly broad curriculum of topics available: English, trigonometry, physics, algebra  — limited only by the willingness of teachers and students to work the lessons from the available textbooks. Some courses, like French, Albert took in correspondence. He and the other students would complete paper and pencil tasks for grammar and vocabulary during the week, then tune in to the radio broadcast from Quebec to sing along with the songs and hear the language spoken!

Clearly there were also difficult times. Young Albert experienced the death of his older brother, whom he greatly admired. As a result, Albert’s parents placed him with his sister, Rose, for a while and to get away from some of this tragic circumstance. Rose is an important part of Albert’s early influences: she was the one sibling who went into teaching and, consequently had more involvement with higher education and academics.

The decision to go to college was a big one. Most of the young people of Mundare did not attend college — rather they sought out their livelihood on the farms. College was expensive, it was far away, and the decision to make a go of it was a big one. Here Dr.  Bandura describes at least one reason for that decision:

I’ll ask you to recall Dr. Bandura’s introduction and his description of Dr. Jordan (first president of Stanford University and the name of the endowed chair granted to Bandura for his distinguished work). As Dr. Bandura recalled in his intro, one of Dr. Jordan’s acts as president was to recruit Dr. Lewis Terman to Stanford University from Indiana and to chair the new Stanford Psychology program. This helped Dr. Terman to expand his own scholarly efforts and set to widely assessing the intelligence test he published: the Stanford-Binet (Stanford for the University and Binet for the French scientist who developed the earlier version of this type of assessment). From Stanford University, Dr. Terman published the Stanford-Binet intelligence assessment and soon it was widely adopted in schools to identify gifted children. Now think about this: young Albert was among those tested in Canada for IQ, undoubtedly with Dr. Terman’s Stanford-Binet test. Albert must have tested highly such that he was noticed by the school officials. The principle then communicated those results to Albert’s parents and encouraged them to send him to college. Of course, Albert did attend college, and eventually he went into Psychology and joined the faculty at Stanford where he rose to great esteem. Of course, this means that an application of Dr. Terman’s scholarship might have helped launch the academic involvement of Dr. Bandura. And that for Terman to have done so was initiated by an invitation from Dr. Jordan for Terman to go to Stanford in the first place.  Nothing like unexpected consequences and serendipity when it comes to the making of academic careers!

In any case, Albert was identified as a strong candidate for attending university. His mother laid out the options as she saw them with some rather stark and unattractive futures or to attend college. With the approval of his parents, the support of his sister Rose, Albert would attend college. He applied and became a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada.

But how did Albert end up in Psychology? He describes his journey to Psychology in this next excerpt:

What if Philosophy offered the early morning course instead of Psychology? Or Physics? Again, between a little serendipity and an eager student, Albert enrolled in an early morning Psychology course as befitted this carpool he needed to rely on to get to campus. Why was he in a carpool? Because he came to UBC with little money and the carpool was much nicer than hours sitting on a bus each day. And why was he so far from campus to begin with? Because he had arranged modest living arrangements far from campus with the parents of one of his sister’s friends. He takes Psychology and he loves it! He loves the complexity and he loves its breadth as a core science,  drawing on many other sciences.

Albert graduates from UBC in 1949, winner of the Jean Bolocan prize that is awarded to the top Psychology student of that department! He goes to attend the University of Iowa for graduate school  from the urging of his academic advisor who is aware of the incredible influence of Clark Hull on the field, and this was Hull’s department. And, of course, Albert does well at University of Iowa. After a bit of sorting out whether Albert should be in the Clinical or Experimental program,  he sets to working with Dr. Benton, chair of the Clinical track, and supports himself through carpentry projects and working for the faculty.   Dr. Bandura graduates with a degree in Clinical Psychology, completes a 1-year post-doc in at a Counseling Center in Wichita, then accepts his first faculty position in 1953 at Stanford University.

Dr. Bandura recalled his first book and his early research on the origins of delinquent behavior in children:

These delinquent young boys were modeling their fathers and the wealth of stimuli presented to them from boxing matches and other televised violence demonstrating aggressiveness. Through a series of interviews with fathers, mothers, and sons, an idea started to emerge suggesting the importance of social modeling to the behaviors of these children. These findings were highly suggestive, but they were correlational and much more work would be done.

This early work provided the foundation for what came to be known as the Bobo doll studies.  As a fan of minutia and weird Psychological trivia, one would note that the earlier research in Dr. Bandura’s career used a small doll that might be moved/replaced from its place on top of a box. After some discussion, Dr. Bandura and his lab sought out something larger and more dramatic, to demonstrate the social modeling in his research. Roly-poly toys, with rounded and weighted bottoms that to allow them to pop right back to upright after being swatted, have a long history. The first versions of this toy are dated to nearly 5,000 years ago from Chinese makers. In the early 1960’s, this toy was updated to an inflatable 46″ (117 cm) clown-faced version of the roly-poly, bop-doll named “Bobo” due to its clown-painted face. Bobo was a big, obvious object; he could take a lickin’ and pop back to normal; and, importantly, he could be the focus of the aggression experiments undertaken by Dr. Bandura in the 1960’s.

Dr. Bandura recalls the Bobo doll experiments in this excerpt:

Bobo doll: the toy that launched a thousand publications! As described by Dr. Bandura, there is a lot of nuance and care taken in this research. Children were modeling the behaviors, the words, and the approach of the models — more so if the model was of the same gender as the child. They modeled the aggressive acts if shown via television, if shown through a window, and if shown in an animated format. Children with delinquent backgrounds and teacher-noted aggression were just as likely to model the violent acts as children without such tendencies.

As Dr. Bandura noted, during the 1960’s television had been widely adopted and television networks were employing gratuitous violence and sex to draw in audiences — after all to this point the Freudian approach and its emphasis on thanatos (death) and libidos (sex)  drives as essential parts of human nature were commonly accepted, albeit untested. Dr. Bandura’s research demonstrated a causal relationship between observation of a behavior and its instantiation and demonstrated how television might motivate these  kinds of behaviors in children. There was a public response and the United States senate held hearings on the potential negative influences of irresponsible broadcast media which included an invitation for Dr. Bandura to testify.

Broadcast media fought back. They sought to discredit Dr. Bandura and his research using their own experts, and there was a televised movie intended to vilify a Bandura-like researcher. Dr. Bandura was still new in his career and the national attention was mounting. In this excerpt he recalls the response from his chairperson, Dr. Robert Sears, and the college dean at Stanford as his research gained this public attention:

One must applaud Stanford University and its representatives at that time for their willingness to stand behind Dr. Bandura. This was the start of his career, but there was much more to come! From  these studies,  Dr. Bandura integrated his technique into clinical applications and helped people overcome phobias and anxiety. From their he turned his attention to personal agency  and how social modeling and its principles could improve self-efficacy. In a career that has (thus far) spanned more than 60 years there are many more studies and many more stories.

I look  forward to sharing more of the thoughts, reflections, and the advancing ideas from Dr. Bandura in the book!

For now, I recommend browsing the many publications of Dr. Bandura collected and  available here:


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