Theories of human behavior differ in their conceptions of human nature and what they regard as the basic determinants and mechanisms governing self-development, adaptation, and change. Social cognitive theory is rooted in an agentic perspective. To be an agent is to influence one’s own functioning and events that affect one’s life. In this view people are contributors to their life circumstances, not just products of them.
Conceptions Of Human Behavior
Human behavior has often been explained in terms of unidirectional causation. In the environmental deterministic view, behavior is shaped and controlled by environmental forces. In the dispositional deterministic view, behavior is driven by internal drives and dispositions. Social cognitive theory explains human functioning in terms of triadic reciprocal determination. In this transactional view of self and society, personal factors in the form of cognitive, emotional, and biological processes, the way one behaves, and environmental forces all operate as interacting determinants that influence each other. Individuals are characterized within this theoretical perspective in terms of a number of basic capabilities, which are reviewed next.
Humans are endowed with an extraordinary capacity for symbolization that provides them with a powerful tool for comprehending their environment and altering it in ways that touch virtually every aspect of their lives. Most environmental influences operate through cognitive processes. Cognitive factors partly determine which environmental events will be observed, what meaning will be conferred on them, whether they leave any lasting effects, what emotional impact and motivating power they will have, and how the information they convey will be organized for future use. The remarkable flexibility of symbolization enables people to create ideas that transcend their sensory experiences. Through the medium of symbols they can communicate with others at any distance in time and space. With the aid of symbols, people give structure, meaning, and continuity to their lives.
Learning From Models
There are two basic modes of learning. People learn by experiencing the effects of their actions, and through the power of social modeling. Direct experience is a tough teacher. Trial-and-error learning is not only an exceedingly tedious process, but a hazardous one when mistakes have costly or injurious consequences. Moreover, the constraints of time, resources, and mobility impose severe limits on the situations and activities that can be directly explored for the acquisition of new knowledge. Fortunately, this process can be cut short by social modeling. Humans have an advanced capacity for observational learning that enables them to expand their knowledge and competencies rapidly through the information conveyed by a rich variety of models (Bandura 1986; Rosenthal & Zimmerman 1978).
Modeling is not just response mimicry as commonly believed. Social modeling operates at a higher level of learning. Modeled judgments and actions may differ in specific content while embodying the same principle. For example, modeled speech may vary in content but have the same underlying structure, as in the passive voice, e.g., “The dog was petted,” “The window was opened.” Once observers extract the guiding principle underlying the modeled examples, they can use it to generate a variety of sentences in the passive voice that go beyond those they have heard. Abstract modeling provides the means for generative and innovative behavior.
Much of the vicarious learning is based on the models in one’s immediate environment. However, in contemporary society, ideas, values, belief systems, and lifestyles are socially transmitted via the extensive modeling in the symbolic environment. This enables people to transcend the confines of their lived environment. With the revolutionary advances in communications technology, lifestyles are now being modeled and rapidly diffused worldwide. A major importance of symbolic modeling lies in its tremendous reach, speed, and multiplicative power. Unlike learning by doing, which requires shaping the actions of each individual through repeated consequences, in vicarious learning a single model can transmit new ways of thinking and behaving simultaneously to vast populations in widely dispersed locales.
The models upon whom people pattern their behavior come in diverse forms and sources. Some involve behavioral modeling in informal everyday activities or formally structured social arrangements. The salient symbolic modeling through the electronic media pervades people’s daily lives. Verbal modeling is another source of instructive and inspirational exemplars. In this mode of symbolic modeling, values, lifestyles, and guides for daily living are personalized in the biographies of idealized exemplars.
Social modeling serves diverse functions in promoting personal and social change. With regard to its instructive function, models serve as transmitters of knowledge, competencies, values, cognitive skills, and new styles of behavior. In addition to cultivating new competencies, modeling influences can alter motivation, emotional dispositions, and value systems. Seeing others achieve desired outcomes by their efforts can instill motivating outcome expectations in observers that they can secure similar benefits for comparable performances; seeing others punished for engaging in certain activities can instill negative outcome expectations that serve as disincentives for similar activities. Observers can also acquire lasting attitudes and emotional dispositions toward persons, places, or things that have been associated with modeled fears, likes, and dislikes.
The actions of models can also serve as social prompts that activate, channel, and support previously learned behavior. Thus, the types of models that prevail within a social milieu partly determine which human qualities, from among many alternatives, are selectively encouraged. Finally, people’s images of social reality and the structure and ideological orientations of societies are heavily influenced by the symbolic modeling in the mass media (Gerbner et al. 2002).
Symbolic modeling usually serves as the principal conveyer of innovations to widely dispersed areas, especially in early phases of diffusion. Modeling instructs people in new ideas and social practices and designates their functional value (Bandura 1986). People are linked, not only directly by personal relationships. Because acquaintanceships overlap different network clusters, people become linked to each other indirectly by interconnected ties. These multilinked social networks provide diffusion paths for the spread of new ideas, lifestyle patterns, and social practices (Rogers & Kincaid 1981; Granovetter 1983; Bandura 2006b).
Anticipating Consequences Of Behaviors
Through forethought people set themselves goals and anticipate likely outcomes of prospective actions to guide and motivate their efforts. Behavior patterns that produce positive outcomes are readily adopted and used, whereas those that bring unrewarding or punishing outcomes are generally discarded. But external consequences are not the only kind of outcomes that influence human behavior. As previously noted, people profit from the successes and mistakes of others as well as from their own experiences. Because outcomes exert their influence through forethought, they have little or no impact until people discover how outcomes are linked to actions in one’s environment. The ability to bring anticipated outcomes to bear on current activities promotes purposeful and foresightful behavior. When projected over a long time course on matters of value, a forethoughtful perspective provides direction, coherence, and meaning to one’s life.
People are not only planners and forethinkers. They are also self-regulators. They construct standards of merit and ethical conduct and regulate their motivation and behavior by the consequences they apply to themselves. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and they refrain from behaving in ways that violate their standards because such conduct gives rise to self-criticism.
Human behavior is governed by the interplay of extrinsic and self-evaluative consequences. External outcomes are most likely to wield influence when they are compatible with selfevaluative ones. Under conditions in which the external support and reward for given activities are minimal or lacking, individuals have to sustain their efforts largely through self-encouragement. People experience conflicts of outcomes when they are socially punished for activities they value highly. Principled dissenters and nonconformists often find themselves in such predicaments. The relative strength of self-approval and external censure determine whether the courses of action will be pursued or abandoned. There are individuals, however, whose sense of self-worth is so strongly invested in certain convictions that they will submit to prolonged maltreatment rather than accede to what they regard as unjust or immoral.
People commonly experience conflicts in which they gain material and social benefits for activities that violate their standards. These are conditions under which people may engage in the personally devalued activities but preserve their sense of self-worth. They do so by selective disengagement of moral self-sanctions from their conduct (Bandura 1999). They use worthy ends to justify detrimental means. They sanitize the practices with euphemistic language that makes them personally and socially acceptable. They absolve themselves of accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility. They disregard, minimize, or dispute the adverse effects of their conduct. And they devalue and blame those who suffer the adverse effects for bringing the misery on themselves.
Belief In Efficacy
People are not only agents of action. They are self-examiners of their own functioning. They reflect on their personal efficacy, the soundness of their thoughts and actions, the meaning of their pursuits, and make corrective adjustments if necessary. The metacognitive capability to reflect upon oneself and the adequacy of one’s thoughts and actions is the most distinctly human core property of agency.
Among the types of thoughts that affect human self-development, adaptation, and change, none is more central or pervasive than people’s beliefs in their ability to influence events that affect their lives. This core belief in one’s efficacy is the foundation of human motivation, performance accomplishments, and emotional well-being. Unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to undertake activities, or to persevere in the face of difficulties. Whatever other factors serve as guides, and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one has the power to effect changes by one’s actions.
Efficacy beliefs operate through their impact on cognitive, motivational, affective, and decisional processes. Such beliefs affect whether individuals think optimistically or pessimistically, in self-enhancing or self-debilitating ways. They affect people’s goals and aspirations, how well they motivate themselves, and their perseverance in the face of difficulties and adversity. Efficacy beliefs also shape people’s outcome expectations – whether they expect their efforts to produce favorable outcomes or adverse ones.
In addition, efficacy beliefs determine how opportunities and impediments are viewed. People of low efficacy are easily convinced of the futility of effort in the face of difficulties. They quickly give up trying. Those of high efficacy view impediments as surmountable by improvement of self-regulatory skills and perseverant effort. They stay the course in the face of difficulties and remain resilient to adversity. Moreover, efficacy beliefs affect the quality of emotional life and vulnerability to stress and depression. And last, but not least, efficacy beliefs determine the choices people make at important decisional points. A factor that influences choice behavior can profoundly affect the courses lives take. This is because the social influences operating in the selected environments continue to promote certain competencies, values, and lifestyles. By choosing their environments people can have a hand in what they become.
Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency: individual, proxy, and collective. They are rooted in belief in one’s efficacy to effect changes by one’s actions. In personal agency exercised individually, people bring their influence to bear on their own functioning and on environmental events over which they can wield some influence. However, in many spheres of functioning, people do not have direct control over conditions that affect their lives. They exercise proxy agency by influencing others who have the resources, knowledge, and means to act on their behalf to secure the outcomes they desire. Children turn to their parents to get what they want, marital partners to their spouses, employees to their unions, and the general public to their legislative representatives. People do not live their lives in individual autonomy. Many of the things they seek are achievable only by working together through interdependent effort. In the exercise of collective agency, they pool their knowledge, skills, and resources, and act in concert to shape their future. The effective management of everyday life requires an agentic blend of these three different forms of agency.
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