Social cognitive theory – so much more than Bobo-bashing!


Most students and teachers of psychology are familiar with Bandura, Ross & Ross’s classic study into the role of social modelling in aggression*  It showed that children who observed aggressive acts committed by adults in one setting would, through play, reproduce those acts in another setting when the adult role model was absent. Bandura extended this social learning model in the 1980s into what is now a complex and comprehensive social cognitive theory, further developing and exploring concepts underpinning social behaviour: performance feedback, modelling, and – most importantly of all – moral disengagement.

Moral disengagement is the process by which we disengage our moral self in order to distance ourselves from our actions. It can be seen in soldiers who need to disconnect themselves from their actions in order to live with themselves, and in us every time we buy our food in non-recyclable plastic packaging. The decision to go to war in a just cause can be a moral one, but it still involves killing fellow human beings. The desire for conveniently packaged food is an understandable one, but it still involves environmentally degrading our planet.

Bandura uses social cognitive theory to investigate our moral disengagement from  harmful activities. He applies it particularly effectively to drone warfare and to the arms trade. In class I use it to explain how we dehumanise the homeless in order to ignore homelessness.

For Bandura, it is not enough to explain moral disengagement.  He believes that if we can understand the processes underlying it, then we can begin to change them, and this is why he promotes social change through locally-distributed films in Africa, Asia and South America, making the abstract explanations of social cognitive theory concrete to people’s lives. Nearer home, we need to use storytelling and media to keep advertising the environmental dangers of uncontrolled consumption. Psychology has a vital role in social change as well as social explanation, for “As a society, we enjoy the benefits left by those before us who collectively worked for social changes that improved our lives. Our own collective efficacy will determine whether we pass on a habitable planet to our grandchildren and future generations.” (Bandura, 2009

*For those of you who have already bought our book (thank you!), the description of the study design has been changed from a matched pairs to a ‘matched triads’ as the children were matched by measured levels of aggression across the three experimental groups.  The effect is the same, to control this variable. We will publish this change in an updated edition in the future.

Research from Psychology Sorted: Social Identity Theory

sitHow we develop our social identity is still a hot topic today, and for those of you studying the effect of technologies, especially social media, on social identity, there is a developing literature on the subject.  But we should start with the classic minimal groups paradigm from Tajfel (1971), found in our new book Psychology Sorted, as it is still so relevant today.

The predominant 1960s theory of social identity formation came from Sherif et al.’s (1961) study which led to the development of his 1966 realistic conflict theory that competition for scarce resources is the foundation for group (social) identity, and also one cause of conflict. Think of the worldwide competition for water and oil on a large scale and maybe sporting competitions on a smaller scale. Why do you think that schools have ‘houses’, ‘sporting colours’, ‘house badges’?

However, Tajfel’s research contradicted this, demonstrating that only minimal conditions were necessary for group identity to form: his experiment randomly allocated schoolboys to two groups.  The boys thought they had been allocated their group according to their preference for a painting by either Klee or Kandinsky, but this was a deception and the allocation was random. This perception of belonging to a certain group was enough for boys to show in-group favouritism when allocating virtual money via a complex matrix of rules.  The minimal groups paradigm formed the basis of Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory, which remains a powerful explanation of in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination.

The three sequential steps Tajfel & Turner (1979) deemed necessary for social identity to form are:

  • social categorisation – we understand that people (and things) can be grouped
  • social identification – we identify with a group
  • social comparison – we compare ourselves favourably with another group

Social comparison underlies stereotyping, gang fights (though these can also be seen as competition for scarce resources), between-class competitions, girl/boy competition, online identities…how many more can you think of?

Tajfel’s theory can be used extensively in the curriculum, from his lab experiments in the 1970s (research methods), to an argument for the formation of stereotypes (sociocultural approach), to an explanation of how competition and maybe even conflict is generated in human relationships, to how images are cultivated socially on Snapchat, Instagram and (amongst us oldies) Facebook for cognitive psychology.  This is an example of a classic theory that can be easily accessed through Psychology Sorted.

Research from Psychology Sorted: Poverty and childhood cognitive development – a biological approach.

This is the first in a series of posts using research directly from our new bookpoverty3349068_640 Psychology Sorted.  The study we’re looking at today is Luby et al. (2013) on how children’s brain development and therefore their cognitive development are affected by poverty. The researchers found that exposure to poverty in early childhood impacts cognitive development by school age. However, the effect is mediated positively by good caregiving and negatively by stressful life events.

This is highly relevant in light of reports from the UK, USA and  South-East Asia of the large, and in some cases growing, number of children living in poverty.  This research can be used as an example of both localization and neuroplasticity within the Biological Approach,  and to illustrate the influence of poverty/socio-economic status on cognitive development, for those studying the Developmental Psychology option.

This was a longitudinal study of 145 children from a sample of children already enrolled in a 10-year study of preschool depression who, prior to being scanned by MRI,  had undergone regular testing.  Once a year (for a duration of 3-6 years) the children had taken part in a series of tests aimed at measuring their cognitive, emotional and social aptitudes. The involvement of significant adults in their lives was also recorded (e.g. how close they were to their caregivers) as well as the occurrence of any negative and stressful events in their lives. Once this collection of information had been amassed, each child underwent two MRI scans – one of the whole brain and one of the hippocampus and amygdala only. This study can therefore also act as an example of the use of brain-imaging technology as a technique used to study the brain in relation to behaviour.

Both the hippocampus and the amygdala showed less white and grey matter in the MRI scans of the poorer children in this study, with a positive correlation between income/needs being met and brain volume. While both the hippocampus and amygdala showed less development in poverty-affected children the researchers found that in cases where the child experienced positive care there was less negative effect on the hippocampus. Difficult and stressful life events only affected the left hippocampus.

Of course, students and teachers need to evaluate the use of this research as well: how valid is the study as an illustration of both localization and neuroplasticity? This was a relatively small sample of pre-schoolchildren from the USA who exhibited symptoms of depression.  Moreover, attempting to measure complex variables (e.g. the nature of caregiving and behavioural responses) is beset with difficulties as these variables are not exact and may lack construct validity.  Nonetheless, there was triangulation of methods, with the background data from cognitive testing providing a rich backdrop for the results of the scans, and this research is supported by other studies, such as that by Duval et al. (2017). 

Encourage your student to find and read media and academic examples of evidence and counter-evidence, and to engage in critical thinking and evaluation. For example, some poor families often cannot afford pre-school kindergartens for their children, who may be raised to some extent in isolation as well as in poverty.  This could be a confounding variable. Are there others? The student who is thinking like this is well on the way to writing a good argumentative essay on the effects of poverty on childhood cognitive development.

Fun Bowlby’s theory revision game!

It’s that time of year (January – yuck! to put it bluntly) when my students are about to embark on mock exams. How nice for them, just after Christmas/Hannukah/Winter Solstice celebrations. But, as I tell them, I don’t schedule these things, don’t blame me, so instead of sinking into gloom, I get them up on their feet, moving about the room and staring at each others’ backs. Erm, why? Because the following is a fun (!) revision game which will get them back into Bowlby.

Easy-peasy instructions:

1 Teacher cuts out and copies each of the Bowlby questions and answers (see below).

2 Each student is given one question from the list below. For a small group, give them two questions each. Each student also has the answer to someone else’s question stuck to their back (make sure they haven’t got the answer to their own question stuck to their back – doh!)

3 Having read their questions, the students walk around the room reading the various answers on the other students’ backs. When they think they have found the answer to their question they rip the answer off the back of their fellow student (gently: watch that pricey cashmere cardigan), hold it aloft and say ‘I’m a genius!’ And then we find out if they actually are when questions and answers are compared.

Here are the questions and answers for the Bowlby-answers-on-backs game:

What side of one of the oldest debates in Psychology does Bowlby’s theory give support to?


What is separation anxiety?

The fear of being left alone by your primary care-giver.

What did Bowlby call the schematic representations of the world that a child develops?

Internal working model.

What is interactional synchrony?

When parent and child match each other’s gestures.

What is maternal deprivation theory?

When a child is prevented from developing a bond with its mother.

How does the attachment figure act as a secure base for the child?

By providing security and protection for the child so that they are confident to explore the world.

What is a primary attachment figure?

The main carer for the child; the person who cares for the child physically and emotionally.

What social signals (‘releasers’) does a baby produce?

Smiling, babbling, grasping and crying.

What wider theory is Bowlby’s theory based on?

Evolutionary theory.

What did Bowlby think was a basic biological need?

A close relationship between the child and the mother.

What is stranger anxiety?

The child’s response when an unfamiliar person tries to communicate with them.

See the source image




Cognitive Dissonance theory explains a lot.

cigarettes-3564364_640Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957, and, for an old-ish theory is in very good health today.  Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when trying to reconcile our beliefs with our actions and cognitive dissonance theory explains how we try and reduce this.

An excellent example to illustrate this is teenage smoking.  We all have the clear evidence that smoking leads to heart disease and/or lung cancer in the majority of people who smoke.  At the very least it reduces lung function and gives you a hacking cough and some breathlessness, especially if you catch a cold or have a chest infection.  This is often when most people try their hardest to give up.  Yet 19% of UK adults smoke, and 40% of these began smoking before they were 16.  (UK Cancer Research statistics, 2017). So how do teenagers deal with the cognitive dissonance created by smoking?

Firstly, fewer teenagers smoke now than ever before.  So by not starting, they are avoiding cognitive dissonance in that their actions mirror their beliefs – they are what is called ‘consonant’.  Others try and give up, and while the dangers of ‘vaping’ remain fairly unknown, this is a viable alternative that allows them to argue that the tar, and not the nicotine addiction is the problem, and they are solving that.  Those who are already too addicted to give up have to change their beliefs, as the discomfort of knowing that you are negatively impacting your health becomes unbearable.

They do this through statements like: ‘While I’m young and doing sports, the impact will be minimal, and I’ll give up when I get older.  Therefore it won’t affect me.’  Or they rationalise that they have never had a cough in their life and can still run and play sports better than most adolescents their age.  Or they admit that they would like to give up, but it’s just too difficult at the moment, as they’re under a lot of stress, but will definitely do it later.

The point at which teenagers and young people who smoke give up is when they cannot ignore their underlying beliefs and the facts any longer.  This usually happens when someone close to them dies of a smoking-related disease or is told by their doctor to give up before they do die of it.  Sometimes, the sociocultural approach can explain smoking or non-smoking behaviour: as friendships change, the teenager may find him/herself socialising largely with a non-smoking group, and the attractions of smoking become less.  The cognitive dissonance then becomes too large to ignore as friends dismiss your arguments and rationalisations to point out the harm you are doing yourself.

Cognitive dissonance theory can explain our behaviour while (not) dieting, or when feeling a dislike for a certain person, or even when choosing a political party to support.  We show a confirmation bias, by selectively attending to information that supports our decision, and closing our ears to dissenting voices.

Coming soon – ‘Psychology Sorted’, the book!

Hi Psychology teachers from all over the world! Yes, I know that summer is beckoning but wouldn’t you like a sneaky peak at a BRAND NEW RESOURCE that is due to be out around October 1st? Written by Laura Swash and Claire Neeson, this resource will solve all those pesky teaching dilemmas such as: ‘Which studies should I use for each topic and how can I re-use them to create less bulk for the students to learn?  How can I find a streamlined, easy, cross-referenced resource that’s user-friendly (for me and my students)?  What can I use for both teaching AND revision?’ Here is a sample for you to taste, to get the ‘flavour’ of what we’re doing. Add us to your school shopping list: #1 Order ‘Psychology Sorted’ next term.  Sorted!

Sample_Section 1_Bio. updated

Bio KS1 Fisher et al_2005

Holiday Reading for all

kindle-381242_640Psychology teachers and students alike must by now either be on holiday, or be desperately looking forward to being on holiday.  Some lighter reading recommendations (with links to summaries or reviews) for those who just can’t get enough psychology are:

Alexandra Horowitz – On Looking  – 12 stories of walking through a city with different experts (one being a dog!).This is really good for TOK as well as a good discussion on schema creation.

Robert M. Sapolsky – Behave  and Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers – why we do what we do, and why zebras don’t.  Great insight and humorous asides in both.

Ethan Watters – Crazy like US – the McDonaldization of psychiatry.  Very easy, historical view of how typically Western conceptions of mental illness have been exported to the rest of the world, and the effects of this.

Lisa Genova – Still Alice – fiction, but could so easily be fact, about a 50 year old female professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Told from her perspective.  Lisa Genova has written two other fictional accounts relevant to psychology, but this is (in my opinion) far and away the best.  Heartbreaking.

Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Christopher is on the autistic spectrum in his behaviour, and perceives the world entirely logically, like his favourite detective Sherlock Homes.  When a neighbour’s dog is killed, he sets out to solve the murder.

Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl – This tells the story of Nick, a man who becomes the main suspect when his wife mysteriously goes missing. Though he initially seems an unlikely killer, looks can be deceiving.  Tense thriller.

Emma Donaghue – Room – This novel of a boy and his kidnapped mother in extreme isolation is a great study for child development. A sensitive telling of a horrific story.

Meg Haston – Paperweight – a newish novel (2017) that follows 17-year-old Stevie’s journey as she struggles not only with her eating disorder and her guilt over her brother’s death. Mesmerising and sensitive.

Leslie McGill – Running Scared – another novel about an eating disorder, but quite different from Paperweight.

Finally, the best-ever fiction book written about addiction, written by Beatrice Sparks many years ago, Go Ask Alice ticks all the boxes for me.

Enjoy your reading, and maybe you have some recommendations?