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

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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.