Albert Bandura (Biography + Experiments)

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Albert Bandura is perhaps one of the greatest psychologists of all time. He spent most of his career studying and teaching social psychology at Stanford University.

Albert Bandura

Who is Albert Bandura?

Albert Bandura is best known for developing social learning theory (later called social cognitive theory), his in-depth research on self-efficacy, the Bobo doll experiments, and his groundbreaking books. He is also widely regarded as one of the most influential psychologists of all time.

Bandura’s Early Years

Albert Bandura was born on December 4, 1925, in Mundare, Alberta. Bandura’s father was from Poland and his mother was from Ukraine. He also had five sisters who were all older than him.

Bandura’s parents came to Canada when they were teenagers. His father worked for the local railroad company and his mother was employed at the town’s general store. Once the couple had saved enough money, they bought a homestead on a heavily wooded piece of land. In time, they developed a workable farm after removing enough trees and boulders from the property.

Neither Bandura’s father nor his mother received formal schooling. Nevertheless, they both viewed education as very important. In addition to English, Bandura’s father taught himself to read Polish, German, and Russian. He also played the violin and served on the district school board.

Although Bandura’s family faced many financial struggles during his childhood, they had a very positive outlook on life. They were known to be hardworking, helpful, and festive people.

Bandura’s Educational Background

During Bandura’s early years, there was only one school in town—the Mundare Public School. This single institution provided him with both his elementary and high school education. As you may expect, the school had very limited resources. Nevertheless, Bandura made the most of his circumstances until he graduated in 1946.

At the Mundare Public School, there were a total of eight classrooms that served all the students from grades 1 to 12. The lack of space meant some teachers had to teach two different grades in one room. The high school math syllabus was taught from the school’s single math textbook. The entire high school curriculum was taught by just two teachers.

Although the lack of books and teachers may not have been ideal, it did lead to some positive developments. The students at the Mundare Public School were required to take charge of their own education. For Bandura and many of the other students, the situation actually served them quite well. Bandura himself stated, “very often we developed a better grasp of the subjects than the overworked teachers."

Bandura was often encouraged by his parents to travel outside their small town in the summertime so that he could learn new things. During one summer holiday, he developed carpentry skills after working in a furniture factory in Edmonton. After completing their high school education, almost all of the students from the Mundare Public School were accepted at various universities around the world. Looking back on his school days in Mundare, Bandura was moved to say "the content of most textbooks is perishable, but the tools of self-directedness serve one well over time."

The summer after Bandura left high school, he flew north to the city of Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon territory. He went there to fill holes in the Alaska Highway, which at the time, was slowly sinking into the surrounding swamp. During his time in the Yukon, Bandura worked alongside many men who had issues with the law. They exposed him to drinking, gambling and new life perspectives. As time went by, Bandura developed a keen interest in the mental health issues that affected the men who were working up north.

After Bandura went home, his parents again encouraged him to broaden his experiences. They gave him two options: (1) stay home, work the farm, and drink at the local bar, or (2) get a higher level of education. After the summer of 1946, Bandura enrolled at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He supported himself through school by using his carpentry skills at a woodwork plant in the afternoons.

Bandura’s interest in psychology was sparked by accident. When he first arrived at the university, his intention was to major in one of the biological sciences. While wasting time in the library one morning, he casually flipped through a course catalog to find a class to fill his early morning time slot. He chose a course in psychology and after going to his first class, was immediately enthralled by the field.

Where Did Albert Bandura Receive His Bachelor's Degree?

In 1949, just three years after he arrived, Bandura graduated from the University of British Columbia. At his graduation, he was presented with the Bolocan Award in Psychology. As Bandura was eager to pursue graduate studies in psychology, he asked his academic advisor what his next step should be. His advisor encouraged him to enroll at the University of Iowa, which at the time, was considered the epicenter of theoretical psychology.

Before Bandura departed for the University of Iowa, his advisor warned him that many previous candidates had found the doctoral program to be difficult. He encouraged Bandura to show toughness and resilience. At the time, the Department of Psychology was under the direction of Kenneth Spence, a protege of Clark Hull. When Bandura enrolled, he found the Department of Psychology to be challenging, but also hospitable and supportive.

Bandura was interested in social learning. But although the psychology program was focused on social learning, he thought it was too heavily influenced by behaviorism. Bandura completed his Master’s Degree in 1951. He earned his Ph.D in clinical psychology in 1952.

After he received his doctoral degree, Bandura was offered a teaching position at Stanford University in 1953. He accepted the offer, although it meant he had to resign from another position he had previously agreed to fill. Much of his early work on social learning theory and aggression was conducted with the help of Richard Walters—his first doctoral student. Bandura continued to work at Stanford University until his death.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory was developed by Albert Bandura during his years at Stanford University. It refers to the idea that people learn from each other in three ways: (1) observation, (2) imitation, and (3) modeling. Social Learning Theory is often considered as a bridge between behaviorist learning theories and cognitive learning theories because it involves observable behaviors as well as cognitive processes such as attention, motivation, and memory.

social learning theory and behavior

Social Learning Theory suggests that individuals learn by observing other people’s behaviors, attitudes, and the consequences of those behaviors. In fact, Bandura believes most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling. This involves watching another person to get an idea of how to do a particular behavior. The information is then coded and stored by the observer as a guide for future action.

There are three basic types of modeling stimuli—live models, verbal instructions, and symbolic models. Live models involve real people doing the desired behavior. Verbal instructions are detailed descriptions of the desired behavior with steps explaining how to do it. Symbolic modeling uses the media and includes the internet, movies, television, books, or radio.

Modeling is dependent on four factors: (1) attention, (2) retention, (3) reproduction, and (4) motivation. All four factors need to be at a high level for modeling to be effective. This means an individual is more likely to learn if he or she:

  • Pays more attention to the model
  • Retains or remembers most or all of what was learned
  • Is able to reproduce what was learned, depending on his or her cognitive and physical limitations
  • Has a good reason to imitate the behavior

When Bandura first began his research, the dominant learning theories at the time were based on a form of psychology called behaviorism. Behaviorists believe all human behaviors are influenced by the environment. However, Bandura claimed this explanation was too simplistic. He agreed that the environment can affect behavior, but behavior can also affect the environment.

Bandura eventually developed a concept called “reciprocal determinism.” This theory suggests there are three factors that influence behavior: (1) the environment, (2) the individual’s cognitive processes, and (3) the behavior itself. These three factors are always interacting with each other. So while it is true that society can influence behavior, a person’s actions, thoughts, feelings, and personal characteristics can also impact the way he or she interacts with society.

To get a better idea of what reciprocal determinism means, it may be helpful to think of a young boy who loves to play soccer. He plays because he believes the sport is fun or soccer may be a popular sport in his community. After a while, he asks his close friends and family members to play soccer and have fun with him. This in turn, encourages him to play soccer even more.

Bandura refined the concept of Social Learning Theory over the course of many years. An important part of his research on Social Learning Theory were the Bobo Doll Experiments (outlined below). By 1977, Bandura had settled on five key principles of Social Learning Theory:

  • Learning involves behavioral and cognitive processes in a social context.
  • Learning can occur by observing a behavior and the consequences of the behavior.
  • Learning involves observation, data processing, and making decisions about the behavior (modeling). This means people can learn new things quite well without ever changing their observable behaviors.
  • While reinforcement is important, it is not the only factor that causes learning.
  • People are not passive during the learning process. Their environment, cognitions, and behaviors all interact and influence each other (reciprocal determinism).

The Bobo Doll Experiments

Behaviorists claim people learn only after being rewarded or punished for a behavior. However, Bandura did not believe the reward and punishment framework was a good explanation for many common human behaviors. Social Learning Theory suggests people learn mainly from observing, imitating, and modeling. Rather than perform a behavior themselves, Bandura thought people can learn by simply watching someone else get rewarded or punished.

In 1961 and 1963, Bandura conducted a series of studies called the Bobo Doll Experiments to test his Social Learning Theory. He noted how children responded after they watched an adult punch, kick, throw, hit, and scream at a Bobo doll. A Bobo doll is a large, light-weight toy with a round bottom that gets back up after it is knocked down. One notable version of the experiment measured the children’s behavior after they saw the adult get rewarded, get punished, or experience no consequence for abusing the Bobo doll.

Bandura and Walters worked with a total of 72 children—36 boys and 36 girls between the ages of 3 to 6 years old.  Twenty-four children were paired with an aggressive adult; the second group of 24 children was paired with a non-aggressive adult, and the remaining 24 children served as the control group. Each group was made up of 12 boys and 12 girls. However, each child was studied individually so that he or she would not be distracted or influenced by the other children in the group.

Results of the Bobo Doll Experiment

Bobo Doll

What did Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments reveal? Children who observed an aggressive model were more likely to show aggressive behavior toward the Bobo doll. Boys were much more likely to imitate physical aggressive behaviors such as punching and kicking than girls. Children were more strongly influenced by models of the same gender. The kids who were exposed to an aggressive model were more likely to show verbal aggression than those who were not paired with an aggressive model.

The experiments clearly highlighted that the behavior of young children is strongly influenced by the actions of adults. They also showed that young children are able to learn by observing the behavior of other people and the consequences of those behaviors. When the aggressive models were rewarded, the children were more likely to abuse the Bobo doll. But when the aggressive models were punished, the children stopped hitting the doll immediately.

Criticism and Praise of Bobo Doll Experiment

Of course, a number of criticisms have been aimed at the Bobo Doll Experiments. Some people question its validity because the majority of the children were from high-class, white families. Other people questioned the ethics of intentionally exposing young children to violence. But despite these controversies, most people laud the Bobo Doll Experiments as one of the most important psychological studies in history. Albert Bandura was awarded the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2016 for the experiment.

Social Cognitive Theory and Bandura’s Impact on Education

At 60 years old, Bandura was still heavily involved in groundbreaking research. By the mid-1980s he had begun to focus more on the role of human cognition in social learning. In 1986, he changed the name of the Social Learning Theory to Social Cognitive Theory. By applying some of the principles of Social Cognitive Theory, Bandura was able to help many people in the field of education.

A few of the key elements of Social Cognitive Theory that are applied in education include self-efficacy, observational learning, self-regulation, and reciprocal determinism. In an educational or school setting, self-efficacy is the confidence a teacher or student has to do what it takes to reach his or her academic goals. Bandura believes that seeing other people work hard to complete a task raises self-efficacy. According to Bandura, observers will reason if these other people can work hard and find success, I can work hard and be successful too.

Applications of Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura’s work on Social Cognitive Theory has been applied to many other fields besides education. Some of the more popular applications include:

  • Psychotherapy - to increase confidence and treat anxiety issues
  • Management - to increase motivation in employees
  • Criminology - to explain the emergence of aggressive and deviant behaviors
  • Media - to influence viewers to perform a desired behavior or to explain how certain types of entertainment may contribute to problem behaviors.
  • Developmental Psychology - to help children with gender-role development
  • Technology - to optimize computer learning algorithms

Albert Bandura’s Awards and Achievements

Albert Bandura has accomplished much in his long and distinguished career in psychology. In addition to the doctoral degree he earned at the University of Iowa, he has also been awarded more than sixteen honorary degrees from institutions around the world. These institutions include:

  • The University of British Columbia
  • Alfred University
  • The University of Ottawa
  • The University of Athens
  • The University of Rome
  • The University of New Brunswick
  • Leiden University
  • The University of Alberta
  • The Graduate Center of the City University of New York
  • Freie Universität Berlin
  • The University of Lethbridge
  • University of Catania
  • Universitat Jaume I
  • Penn State University
  • The University of Salamanca
  • Indiana University

Other notable awards and accomplishments include:

  • 1974 - Elected president of the American Psychological Association
  • 1980 - Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1980 - Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the American Psychological Association
  • 1980 - Distinguished Contribution Award from the International Society for Research on Aggression
  • 1986 - Scientific Achievement Award in the Field of Behavioral Medicine from the Society of Behavioral Medicine
  • 1989 - William James Award from the American Psychological Society
  • 1989 - Elected to the National Academy of Medicine
  • 1998 - Distinguished Lifetime Contributions Award from the California Psychological Association
  • 1999 - Thorndike Award for Distinguished Contributions of Psychology to Education from the American Psychological Association
  • 2001 - Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy
  • 2002 - Healthtrac Award for Distinguished Contributions to Health Promotion
  • 2003 - Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western Psychological Association
  • 2004 - Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association
  • 2004 - James McKeen Cattell Award for Distinguished Achievements in Psychological Science from the American Psychological Society
  • 2004 - McGovern Medal for Distinguished Contribution to Health Promotion Science
  • 2004 - Honorary Fellow of the World Innovation Foundation
  • 2005 - Distinguished Achievement Alumni Award from the University of Iowa
  • 2005 - Award for Distinguished Health Behavior Research from the American Academy of Health Behavior
  • 2006 - Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Lifetime Contribution to Psychological Science from the American Psychological Foundation
  • 2006 - Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Advancement of Health Promotion through Health Promotion Research from the American Academy of Health Behavior
  • 2007 - Everett M. Rogers Award from the Norman Lear Center for Entertainment and Society
  • 2008 - Grawemeyer Award from the Grawemeyer Foundation
  • 2009 - Interamerican Psychology Award from the Interamerican Society of Psychology
  • 2012 - Lifetime Career Award from the International Union of Psychological Science
  • 2015 - Order of Canada from the Governor-General of Canada
  • 2015 - Sustained Distinguished Contributions Award from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
  • 2016 - National Medal of Science, bestowed by President Barack Obama

Albert Bandura's Books and Publications

Albert Bandura was a prolific author of books and articles throughout his career. His first paper  was published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1953. It was titled "'Primary' and 'Secondary' Suggestibility." Many of his publications are considered as classics in the field psychology. Some of his most impactful books and articles are listed below:

Social Learning Theory (1977) - This book has been credited as changing the direction of psychology from a behavioral focus to a cognitive focus. It highlighted how people learn through observation and modeling.

Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change (1977) - This article introduced the concept of self-efficacy. It was published in Psychological Review and became an instant classic.

Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (1986) - A landmark book that expands upon Social Learning Theory and introduces Social Cognitive Theory.

Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. (1997) - This book has been published in English, French, Chinese, Italian and Korean. It is widely cited in the professional literature of sociology, psychology, medicine, and management.

Bandura’s other books include:

  • Adolescent Aggression (1959)
  • Social Learning through Imitation (1962)
  • Social Learning and Personality Development (1963)
  • Principles of Behavior Modification (1969)
  • Psychological Modeling: Conflicting Theories (1971)
  • Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis (1973)
  • Analysis of Delinquency and Aggression (1976)
  • Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2015)

Albert Bandura is the most cited psychologist alive today. He is also the fourth most cited psychologist of all time, behind only B.F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget.

Personal Life

Albert Bandura married his wife, Virginia, in 1952. They first met at the University of Iowa, where Virginia was an instructor at the College of Nursing. They have two daughters, Carol and Mary, and identical twin grandsons named Timmy and Andy. In 2011, Virginia Bandura passed away peacefully at the age of 89.

Is Albert Bandura Alive Today?

Albert Bandura died from congestive heart failure in 2021 at the age of 95. Up until his death, Bandura enjoyed hiking in the Sierra Mountains, walking through the coastal regions of California, dining at restaurants, going to the San Francisco Opera, and drinking a good bottle of wine.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, March). Albert Bandura (Biography + Experiments). Retrieved from

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