"We have transcended our biology"

Albert Bandura is often recognized as one of the greatest living psychologists. He sat down with Alexander Görlach to talk about social learning, the origins of morality, and the impact of technological change on human nature.

The European: I want to talk to you about how we aquire knowledge about the world. To me, it seems that it’s becoming much more of a social process…
Bandura: Our traditional learning theories fell away long before the invention of television; and now they are totally out of synch with reality. People are living in cyber reality, they have network relationships, they commute continuously no matter where they are. Technology has changed the speed and the scope of social influence and has really transformed our realities. Social cognitive theory is very compatible with that. Other learning theories were linked to learning by direct experience, but when I look around today, I see that most of our learning is by social modeling and through indirect experiences. Errors can be very costly and you can’t afford to develop our values, our competences, our political systems, our religious systems through trial and error. Modeling shortcuts this process.

The European: Let’s go back to the age of television. Your argument seems to be that learning used to be very much tied to the physical environment, but it has now become rooted in symbolic interactions.
Bandura: By the 1950s, television had permeated society. Watching TV was a reality in many families. There were concerns that we were now having all forms of violence brought home, and there was national concern about what the effects are. But with new technologies, we’re essentially transcending our physical environment and more and more of our values and attitudes and behavior are now shaped in the symbolic environment – the symbolic environment is the big one rather than the actual one. The changes are so rapid that there are more and more areas of life now in which the cyber world is really essential. One model can affect millions of people worldwide, it can shape their experiences and behaviors. We don’t have to rely on trial and error.

The European: But can I really experience myself without interactions with real people? Could we live only in the world of cyberspace?
Bandura: Oh no. There’s a new challenge now: When I was growing up, we didn’t have all this technology, so we were heavily involved in personal relationships. Now the cyber world is available, and it’s hard to maintain a balance in the priorities of life. People can get so deeply involved in the cyber world, they don’t have much of a social world. The internet can provide you with fantastic globalized information – but the problem is this: It undermines our ability for self-regulation or self-management. The first way to undermine productivity is temporizing, namely we’re going to put off what we need to do until tomorrow, when we have the illusion that we’ll have more time. So we’re dragging the stuff with us. But the really big way is detouring, and wireless devices are now giving an infinite detour. They create the illusion of business. I talked to the author of a beststeller and I asked him about his writing style. He said: ‘Well, I have to check my e-mails and then I get down to serious writing, but then I get back to the e-mails.’ The challenge of the cyber world is establishing a balance between our digital life and life in the real world.

The European: But back in the day, when someone had a new phone number, I would maybe lose him as a friend. So the flipside of distraction seems to be a sense of social stability.
Bandura: See, I grew up in a very tiny town in Alberta with a population of 400 and two teachers at the local high school. They really didn’t know the subjects they were teaching very well. It was in an environment of limited resources. The benefit in this kind of situation is that you had to develop a capacity for self-learning. But today the kid living in this environment has access to the entire global information environment.

The European: There’s a sociological way of talking about the self – “how do we interact with the world,” for example – but there’s also a neurological way. We do something that’s driven by one side of our brain, and then the other side starts asking: “What is that you’re doing right now?” How is that sense of self created within us?
Bandura: The “self” originates in infancy. There are three phases. First, infants notice causal relationships in the environment. One object hits another, and it causes it to move. It’s about contingency: Things make things happen. The second phase is when infants learn that their actions can make something happen, that actions are not just something from the outside. When kids realize that they have influence and an effect on the environment, they become more attentive to it and they become faster learners in other situations. But when they can’t do anything and it doesn’t have an effect, they can become passive and less responsive to the environment. The third phase is: You have to develop a sense of identity. That you’re the one who makes things happen, not your hand.

The European: How can we link the self to the question of personal identity?
Bandura: The self is not a monolithic thing. I’m a different self as a professor, I’m a different self as a father and as a husband. But there’s some continuity. I do a lot of work on self-efficacy as a core foundation of human motivation and well-being and achievement. Efficacy is often taken to mean that you can have an inefficacious people. That’s not the case. And then people have talked about the self as “an object” or as an “agent.” That’s false. All it means is that I’m shifting my perspective. I’m just as much an agent, examining my own thinking in action, as I am influencing the environment.

The European: A lot has recently been written about the alleged death of free will…
Bandura: Yes, there is a lot of reductionism now in which you’ll have theories which are saying that our behavior is regulated by neural networks, and that we don’t have any control over them. The basic argument of the critics of free will is this: The stimulus arouses the networks and then the networks cause my behavior. But that’s addressing the issue of control in the wrong terms at the wrong level of control. To use an analogy: I don’t have the slightest idea how the internal combustion engine in a car works, but I know what I need to do to have this machine to get me where I want to go. There’s a lot of top down cognitive activity: Where will I go, which route can I take, what do I want to do when I get there, when do I have to make reservations? In the course of our development, we developed a sort of self-representation: Who are we, who am I, what kind of values do I have? Therefore this external stimulation does not automatically activate directly the neural processes that operate through my self-representation. I filter all that stuff in terms of who I am, my belief in my efficacy, my values and attitudes and so on.

The European: You’re saying: We might not control when our neurons fire, but there’s a reason that they work in certain ways that differentiate us from another person.
Bandura: It is true that I have no awareness of how my neural machinery works, because that’s the most proximate determinant of behavior. But it’s not the origin of behavior. I don’t have first order control, namely how the machine really works. But I have second order control, namely I can determine how I orchestrate that machine. And that’s where we need psychological theories. What is the relationship between an activity and the development of that neural regulatory system and regulation of this neural regulatory system? The important question is: What kind of self-representation do you have of yourself?

The European: Language almost seems to act as a mediator of what you have just described: We might not know the complexities of what’s going on, but we can find words to represent concepts. Is that the purpose of language – to form concepts our ourselves?
Bandura: When I was talking about how kids get an identity, that’s largely through language and through their parents. So there is a lot of training in that representation. Language is fundamental. Look at the view of agency – originally it was divine agency. Life was seen as pretty determined by a deity. Then Darwin came around and said: There is no purpose for all this. The environment shapes the morphology and shapes the behavior. And that did away with all notions of a purpose or a plan. It’s just contingency, but it’s also a process that led to the evolution of intelligence. By having intelligence, we’ve transcended our biology. For example: We don’t have the morphology to fly. Biology sets the limits. My question is: How did we transcend our biology nonetheless? If Darwin were writing today, he would write about the overwhelming human domination of the environment, because we can destroy this sucker if we want to. We are progressively destroying our environment. The question is how long our species will survive. It’s not that we were just shaped by the environment: We’re creating it, we’re modifying it, we’re destroying it. Most of our transactions are through language. See, all this cyber world would be nonsense without language!

The European: It’s interesting that we often hear “this is how people in the Stone Age did it, so it must be very fundamental to our human nature.” But we’re not in the Stone Age anymore, so we are we still defining ourselves in those terms?
Bandura: I’m not interested in what happened in caves ages ago. I look at what evolution has given us: It has given us capacities and mechanisms to influence the future. Thanks to my human intelligence, I have forethought, I extend my agency into the future, I can build airplanes. We often ask, ‘is that nature or nurture?’ But that’s the wrong question. We ought to ask: What is nature? E.O. Wilson argues that biology has culture on a tight leash. I don’t fool around and try to change this because we already pre-wired certain stalls of behavior. The alternative competing view is the one that Stephen Jay Gould espouses, that now biology has cultural on a loose leash. We can have violent cultures, we can have pacifistic ones, we can have utilitarian ones, authoritarian ones. We have all kinds of possibilities.

The European: A value system is usually presented to us by the traditions within which we grow up. How do we make the step from social traditions to the internalization of these values? Because it seems that social regulation is largely driven by beliefs, not by physical force.
Bandura: Originally our behavior was pretty much shaped by control, by the external consequences of our lives. So the question is: How did we acquire some standards? There are about three or four ways. One: We evaluate reactions to our behavior. We behave in certain ways, in good ways, in bad ways, and then we receive feedback. We begin to adopt standards from how the social environment reacts to our behavior. Two: We see others behaving in certain ways and we are either self-critical or self-approving. Three: We have precepts that tell us what is good and bad. And once we have certain self-sanctions, we have two other potent factors that can influence our behavior: People will behave in certain ways because they want to avoid legal sanctions to their behavior or the social sanctions in their environment.

The European: But there’s also the potential for passionate dissent: When you internalize something, you can’t easily betray those values just because society happens to hold different values.
Bandura: We always face two sorts of consequences, external ones and self-reactions. We have to be able to live with ourselves, with the consequences of our actions. Things are fine if what you value is also valued by the culture you live in. But what if that’s not the case? You might start making compromises on your values, or you might become cynical. But if your whole sense of self-worth is deeply engaged in it, you might not change your behavior. That’s when you get punishable behavior, you get innovators, you get activists, and so on. Some are so invested in the principle that they are willing to put up with fantastic consequences rather than sacrifice their values. You have the Mandelas, you have the Martin Luther Kings and so on. But we also have it in everyday heroes: They refuse to accommodate and they refuse to violate their own personal standards.

The European: And abstract values also don’t mean that people cannot behave very badly in concrete situations. Wouldn’t you agree?
Bandura: Many of our theories of morality are abstract. But the primary concern about the acquisition of morality and about the modes of moral reasoning is only one half of the story, the less interesting half. We adopt standards, but we have about eight mechanisms by which we selectively disengage from those standards. So the challenge to explain is not why do people behave in accordance with these standards, but how is it that people can behave cruelly and still feel good about themselves. Our problem is good people doing bad things – and not evil people doing bad things.

The European: The classic case is Nazi Germany: Husbands and fathers, people who appreciated Mozart and Beethoven, could turn into concentration camp guards. How was that possible?
Bandura: Everyday people can behave very badly. In the book I’m writing on that topic I have a long chapter on moralist disengagement in the media, in the gun industry, in the tobacco industry, in the corporate world, in the finance industry – there’s fantastic data from the last few years – in terrorism and as an impediment to environmental sustainability. That’s probably the most important area of moralist disengagement. We have about forty or fifty years, and if we don’t get our act together, we’ll have a very hard time. It’s going to be awfully crowded on earth and a good part of our cities will be under water. And what are we doing? We don’t have the luxury of time anymore.

The European: We might know that our actions are immoral, but we’re not changing our behavior. What does that say about human nature?
Bandura: Human nature is capable of vindicating behavior. It isn’t that people are bad by nature. But they have a very playful and rewarding lifestyle, filled with gadgets and air conditioning, and they don’t want to give it up.

The European: As a scientist, how do you react to claims that human nature is naturally “good” or “bad”?
Bandura: Under proper conditions almost anyone can behave in a cruel way. Look at the girl from Abu-Ghuraib, Lynndie England – she became the face of Abu-Ghuraib, because she was in the photographs. She was a pretty naïve little girl, she got attached to this one guy. And she was in an environment which promoted brutality. I would say: Her nature was gentle. But within that context she was doing bad things. Again, we have to get away from monolithic concepts of human nature.

The European: Could new technologies, new media and social networks accelerate social change?
Bandura: They can be used for the good or the bad. When the countries of Eastern Europe collapsed, sociologists in Australia decided to see whether they could predict the speed and order of collapse by analyzing the repressiveness of the regime and the influence of market thinking. But none of those indicators were predictive. One thing was: For the first time in history, masses of people were watching the Berlin Wall fall. It was a model for other mass protests. The Arab Spring is not unique – Eastern Europe was a case where you could observe history happening. But media can also work in the other direction, and it doesn’t necessarily preclude crackdowns. In China, people were watching on TV as officials kicked in doors and arrested protesters after Tiananmen Square. But without the media, none of this would have happened or it would have taken a long time. New media can have important effects, particularly when it allows you to bypass the gatekeepers.

The European: ‘The story of men is a story about violence, love, power, victory and defeat’ – that’s how poets talk about the course of history. But from an analystic point of view…
Bandura: That’s not true for all societies. We assume that aggression is inbred, but some societies are remarkably pacifistic. And we can also see large variations within a society. But the most striking example might be the transformation from warrior societies into peaceful societies. Switzerland is one example. Sweden is another: Those vikings were out mugging everyone and people would pray for protection: “Save our souls from the fury of the Norsemen!” And now, if you look at that society, it’s hard to find child abuse or domestic violence. Sweden has become a mediator of peace.

The European: In German, there’s the term “Schicksalsgemeinschaft,” which translates as “community of fate”: It posits that a nation is bound together by history. Do you think that’s what defines a society: A common history? Or is it religion, or the language we speak?
Bandura: All of the above. We put a lot of emphasis on biological evolution, but what we don’t emphasize is that cultures evolve, too. These changes are transmitted from one generation to another. A few decades ago, the role of women was to be housewives and it was considered sinful to co-habit without being married. If you look at the role of women today, there’s a fantastic transformation in a short period of time; change is accelerated. Homogenization is important, picking things from different cultures, cuisines, music traditions, forms of behavior, and so on. But we have also polarization: Bin Laden’s hate of the West, for example. And there’s hybridization as well.

The European: It sounds like much of culture is dependent not on what we do, but on what we believe. You mentioned the role of women: I was raised as a Catholic, so that gives you a certain view of gender roles. Or it gives you a certain view of homosexuality as a bad thing. That’s how my mother was raised, but I guess she has changed her view over the past decades.
Bandura: And society is changing, too. Now it’s considered completely normal to live with your partner without being married. In California, it was only about 40 years ago that homosexuality was treated as a disease. Then people protested, and eventually they got the state to change the diagnostic category to sexual orientation rather than a disease. Psychiatry, under public pressure, changed the diagnostic system.

The European: My assumption is that I change a conviction and my behavior changes accordingly – it’s not the other way around. My actions are the outcomes of my thoughts.
Bandura: It’s reciprocal. Your actions have certain outcomes, and they feed back into your convictions.

The European: How does that work on a systemic level? Let’s say there are more people like my mother: How many Catholic have to change their views before the system of Catholicism changes?
Bandura: Some systems can be changed more easily than others. The popes, for example, have been vigorously opposed to contraception.

The European: But is there a moment when the system crumbles? Where you say: If you don’t modernize, then…
Bandura: The Catholic Church is an example. They mine the under-developed countries for their purposes. I once looked at the problem the Catholic Church had with priests who were molesting kids…

The European: Isn’t that also a sign of systemic problems? You’re not allowed to have normal relationships with people, so you shift your attention to something else. Not every priest who is drawn to children has a natural disposition for pedophilia, it’s more because of the social pressure.
Bandura: It was interesting to see how the Vatican handled that. It went on for some time, and their response was to blame it on homosexuals, which has no foundation. Gays aren’t normally pedophiles. The church was blaming it on Woodstock, too. In a way, it’s amusing: They came to the conclusion that it’s mostly homosexuals. But in order for social change to occur, you really need strong moral norms. Homosexuals were really at the forefront of articulating those norms and pushing change. Through activism they gradually changed beliefs and convictions.

The European: And because of new media, that’s becoming more likely.
Bandura: It is accelerated, yes. You don’t have the isolation. A good example: When Ivory Coast held an election, the dictator feared that he might lose. People poured into the streets for mass potests that the regime couldn’t handle anymore. They said: ‘The mistake he made was to allow us to watch TV.’ That’s a powerful reminder of the media’s effect.

The European: It’s quite interesting to compare Russia and China. Russia has a free internet, so the reaction to protests is very different than in China. If social networks become increasingly global, do you foresee something like a global set of values as well?
Bandura: Yes, but there is another factor here, namely the tremendous power of multinational corporations. They now shape global culture. A lot of these global forces are undermining the collective African society, for example. The society does no longer have much control over the economy. In order to restore some power in leverage, societies are going to be organized in unions. We will see more partnerships around the world.

The European: I guess what I mean is this: When I’m using Facebook, and a friend in Cameroon and a friend in Russia do as well, we all agree on the terms of use and conduct. We’re agreeing on a certain form of social behavior within the network. Before, we would have all acted and communicated according to different sets of norms. That’s what I meant by global norms.
Bandura: The revolutionary tendency of technology has increased our sense of agency. If I have access to all global knowledge, I would have fantastic capacities to educate myself. Jobs are changing rapidly. I asked a friend of mine from the start-up community here in San Francisco where he wants to be in ten years. And he said: ‘When I’m still here in ten years, I did something wrong!’ In the area of health, we now recognize that most of our health is determined by our health habits. People have a sense that it’s not the doctor who gives them health, it’s themselves. In the social and political arena we aren’t constrained by gatekeepers anymore – we start influencing change from below. The important thing in psychology is that we need a theory of human agency, rather than arguing that we’re controlled by neural networks. In every aspect of our lives we now have a greater capacity for exercicing agency.

The European: But at the same time globalization removes us from the forces that shape our environment.
Bandura: The problems are powerful transnational forces. They can undermine the capacity to run our own society: Because of what happens in Iran, gas prices might soon hit five dollars per gallon in the US. That’s where the pressure comes from for systems and societies to form blocks or build up leverage to protect the quality of life of their citizens. But we can see that a global culture is emerging. One example is the transformation of the status of women. Oppressive regimes see that women are able to drive cars, and they cannot continue to deny that right to them. We’re really changing norms. Thanks to the ubiquity of television, we’re motivating them and showing them that they have the capability to initiate change. It’s about agency: Change is deeply rooted in the belief that my actions can have an effect in the world.

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