How Albert Bandura's Doll Became His Albatross

Marta Zaraska


October 06, 2021

On July 26, the world lost a great scientist.

Albert Bandura, one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, passed away in his home in Stanford, California, at the age of 95. In 2002, the Review of General Psychology ranked Bandura as the fourth most-cited psychologist of all time, behind only B.F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget.

Yet it was not just his scientific career that made Bandura stand out. His life journey, which took him from impoverished rural Canada to the US White House, where in 2016 he received a National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama, was a testimony to the power of self-efficacy — a concept he developed.

"He was a giant," says Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo, Bandura's colleague and friend of more than 50 years.

This History of Bobo

Bandura was most known for his Bobo doll experiments, which helped rewrite the narrative about violence in the media. In the early days of television it was commonly assumed, in the spirit of Freud's catharsis theory, that watching people fight or shoot each other on the screen would help viewers get aggression out of their systems, reducing their propensity to punch or shoot in real life.

And then came Bandura. In 1961 he began experiments in which preschool-age children observed as adults beat up a giant inflatable doll called Bobo. When it was their turn to interact with Bobo, these children were at least as aggressive as the adults. Videos from the experiments show a little girl in a neat white-collared dress slap and push the inflatable doll, then pick up a different, smaller doll, and use it as a weapon. In another scene, a young boy grabs a toy gun and pretends to shoot Bobo. Such hostility was unique to the children who had watched adults behave violently toward the doll. A control group that observed the grownups play calmly showed no signs of aggression.

After the Bobo doll experiments were made public, Bandura was invited to testify before Congress on the effects of showing brutality in the media. This, in turn, led to the Federal Trade Commission ruling to limit violent content on television. The broadcast industry was not pleased. They hired psychologists to write critiques of Bandura's research, published articles dismissing his findings, and even made him an unappealing hero in one televised drama. The onslaught, Bandura later admitted in his autobiography, made him feel like a Bobo doll himself.

Although the television industry's crusade against Bandura slowly waned with time, the Bobo doll label stuck to him for decades. In interviews, Bandura often recalled instances where he would be recognized in public as "the Bobo doll guy." What he tended to omit, though, was how this upset him. "He was distressed that it took so much away from everything else he did in life," says Zimbardo.

A Proponent, and Embodiment, of Self-Efficacy

One of Bandura's important contributions to science, overshadowed by the Bobo doll, was his work on self-efficacy — an idea that simply believing yourself capable of dealing with life's challenges and adopting a fighting spirit can help you achieve your goals and buffer you against harm. His research in this area stemmed from his experiments on animal phobias (including some dog phobia experiments for which he used his own friendly cocker spaniel). Bandura achieved powerful results treating snake phobia with a process he called guided mastery: observing others model progressively more fearless interactions with a snake, which then the phobic patients would repeat. Bandura and his team were able to cure the snake-phobic in as few as 4 to 5 hours. More interesting, perhaps, was that the patients later confided in Bandura that overcoming the fear of snakes led them to take on other challenges in life. That, exactly, was self-efficacy.

In an interview conducted for the Association for Psychological Science by his co-author and friend of over 30 years, Sapienza University of Rome psychologist Gian Vittorio Caprara, Bandura reflected that self-efficacy was not just a leading theme of his research, but also of his private life.

He was born in 1925 in a tiny hamlet near Edmonton, Canada, to immigrant parents — his father from Poland and his mother from Ukraine — both of whom had little education but plenty of grit and resilience. Bandura's father worked laying track for the trans-Canada railroad and toiled on the family farm, while his mother tended to the needs of the children (Bandura had five older sisters) and ran the town's general store. Bandura's school was certainly a testament to the idea that you don't need expensive early education to succeed in life — his first grade through high school classes were all housed in a single building, and the place was "woefully short of teachers and educational resources," Bandura wrote in his autobiography. He believed that these shortfalls pushed him to take his learning into his own hands, all for the better.

Bandura's parents pushed him, too. They encouraged him to take up summer jobs in various parts of Canada, exploring the world outside of their hamlet. During one such high school break in Yukon, where Bandura worked on the construction of the Alaska highway, he faced a group of grizzlies that got drunk on leftovers from the workers' brewing endeavors. Luckily, he escaped unharmed.

His parents also pushed him to get a college education. Bandura chose the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for its promise of a more cosmopolitan lifestyle and a milder climate. He picked out biological sciences as his major and ended up doing psychology by chance — he had to commute early to the university and needed something to fill up the morning hours. An introductory psychology course happened to be scheduled at just the right time. Chance also played a role in Bandura's marriage — he met his future wife, Virginia Varns, at a golf course in Iowa, where Bandura was pursuing his PhD.

In 1953 Bandura joined the faculty at Stanford University where he remained for the rest of his prolific career. In 1977 he published his seminal work, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory, which provided a framework for his social cognitive theory — an idea that much of what we think and do comes from observing others. His tremendous academic output might make Bandura seem like a workaholic, but he also enjoyed opera, good wine, and nature, and hiked in the mountains of California with his wife and two daughters.

"Most people were intimidated by him," says Zimbardo. "He looked very formal, he never bothered with small talk. He was usually seen as very serious, but once he got to know you, he got a great sense of humor. Once he cracked a joke, or what he thought was a joke, you knew you were in his inner circle."

Retired, Yet Still Working Toward a Better World

Bandura retired in 2010, yet continued to research and publish. His last book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, came out in 2015, and his latest paper, on the power of young people to fight global warming, in 2020. "He was very much concerned about the climate. He was a very loyal, moral person. A very good person," says Caprara.

Bandura was also concerned with the soaring population growth and became involved in the work of Population Media Center (PMC), a nonprofit organization that promotes socially important causes through entertainment shows. Based on Bandura's research on social modeling, PMC creates radio and television programs in which characters model positive behaviors to encourage family planning, gender equality, and environmental protection. Its shows aired in more than 50 countries around the world. According to William Ryerson, PMC's founder, at the time of his death Bandura was working on a new book that included the programs developed by the nonprofit. Even in June, just a month before his death, Bandura was still researching, collecting data on how to change the world for the better through social modeling.

"Bandura was a very shy person, but also very courageous," says Caprara. "When he was convinced about an idea, he did not give up."              

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