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Stanford Report, July 28, 1999

Psychology is not destiny: Social scientist swims against the tide of negativity


Despite the bad news you hear, the world is full of resilient people who lick drug and alcohol addiction on their own, benefit from stress and hard work, survive traumatic childhoods and extend their lives through health-enhancing behavior.

This optimistic message comes from Albert Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor of Social Science in the Psychology Department, whose work on "social cognitive theory" has won him many honors, the latest of which was being named honorary president of the Canadian Psychological Association this month. Bandura has chosen to "swim against the mainstream of negativity in the profession" in recent talks to professional associations, because, he said, "our theories grossly overpredict pathology."

Take, for example, nicotine, alcohol or other drug addictions, Bandura said. In formal treatment programs and research studies, professionals "see the hard core cases. We have dreary relapse curves for these programs, and so we have all these theories about how every puff of a cigarette affects the brain, and claims that long-term addiction produces a brain disease," he said in a recent interview. "But 40 million people have quit smoking on their own, so you have to ask yourself, where is the brain disease and how did they uproot it single-handedly? The mass of successful self-changers is the elephant that no one sees."

Similarly, Bandura said, "if you look at our theories of social pathology and then at the dismal conditions in which children grow up in our ghettos, you would predict that all of them would be on drugs or psychological basket cases. Yet if you use criteria like gainful employment, forming partnerships and life without crime, you will find that most of those kids make it. Their parents are fantastically proactive in promoting their children's competencies as well as in shielding them from dangers." These parents, he said, are modeling for their children a "proactive mastery" of their environment, rather than the "reactive risk model" of professional psychology.

Medicine is another area where negativity prevails. Our conception of health emphasizes "disease prevention, not health enhancement," he said, even though "it is just as meaningful to speak of levels of vitality as of degrees of impairment." Evidence shows that "by exercising control over a few healthy habits, people can live longer, healthier lives and slow the process of aging." Yet national efforts to control escalating health costs "do little to reduce the demand for medical services by enabling people to stay healthy."

A large part of Bandura's research has been focused on documenting how people, by regulating their own motivations and activities, produce the experiences that play a major role in their well-being. In his 1997 book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, Bandura explains that individuals need to develop beliefs in their ability to produce desired results, which usually entails their working to develop competencies needed for mastery and self-renewal. "People who believe they have the power to exercise some measure of control over their lives are healthier, more effective and more successful than those who lack faith in their ability to effect changes in their lives."

Another way to build people's sense of personal efficacy is to provide them with successful models who transmit knowledge, skills and inspiration. Bandura has helped develop clinical treatment programs using this approach, but more recently, he became an adviser to Click Health, a company that markets computer games that try to increase people's efficacy in dealing with health problems. A game for children with diabetes, for example, features two diabetic elephant characters who go on a treasure hunt and survive in a jungle by picking the right foods, regularly checking their blood glucose level and taking insulin shots. In a study at Stanford Medical Center, children who used the game were four times less likely to require urgent-care visits during the six-month study period than those who played another game.

Negative warnings are a more common approach to health issues. Bandura illustrates this with the example of stress, which is routinely portrayed in journals and the popular press as bad for one's health. Among other things, stress is said to undermine a person's immune system. But in research with others, Bandura found that stress aroused while people were actively acquiring the ability to cope with and master new situations enhanced components of their immune systems. "Stress experienced while acquiring coping efficacy has different effects than stress aroused in aversive situations with no prospect of ever gaining any self-protective control," he said.

Neglecting the positive side of people's emotional lives has other implications, Bandura said. Books and articles, for example, often frame women's recent entry into the workplace as a social problem that undermines families. "There are countless studies on the negative spillover of job pressures on family life but few on how job satisfaction enhances the quality of family life," he said. A few studies that have looked for positive spillover have found that women's personal well-being and health is enhanced by their sense of efficacy in handling dual roles.

Bandura traces the roots of negative bias to prevailing theories in psychology and biology that underestimate humans as active agents in their own lives. Theorists saw the mind as a "passive black box" and later, as a linear-processing computer. Such theories treat people as "automatons undergoing actions, devoid of any conscious regulation, phenomenological life or personal identity," he said. "It is the height of irony that a science of human functioning should strip people of the very capabilities that make them unique in their power to shape their environment and their own destiny. "

Biological theories that espouse "one-sided evolutionism" also have contributed to the negative bias, he said. They emphasize the constraints on people's behavior based on their evolved biological structures, without acknowledging the other side of the co-evolution process: "People are not just reactive products of selection pressure. Through their construction of ever more complex environments, people are producers of new selection pressures in the co-evolution process. In the case of complex human behavior, nature operates as a potentialist rather than a determinist," he said.

Because humans have an unparalleled capacity to become many things, Bandura said, societies are wise to cultivate "generalizable competencies, instill a robust sense of efficacy, create equitable opportunity structures, provide aidful resources, allow room for self-directedness."

He urged his fellow psychologists to "venture forth to agentically humanize our psychology and psychologize biology, forswear Prozac, and may the efficacy force be with you." SR